Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • A List of Important Quote
  • Analysis of the Theme
  • Techniques and Metalanguage
  • Analysis of the Character
  • Sample Essay 1
  • Sample Essay 2
  • Sample Essay 3
  • Sample Essay 4
  • Sample Essay 5
  • Sample Essay 6
  • Sample Essay 7
  • Sample Essay 8
  • Sample Essay 9
  • Sample Essay 10


Few works of English drama or world theatre are as well-known and frequently staged as Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s remarkable reworking of Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Hamlet is a powerful and seemingly endlessly malleable meditation on mortality, revenge, and complicated questions of morality. At its crux, it is a play about a crisis of royal succession in the Danish royal court of Elsinore. As the play opens, the young Prince of Denmark, Hamlet, is grieving the death of his father, the former King (also called Hamlet). Hamlet finds himself isolated in the court, still in mourning for the dead king, while the rest of Denmark’s ruling class appears to have reconciled themselves to the loss of one monarch and the coronation of the next: old Hamlet’s brother, Claudius, is now King and has already married Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Her son, in the first of many displays of an intense preoccupation with Gertrude’s sexuality, is repulsed by the “dexterity” with which his mother has remarried and alarmed at how quickly his father appears to have been forgotten. In his first monologue, Hamlet speaks of his intense grief, and the desire for his “too solid flesh [to] melt;” he is angry, grief-stricken, and alienated, but essentially powerless to act. Soon, however, Hamlet receives word that the ghost of his father has been seen wandering the castle ramparts at night; he meets the ghost and is informed that Claudius murdered the old king. Hamlet swears to avenge his father, and here the action of the play really begins, as Hamlet must struggle with the ethics of murder, the mechanics of a style of courtly intrigue and plotting for which he is potentially ill-equipped, and his own deeply conflicted attitudes towards himself, his lover Ophelia, and his parents. An atmosphere of intense paranoia and claustrophobia quickly builds as Hamlet and Claudius wage an unspoken battle for supremacy which will eventually devolve into a bloodbath. As the political order of Elsinore falls apart, Hamlet meditates on the morality of revenge, the attractions of suicide, the meaningless of life, and the nature of fate. 

Hamlet appears to have been written in the final years of the 16th Century, perhaps around 1599, or in the first few years of the next century – quite possibly it evolved through multiple revisions over those years. It reflects the anxieties of its time. England’s monarch, Elizabeth I, was deteriorating rapidly, but was childless and had not nominated an heir, leaving profound uncertainties about the future of the kingdom. Throughout the late 1500s Shakespeare had been producing history plays, mostly focused on the War of the Roses – the bloody and protracted civil war between the families of Lancaster and York from a century earlier – and Hamlet can in some way be read as an extension, in tragedy, of the same interest in themes of political instability explored in the history plays. The troubles at Elsinore occur against the backdrop of an uneasy peace between Norway and Denmark; it is during an especially delicate diplomatic moment that the Danish court decides to self-destruct. The play is thus concerned with the way that personal grudges and power struggles can have drastic consequences for entire nations. Closely connected to the political uncertainties of Shakespeare’s time (indeed, indivisible from them) are religious ones; Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had established the Protestant Church of England as the official religion after breaking from the Roman Catholic Church. This led to the banning of Catholicism and decades of complicated and brutal struggles between Protestant and Catholic-aligned movements and rulers in the British Isles. This profound uncertainty about religion is reflected in Hamlet. The Ghost explicitly states that he is in Purgatory, a sort of waiting-room for Heaven where the sins of the dead are burned from them in preparation for the next world. This is a very Catholic notion; yet Hamlet had studied at Wittenberg, the intellectual heart of Protestantism. Two ways of thinking about the world appear to be colliding. This tension manifests in the intensely philosophical elements of the play. Hamlet has frequent soliloquies in which he thinks through difficult questions and positions, reflecting on the possibility of suicide (most famously in his “To be or not to be” speech), for example, or the ramifications of killing Claudius while he prays. Hamlet is a scholar and a thinker, perhaps reflecting the intellectual climate of the European renaissance and the influence of writers such as the famous French essayist Montaigne. 

The most important context for Hamlet, however, is probably the tradition of Elizabethan revenge tragedy. In revenge tragedy characters, usually tormented by a crime perpetrated against themselves or a loved one, descend into insanity and wreak appalling revenge against their enemies. These lurid and violent plays, famously embodied by Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, were immensely popular, and Shakespeare had already tried his hand at one with Titus Andronicus in the late 1580s or early 1590s. Staples of Elizabethan revenge tragedy such as ghosts, madness, and murder still characterise Hamlet, and there are moments in which Hamlet appears to self-consciously mimic a protagonist of a revenge plot, such as when he works himself up to confronting his mother, declaring that “now could I drink hot blood.” The play Hamlet commissions to establish Claudius’ guilt is also reminiscent of a revenge tragedy. Ultimately, however, Hamlet cannot commit to the part; it is through Claudius’ bungled attempts at murdering him that Hamlet finally achieves vengeance. 

An important theme in Hamlet is its interest in theatricality. When Hamlet refers to the sky as “fretted with golden fire” in Act 2, he may be directing the audience’s attention to the thatched canopy of the Globe theatre, where the play was first performed. The Globe was built by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – the theatre troupe Shakespeare was attached to – in 1599. It was an open-air theatre which could have seated up to 3000 audience members – although ‘seated’ is not an appropriate word for the bulk of the spectators, the so-called ‘groundlings,’ who would have stood in a mass before the stage.

