Hamlet – The Basics

Hamlet is the first of Shakespeare’s 4 great tragedies, written in 1600. What are the other 3? Othello: 1601King Lear: 1606Macbeth: 1606
What type of plot is Hamlet? What is it? What is the central problem of the play? – “Revenge tragedy”, a popular genre at the time.- Plot centers around a noble person who had been hideously wronged and must take revenge on a powerful enemy. – Hamlet’s delay and inaction is considered by many critics to be the central problem of the play.
The Text: What are the 3 versions of Hamlet? – First Quarto: Published in 1603, pirated version.- Second Quarto: Published in 1604, twice as long as the first. The BEST version of the play, would probably be approved by Shakespeare.- First Folio: Published in 1623, collection of Shakespeare’s plays compiled by two of his associates based on the acting version.- Modern Edition: Combination of second quarto and first folio.
Sources – Historia Danica (12th Century), by Saxo Grammaticus. – Told the story of a Danish prince, Amlethus, who feigned madness in order to murder Feng, his father’s killer- Histoires Tragiques (1576), written by Francois de Belleforest.- Recounted Saxo’s story of a young Prince Hamlet who avenges the murder of his father.- In this version, Hamlet’s mother helps him and Hamlet becomes the King of Denmark.- Ur-Hamlet- According to a popular theory, Shakespeare’s main source is believed to be an earlier play—now lost—known today as the Ur-Hamlet. – Possibly written by Thomas Kyd or even William Shakespeare himself, the Ur-Hamlet would have been in performance by 1589 and the first version of the story known to incorporate a ghost.- No copies of Ur-Hamlet exist today.
The Great Chain of Being – Shakespeare’s audience believed in a great Chain of Being that determined the natural order of events.- The chain was a series of hierarchical links with God at the top.- Each level of the chain had its own hierarchy, with the king at the top of the human level.- Disruptions in the chain could also disrupt the laws of nature and cause bizarre events to occur.
The Moral Climate of Hamlet – The King and the Chain of Being- The king was believed to have been appointed by God in order to assure the stability of society.- Removal of the king disrupted the chain of being and risked the collapse of order and universal disaster.- Ghosts and the Devil- Shakespeare’s audience believed in ghosts and believed that the ghost of a murdered person could return to demand revenge on his murderer. – Shakespeare’s audience also believed in the Devil and believed that he could appear on earth in many forms, including that of a ghost.
Hamlet’s Problem – At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is distraught, slightly suicidal young man.- Father recently died.- His mother soon after married the king, now the king.- Hamlet learns from a ghost hat his father is murdered by Claudius. – Hamlet must carry out revenge by killing the current king and his mother’s now husband.
Hamlet’s Madness – Horatio is the first to suggest Hamlet’s madness if Hamlet follows the ghost.- If the ghost is a demon, it will lure and kill him by pushing him off the cliff.- Horatio also comments on Hamlet’s “wild and whirling words” after seeing the ghost.- At end of Act I, Hamlet warns Horatio and Marcellus that he will put on an act “antic disposition” and commends them not to reveal this pretense. – Hamlet never explains his pretended madness.- Feigned – Madness was widely used as a plot in revenge tragedies.- Avenger used this to confused target until last moment.
Hamlet’s Madness 2 – Polonius is convinced that Hamlet’s madness is caused by Ophelia’s rejection of him.- Although this is probably not true, it’s ironic that Hamlet’s madness is caused by a woman’s rejection – his mother’s rejection of his father’s memory.- Polonius also recognizes that Hamlet’s madness may serve some other purpose.- “Though this madness, yet there is method in’t” (II,2)- When Hamlet abuses Ophelia, she morns the lost of his sanity.- “O, what a noble mind is here o’er thrown” (III, 1)
Hamlet’s Madness 3 – Hamlet’s “madness” gives Claudius a good reason to send Hamlet to England. – Gertrude is convinced that Hamlet is crazy when he sees the ghost in her chamber and she does not.- Hamlet’s madness is one of the central question of the play: Is it real or feigned?- If feigned, how does it help him accomplish revenge?- Hamlet’s predicament could be reason enough for him to lose his sanity.
