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Introduction

Hamlet is one of the greatest literary works in English literature and also one of
Shakespeare’s masterpieces and his most accomplished work. Supporting
himself in classic Elizabethan revenge plays, Shakespeare manages to surpass
the deepness of the common revenge play, focusing not in the revenge plot, but
in the conflict of the hero—Hamlet—while he tries to resolve the antagonist
impulses that grow within him. This focus on the moral and psychological
dilemma between desire and obligation makes Hamlet a play with no age as it
transcends the preoccupation of the Elizabethan men and it can be seen in the
men of any time and place. In the following lines we will explore Hamlet’s
conflict trying to shed some light upon it.

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Shakespeare Biography

William Shakespeare was the eldest son of John and Mary Shakespeare, who
were merchants in the city of Stratford-upon-Avon. He most surely attended the
local grammar school in Stratford, where he studied Latin rhetoric, logic, and
literature. When he was 18 years old he married Anne Hathaway, eight years
senior to him, six moths later their first daughter Susana was born and around
1585 twins, Hammet and Judith, were born. After this period there is a lack of
information about Shakespeare activities but it is believed that he worked as a
schoolteacher for some time.
The first mention of Shakespeare in London occurs in is in very harsh critic by
Robert Green in the year of 1592. By that time he had already wrote several
plays, but during the closure of theatres because of the plague. He turn into
writing narrative poetry and probably during this period he also began to write
the sonnets; when the theatres reopened in 1594 he started writing plays again
and published no more poetry.
Incredibly most of Shakespeare plays were published only in pamphlet form;
only the efforts of two of Shakespeare’s company, John Heminges and Henry
Condell, preserved his 36 plays in the First Folio. When Heminges and Condell
published the plays, they said, “only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend
and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare”. Theatre scripts were not regarded as
literary works of art, but only the basis for the performance. Plays were a
popular form of entertainment for all layers of society in Shakespeare’s time. So
they were not considered as refined literary works.
William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, and was buried two days later in
the chancel of Holy Trinity Church where he had been baptized exactly 52 years
earlier.

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Play Analysis

Place and Time

The play seems to take place in the same Elizabethan age in which it was
written, in spite of the fact that in performance it has been set in many different
times and places. It seems that the play is meant to be performed in the
spectator’s own time so this could relate more accurately with the conflicts
depicted in it. However if we take our reference from the text of the plays the
time to which makes reference is the end of the XVI century. This is clearly seen
in the conversation between Hamlet and the artists in act 2 about the closing or
theatres.
Referring to place the play is set in the country of Denmark where Denmark is a
European potency and a major strategic point in a politically and culturally
interconnected Europe. In this context we can also see the transformation of the
politic background in Denmark under King Hamlet; it was a military state which
conquered through war many new territories and dependant states. Under
Claudius’s ruling however the character of the state has changed to match the
character of the newly appointed king. Denmark is becoming hence a more
political state, immerse in diplomacy and dependant in witty more than force to
keep external and internal stability.

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Characters

Hamlet
The main character of the story, He is son of the late king Hamlet and nephew
to the new king. He resents his mother, Gertrude, hasty marriage with his uncle
who Hamlet distrusts when Hamlet learns the truth about his father’s death he
changes from a distrustful young man to an avenger set to revenge his father’s
unnatural death.
Hamlet’s personality is very difficult to describe due to the multiple conflicts that
he endures. He loves his mother deeply but at the same time is resented
because she seems to have overcome her husband’s death too hastily and in
the firsts scenes of the play she seems cheerful and unconscious to what really
happens around her. Hamlet transfers his feelings for his mother to other
women most specifically to Ophelia to whom Hamlet feels a great sexual
attraction but at the same time hates because of those sinful feelings that she
awakes in him; and later he attacks her verbally discharging all his frustration
towards her, for the repressed sexual impulses he has, and towards his mother,
for the jealously he feels because of her marrying Claudius if the jealously is or
not sexual it is unclear in the play and is left at the end only to the interpretation
of the spectator.
Besides his sexual conflicts Hamlet after finding out through his father phantom
that his father had been killed by Claudius to usurp not only the crown but also
Gertrude’s favour. He got himself caught in a moral dilemma he doubts of the
nature of his father ghost believing that it could be a devil’s spawn sent to tempt
him into sin. But at the same time he wishes to believe the ghost due to his
profound hatred of Claudius and all the same he is still worried about revenge
being a sin and that if he takes revenge on Claudius he will be at the same time
condemning himself to damnation. He finally resolves to feign madness to be
able to delay his taking of revenge and at the same time reduce the chances of
his true intentions being discovered by Claudius.
Hamlet shows a highly ironic personality and shows an extreme disgust towards
Claudius and his minions; he ridicules them by grasping their words and making
jests at their expenses this is clearly obvious in his conversations with Claudius
and Polonius.