Hamlet is thought by scholars to have consistently been one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and is still regarded as one of the most important works of literature in English. It is full of indelible dramatic images students may recognise as they read: Claudius pouring poison into King Hamlet’s ear, Hamlet clutching the skull of Yorick and making macabre wisecracks about mortality, Ophelia floating to her death in a garland of flowers. Lines such as “To be or not to be,” “The play’s the thing,” “To thine own self be true,” “Alas, poor Yorick,” and countless others have slipped into popular parlance. Hamlet as a character is still regarded as an essential role for actors to perform at some point in their lives, and the play has been staged and filmed in a staggering array of iterations, as well as spawned responses from literary heavy-hitters such as Tom Stoppard and Margaret Atwood.   


A little more than kin and less than kind (1.ii. 67)
Hamlet’s first line of dialogue establishes several important aspects of his character in one brief jibe at his uncle. Claudius, Hamlet witheringly suggests here, is “more than kin” – he has effectively become Hamlet’s father rather than merely uncle – but “less than kind.” Hamlet is riffing on two meanings of “kind” here – kind in a moral sense, as ‘generous,’ (Claudius is unkind to remind him of his dead father), and kind as ‘sort’ or ‘type:’ Claudius is not as good as Hamlet’s father, not of the same type or calibre. Aside from establishing Hamlet’s relationship to Claudius, the line demonstrates his obsession with language and punning, and is delivered as an aside, outside of the main conversation, which immediately establishes Hamlet as an introspective character who conceives of himself as apart from recognised conventions and official attitudes of the Danish court.

O that this too, too solid flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! (1.ii. 133-136)
In Hamlet’s first soliloquy he expresses a longing for death which manifests itself in an extreme image of bodily disintegration. The longing to “melt/ Thaw, and resolve […] into a dew” is also of a piece with Hamlet’s punning earlier in the scene, in his complex wordplay with Claudius which relied on natural imagery of rivers, the sun, and clouds. The extent of Hamlet’s alienation and despair is made vividly apparent here not only in the image of corporeal dissolution but in his wish that God had not decreed suicide to be a sin (a theme which recurs when Ophelia is buried). 

You speak like a green girl / Unsifted in such perilous circumstance (1.iii. 110-111)
Polonius’ description of Ophelia as a “green girl” exemplifies the lack of agency he Laertes ascribe to her.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (1.iv. 100)
This iconic line conjures an image of corruption and decay which recurs throughout Hamlet, suggesting that the entire kingdom is being compromised by the moral rot – the murder of a king – at its heart.

One may smile and smile and be a villain. (1.v. 115)
Hamlet’s aphoristic declaration encapsulates the atmosphere of paranoia and deceit on the court at Elsinore through the image of a person who seems pleasant but is in fact capable of monstrous crimes. This connects to Hamlet’s earlier punning on “seeming” in scene 2 of act 1 and with his general preoccupation with acting and performance.

As I perchance hereafter shall think it meet / To put an antic disposition on (1.v. 191-192)
Hamlet declares here that he shall put on an “antic disposition” – that is, pretend to be mad – presumably to hide his actual intentions. The question of the extent to which Hamlet really is mad becomes central to interpretations and stagings of the play. 

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t. (2. ii. 223-224)
Polonius is trying to understand Hamlet’s behaviour, deciding that Hamlet’s ramblings are not without a certain logic – Hamlet is still clearly capable of some sort of logical thought. What Polonius may have stumbled upon here is Hamlet’s carefully cultivated performance of madness.

Denmark’s a prison. (2.ii. 262)
Hamlet is here projecting his own sense of claustrophobia onto Denmark as a whole – and then onto the entire world, when he suggests that Denmark is but a dungeon within a larger, planetary prison. This metaphor is characteristic of Hamlet’s interest in language and its ability to ascribe his emotional state onto the world around him, as he freely admits when he adds that “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” This intensely subjective understanding of the world reflects Hamlet’s own compulsive urge to meditate and think through complex decisions – perhaps at the cost of acting.

What a piece of work is a man… (2. ii. 327)
Hamlet expresses wonder at the fact that a lifeform as wonderful as a human being, with all its capacity for beauty and reason, can still not interest him or bring him joy: a man is ultimately a “quintessence of dust,” a theme he expands on in a more ghoulish fashion when he meets the gravediggers.

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I […] Am I a coward? (2. ii. 577-598)
Hamlet rebukes himself that the travelling player can seemingly generate intense emotion and ringing oratory over the death of Hecuba, a woman from myth who he has never met, while Hamlet has still not managed to confront Claudius and speak the truth to the world over the death of someone he actually knew and loved. He torments himself with accusations of cowardice before settling on the plan to provoke Claudius with a play. 

To be or not to be – that is the question (3.i. 64)
In what is probably the single most famous monologue in English, Hamlet ponders whether life, with all its burdens and struggles, is really worth enduring. Superficially, the question appears to be whether or not he should kill himself – however, the phrasing of the line is notoriously slippery, using what is often employed as a copula or linking verb (essentially, in English you usually have to be something in particular) as an ambiguous substitute for “live.” In the context of the play, we can read being as connected with action – being a “man,” an avenger. The speech conjoins both ideas, concluding that the reason most people do not kill themselves is essentially out of fear of what happens next: perhaps the afterlife, if there is one, is worse. However, Hamlet extends this specific fear to action generally, saying that “enterprises of great pitch and moment” – not just killing oneself – are stymied by the “pale cast of thought” leading us to “lose the name of action.” Perhaps Hamlet is here in an indeterminate state, alive but paralysed with indecision; not really living, but too afraid to commit to death.