Hamlet’s Delay Does Hamlet delay? There are two theories:- Hamlet does not delay. He acts as soon as he is convinced of Claudius’s guilt and the situation presents itself.- Hamlet does delay. He has several opportunities to kill the king before the final act, and he berates himself several times as a coward who is afraid to act.- After Hamlet hears the ghost’s story in Act I, he vows: …that I, with wings as swiftAs meditation or the thoughts of loveMay sweep to my revenge. (I, 5)
Hamlet’s Delay 2 – In Act III, Hamlet reacts strongly to the player’s performance of Queen Hecuba’s grief for her murdered husband.- He compares the player’s theatrical grief to his own situation.- O, vengeance! / Why, what an ass am I! (II, 2)- However, after this scene, Hamlet further delays by deciding to find out whether the ghost was telling the truth about the murder, for the first time expressing doubts about the ghost’s story. – Is this a real concern or another delaying tactic?- In his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet gives another reason for his delay: his own conscience.- Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought… (III, 1)
Hamlet & Women – “Frailty, thy name is woman!”- In his first soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his disgust about his mother’s quick marriage to Claudius, his uncle.- Get thee to a nunnery: Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?- Hamlet is brutal to Ophelia in III, 1; most likely aware that she is a pawn to Claudius and Gertrude.- In this scene with Ophelia, Hamlet seems alternate about sincere emotion and pretended irrational behavior. – When Ophelia comments on the briefness of the play, Hamlet says “Yes, as short as a woman’s love” (III, 2).
Hamlet & Women 2 – Hamlet attacks both Gertrude and Ophelia as symbols of all women and their hypocritical love.- Is Hamlet a misogynist? Are his attacks on women justified? – The speed of her remarriage is suspicious. Did she commit adultery while the king was alive, and did she help with his murder?- Hamlet is obsessed and tormented bu sexual images of Gertrude and Claudius, imaging them.- “In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,Stewed in corruption, honeying and making loveOver the nasty sty—” (III, 4)
Hamlet & Women 3 – Hamlet sees Ophelia as a tool of Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius which is another example of women deceiving nature.- Why does Ophelia help Claudius and Polonius deceive Hamlet? Does she have a choice?- Through Ophelia we witness Hamlet’s evolution, or de-evolution into a man convince that women are whores.
Hamlet and His Mother – From the beginning of the play, he seems focused more on his mother’s incestuous, lustful behavior than on the murder of his father.- Is Hamlet having trouble coming to terms with his mother’s sexuality, did she have anything to do with the plan of the murder?- It’s unclear if Gertrude took part in the murder.- Hamlet’s directly confronts Gertrude in III, 4 in a climatic scene.- Hamlet begins the scene chanting “Mother!” 3 times.- Hamlet kills Polonius, Hamlet is shown taking revenge which he hesitated to do to Claudius in the previous scene when he was praying.- Presence of his mother induces him to finally act.
Gertrude – Gertrude’s ambiguous role seems to be a part of Shakespeare’s conscious design.- Did she know information about the murder?- Although she indicates concern for Hamlet and his welfare, she also desires the status and physical affection that her new marriage provides.- Does she keep Hamlet’s secret or tell Claudius?
Gertrude 2 – The ghost denounces Gertrude’s sexual relationship with Claudius.- After confirming Claudius’s guilt during the play, – Hamlet is obsessed with confronting his mother with her guilt and not with killing Claudius.- His thoughts are murderous and he knows he must use self-control to avoid harming his mother.
Claudius – Claudius is a symbol of evil.He is guilty of killing the king, his own brother.He coldly plans the murder of Hamlet.He is willing to sacrifice both Laertes and Gertrude to avoid being discovered.- Claudius’s main goal is to maintain his own power.- He manipulates everyone in the play—Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.- Although a villain, Shakespeare makes Claudius human by revealing that he has a conscience when he tries to pray.- As a shrewd and conniving man of action, Claudius is one of the foils to Hamlet in the play.- Claudius does not hesitate to act, and he is not bothered by moral doubts.- When Claudius learns of Polonius’s murder, he concerned for his own safety, not Gertrude’s:- O heavy deed! It had been so with us, had we been there: His liberty is full of threats to all—
Polonius – He is the Lord Chamberlain to the king.- He is a foolish old man and distrustful meddler.- He sends Reynaldo to spy on his son, Laertes, and instructs him to slander Laertes in public to test his character. – He is used by Shakespeare to further the plot and provide comic relief. – Forbids Ophelia to see Hamlet and agrees to spy on Hamlet for Gertrude.- Motivation is to ingratiate himself with the king. – Polonius’s death further the plot by setting up Laertes as another avenger whose father has been murdered.
Ophelia – Ophelia is naive and docile young woman with whom Hamlet once been in loved with.- Daughter of Polonius, sister to Laertes.- Obeys Polonius and Gertrude without question.- Seen as a weaker version of Hamlet:- Father was murdered.- Rejected by her lover.- Driven to madness by her father’s death.- Contemplates and possibly commits suicide.- She is a victim whose flaw is unquestionable obedience.
