Enjoying "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare
Ed Friedlander, M.D.
erf@kcumb.edu

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"...pluck out the heart of my mystery..." -- Hamlet

The Story

     Getting Started

     Act I
     Act II
     Act III
     Act IV
     Act V

The Background

     The Historical Hamlet
     Saxo Grammaticus
     Belleforest
     The Spanish Tragedy
     The Older Hamlet Play
     The First Quarto
     Antonio's Revenge
     Der Bestrafte Brudermord
     What Did Shakespeare Add?

The Themes

     Being Genuine
     Is Life Worth Living?
     Is Hamlet Crazy?
     Does Hamlet Hesitate?
     Revenge
     Other Ideas
     From Shakeseare's Era
     More For Students
     The Lion King
     Suicide

This page is for high school and college students, or anyone else.

Everybody brings a different set of experiences to a book, a theater, or a classroom. Although I've tried to help, ultimately you'll need to decide for yourself about Shakespeare and Hamlet.

I hope you have as much fun as I have!

Getting Started

Once you get past the minor difficulties posed by the language, you'll probably enjoy "Hamlet" -- and not just for its action.

"Hamlet" is the first work of literature to look squarely at the stupidity, falsity and sham of everyday life, without laughing and without easy answers. In a world where things are not as they seem, Hamlet's genuineness, thoughtfulness, and sincerity make him special.

Hamlet is no saint. But unlike most of the other characters (and most people today), Hamlet chooses not to compromise with evil.

Dying, Hamlet reaffirms the tragic dignity of a basically decent person in a bad world.

"Hamlet" is the first work of literature to show an ordinary person looking at the futility and wrongs in life, asking the toughest questions and coming up with honest semi-answers like most people do today. Unlike so much of popular culture today, "Hamlet" leaves us with the message that life is indeed worth living, even by imperfect people in an imperfect world.

Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is full of talk about death, dead bodies, murder, suicide, disease, graves, and so forth. And there is no traditional Christian comfort or promise of eventual justice or happiness for the good people. But the message is ultimately one of hope. You can be a hero.

Aristotle wrote that in a tragedy, the protagonist by definition learns something. Whatever you may think of Aristotle's reductionist ideas about serious drama, Shakespeare's heroes all develop philosophically. (You may not agree with everything they decide.)

As you read the play, watch how Hamlet -- who starts by wishing he was dead -- comes to terms with life, keeps his integrity, and strikes back successfully at what's wrong around him.

So far as I know, it's the first time this theme -- now so common -- appeared in world literature.

Scene by Scene

"Revenge should know no bounds." -- Claudius

Hamlet, our hero, is the son of the previous king of Denmark, also named Hamlet ("Old Hamlet", "Hamlet Senior" as we'd say), who has died less than two months ago. Hamlet remembers his father as an all-around good guy, and as a tender husband who would even make a special effort to shield his wife's face from the cold Danish wind. The day Hamlet was born, Old Hamlet settled a land dispute by killing the King of Norway in personal combat.

How old is Hamlet? We have contradictory information. The gravedigger mentions that Hamlet is thirty years old, and that the jester with whom Hamlet played as a child has been dead for twenty-three years. A thirty-year-old man might still be a college student. However, Ophelia is unmarried in an era when girls usually married in their teens, and several characters refer to Hamlet's "youth". So we might prefer to think that Hamlet is in his late teens or early twenties. And many people have seen Hamlet's bitter, sullen outlook at the beginning of the play as typical of youth. You'll need to decide that one for yourself. (I think "thirty" might be a mistake for "twenty". Richard Burbage, who played Hamlet first, was older than twenty, and perhaps the editor thought "twenty" must be wrong. You decide.)

Hamlet was a college student at Wittenberg when his father died. (Of course the historical Hamlet, who lived around 700, could not have attended Wittenberg, founded in 1502). The monarchy went to his father's brother, Claudius. (Shakespeare and the other characters just call him "King".) Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, married Claudius within less than a month.

