In Act 1 Scene 2 Hamlet speaks his first soliloquy. In this soliloquy Hamlet’s thoughts dwell on pain and suicide. An example of when he talks about suicide is in line 132 where he wishes God didn’t have a rule against suicide.
‘His canon ’gainst self-slaughter. O God! O God!’
This soliloquy shows that Hamlet is livid about his mother’s marriage to the new King, Claudius. After this soliloquy Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo enter and tell Hamlet about their sighting of his father, and how they think it was Hamlet’s father. In Act 1 Scene 4 Hamlet and Horatio join Marcellus on the midnight watch waiting for the ghost to hopefully appear. Hamlet was determined to see the ghost even though he didn’t know whom the ghost actually was.
‘A sprit of health or goblin damn’d’ as Hamlet says on line 40
Hamlet is still not sure who the ghost is, and then the ghost beckons and Hamlet follows on his own after shrugging off Marcellus attempts to stop him following the ghost. In Act 1 scene 5 it’s just Hamlet and the ghost, who reveals that he is Hamlets fathers’ spirit. The ghost then goes on to explain how Claudius murdered him with rat poison and asks him to kill Claudius to put and end to his relationship with the Queen. So the old Hamlet is telling Hamlet basically to seek revenge on Claudius, this is why the play is part of the English revenge tradition in drama.
There turns out to be a theme in the play, Hamlet's ideas fit with what the Ghost turns out to say to Hamlet. Hamlet has just said that even very little evil, can work its way from inside to outside, and ruin a person or nation. The secret inside the ghost will eventually work its way out and kill eight people, including Hamlet, as Hamlet turned mad and sought revenge on the King and anyone on the King’s side.
The king, Claudius, who killed the late Hamlet to become King realises that he needs to keep an eye on Hamlet. So the king welcomes Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, two friends of Hamlet from university, and orders them to hang around with Hamlet and spy on him to see what’s wrong with him, other than being upset with his father’s death. However, what the King really wants to know is what Hamlet knows or suspects and what he’s going to do about his father’s death.
Polonius thought Hamlet was insane because of a confrontation between Ophelia and Hamlet in Act 3 Scene 1. She claims that while she was sowing he came to her looking ever so untidy. Hamlet took her by the wrist and gazed at her for a long time. He then turned to walk away, all the while keeping his eyes on Ophelia and even walking through the doors without averting his gaze. Polonius was upset about this confrontation with his daughter and comes to the conclusion that Ophelia choosing not to see Hamlet anymore has driven him mad and takes Ophelia to the King to tell him what happened. When Polonius is with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, he tells them that he thinks Hamlet has gone mad, and shows them both the letter that Hamlet sent Ophelia in which Hamlet tells of his love to Ophelia. Claudius is not completely convinced that this is the cause for Hamlets madness and decides to put Ophelia in the hall where Hamlet is known to spend time pacing around for hours a day while the King and Polonius hide behind a tapestry watching what goes on.
An important factor of this play is that Hamlet ultimately confuses reality with pretence as he pretends to be mad in Act 2 Scene 2 and fails to recognise Polonius and mocks him cleverly, for example, asking if he was a ‘fishmonger’ which translates to a pimp, and if he has a daughter and that she should keep out of the sun.
Hamlet: “Have you a daughter?”
Polonius: “I have, my Lord.”
Hamlet: “Let her not walk I’th’ sun. Conception is a blessing but as your daughter may conceive-friend, look.”
As the play goes on Hamlet’s madness turns from acting out to reality because of all his emotions, from the death of his father, his love for Ophelia and his revenge on the King, who murdered his father.
There is a theme, which runs through the play in that every tragic character must have a weakness. In this play the tragic character is Hamlet, who has two weaknesses that are madness and he cares a lot for his family. Both these weaknesses turn him into a ‘tragic’ character as these weaknesses drive him to death.
Death is a big part in Hamlet and the whole story is based around death and revenge which both link together in the play. Revenge is a big part of Hamlet and we come across revenge a number of times. The first time we come across revenge in Hamlet is when Claudius murders old Hamlet. Old Hamlet obviously can’t gain revenge on Claudius, as he’s dead. However, he gets the revenge he wanted when his ghost speaks to Hamlet and orders Hamlet to seek revenge for him, as Hamlet did. Hamlet did this by killing Claudius later on in the play. Another case of revenge in Hamlet is when Hamlet kills Polonius. Laertes, Polonius’ son, then wants to gain revenge on Hamlet. He does this by killing Hamlet later on in the play with a poisoned sword. The frequency of revenge in Hamlet makes it part of the ‘English Revenge Tradition in Drama’ but there are parts in Hamlet that make it unique from others. Firstly, when Hamlet plots his revenge against Claudius, he has a chance to kill him when Claudius is praying, but instead of killing him there and then he decides to delay his revenge, this is one of the factors why Hamlet is unique from all the other traditional revenge plays.