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Claudius
King Hamlet’s brother and also his assassin, Claudius shows to be a great
politician an incredibly witty man who has no limits while trying to reach his goal.
He murdered his brother to obtain Denmark’s crown and also Gertrude who he
wanted desperately. Cautious and suspicious, Claudius keeps a close eye on
anyone who could become a threat to him; he watches Hamlet carefully and
denies him permission to return to Wittenberg University in order to keep him
under constant surveillance “…Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye”…
Claudius is however a very able politician and throughout the story does not
seem to be any menace from the other nobles to overthrow him and manages
to avoid the almost imminent war with Fortinbras.
Despite his foul nature he seems to repent for his brother murder and when
confronted with the re-enactment of the murder performed by the travelling
actors he seems overcame by guilt and confesses his guilt before God;
Although, as he says even when his words go high his heart remains in earth.
He is opposed in nature to King Hamlet, and that seems to be one of the
reasons why Hamlet hates him even before knowing about his father’s murder,
while king Hamlet and to some extent also Hamlet are the paragons of the
noble warrior who overcomes his enemies on open battle and are always brave
and noble. Claudius resembles more a modern politician who through
diplomacy, treaties, intrigue and spying keeps control of his kingdom and avoids
conflicts with other nations.

Gertrude

Queen of Denmark and mother to Hamlet, She seems during the first play of the
play to be a completely passive character who is almost out of touch with reality
and acts following his new husband will. She remarries only two months after
her first husband’s death which disgusts Hamlet deeply. And when she sees
herself portrayed in the re-enactment of the murder swearing never to forget her
husband she says about the female character: “The lady doth [does] protest too
much, methinks [I think]” perhaps to justify herself for marrying so soon. She,
nevertheless, seems to love Hamlet deeply and appears to be really troubled by

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her son bizarre behaviour. She appears to realize her wrong after being
attacked by Hamlet in her chambers and the assassination of Polonius starting
to distance herself from Claudius more and more throughout the rest of the play.

Polonius
The father of Leartes and Ophelia, He dutifully serves King Claudius. Polonius
seeks to control and know all about the public life of Denmark. Hence he
spends most of his time spying on others in order to know what happens around
the country. He seems devoted to keep his position as Claudius’s confident and
ally and try by all means to prove his usefulness to the king. He even
surrenders his own daughter, to who he had ordered first to stay away from
Hamlet, to fish the truth about Hamlet’s madness. His obsession with
surveillance ends up with his death in Hamlet’s hands while he was trying to
overhear Hamlet’s conversation with his mother. His death leads to Ophelia's
madness and later drowning brought on by grief and also to Laertes's alliance
with King Claudius to kill Hamlet, to avenge Polonius, his father's death.

Ophelia
The daughter to Polonius, Ophelia is loved by Hamlet. But dutiful to her father
wishes, she ignores Hamlet's romantic overtures when instructed to by her
father Polonius. She receives advice on how to live from brother Laertes yet she
rebukes him showing to be really aware of what happens around her. Though
she loves Hamlet, she accepts spying on him. As a result Hamlet mercilessly
insults her virtue during the play. An obedient daughter, Ophelia descends into
madness from the grief of losing her father Polonius and later drowns in
circumstances that suggest a possible suicide. Her funeral is the location of a
fight between Hamlet and Laertes that centers on which loved her more; Hamlet
believes he did, resenting Laertes exaggerated emphasis of his sorrow.

Leartes
The son of Polonius, his role in the play is minor until Polonius death,
confronting King Claudius personally to know his father's whereabouts, arguing
with a Priest for being disrespectful to his sister, fighting Hamlet above his

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sister's grave and ultimately conspiring to and killing Hamlet with the help of
King Claudius. We see however little of Laertes's inner character.

Minor characters

Horatio
Friend to Hamlet and the one person Hamlet truly trusts. He witnesses King
Hamlet's Ghost.

Reynaldo
Servant to Polonius, Reynaldo is instructed to spy on his Laertes in Paris.
Fortinbras
Prince of Norway and son of King Fortinbras, who was defeated by King
Hamlet, Young Fortinbras has raised an army to reclaim the lands lost by his
father to King Hamlet and Denmark. He is however convinced to direct his
attack against Poland instead.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern


Old friends of Hamlet, They are recruited by Claudius to spy on Hamlet neither
of them opposes any resistance to Claudius’s request.