Get thee to a nunnery. (3. i. 131)
Hamlet launches into a tirade against Ophelia, telling her to join a nunnery so that she cannot give birth to sinners. His rant is less directed against Ophelia but against women – and even then, not against women per se but against the men that they give birth to (including himself). It is in effect an attack against humanity. “Nunnery” was also slang for “brothel,” suggesting that Hamlet is so disgusted by his experience of supposedly ‘noble’ men in the Danish court that he sees all divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ character as false; thus, Ophelia may just as well go to a brothel as a nunnery. This vituperative speech, deliberately confusing and contradictory, combined with the killing of Polonius, has a terrible effect on Ophelia’s mind. 

Now I could drink hot blood. (3. ii. 422)
Hamlet works himself up into a frenzy, employing uncharacteristically ghoulish imagery which harks back to the blood-drenched tradition of revenge tragedy from which Hamlet emerges. It is worth noting, however, that Hamlet is not thinking about killing Claudius here – rather, this melodramatic language is employed to get him into the right frame of mind to confront his mother.

O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven… (3. iii. 40)
Claudius here admits that he is indeed guilty of having killed old King Hamlet – the first time in the play that the audience can be absolutely certain of his guilt, if they were not convinced by Hamlet’s “mousetrap.”

Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge. (3. iii. 84)
Critics have historically accused Hamlet of being indecisive, or even weak-willed, and take his refusal to butcher Claudius in this scene as a prime example of this sort of hesitation. However, Hamlet here is actually making a perfectly reasonable decision: according to religious convention, if he kills Claudius while he prays, he will go straight to Heaven, despite his crimes; thus, it makes more sense to kill him when he is drunk or gambling or engaged in some other sinful pursuit, to ensure his soul is condemned to Hell. In one of the many profound ironies of the play, after Hamlet leaves, Claudius reveals that he was too obsessed by his crime to actually pray properly.

Before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed. (4. v. 67-68)
In her madness and grief Ophelia sings folk songs which perhaps obliquely suggest that her and Hamlet’s relationship was more intimate than their families knew – “tumbled” here has strongly sexual connotations.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew, Horatio – a man of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. (5. i. 190-193)
In one of the most instantly recognisable scenes in the play, Hamlet holds the head of Yorick, the court jester who used to play with Hamlet when he was a child. Hamlet pauses to meditate on the meaningless of life and death, mockingly instructing the skull to inform his “lady” that all beauty must eventually be reduced to mouldering bones.

If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. (5. ii. 234-237)
As the play reaches its conclusion, Hamlet, having sent two old friends to their death, accidentally killed an innocent man, and then lost a grief-stricken Ophelia, has a philosophical approach to death; resigning himself to whatever happens, arguing that it does not really matter when he dies, so long as he is ready to face death.

Who does it then? His madness. (5. ii. 251)
Contrary to his earlier advice to Horatio that he was merely putting on an act of madness, Hamlet eschews responsibility for his actions against Laertes, claiming he was mad and cannot be held accountable. Whether this is true, a lie to evade responsibility, or a lie to enable him to offer genuine condolences and love to Laertes, is open to the reader to decide. 

The rest is silence. (5. ii. 395)
Hamlet’s final words seem to suggest a degree of peace: the afterlife opening before him is silent, peaceful; there is perhaps a dual meaning on ‘rest’ here also, suggesting both ‘remainder’ and repose.


Delay and Revenge

Hamlet has traditionally been criticised for his lack of action, or decisiveness – a view which has increasingly been challenged by critics. Hamlet certainly torments himself over his tardy response to the murder of his father, perhaps most notably in his monologue beginning “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I.” That soliloquy is interesting in itself, because Hamlet is directly comparing his ability to express passion to the performances put on by the travelling players. Indeed, where Hamlet seems especially hesitant is in the context of the conventions of revenge tragedy – conventions he attempts to perform at various points in the play, including in the “rogue and peasant slave” speech, where he cries “O, vengeance!” before mocking his own bravura: “Why, what an ass I am.” Likewise, he indulges in a wonderfully lurid speech before confronting his mother, in which he imagines himself as a brutal and merciless avenger in a dark world of blood and death:

’Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.   

Despite his occasional forays into Elizabethan blood-and-thunder vengeance, however, Hamlet is not really a violent and brutal avenger. His delay, such as it is, is the product of a profound tendency towards contemplation and reason. Hamlet is a scholar; he can fence, but shows very little interest in the business of warfare, even as an unpredictable Fortinbras is storming around northern Europe, apparently happy to invade any country at any given moment. Hamlet was written as a new understanding of the role of the European prince emerged in Europe; princes were now expected to be learned and intellectually curious scholars as much as warriors. Increasingly, scholars have pointed to the emergence of key texts of the European renaissance as interesting companions to and perhaps influences on Shakespeare’s work. These include Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (printed in 1532), a sort of handbook for young princes notorious for its cynical attitudes towards power and statecraft, and French statesman and philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (1580), early examples of the modern personal essay, in which Montaigne meanders through countless topics, emphasising the limits of his own knowledge and constantly asking “what do I know?” Hamlet is a participant in this new intellectual climate, and it does not fit well with the role of murderous avenger. His apparent hesitation is perhaps best understood as a tension between the urge for revenge and a sceptical mind which thinks through difficult questions – can he trust the word of the Ghost? How does he know it is really the ghost of his father, rather than a malicious demon trying to fool him? Having ascertained his uncle’s guilt, should he strike Claudius down as he prays – or would that enable him to go straight to Heaven? Hamlet does not want to kill a man without good reason, and it is surely rational to want to avoid the bloodbaths which often characterise a revenge tragedy. One of the cruellest ironies of the play, however, is of course that Hamlet’s prevarication does not save anyone – Claudius dies, but so too does Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Hamlet himself, giving Hamlet one of the highest death rates of any Shakespearian tragedy.