Old Hamlet died during his after-lunch nap in his garden. The public was told that Old Hamlet died of snakebite. The truth is that Claudius murdered Old Hamlet by pouring poison in his ear. Old Hamlet died fast but gruesomely.

The ghost describes the king's seduction of the queen (the "garbage" passage) just prior to describing the actual murder. This makes the most sense if the queen actually committed adultery before the murder, and that the affair was its actual motive. Even in our "modern" age, if a twenty-plus-year marriage ends with the sudden death of one partner, and the survivor remarries four weeks later, I'd believe that there had probably been an adulterous affair. And everybody at the Danish court must have thought the same thing. If you don't know this, you're naive. It's not clear that Gertrude actually knew a murder was committed, and we never get proof that anyone else knew for certain, either. But everybody must have been suspicious. And nobody was saying anything.

Young Hamlet is very well-liked. He is a soldier, a scholar, and a diplomat. We learn that he's "the glass of fashion and the mould of form", i.e., the young man that everybody else tried to imitate. He's also "loved of the distracted multitude", i.e., the ordinary people like him, and if anything were to happen to him, there would be riots.

Public Broadcasting System NC-17 Exactly why Claudius rather than Hamlet succeeded Old Hamlet is not explained. Hamlet refers (V.ii) to "the election", i.e., the choosing of a new king by a vote of a small number of warlords (as in Macbeth). (By Shakespeare time, it was the Danish royal family that voted.) Interestingly, the Norwegian king is also succeeded by his brother, rather than by his own infant son Fortinbras.

Or the royal title may have gone to Claudius simply because he married the royal widow, who he calls "our imperial jointress". Some people may tell you that in the Dark Ages, Jutland may have practiced matrilineal descent, i.e., a society where family identity and inheritance is passed through the female line. Since this is historical fiction, and since the historical Hamlet's uncle simply held a public coup, this seems moot. Matrilineal descent is known among some primitive people in our own century, and is attested to by ancient writers on various cultures. The advantage of this system is that the best men tend to get picked for hereditary positions of power. With male-line succession, the old king is followed by his oldest son, who may be stupid and get himself killed quickly. Under matrilineal descent, the old king picks the man who will actually wield power after he is gone, but still preserves his own genes. In spite of what anybody else may tell you, we know of no human culture where the men, who are physically stronger and do the fighting, let the women make the laws and the big decisions (a matriarchy). You may decide this is unfortunate.

A real anthropologist, Eric J. Smith [link is now down] at U. Wash., points out that its checks-and-balances system made the Iroquois government the "closest thing to a matriarchy ever described".

I.i.

The play opens on the battlements of the castle. It's midnight. (Shakespeare anachronistically says "'Tis now struck twelve.") Francisco has been keeping watch, and Bernardo comes to relieve him. Neither man recognizes the other in the darkness, and each issues a tense challenge. Francisco remarks, "It's bitter cold... and I am sick at heart." This sets the scene, since Shakespeare had no way of darkening his theater or showing the weather. The fact that each guard suspects the other of being an intruder indicates all is not well, even though Francisco does not say why he is "sick at heart".

Francisco leaves, and Marcellus arrives to share Bernardo's watch. Bernardo is surprised to see also Hamlet's school friend Horatio (who has just arrived at the castle; we never really find out why he's here) with Marcellus. Marcellus and Bernardo think they have twice seen the ghost of "Old Hamlet". Horatio is skeptical. The ghost appears, the men agree it looks like the old king, and Horatio (who is a "scholar" and thus knows something of the paranormal) tries to talk to it. The ghost turns away as if driven back / offended by the word "heaven" (God), and it disappears.

The men talk about Old Hamlet. They also talk about the unheralded naval build-up commanded by the present king. This is in response to an expected military invasion by the Norwegian prince Fortinbras, who wishes to regain the territories lost by his father's death. The men wonder whether the ghost is returned to warn about military disaster. The ghost reappears. The men try to talk to it to find out what it wants. They try to strike it. It looks like it is about to speak, but suddenly a rooster crows (the signal of morning) and the ghost fades away. (As usual, Shakespeare is telescoping time.) Marcellus relates a beautiful legend that during the Christmas season, roosters might crow through the night, keeping the dark powers at bay.