The Ghost – The ghost of King Hamlet appears 3 times.- Appears to Horatio, Marcellus and Francoise.- Appears to Hamlet in the forest.- Appears in Hamlet’s mother’s chambers when he is confronting her.- Horatio and Hamlet both question whether the ghost is indeed the dead king, or an evil spirit who came to deceive him.- Hamlet’s fear of the ghost as a demon may also be an excuse for delay.- In his first production of Hamlet, it is thought that Shakespeare himself played the ghost.
Acting – Acting has two meanings in Hamlet.- Hamlet’s failure to act is often cited as the central problem.- Acting s the theatrical sense is an important theme.- Many of the characters in Hamlet use a false appearance to hide their true motive.- Claudius uses kingship to conceal his crime.- Polonius patronizes Hamlet, while secretly plotting against him with Claudius.- Ophelia loves Hamlet but rejects him on her father’s advice, and helps Polonius and Claudius spy on him.- Hamlet puts on an “antic disposition” in order to deceive Claudius.- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pretend to befriend Hamlet in order to spy on him for Claudius.
Acting 2 – Hamlet welcomes the players affectionately in II,2, and has a care of.- The first player’s speech about the death of king Priam during the siege of Troy causes Hamlet to compare his inaction to the player’s depth of emotion for a fictional character.- His advice to the players in Act II focuses on the nature and purpose of drama. – He cautions them not to overdo their parts with wild words and exaggerated gestures.- This shows Shakespeare’s interest in acting techniques, but also Hamlet’s interest in playing roles and his expertise at doing so.- Hamlet describes the purpose of drama as “the mirror up to nature.”- This is a particularly apt description of the play-within-a-play.
Acting – The Play Within a Play – The play-within-a-play is highly effective dramatically:- Hamlet is watching Claudius, who is watching the play.- The audience is watching Claudius, but is also watching Hamlet watching Claudius.- Hamlet’s successfully use the play-within-the-play to expose Claudius’s guilt.- Shakespeare uses this dramatic device to show that theater can e used to hold “a mirror up to nature.”- By transforming the actors on stage into an audience watching actors, Shakespeare reminds the real audience that they are also watching a play.- If the purpose of drama is to reflect in real life, what truths is Shakespeare trying to communicate through the play Hamlet.- Shakespeare emphasizes drama as a central theme by placing the scene (II,2) in the physical center of the play (in the middle of Act III).
Corruption/Decay – Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (I,4)- This often quoted line sums up the effect of King Hamlet’s murder on the country as a whole.- Images of disease and poisoning are mainly derived from the Ghost’s initial description of the murder.- Upon my secure hour thy uncle stoleWith juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,And in the porches of my ears did pourThe leperous distilment (I, 5).- Shakespeare uses a metaphor to compare the king’s ear to the country as a whole when the Ghost describes the false story circulated by Claudius about his death:- So the whole ear of DenmarkIs by a forgèd process of my deathRankly abused… (I, 5).
Corruption/Decay 2 – To Hamlet, Denmark is:- ….an unweeded garden,/That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely…(I,2).- The corruption and decay i a state ruled by the murderer of a king are reflected in the natural world.- The Elizabethan belief in the Chain of Being held that disruptions in any of the links had repercussions on other levels of the chain.- The play gas many examples of the effect of Claudius’s crime on the health of Denmark as a whole.- Hamlet describes the air in Denmark to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:- …this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. (II,2)
Corruption/Decay 3 – Images of corruption and decay are most closely associated with Claudius’s crime and his incestuous relationship with Gertrude.- When Claudius tries to pray, he admits:- Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven. (III,3)- When Hamlet confronts his mother after the play, he emphasizes the physical details of her relationship with Claudius:- “In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,Stewed in corruption, honeying and making loveOver the nasty sty—” (III, 4)- He advises his mother to repent and save herself with more images of decay:- Confess yourself to heaven.Repent what’s past. Avoid what is to come.And do not spread the compost on the weedsTo make them ranker. (III, 4)
Madness – After seeing the ghost, Hamlet announces to Horatio and Marcellus that he will put on an “antic disposition.”- Although he does not explain why, it is implied that he will be able to act more freely against Claudius.- Hamlet’s madness raises a number of questions:- If Hamlet acts mad so that he can attack the king more freely, does he use his madness to do so?- Is Hamlet on the borderline between madness and sanity during the course of the play anyway?- Does Hamlet feign madness to cover his true emotional instability?- Hamlet uses his madness to mock Polonius, as well as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, all of whom are stooges for Claudius.- I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw. (II, 2)
Reason vs. Passion – Hamlet is in continual conflict between the two forces of reason and passion.- He knows he must kill Claudius in revenge, but passes up opportunities because he thinks too much about the consequences.- When he does act passionately and impulsively, he kills an innocent person (Polonius).- The Elizabethan believed that man was position between the angels and the beasts on the Chain of Being.- Hamlet is pulled by two forces- the base of passions of the beasts below and the pure rationality of the angels above.- Shakespeare presents in the character of Hamlet a universal conflict- the struggle between reason and passion as influences of our actions.