“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t,” says Polonius of one of Hamlet’s more elaborate flights of fancy, neatly encapsulating the difficulty of ascertaining the sanity of the heir to Denmark’s throne. Madness is a central concern of the English revenge tragedy (to give some idea of its prominence, the subtitle to Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is or, Hieronimo is Mad Again), and duly plays a part in Hamlet also. Early in the play Hamlet decides he will “put on an antic disposition” – that is, pretend he is mad – in order to confound Claudius and the court, and disguise his own intentions. There are signs, however, that Hamlet is less stable than this apparently conscious and deliberate decision would suggest. Firstly, he never really articulates why appearing mad is the most practical route to ascertaining the guilt of Claudius. For a character who spends long sections of the play carefully thinking through problems, it is one of his more quickly-realised decisions. It is also hard to argue that it is particularly useful. If his brutalising of Ophelia is a calculated decision, then it backfires spectacularly; further, the sheer viciousness of his outburst against a woman he professes to love raises serious questions about his mental and emotional stability. The argument that he is merely pretending to be mad is complicated further towards the end of the play, when Hamlet tells Laertes that he murdered Polonius only because he was mad: “Who does it then? His madness.” He was mad, but is better now. Is this true? Does Hamlet think he may have gone a little mad? Or does the fact that he was playing mad provide a convenient excuse for his actions – an excuse he might be offering to himself as much as to Laertes?

One of the issues with discussions around Hamlet’s madness is that students often adopt the same quite binarized attitude that Hamlet does – he was mad, now he isn’t: one is clearly distinguishable from the other. Perhaps following Polonius’ lead and thinking about what sort or severity of madness is being exhibited aligns well with more modern understandings of mental illness. Hamlet may retain the capacity for reason, but his first soliloquy is a devastating portrayal of what we might term severe depression, expressing a wish that his “flesh would melt / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.” Similarly, Hamlet’s description of Denmark as a prison is a strikingly evocative metaphor for an isolating and claustrophobic experience of the world. Then there is the question of the Ghost; we can be reasonably certain it is real in the first Act, because Horatio and the others witness it too. When it reappears in Gertrude’s quarters, however, only Hamlet can see it. There are no easy answers to the question of Hamlet’s sanity.


Hamlet is rife with imagery of decay, corruption, rot and pestilence. In Hamlet’s first soliloquy he describes the world as “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely.” Hamlet is on similar terrain in Act 2, when he claims that for all the stunning beauty of the world, it “appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” Hamlet is of course projecting his own mental state onto the world around him; however, he is not the only character who detects a rot, a stink, or a sense of corruption in the play. It is an idea most famously expressed in Marcellus’ declaration that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” In Shakespeare’s plays, a serious crime in the upper echelons of society is usually met with chaos throughout the kingdom; in Macbeth, for example, the murder of Duncan seems to bring on a terrifying storm and a host of weird portents, and Scotland then falls into civil turmoil. The rot at the heart of Denmark has at least one obvious source. Claudius describes his guilt as if it were rotting carrion: “my offense is rank, it smells to heaven.” It is a crime linked through images of corruption to Gertude. When Hamlet confronts his mother, he uses the language of disease to describe her soul, telling her not to try to convince herself that he is mad rather than she guilty, because such a reassurance would “but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whiles rank corruption, mining all within, / Infects unseen.” The overall effect is to suggest a royal house being eaten from within; the ruling class of Denmark basically destroys itself, so that Fortinbras can walk in and simply claim Denmark as his own.

Acting and Theatricality

Hamlet is, amongst other things, obsessed with acting and theatre. This is most obvious in the section of the play devoted to another play – the “Mouse Trap” set by Hamlet to ensnare Claudius. Hamlet meditates on acting, pondering how actors can seemingly generate on a whim more passion over fictions than he can summon to avenge his actual father. Hamlet appears to have some affinity with the theatre; when the players arrive he recites thirteen lines, apparently accurately, of a speech he claims to have heard once. He is clearly transported by the rest of the speech, and writes a new section for the play he requests. He enthusiastically lectures the professional actors on how to deliver their lines “trippingly on the tongue,” and why they should not “saw the air too much” when they gesticulate – to brief, polite and, one suspects, faintly exhausted replies from the actor in question. We can perhaps imagine that Hamlet had been a fervent participant in undergraduate drama in Wittenberg.

Acting has a darker side in Hamlet. When Hamlet acts at being mad, the line between performance and reality becomes at times frighteningly blurred. Hamlet’s own interest in acting has a sort of sinister double in pretence or seeming. He riffs on Gertrude’s suggestion that he “seems” particularly upset in Act 1, arguing that outward expressions of grief such as tears and garments “indeed “seem,” / For they are actions that a man might play.” The acting metaphor here is negative. He does not seem, by contrast, but is genuinely devastated. This hatred of pretence and falsity extends into his misogynistic tirade against Ophelia and all women who wear make-up (like an actor): “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” There is a certain (admittedly sometimes justified) paranoia to the idea of performance and falsity in Hamlet’s mind. 