I.ii.

Claudius holds court. This is apparently his first public meeting since becoming king. Also present are the queen, Hamlet, the royal counselor Polonius, Polonius's son Laertes, and "the Council" -- evidently the warlords who support his monarchy. Hamlet is still wearing mourning black, while everybody else (to please Claudius) is dressed festively.

Claudius wants to show what a good leader he is. He begins by talking about the mix of sorrow for his brother's death, and joy in his new marriage. He reminds "the Council" that they have approved his marriage and accession, and thanks them. Claudius announces that Fortinbras of Norway is raising an army to try to take back the land his father lost to Old Hamlet. Claudius emphasizes that Fortinbras can't win militarily. Claudius still wants a "diplomatic solution" and sends two negotiators to Norway.

Next, Laertes asks permission to return to France. The king calls on Polonius. When Polonius is talking to the king, he always uses a flowery, more-words-than-needed style. Polonius can be played either for humor, or as a sinister old man. (Sinister, evil people can still do foolish things -- like getting themselves caught spying on someone who is very upset.) Either fits nicely with the play's theme of phoniness. Polonius says he is agreeable, and the king gives permission. This was rehearsed, and Claudius is taking advantage of the opportunity to look reasonable, especially because he is about to deal with Hamlet, who wants to return to college.

Claudius calls Hamlet "cousin" (i.e., close relative) and "son" (stepson), and asks why he is still sad. Hamlet puns. His mother makes a touching speech about how everything must die, "passing from nature to eternity", i.e., a better afterlife. She asks him why he is still acting ("seems") sad. Hamlet replied he's not acting, just showing how he really feels. Claudius makes a very nice speech, asks that Hamlet stay at the court, and reaffirms that Hamlet is heir to his property and throne. Hamlet's mother adds a nice comment, and Hamlet agrees to stay. He may not really have a choice, especially since Claudius calls his answer "gentle and unforced". Does Claudius really care about Hamlet? Maybe. The meeting is over, and Claudius announces there will be a party, at which he'll have the guards shoot off a cannon every time he finishes a drink.

Hamlet is left alone. He talks to himself / the audience. Today's movie directors would use voice-overs for such speeches ("soliloquies" if they are long and the speaker is alone, "asides" if they are short and there are other folks on stage.) He talks about losing interest in life and how upset he is by his mother's remarriage and its implications. (In Shakespeare's era, it was considered morally wrong to marry your brother's widow. Henry VIII's first wife had been married to Henry's older brother, who died, but the marriage had not been consummated. This puzzle sparked the English reformation.) Hamlet is trapped in a situation where things are obviously very wrong. Like other people at such times, Hamlet wishes God hadn't forbidden suicide. Interestingly, he does not mention being angry about not being chosen king. Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo come in. Hamlet is surprised to see his school buddy. Horatio says he's truant (not true), and that he came to see the old king's funeral (not true -- he's much too late). Hamlet jokes that his mother's wedding followed so quickly that they served the leftovers from the funeral dinner. (I think Horatio probably came to Elsinore out of concern for Hamlet, spoke with the guards first, and was invited at once to see the ghost. Some guys don't say to another guy, "I came to see YOU" even when it's obvious.) You'll need to decide what Hamlet means when he says that he sees his father "in his mind's eye". Sometimes, bereaved people notice their eyes fooling them -- shadows forming themselves in the mind into an image of the deceased. Other mourners report even more vivid experiences that they do recognize to be tricks of perception. Or perhaps Hamlet is simply thinking a lot about his father, or holding onto his good memories. The friends tell Hamlet about the ghost. Hamlet asks what the ghost looked like -- skin color and beard colors -- and agrees they match his father. Hamlet asks the men to keep this a secret and to let him join them the next night, hoping the ghost will return and talk. Afterwards he says he suspects foul play. Everybody else probably does, too, even without any ghost.