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Atmosphere
An atmosphere of unrest is set from the first scene of the play in Francisco’s
words “For this relief much thanks, tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart.” These
lines set the atmosphere for all the rest of the play. Denmark is on the verge of
war with Norway and the tension can be seen from the first scene. The political
tension also reflects the personal tensions that develop through the play the
constant unrest and watching for enemies who can attack at any moment. This
is seen in the watch that Francisco and the others soldiers do for Norway
invading forces and more personally in the watching that Claudius keeps on
Hamlet and also in Polonius who sends a spy to find out what Leartes is doing
in France.
The constant tension is then enhanced by Hamlet’s delay on taking an action
against Claudius and although Hamlet constantly making puns that are clearly
funny the fact that most of them constitute attacks against Claudius or Polonius
has the opposite of building up tension instead of breaking it.
This continues on scene 2; Claudius begins with announcing his marriage to
Gertrude, praising her beauty and celebrating his position as king. He speaks
abundantly of his love of his wife and his people, including Hamlet. But then he
immediately launches into his concern that Fortinbras will challenge Denmark in
war. At the same time, Hamlet is moping off to the side, making snide
comments to himself and responding with bitter remarks to the loving comments
of his uncle and mother. All of this leaves you with the impression that the state
of Denmark and the royal family are in a highly unstable position.

Style
In Elizabethan times plays constituted popular entertainment, as such it is
logical to assume that the language used in them was of popular usage or at
least understandable for all the audience. So we must assume that a standard
English and more accurately the dialect called literary English which was
centered on London. Shakespeare uses rhetoric very accurately and the plays
is charged with highly developed metaphors and a rich imagery, it also has a
great usage of puns by means of which character are able to express true
feelings while concealing them at the same time. There is also an extent use of
antithesis, which is the use of opposite ideas –to be or not to be- and of double

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language –cheer and comfort- , the other remarkable feature in the play is
Hamlet’s use of soliloquies to express his feelings and ideas throughout the
plot.

Type of narrator
Being a play this literary work does not has a narrator through whom we learn
what happens in the story. Although Hamlet sometimes put himself in that role
letting us know through his speech and more importantly through his soliloquies
facts such as his feelings and ideas which are not evident trough the action and
that in a novel would normally be expressed by the narrator.

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Themes

Revenge
“Hamlet” starts as a typical revenge plot and has all the elements of one. The
main plot in a revenge play is about a hero or villain seeking to avenge a wrong
done to him. A typical revenge play consist of five parts: exposition -usually by a
ghost- in this case through King Hamlet ghost; anticipation –in which detailed
planning of the revenge takes place- consisting on the body of the play,
Hamlet’s feigned madness, the mousetrap play, etc.; confrontation –between
avenger and victim- the scene of Claudius confession; delay –as the revenger
hesitates to perform the killing- Hamlet waits to confirm Claudius culpability and
even them he delays the action wishing him a worst fate by catching him in a
sinful moment; and completion –often with the death of the revenger- Claudius’s
and Hamlet’s death in the final chapter.
The main revenge plot in the plays begins with a distrustful Hamlet who hates
the fact that his uncle is occupying his father’s place in the throne and in his
mother‘s bed. After discovering the truth about his father’s murder trough King
Hamlet’s ghost, he begins to plan his revenge but as he is doubtful about the
ghost’s true nature as it could be a foul spirit trying to tempt him to sin, Hamlet
chooses to feign madness while trying to discover the truth about things. He
constantly ponders about if he should or not take revenge and we start to see
the conflict between Hamlet’s desires and his moral; he wishes to kill Claudius
to avenge his father’s murder but is at the same time extremely worried
because revenge is a sin and therefore by taking action he will be condemning
himself to hell. Hence, he ponders every possibility trying to confirm his
suspicions before taking any action. He sets up a play to stir Claudius
conscience but even after confirming he decides not to kill Claudius at that
moment because he was praying and Hamlet wishes him to suffer in purgatory
the same that his father. It is obvious however that Hamlet’s moral plays a part
in this conflict as he grasps every opportunity that will delay the final act of
taking revenge against his uncle. And even at the end of the play Hamlet never
actually takes revenge for his father murder killing Claudius as a result of his
mother accidental death and not in revenge of his father murder.