Hamlet’s interest in theatre extends to a number of in-jokes about London’s theatre scene in the Elizabethan era. When Hamlet describes the sky as “fretted with golden fire” he is largely understood to be referencing the thatched canopy of the Globe theatre. Similarly, the travelling players complain that they are suffering from competition with troupes of boy actors, which was also a genuine phenomenon in Shakespeare’s time. Also in that scene, Polonius refers to his days performing at university, when he did “enact Julius Caesar.” Julius Caesar is a slightly earlier play of Shakespeare’s; presumably, the actor playing Polonius would be recognised by the audience as the same man who performed the title role of the previous play.


There is an intense claustrophobia to Hamlet. When Hamlet strikes up his curious behaviour, Polonius and Claudius begin a regime of surveillance to interpret the possible causes behind his apparent madness. Polonius’ description of his desire to uncover the causes of Hamlet’s actions is itself faintly sinister: “I will find / Where truth is hid, though it were hid, indeed, / Within the centre.” Polonius presumably means he is willing to probe to the innermost and most private realms of Hamlet’s psyche or his relationship with Ophelia; it also reminds us that that there is a hideous secret at the very centre of the court – Claudius’ murder of the rightful king. Polonius sets his own daughter as bait to try to wheedle the truth from Hamlet, as he and Claudius hide behind an arras to observe in secret. Hamlet probably suspects he is being watched or that Ophelia would be expected to report back to her father. To have his own lover weaponised as a means of surveillance thus adds to his growing sense of paranoia. Polonius attempts the same trick in Gertrude’s quarters – with lethal results, when Hamlet stabs him, mistaking him for Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also employed to harvest information about Hamlet for Claudius. Different productions have found their own ways to convey a sense of surveillance and invasion. In Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film, he employs long tracking shots around the corridors to give the impression of being followed or spied on, and in Gregory Doran’s film version of his stage production starring David Tennant, CCTV cameras watch Hamlet’s every move. 

Death and Suicide

Suicide, in Shakespeare’s time, was regarded as a terrible sin. The bodies of suicides were often denied burial in consecrated ground and in more superstitious areas were buried at crossroads or interfered with in order to prevent them from rising as undead revenants. In Hamlet’s first soliloquy, he wishes his “flesh would melt” – that he would simply melt away, or that God had not outlawed “self-slaughter.” Hamlet’s intense melancholy and grief manifest here in a religious struggle: it is implied (although it need not necessarily be believed) that only a fear of eternal damnation is preventing Hamlet from taking his own life. One of the many interesting elements to the discussion of death and suicide in the play is that Hamlet’s religious certainty on the topic appears to wane, until by his “To be or not to be” speech in Act 3 fear of God has more or less disappeared as a relevant factor. Indeed, by this point it isn’t the religious certainty of damnation preventing him from taking his own life but a radical uncertainty: 

…Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all […]   

The metaphor of death as a mysterious terra incognita is a far cry from the certainties of theology. This more humanistic attitude, less certain about the morality of treating suicide with contempt, is evident at Ophelia’s burial. The priest points out that she is only allowed burial in a sanctified plot because Claudius has decreed it; to do anything more elaborate than throw dust and pebbles over body would “profane the service of the dead” by giving a suicide the same rites as “peace-parted souls.” It is hard not to sympathise with Laertes when he snarls: “I tell thee, churlish priest, / A ministering angel shall my sister be / When thy liest howling.” The morality of suicide is given an unusually thorough-going examination in Hamlet; it features in other Shakespearian tragedies but is rarely interrogated. There is no emphasis on the sinfulness of suicide when the young lovers in Romeo and Juliet take their lives, quite the opposite; and in plays set in pre-Christian times, such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, it is presented nobly. 

By far the most famous and culturally legible of the play’s engagements with death is the gravedigger scene, which, after a round of macabre jokes from the gravediggers, turns to Hamlet’s meditation on the baseness of human life as he clutches Yorick’s skull. He is appalled at the fact that a “fellow of infinite jest, most excellent fancy” could now be merely decayed matter: “My gorge rises at it.” Immediately afterwards Ophelia’s funeral procession arrives: the fate awaiting “fair Ophelia” could not be more explicit. This scene is another variation on Hamlet’s grotesque joking that Polonius is at “supper” – the supper being enjoyed by the worms that eat him. It occurs to Hamlet that a worm that ate a king could then be used to catch a fish for dinner – and thus that a mighty king my pass “through the guts of a beggar.” Hamlet is clearly fascinated by the idea that for all the distinctions in rank, morality, success, power and beauty which so dominate people’s lives, everyone from a beggar to a king ultimately ends up the same way.

Techniques and Metalanguage

Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest play – Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film, which retains all the dialogue, is around four hours long. It is written in a combination of verse and prose. As is common for English drama of this period, most of the text is written in a verse form called iambic pentameter. This means that each line is made up of five iambs, an iamb being a metrical unit of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It is fairly consistent, although there are often moments where a line may run longer or shorter than usual, or where it is not entirely clear where the stresses should go; it is best to think of it as a broad rhythm to the play’s dialogue rather than an exact system ticking along with clockwork precision. Prose is often employed in Shakespeare’s plays by lower-class characters or for moments of more conversational dialogue – Hamlet’s banter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being a good example of the latter.