Suicide is another big part in Hamlet and it is also linked to the idea of death. We come across thoughts of suicide earlier on in the play however the character does not actually commit suicide, but he thinks carefully about it, in Act One Scene 2 of the play,
“Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd”
”His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!”
This translates into saying he wishes God didn’t have a rule against committing suicide. The quote ‘canon ‘gainst self-slaughter’ is a religious law set by God and is the sixth commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’, in the times of Shakespeare this was generally interpreted as a prohibition of suicide. We first come across the act of suicide quite late on in the play, with Ophelia when she commits suicide because of the death of her father Polonius and her great love for Hamlet, drives her mad and it leads her to commit suicide in a river. The last time we hear about suicide is at the very end of the play when Hamlet is dying after being struck with the poisoned sword and Horatio his best friend is close to committing suicide so he can join Hamlet in heaven. It is the last conversation that Horatio and Hamlet have before Hamlet dies.
Hamlet: “Horatio, I am dead, Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied “
Horatio: “ Never believe it. I am more an antique Roman than a Dane. Here’s yet some liquor left.”
Horatio is willing to drink the poisoned drink and kill himself so he can die with Hamlet, but Hamlet stops him from doing so. There is a theme that runs through the play in that all the suicides whether they actually happened or not are as a result of losing their close friends or family. Ophelia committed suicide as a result of her father being killed, Hamlet thought about committing suicide because of the death of his father. Hamlet talked about suicide in the probably the most famous soliloquy in Hamlet (Act 3 Scene 1) and theatre in general,
‘To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’
This is talking about to live or not to live, and Hamlet is basically talking about suicide.
The last person who thought about suicide was Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend. Horatio was on the edge of committing suicide as Hamlet was slowly dying in front of him so he could join Hamlet and die with him. Horatio ended up not committing suicide as Hamlet persuaded him not to. So there is a theme that all suicidal attempts or happenings happened as a result of losing a close relative or friend.
Religion was a very big part of people’s life in Elizabethan times, and Shakespeare included religion a fair bit in Hamlet. It is probably most important in the life of Hamlet in the play, as he would of committed suicide if it wasn’t for Gods law against suicide, as he says in his first soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 2 line 129
‘His canon ’gainst self-slaughter. O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!’
One more example of religion in Hamlet is the Ghost of Old Hamlet. The Elizabethan’s had only just come under the Protestant rule however they were aware of Catholic beliefs. In the Catholic belief Old Hamlet’s ghost was in purgatory and was not dangerous and was just doing penance. However, in Protestant beliefs there is no such thing as purgatory and any form of Ghost was pure evil. Because of this confusion between the beliefs of Catholic and Protestants not knowing whether Old Hamlets ghost was ‘a spirit of health or goblin damn’d’ as it is quoted in the play. The Elizabethan audience would have supported Hamlet in his choice to be sure before killing King Claudius, his father’s murderer. This shows how Shakespeare uses the audience’s uncertainty to influence their response to the play, and it was very effective.
In conclusion, Hamlet contributed greatly to the English Revenge Tradition in drama but it was unique in its own way and this was due to Shakespeare’s ingenuity. It was unique as Hamlet delayed his revenge on Claudius and it had a fusion of death, suicide and bloody murder, and many other things that made it unique. The murder of Old Hamlet appeared to be cold blooded as Claudius showed no mercy as he coldly planned Hamlets death and then that of his son young Hamlet. However, when Hamlet murdered Claudius it was a revenge that most people and I agree he rightly deserved. Then there was Ophelia’s suicide, which was as a result of her madness. So in all Hamlet was a very unique play and it was very well written as you felt sorry for Hamlet when he died as he had gone through so much, from his madness to the death of his loved ones. Even though he had committed bloody sins you still felt sympathy for Hamlet, but in the end he had one enemy too many. Hamlet was a great play and will continue to be performed all over the world and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Shakespeare by Greer, Germaine
Hamlet, Letts Literature guide
Hamlet edited by Philip Edwards