I.iii.

Laertes says goodbye to Ophelia, his sister. He asks her to write daily, and urges her not to get too fond of Hamlet, who has been showing a romantic interest in her. At considerable length, he explains how Hamlet will not be able to marry beneath his station, and explicitly tells her not to have sex ("your chaste treasure open") with him. Ophelia seems to be the passive sort, but she has enough spunk to urge him to live clean too, and not be a hypocrite. Laertes suddenly realizes he has to leave quickly (uh huh).

Polonius comes in and lays some famous fatherly advice on Laertes. It's today's self-centered worldly wisdom. "Listen closely, and say less than you know. Think before you act. Don't be cold, but don't be too friendly. Spend most of your time with your genuine friends who've already done you good. Choose your battles carefully, and fight hard. Dress for success. Don't loan or borrow money. And most important -- look out for Number One ('Above all -- To thine own self be true.')"

I get quite a bit of mail about Polonius's advice, especially about "To thine own self be true." Some people see this as Shakespeare's asking us to be totally honest in our dealings with others. Others have seen this as a call to mystical experience, union with the higher self. I can't see this. The key is "to thine own self." In Shakespeare's time, the expression "true to" meant "be loyal" or "look out first for the interests of..."; it also meant fidelity to a romantic relationship. This usage recurs in the Beatle' song "All My Loving". "To be false" implies making a promise or a pretense and not delivering. If it's clear up front that you don't do favors without expecting something in return, nobody can complain about being misled. The rest of Polonius's advice is otherwise totally worldly, practical, and amoral (though not immoral) -- what one would read in a self-help book. Polonius is not the model for scrupulous honesty. Polonius tells Reynaldo to lie. Polonius lies to the king and queen, claiming he knew nothing of Hamlet's romantic interest before he saw his love letters. And Polonius tells his daughter that everybody puts on a false front. Hearing this actually makes the king feel ashamed.

When Laertes leaves, Polonius questions Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet. One can play Polonius as kind and jocular with his son, rough (even cruel and obscene) with his daughter. He calls her naïve, orders her not even to talk to Hamlet, and demands to see his love letters to her. Contemporary readers who are puzzled by this should remember that in Hamlet's era (and Shakespeare's), a father would probably get less money from his future son-in-law if his daughter was not a virgin. Polonius, of course, pretends he cares only about Ophelia's well-being.

I.iv.

Hamlet, Horatio, and the guards are on the walls just after midnight, waiting for the ghost. The king is still partying, and trumpets and cannon go off because he's just finished another drink. Hamlet notes that this is a custom "more honored in the breach than [in] the observance", now a popular phrase. (This was a Danish custom in Shakespeare's time too. The Danish people's neighbors make fun of them for this. Old Hamlet may not have engaged in the practice, hence the "breach".)

This fact inspires Hamlet to make a long speech, "So, oft it chances...", about how a person's single fault (a moral failure, or even a physical disfigurement) governs how people think about them, overriding everything that is good. Of course this doesn't represent how Hamlet thinks about Claudius (who he detests for lots of reasons), and it's hard to explain what this is doing in the play -- apart from the fact that it's very true-to-life. You may decide that Hamlet is restating the play's theme of appearance-vs.-reality.

The ghost enters. Hamlet challenges it. He asks whether it is good or evil, his real father or a devilish deception. He asks why it has returned, making us think about the unthinkable and unknown ("so horridly to shake our disposition / with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls").

The ghost beckons Hamlet. Horatio warns him not to follow, because the ghost might drive him insane. Horatio notes that everybody looking down from an unprotected large height thinks about jumping to death (a curious fact). Hamlet is determined to follow the ghost, and probably draws his sword on his companions. (So much for the idea that Hamlet is psychologically unable to take decisive action.) Hamlet says, "My fate cries out", i.e., that he's going to his destiny. He walks off the stage after the ghost. Directors often have Hamlet hold the handle of his sword in front of his face to make a cross, holy symbol for protection. Marcellus (who like everybody else surely suspects Claudius of foul play) says, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (usually misquoted and misattributed to Hamlet himself.) Horatio says God will take care of Hamlet ("Heaven will direct it"). "Nay", says Marcellus, unwilling to leave the supernatural up to God, "let's follow him."