Hamlet is notable for its large number of soliloquies, mostly from Hamlet himself. A soliloquy is a long speech delivered by a character representing their thought process. It is assumed to be an internal monologue, and usually occurs when a character is alone on stage; an exception is Hamlet’s most famous speech, “To be or not to be,” in which Ophelia is on stage, although Hamlet is unaware of her until the closing lines of the monologue. Another example of the split between dialogue which is audible in the world of the play and dialogue which is only audible to the speaker and the audience are the frequent asides, which usually allow a character to vocalise what they are silently thinking about the conversation unfolding around them. Hamlet’s first line is an aside, indicating the withdrawn and intensely introspective side to his character. 

Shakespeare’s language abounds in evocative imagery, and Hamlet has several recurring images, especially of weeds, rot and corruption. Sometimes, as in Hamlet’s speeches, this intense imagery has a symbolic or metaphorical significance concerning Hamlet’s state of mind or his attitudes towards others. In other occasions, imagery is used to evoke scenes which are harder to stage, such as Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s drowning. Hamlet also contains many memorable occasions of metaphor, such as “Denmark’s a prison,” or the Ghost’s appropriation of claim he was bitten by a serpent to draw on the metaphorical connotations of serpents as manipulative and treacherous: “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown.”

Hamlet also employs visual symbolism. The most famous example is the indelible image of Hamlet clutching Yorick’s skull, which has entered the western cultural psyche as a classic image of mortality. Another example is the recorder or pipe Hamlet carries – which he uses to challenge Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for trying to “play” him, but which also acts as reminds the audience that it is Hamlet himself who is “playing” Claudius – by shocking him into admission of his crimes, through another type of “play.”



Incredible amounts of time and effort have gone into attempting to pin down Hamlet’s character; precisely who this elusive young man is and what he means at any given moment has preoccupied audiences, scholars and actors for centuries. Every actor interprets the role anew, and historically he has been read as a tragic and entirely blameless hero, a case-study of Freud’s Oedipus complex, and everything in between. Here are the basics: Hamlet is the young prince of Denmark. How young is not entirely clear – when he speaks to the gravediggers he declares he knew Yorick as a child, which would place him around thirty; however, he is also a university student, which would probably make him younger than that. He is in mourning for his father, who he discovers was murdered by Claudius. Claudius has since married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and sits on Denmark’s throne. 

When the audience first meets the Prince of Denmark, in Act 1, scene 2, Shakespeare employs an arsenal of dramatic techniques to emphasise Hamlet’s isolation from the court. As Claudius discusses vital matters of statecraft, Hamlet stays silent. Visually, Hamlet stands out because he is dressed in black, and when he delivers his first line – “A little more than kin and less than kind” – it is as an aside, to the audience rather than to the other characters onstage. That Hamlet’s first line is a pun is essential to his character as a whole; this is a character who is obsessed with language, whose “antic disposition” to a large extent manifests itself in complex riddling and punning. This careful attention to language is part of another element of Hamlet’s character. He is often seen as a thinker, as highly contemplative. He is a student at the university in Wittenberg, and given to philosophical pondering on the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life and death – most famously in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Act 3. He has an extraordinary number of lines – almost 40% of all the lines spoken in what is by far Shakespeare’s longest play – including multiple long soliloquies, many of which are devoted to interrogations of himself and the world around him.

One of the most vexed questions in Hamlet is of the eponymous prince’s madness, or lack of it. Hamlet’s sanity is often discussed in binary terms: is he insane, or sane and merely pretending to be mad? While this is a clear division that the characters in the play (mostly) adhere too, Shakespeare seems less confident in in the dichotomy: Hamlet declares he will put on an “antic disposition,” but it is hard, from a purely rational perspective, to justify his brutal treatment of Ophelia, and he himself tells Laertes that he had been mad but is now sane. From the opening of the play, however, it is clear that Hamlet is suffering intensely from what in the 21st Century we would describe as depression, and in Shakespeare’s time might be understood as a serious humoral imbalance resulting in intense melancholy. 

One final important quality of Hamlet’s to touch on here is his relationship with his mother, and with women more broadly. For much of the 20th Century Hamlet was read through an Oedipal lens derived from Freudian psychoanalysis – essentially, Hamlet cannot come to terms with his sexual desire for his own mother. This interpretation is prominent in well-known film versions, such as Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film, in which the actor who portrays Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) is significantly younger than Olivier’s Hamlet, and in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version starring Mel Gibson as Hamlet and Glen Close as Gertrude. While this heavily Freudian reading is now largely ignored, Hamlet undeniably has an unsettling obsession with his mother’s sexuality. Her quick remarriage to Claudius is not, for Hamlet, an abstract matter of fidelity or trust. Every time Hamlet brings the topic up, he explicitly refers to the marriage bed, the “incestuous sheets.” This is most prominent when he confronts Gertrude, detailing his disgust at the “nasty sty” of hers and Claudius’ lovemaking. Earlier, this disgust seems to manifest itself in a full-blown verbal assault on Ophelia, in which he decries the worthlessness of men by attacking the women who rear them.