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There are others secondary revenge plots; Fortinbras who tries to avenge his
father’s death and regain Norway lost territories during the war with Denmark;
Leartes who wants revenge against Hamlet for killing his father and for driving
his sister into madness causing ultimately her death; And the story of Pyrrhus
who also tries to avenge his father’s death.
However, in the main revenge plot -that of Hamlet- the focus shifts progressively
from the revenge to Hamlet’s inner conflict about taking revenge or not, making
Hamlet’s conflict the main element of the story.

HORATIO

Now, sir, young Fortinbras,

Of unimproved mettle hot and ...

compulsatory, those foresaid lands

So by his father lost

(1.1.95-104)

Fortinbras wants to get payback for his father’s defeat.

GHOST

List, list, O, list!

If thou didst ever thy ...

on Lethe wharf,

Wouldst thou not stir in this.

(1.5.22-35)

GHOST

O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

If thou hast ...

in her bosom lodge,

To prick and sting her.

(1.5.80-88)

QUEEN GERTRUDE

Calmly, good Laertes.

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LAERTES

That drop of blood...

only I'll be revenged

Most thoroughly for my father.

(4.5.9117-135)

CLAUDIUS

Hamlet comes back: what would you undertake,

To show...

indeed, should murder sanctuarize;

Revenge should have no bounds.

(4.7.129-138)

Madness
Hamlet decision of putting an antic disposition throws the doubt of how much of
Hamlet’s madness is real and how much is only feigned. Although Hamlet
decides to feign madness in order to be able to accomplish his goals, as the
play advances his behaviour becomes more erratic and we start wondering if he
is putting on an act or is really becoming mad. At the beginning of the play is
very cleat that he is in a profound depression due to the death of his father.
After the apparition of the ghost and the start of his “feigned” madness, Hamlet
mood swings start to become more pronounced and between some clearly
feigned symptoms we also see others that are more difficult to decipher
Hamlet’s attack on Ophelia seems incredible violent, even hateful, yet after her
death he seems really afflicted getting into a fight with Leartes for this reason.
Perhaps as a way of coping with all what he has been forced to do; He really
drove himself into madness. Ophelia’s very real madness contrasts with that of
Hamlet, her displays of insanity leave no doubts about her mental state, and the
fact that she apparently committed suicide confirms it.
Feigned or not, Hamlet and Ophelia’s madness gives them the chance to speak
freely. Some of their most politically dangerous claims are half-disguised in
madness.

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HAMLET
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As...
shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on
(1.5.170-174)

POLONIUS
He knew me not at first; he said I
...
I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this.
(2.2.185-189)

POLONIUS
Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't.
(2.2.200-201)

HAMLET
I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.
(2.2.347-349)

Sin and Salvation


In Elizabethan times the ideas of salvation and hell were much more present in
the mind of men than today. This gains relevance due to Hamlet almost
obsessive pondering about sin and salvation, this is the main component in his
first soliloquy “oh would this too solid flesh melt” Hamlet seems to be deeply
concerned with the afterlife and the destiny of his soul after death. This
soliloquy begins with a longing for the peace of death but immediately after he
recognizes that suicide is a sin punished with hell. This can also seen after
Ophelia’s death allegedly by her own hand, the gravediggers say that she is not
denied of burial in holy ground only by petition of the king and that suicides
were commonly denied Christian burial. The ghost also shows Elizabethan
ideas about the destiny of the soul after death, a soul could go to heaven

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directly if the person died with all his sins confessed, go to hell and to eternal
suffering if he has committed a fault against God, or could go to purgatory until
his sins were purged and the soul could ascend to heaven. Hamlet’s concerns
about the destiny of his soul become one of the main reasons for the delay of
his revenge as he is worried of dooming himself by taking actions against his
uncle and doubts of the ghost’s true nature “Be thou a sprit of health, or goblin
damned…” Is the ghost really his father ghost or an evil spirit trying to tempt him
to sin and to his ruin? Therefore, Hamlet waits until he can confirm that his
uncle is really guilty, he appeals to unsettle his uncle conscience in the
mousetrap play. After confirming Claudius culpability Hamlet’s beliefs about sin
and salvation, once again, play a part in the delay of Claudius murder; Hamlet
finds Claudius praying and decides not to kill him in that moment of grace
waiting until Claudius is sinning and therefore unable to go to heaven so He
must endure the same torments that Hamlet’s father is suffering because of
dying in a wrongful state.

