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Hamlet: Themes

From revenge to kingship, look closer at the key themes in Hamlet and how they are presented by Shakespeare with our theme analysis.

Revenge

Hamlet is often seen as the archetypal revenge tragedy. The ghost’s instruction to his son in Act One is quite clear: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” And since Hamlet already loathes the fact that his mother has re-married with his uncle “within a month” [a possible exaggeration by Hamlet], and has found his accession to the throne blocked by Claudius, Hamlet has plenty of reasons even before he discovers that his uncle murdered his father, to be only too enthusiastic to follow this specific command. Yet he does not act until much time has passed, and indeed when he finally does take revenge it is a spontaneous action, not something he has planned. By that stage of the play in fact he seems to have given up his own volition, trusting to a “divinity that shapes our ends/ Rough-hew them how we will.”

Here Shakespeare deviated significantly from his sources [see Sources and Origins]. In the original story there is no ghost, and therefore no mystery. Everyone knows Feng [Claudius] killed his brother and married the widow. Amleth [Hamlet] has to try to stay alive, which he does by feigning madness, until such time when he is strong enough to take revenge. Shakespeare gave his hero the intolerable burden of the ghost’s revelation. He only shares it with Horatio. This allows Shakespeare to set up a debate within the play about the nature of revenge: can it be justified or do we believe that two wrongs indeed do not make a right?

It is reasonable to assume that it would not be so easy for Hamlet to rush off and kill Claudius straight away. What proof does he have to justify murdering the man most consider a lawful sovereign? The word of a ghost who he himself thinks “may be a devil”? So, as in the original story, Hamlet plays for time, pretending an “antic disposition”, like Amleth, to explain his erratic state of mind. It is complicated further by his love for Ophelia [declared perhaps before the play starts] whose father is very close to Claudius.

This is a very long play, but it’s very eventful too. The audience may not be so aware of Hamlet’s “delaying tactics.” It isn’t clear how much time has elapsed before the arrival of the players gives Hamlet an idea to flush out the truth. The powerful depression and self-doubt that afflict Hamlet, as expressed in “To be or not to be” do not seem to trouble Amleth. This may make Hamlet seem more “modern” and certainly more sympathetic. However it is hard to be sure how audiences of any epoch react when Hamlet has the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius, but declines because he believes his uncle to be praying, only to then go and murder Polonius, thinking it is the king behind the arras. No wonder Ophelia is driven mad! Is Shakespeare telling us that Hamlet’s misdirected energies are wholly destructive? And that it would have been better had he stabbed his defenceless kneeling uncle? Hamlet may well ask “What is a man?” It is not easy to see in the play what a man’s actions should be.

Hamlet criticises himself for delaying. When the Player King weeps, he contrasts his own inertia: “What would he do,/ Had he the motive and the cue for passion/ That I have?” And later, when he sees Fortinbras en route to a pointless war, he feels inadequate by comparison, saying “I do not know/ Why yet I live to say this thing’s to do[i.e. not done yet]/ Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means/ To do’t.” But his own language undermines the force of the argument, when he foresees “The imminent death of twenty thousand men,/ ...for a fantasy and trick of fame.”

The audience may long for revenge, Hamlet may crave the means to carry it out, but look what happens when he allows his thoughts to “be bloody or be nothing worth”. He kills the wrong man, father of his “lover”, putting himself into an analogous position with Claudius as someone who has killed and upon whom revenge will be exacted, but by Laertes.

Even in 1600 there were laws about taking personal revenge. But are we being too modern to see the play as being ambivalent about such action? When Hamlet asks “What is a man?” he answers his own question by seeming to say it is manly to “be bloody.” But the example of the monstrous Pyrrhus, in the Player King’s speech – “horridly tricked [decorated]/ With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons” – does not suggest anything or anyone to emulate.

One of the reasons why Hamlet has been performed so often –seen as the benchmark for actors – and discussed so much over four centuries, is because Shakespeare does not offer any easy answers to these questions.

Versions of Hamlet the character

The play contains a number of alternative Hamlets. Laertes is of a similar age. Claudius chooses to treat him differently at the start of the play. Laertes may go away to study; Hamlet may not. Once we know what the ghost says this is more understandable: Claudius may well want to keep his nephew, and potential rival, close to his court. Laertes is also involved in Hamlet’s life as Ophelia’s sister. He advises her to be very cautious in her dealings with the heir to the throne. Later, when Polonius is murdered, Laertes becomes a kind of Hamlet, looking to avenge his father. He allows himself to become embroiled in Claudius’s plot and redeems himself at the very end of his life, revealing “the foul practice”, approving the killing of Claudius – “He is justly served,” – and asking to “exchange forgiveness with [...] noble Hamlet”.

Remarkably there are four sons in the play looking to avenge a father. Laertes, Hamlet himself, “the hellish Pyrrhus”, whose bloodthirsty vengeance is described by the Player King, and Fortinbras. The latter has, like Hamlet, to accept the directions of his uncle, and, like Hamlet, has not become king on his father’s death. But he does takes over at the end of the play. Denmark, which his own country, Norway, has been fighting for years, falls into his lap! He will become king of both [as James VI of Scotland became James I of England] and there is no reason to suppose he is afflicted with the same self-doubt as Hamlet. He knows, like a practised politician, how to say the right things to the right people, and his words end the play.