Ophelia is a young noblewoman, daughter of Polonius and brother to Laertes. Early in the play the dynamic between her and the men in her family is established: before Laertes leaves he delivers a long speech to Ophelia instructing her not to reciprocate Hamlet’s affection, arguing that as a prince it is not up to him to choose his bride. Immediately after Laertes leaves, Polonius embarks on essentially the same spiel. When asked what she thinks about Hamlet’s advances, Ophelia delivers a simple line with a huge array of potential meanings: “I do not know, my lord, what I should think.” The actor playing Ophelia could deliver this line as Polonius takes it – meek, modest and obedient – or in a much more sly or ironic way, which Polonius misses. Having Ophelia ironically mock her brother and father for assuming she cannot think for herself would fit the more worldly image of Ophelia which emerges when she goes mad, and sings songs suggesting she and Hamlet were intimate – to the total obliviousness of her loving but rather pompous family. 

Ophelia finds herself torn between the men in her life. When Polonius seeks to understand the root of Hamlet’s odd behaviour, he reneges on all the advice he gave Ophelia and essentially uses her and her affections as bait. Hamlet responds with a blistering rant against women, including the famous exhortation to “Get thee to a nunnery.” Ophelia is distraught, and must put up with further crude jibes from Hamlet during the Mouse Trap. When Hamlet kills Polonius, Ophelia becomes a sort of double for Hamlet; she is now bereft of a father, as he is; where Hamlet plays at being mad, Ophelia actually loses her mind; and while Hamlet contemplates suicide, Ophelia commits the deed. In one of the bleakest points of the play, it is made clear at Ophelia’s burial that she cannot receive full Christian rites because she committed suicide, suggesting that even after death she will not finally be at peace.


Claudius is King Hamlet’s brother and assassin. By marrying Gertrude, he has, as Hamlet puts it, “popped in between th’ election and my hopes” – that is, he, not Hamlet, inherited the throne. For most of the play Claudius’ villainy is not obvious. The Ghost accuses him of murder, but then, how can we know the Ghost is telling the truth? In terms of the mechanics of ruling, Claudius’ elaborate first monologue suggests a capable and attentive ruler engaged in complex diplomacy; more so than Hamlet, who seems to have only a passing interest in regional politics. Even when Hamlet comes across Norwegian troops marching through Denmark he is prompted to abstract considerations of life and death rather than more immediate attention to the security of his country. Further, Claudius and Gertrude do appear genuinely to love one another; and the rest of the court seems broadly satisfied with Claudius’ governance.

It is after the players stage a version of Claudius’ crime, and more importantly after he admits in his prayers to killing the king, that the audience can know for certain that Claudius is indeed guilty of filicide and regicide, a crime that “smells to heaven.” Claudius is tormented by guilt, but it seems to manifest more in an anxiety about the state of his soul; he does not appear to feel pity for his brother, or to dwell over the moment itself. When considered alongside the general lack of interest in the circumstances of the old king’s death, it is possible to read Claudius’ attitude as common throughout the court; possibly Hamlet is the only character who viewed the old king as infallible. After that, the murderous streak in Claudius becomes more apparent, as he plots Hamlet’s death, first by sending him to England, and later by attempting to poison him. Claudius eventually meets his fate at the hands of Hamlet – although it is only through using Claudius’ own trap, which has already fatally hurt Hamlet, against him. Claudius can thus be read as a classically tragic character whose ambition, his lust for power and willingness to perpetrate evil to maintain it, ultimately undoes him.


Gertrude is one of the most intriguing of Hamlet’s characters. Her complicity in the murder of her husband is uncertain. The Ghost seems to believe that Claudius seduced Gertrude, but is ambiguous as to whether this occurred before or after his murder. There is also no reason to suspect her love for Claudius, and when we consider her marriage to him in the context of royal succession, there is perhaps little that is especially unusual about it; marriage in royal families at this time was always about stability, and even if she was not motivated by love alone, marrying the new king would be a sensible course of action for her own future – and for Hamlet’s. Gertrude seems to be driven by a genuine love for Hamlet, and a real concern for Ophelia. In describing Ophelia’s death, Shakespeare gives Gertrude some of the most evocative lines of the play, which have had an immense cultural impact, most famously inspiring John Everett Millais’s 1852 painting Ophelia

When Hamlet confronts Gertrude, she delivers lines which are characteristically difficult to interpret precisely. As he rants against her she eventually cries: 

O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grainèd spots
As will not leave their tinct. 

This sounds like a confession of some sort of guilt – her soul is stained. But guilt for what? Hamlet does not seem to think her guilty of conspiring to murder, merely of marrying Claudius. Further, she is scared: her son is ranting furiously, and has just murdered Polonius in front of her, making it hard to know what she means. This line perhaps should be read, along with her asking Hamlet what he thinks she should do, as an attempt to calm or appease him. Gertrude seems relieved to see Hamlet apparently sane again by the end of the play, and with her dying breath she gives a warning to Hamlet not to drink from the poisoned cup. This raises the interesting, and irresolvable, question of what would have happened had Claudius’ plan succeeded in killing Hamlet. What would her relationship with Claudius have been then?


Polonius is the father of Ophelia and Laertes. He seems to be close to Claudius and Gertrude, to the extent that they entrust the investigation of Hamlet’s health and sanity to him. Polonius acts as a worldly and experienced old man who is famous for aphoristic advice, especially in lines he delivers to Laertes before he sails for France, such as “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “to thine own self be true,” phrases which, evidence suggests, became popular with readers of the first print editions of Hamlet and have since slipped into popular usage. He is given to long-winded speeches and seems to be easily tricked by Hamlet’s complex punning as he plays mad. For all that, Polonius is in some ways another double of Hamlet; he tells us that he has also studied at university, suggesting a similar life experience to Hamlet, has a similar interest in the theatre, and is Hamlet’s opponent in a proxy war fought over Ophelia.