HAMLET
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
...
things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
(1.2.129-138)

GHOST
I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain ...
must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
(1.5.09-21)

GHOST
Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the ...
my head:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
(1.5. 59-80)

Lies and deceit

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The other important element in Hamlet is constituted by deceit and lies. That is
the antithesis between appearances and reality. This is explored through
numerous references to playing and acting. Hamlet hates deception and is
obsessed in finding the truth about the events developed around him and yet he
uses deception to find out the truth about his father’s death, playing the part of a
madman first and then trough the company of travelling actors he sets up a play
to trap Claudius into revealing his guilt. All characters use deceit to accomplish
his goals, Hamlet feigns madness, Claudius who falsely praises Hamlet and
asks him to stay in Elsinore with the excuse of being well protected when in
reality he wants to keep a close watch on Hamlet, Guildenstern and
Rosencrantz fake friendship to dig up the truth about Hamlet, etc.
Although Hamlet rages against falsehood “Smiling damned villain!” He uses it in
order to discover the truth this fact expresses Shakespeare’s belief that theatre
should mirror life not how it appears to be but how it is in reality. To Hamlet the
function of drama is then to show the true nature of society.

HAMLET
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,—meet it ...
least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark:
(1.5.106-108)

LORD POLONIUS
He closes thus: 'I know the gentleman;
I ...
with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out:
(2.1.54-64)

HAMLET
You were sent for; and there is a kind ...
not off.
GUILDENSTERN
My lord, we were sent for.
(2.2.272-277)

Sex and love


This is another point of conflict to Hamlet. He seems to be obsessed with
sexuality and specifically with his mother’s sexuality which he sees as source of
corruption and decay and which ultimately infects Hamlet’s relationship with

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Ophelia. His obsession with his mother’s sexuality suggests that Hamlet suffers
from an Oedipus complex and that in fact he despises his mother’s relation with
Claudius out of jealously and not because of moral. Hamlet feels betrayed by
his mother and therefore transfer his hatred to all women attacking Ophelia
violently and then his mother. He returns constantly to the theme of female
unfaithfulness as he believes himself betrayed by the women in his life –Ophelia
and his mother- Hamlet thinks that Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius is
based only in lust thus her marriage is degrading for her. The same applies for
Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, which is interpreted by the rest as based
only in lust and even Ophelia who seemed pure and innocent reveals in his
madness an acute awareness of sex. Nevertheless, Hamlet’s attitude towards
women reveals something about him more than it reveals women’s true nature.

LAERTES
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And ...
fear: Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.
(1.3.33-44)

GHOST
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of ..
itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.
(1.5.42-57)

HAMLET
That it should come to this!
But two months…
speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
(1.2.137-157)

HAMLET
O most pernicious woman!
(1.5.105)

HAMLET
If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague ...
shall keep as they are.

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To a nunnery, go.
(3.1.131-135)

LORD POLONIUS
Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
...
this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence
(1.3.101-121)

HAMLET
I did love you once.
OPHELIA
Indeed, my lord, ...
loved you not.
OPHELIA
I was the more deceived.
(3.1.114-118G)

Conclusion

Summing things up, Hamlet becomes one of the most important works in
English literature not only because of his value as a work of art but also
because of the timeless validity of its themes and the multiple interpretations to
which the play may be subject. While reading the play it becomes less a play
about vengeance and more a study about human nature. Hamlet’s character
portrays a Freudian appreciation of human nature. He is consumed in conflicts
he wants to disappear but fears the afterlife; he loves his mother but despises
her by choosing Claudius over him; he loves and is sexually attracted to
Ophelia but is too puritan to admit this fact so he rejects her instead. All of our
minds are built up upon similar conflicts and the fact that defines our personality
and that allows to remain sane is our ability to overcome such conflicts which
rise in our psyche; we must triumph were Hamlet failed. Hamlet is the example
of an inability to function in a world of conflicts and paradoxes. For these
reasons, “Hamlet” is ultimately play about human conflict showing a series of
antithesis for the main character to solve; sin and salvation; reality and
appearance; sex and love; revenge and forgiveness. This approach to human

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nature makes of “Hamlet” a play that allows multiple interpretations, adapting
itself to fit the concerns of men of any time and place, a fact which ultimately
contributes to make this play survive through time and causes that every
generation finds a new interpretation and a new appreciation for Shakespeare’s
master tragedy.

Bibliography

“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, Cambridge School Shakespeare, Cambridge


University Press, 2006

Wikipedia, The online encyclopedia http://www.wikipedia.org

Sparknotes, http://www.sparknotes.com

E-cheat, http://www.echeat.com

Absolute Shakespeare, http://absoluteshakespeare.com

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