The focus of the play is of course on Hamlet himself, but these other versions offer possible alternative courses of action. None of them, however, would produce such interesting drama!

Kingship

As with Hamlets, there are a number of kings in the play. The third line of the play is “Long live the king!” But which king? The first one that we see is the dead Hamlet, Hamlet’s confusingly named father. But that is a ghost who might be “a spirit of health, or goblin damned”, in the younger Hamlet’s words.

Hamlet, and to an extent, Horatio, leave us in no doubt as to who is the superior king of the two brothers. His father is Hyperion, the sun-god; Claudius a satyr, a grotesque. This makes his mother’s decision to marry her dead husband’s brother – however understandable in dynastic terms – even more nauseating for young Hamlet.

Since the elder Hamlet is dead, should not the younger Hamlet be king? Not under the Danish system it seems, which, unlike in England, allowed a brother to take the throne, even though an adult son existed. So the next king we see is Claudius, that brother, who immediately refers to “our dear brother’s death.” Learning subsequently from the ghost that Claudius murdered the elder Hamlet, means that Claudius is not the rightful king, but a usurper. Hamlet refers to this when he teasingly tells Rosencrantz that “the body is with the king, but the king is not with the body.”

Another “king” is the Player King, who acts out before the court the drama of the elder Hamlet’s murder. He too is “playing” the king, and, just like Claudius, he knows he is pretending to be a real king.

Young Hamlet in fact becomes king for a few minutes – the time that elapses between him killing Claudius, and dying himself. Arguably Hamlet is the real king throughout the play.

But the last king is Fortinbras, who diplomatically pays tribute to his short-lived predecessor, saying “he was likely...to have proved most royal.” He then accepts the throne of Denmark, which will in time be joined to the throne of Norway. The house of Hamlet lies dead on the stage all around him. This may be the ultimate ironic comment on a man who early in the play is only just persuaded not to invade Denmark by his uncle, who is willing to fight a war “to gain a little patch of ground”, and who finds he gains more without lifting a finger than his father ever dreamed of! His father, being also called Fortinbras, was killed by the elder Hamlet. The parallel couldn’t be more confusingly clear.

Sources and origins

The story of the royal house of Hamlet is very old, first written down, in Latin, in about 1200 by one Saxo Grammaticus. It is possible Shakespeare read a version of this by a French writer named Belleforest. The original story bears a considerable resemblance to Hamlet, but with significant differences. Amleth’s father is murdered by his brother, Feng, who then marries the widow, Gerutha. Everyone knows this; there is no secret and no ghost. To avert suspicion, knowing how vulnerable he is, Amleth pretends to be mad, talking in riddles that have a grain of truth. With the major exception of the ghost, Shakespeare tells basically the same tale.

However, in Saxo and Belleforest, the king, Feng, is suspicious and devises tests for Amleth, one of which involves a beautiful woman. But he has known the woman previously and swears her to secrecy. It’s evident how Shakespeare developed this character into the much more anguished Ophelia. A friend of Feng [not the girl’s father] suggests he will hide and eavesdrop on Amleth. In his wild behaviour, Amleth discovers the spy, kills him, dismembers the body and feeds it to the pigs! A touch more extreme, but Hamlet treats Polonius’s corpse with no respect. He verbally attacks his mother for marrying Feng. As in Hamlet Feng sends Amleth to England with two retainers, ordering his death. But Amleth finds the letter, and turns the tables. He does, however, stay in England for some time, marrying the English king’s daughter, and returns home to find his own funeral taking place, as opposed to Ophelia’s funeral in Hamlet. But Amleth, unlike Hamlet, has planned his revenge. He gets the courtiers drunk, brings down the hangings in the hall and sets it on fire. He then proceeds to Feng’s chamber, and having ensured Feng has the wrong sword – it has been nailed inside its scabbard – kills the usurper, and triumphantly takes the throne.

Belleforest’s version has some variation, in that he makes it clear Gerutha had an affair with Feng before her husband’s death; but he also shows her repenting under Amleth’s accusations, and encouraging him in taking vengeance upon Feng.

It’s obvious that Shakespeare drew heavily on these sources. Many of the details, the hidden spy who is killed, even the swopping of the sword, are the same. But it’s equally obvious that Hamlet deviates significantly. The introduction of the ghost puts the responsibility much more heavily upon Hamlet himself. That allows Shakespeare to create a far more introspective and complex character. In Saxo/Belleforest no players arrive to re-enact the murder. Similarly, other versions of Hamlet [Laertes, young Fortinbras] are introduced, highlighting Hamlet’s behaviour. Ophelia becomes not just a seductress, but a bewildered victim of the “something rotten” that pervades Denmark. Amleth kills a friend of Feng; Shakespeare kills his “lover’s” father. And of course, in finally taking his revenge, Hamlet dies – along with Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius. So the play becomes a tragedy. Shakespeare did not want the “happy” ending; he wanted the play to ask all kinds of questions that the Dark Age myth [i.e. it could well be a true story] does not touch upon.