Polonius is often played as something of an old fool – certainly Hamlet describes him as such repeatedly. On the other hand, he has clearly managed to navigate a regime change seamlessly, and his willingness to act as spy for Claudius suggests he may be an experienced political operative. He dotes on his son and appears to be affectionate to Ophelia, although he routinely places her happiness and even safety second to his desire to uncover Hamlet’s motivations. This almost obsessive drive to be personally involved in monitoring Hamlet’s actions ultimately leads to his death, when he hides behind the arras in Gertrude’s quarters. As with so many of the characters in the play, Polonius is a mercurial character whose nature and motivations can be redefined with each actor’s interpretation.


Ophelia does not seem to have a mother in the play, but she does have two fathers. Laertes’ longest exchange with his sister takes the form of a lecture on how to comport herself around Hamlet. After the death of Polonius, Laertes becomes another character who reflects something of Hamlet: he is also a son seeking to avenge his father, although unlike Hamlet he acts decisively essentially from the moment he arrives back in Denmark. His and Hamlet’s dualism is captured in macabre fashion when the grapple with each other near – possibly even in – Ophelia’s open grave, and when they fight at the play’s finale. 

For much of the action of the play Laertes is away in France; he returns to seek vengeance for the death of his father, and his grief and rage are quickly weaponised against Hamlet by Claudius. Laertes’ return to Denmark gives one of the few windows into what the ordinary people of the kingdom think of their rulers. Initially suspecting Claudius of the murder and presumably wary of wandering alone into what might be a trap to slay him also, Laertes brings an enraged crowd with him, who cry “Laertes shall be king! Laertes king!” This is really the only time we are given an insight into what the common Dane thinks, and it suggests a widespread distrust of Claudius. The extent to which the Danish court is isolated from and contemptuous of the common people is captured in Gertrude’s venomous description of the crowd as “false Danish dogs!” 

Laertes is hot-headed and intent on revenge, but still seems to possess a strong sense of honour, conceding his own guilt when he is poisoned by the blade meant for Hamlet: “I am justly killed with mine own treachery.”


Horatio has the rare distinction of being closely connected to the members of the Danish court – he is a close friend to his “sweet prince” Hamlet – and also still being alive at the end of the play. He is Hamlet’s confidant throughout the play, and tries to dissuade him from duelling with Laertes, instantly suspecting foul play. He is a an old friend of Hamlet’s. The future of Horatio under the new regime of Fortinbras at the end of the play is uncertain; some of the bleaker stage and film productions of Hamlet have treated the final instruction to “Go, bid the soldiers shoot” not as a command to fire a salute, but to use a firing squad on Horatio.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern 

Two of the most hapless characters in the play are Hamlet’s university friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are summoned by Claudius to attempt to understand the reasons for Hamlet’s behaviour. Claudius, of course, has interests other than Hamlet’s welfare on his mind, and so his use of trusted university friends, similar to the use of Ophelia, to interrogate Hamlet contributes to the escalating sense of paranoia and distrust which characterises the play. 

The first interaction between Hamlet and his friends from university is distinctly undergraduate in its humour, a series of bawdy puns on Fortune’s private parts. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear well-meaning but ill-equipped to understand Hamlet’s malaise; he finishes his intensely powerful speech on “what a piece of work is a man” by saying that he cannot delight in man, “nor women neither,” because Rosencrantz appears on the cusp of a dirty joke. Similarly, it seems barely to occur to them that Hamlet may not have responded well to the sudden death of the father he loved. Ultimately, they are pawns in the game between Claudius and Hamlet, and are sent to their deaths when Hamlet uncovers and redirects the scheme to assassinate him. Hamlet seems chillingly unaffected by this development.

The Ghost

Whether to trust the word of the apparition claiming to be Hamlet’s father is one of the key questions facing the young prince. Hamlet is from a Protestant tradition which does not accept the vision of Purgatory made explicit by the Ghost. Thus, the Ghost may in fact be some malevolent being attempting to fool him: “The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil.” This uncertainty is one of the key motivators behind Hamlet’s decision to find some means of ascertaining the guilt of Claudius before launching into violent revenge.

The Ghost insists that Hamlet avenge him but tells him not to harm Gertrude. The fact that Hamlet appears to direct a lot of his vengeful animus onto his mother is not lost on the Ghost, who appears in Gertrude’s quarters to insist that Hamlet get back to the proper business of killing Claudius. Importantly, the Ghost is only visible to Hamlet in this scene, causing Gertrude to conclude that her son truly is insane. Earlier the Ghost was apparently visible to Horatio and Marcellus also. In Shakespeare’s later tragedy Macbeth, the same conceit – of Macbeth seeing a ghost which no one else can – is more clearly a symptom of Macbeth’s mental deterioration. As with so many other aspects of the play, in Hamlet Shakespeare is much more ambiguous as to the nature of the Ghost. 


Fortinbras has only a few lines in the play; he arrives to find a blood-drenched Danish court and, based on a fairly vague assertion of sovereignty, promptly takes charge. He is a prince of Norway and another strange echo of Hamlet; Hamlet’s father killed his father – also called Fortinbras. Fortinbras seems in the play to be almost as erratic as Hamlet but with the crucial difference that he has an army behind him as he wanders around Scandinavia and the far north of Europe.

Essay 1:  ‘Hamlet is a play characterised by mistrust, deceit and artifice.’ Discuss.

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