Spying – There are multiple instances of spying or eavesdropping in Hamlet.- These scenes contribute to the overall atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust and uncertainty in the play.- III, 1: Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia.- Hamlet is probably aware that they are eavesdropping and performs for their benefit, although some of his conversation with Ophelia seems sincere.- II, 1: Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in order to discover information about his reputation.Polonius even instructs him to slander Laertes in order to see if his insults are confirmed or denied by others:- See you now; Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth: And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, With windlasses and with assays of bias, By indirections find directions out. (II, 1)
Spying 2 – Claudius sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to hang out with Hamlet and try to find out what “afflicts” him:…so by your companies To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather, So much as from occasion you may glean, Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him thus. (Claudius, II, 2)- Claudius is being sneaky here. He wants to find out through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how much Hamlet knows.- Hamlet knows they are Claudius’s stooges, and mocks them viciously:- ROSENCRANTZ : Take you me for a sponge, my lord?- HAMLET : Ay, sir, that soaks up the king’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities…when he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again. (IV, 2)
Spying 3 – Polonius eavesdrops on Hamlet and Gertrude while hiding behind an arras, and is killed by Hamlet. – It is ironic that Polonius, who advocates eavesdropping to Claudius and sends an agent to spy on his own son, is killed because of his own deception.- The play-within-the-play is one of the best examples of spying on others in the play.Hamlet devises the plan in order to observe Claudius’s behavior:I have heard / That guilty creatures sitting at a play Have …been struck so to the soul that presently They have proclaim’d their malefactions; (II, 2)- While Hamlet and the audience watch Claudius during the play for signs of guilt, we (the audience) are also watching Hamlet watching Claudius.
Suicide and Death – Hamlet is clearly obsessed with death after his father’s unexpected passing.- At the beginning of the play, before Hamlet discovers that his father was murdered, he is despondent and grieving.- Claudius and Gertrude, both think he should moderate his grief:- Thou know’st ’tis common. All that lives must die,Passing through nature to eternity. (Gertrude, I, 2)- But you must know your father lost a father,That father lost, lost his, and the survivor boundIn filial obligation for some termTo do obsequious sorrow. But to perseverIn obstinate condolement is a courseOf impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief. (Claudius, I, 2)- In his first soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his wish to die and regrets that there are moral laws against suicide.- Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,Or that the Everlasting had not fixedHis canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! (I,2)
The Death of Ophelia – Gertrude reports in IV, 7, that Ophelia died by drowning.- While wearing garlands of flowers and hanging on a willow tree, she fell into the water.- Buoyed by her own clothes, she floated while continuing to sing, until she was finally pulled to a “muddy death” by the weight of her own clothes.- Is Ophelia’s death a suicide?- Because of her mental state, she did not save herself.- Another parallel with Hamlet, who considered suicide, but rejected it.
Laertes – Laertes is the son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia. – Laertes is Hamlet’s major foil in the play.- Laertes must also avenge his father’s murder.- Unlike Hamlet, Laertes acts quickly without considering consequences.- In IV, 7, Claudius skillfully manipulates Laertes by challenging the sincerity of his love for his father.- What would you undertakeTo show yourself in deed your father’s sonMore than in words?- Laertes says he would “cut his throat I’ the church.”- Contrast this with Hamlet, who would not kill his father’s murderer while he was praying.- Before he dies in the final scene, Laertes exposes Claudius, and he and Hamlet forgive each other.
Horatio – Horatio is Hamlet’s close friend and his only confidante.- His calm, rational personality is another contrast, or foil, to Hamlet.Act I: – Horatio has been invited by Marcellus to witness the ghost’s appearance.- He is skeptical, but open-minded, and clearly shaken by the ghost’s visit.- Act V:- Hamlet’s last act is to knock the cup of poison from Horatio’s hand as he tries to follow his friend to death.- Hamlet pleads with Horatio to tell his story.- Horatio’s epitaph for Hamlet is moving:- Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! (V, 2).
Fortinbras – Fortinbras is a Norwegian prince who seeks revenge for his father’s death.- Fortinbras’s father (King Fortinbras) was killed by king Hamlet in single combat and forfeited some Norwegian land to Denmark.- Young Prince Fortinbras gathered an army in an attempt to regain the land lost by his father.- This is the reason Denmark prepares for war at the beginning of the play.- Fortinbras is another foil to Hamlet.- Fortinbras acts honorably and without hesitation to restore his father’s lands and his honor. – His willingness to risk all for a “patch of ground” contrasts with Hamlet’s delay and acts to “spur my dull revenge” (IV, 4)

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