I.v.

The scene change is to indicate that the place has changed, i.e., Hamlet and the ghost are higher up. Hamlet demands that the ghost talk, and he does. He claims to be Old Hamlet. Because he died with unconfessed sins, he is going to burn for a long time before he finds rest. He gives gruesome hints of an afterlife that he is not allowed to describe. (Even the more fortunate dead returning to earth are "fat weeds".) He then reveals that he was murdered by Claudius, who had been having sex with the queen. (At least the ghost says they were already having an affair. Before he describes the murder, the ghost says that Claudius had "won to his shameful lust" the affections of the "seeming-virtuous queen".)

The ghost's account now becomes very picturesque. Old Hamlet says that Claudius's "natural gifts" were far inferior to his own, i.e., that Old Hamlet was much better looking, smarter, nicer, and so forth. Claudius was a smooth talker ("wit") and gave her presents. Old Hamlet says that "lust, though to a radiant angel linked / Will sate itself in a celestial bed / And prey on garbage." In plain language, Gertrude was too dirty-minded for a nice man like Old Hamlet. She jumped into bed with a dirtball.

Claudius poured poison in the king's ear. Old Hamlet tells the grisly effects of the poison. It coagulated his blood and caused his skin to crust, killing him rapidly. His line "O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!" is probably better given to Hamlet. The ghost calls on Hamlet to avenge him by killing Claudius. He also tells him not to kill his mother. ("Taint not thy mind..." doesn't mean to think nice thoughts, which would be impossible, but simply not to think of killing her.) The ghost has to leave because morning is approaching.

Hamlet says he'll remember what he's heard "while memory holds a seat [i.e., still functions] in this distracted globe." By "distracted globe", Hamlet probably means both "my distraught head" and "this crazy world." (The name of the theater, too.) Hamlet already has made up his mind about Claudius and his mother, without the ghost's help. So before considering whether the ghost is telling the truth, Hamlet calls his mother a "most pernicious woman", and says of Claudius "one may smile, and smile, and be a villain." We all know that from experience -- most really bad people pretend to be nice and friendly.

When Hamlet's friends come in, he says, "There's never a [i.e., no] villain in all Denmark..." He probably meant to say, "...as Claudius", but realizes in midsentence that this isn't the thing to say. He finishes the sentence as a tautology ("Villains are knaves.") Hamlet says he thinks the ghost is telling the truth, says he will feign madness ("put an antic disposition on" -- he doesn't explain why), and (perhaps re-enacting a scene in the old play) swears them to secrecy on his sword and in several different locations while the ghost hollers "Swear" from below the stage. It's obvious that Hamlet's excitement is comic, and the scene is funny. Hamlet calls the ghost "boy", "truepenny", and "old mole", and says to his friends, "You hear this fellow in the cellarage." It seems to me that Shakespeare is parodying the older play, and even making fun of the idea of ghosts, and that he's saying, "Don't take this plot seriously, but listen to the ideas."

Horatio comments how strange this all is, and Hamlet (who likes puns) says that they should welcome the ghost as a stranger in need. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (Ethan Hawke has "our philosophy". I wonder if this might be what Shakespeare actually wrote.) In Shakespeare's era, "philosophy" means what we call "natural science". Notice that Horatio, who is skeptical of ghosts, is the one who suggests trusting God when the ghost appears, and who will later talk about "flights of angels" carrying Hamlet's soul to heaven. Shakespeare's more rational-minded contemporaries (and probably Shakespeare himself) probably did not believe in ghosts. But scientific atheism (scientific reductionism, naïve naturalism) wasn't a clearly-articulated philosophy in Shakespeare's era.

II.i.

Some time has passed. From Ophelia's remarks in III.ii. (which happens the day after II.i), we learn that Old Hamlet has now been dead for four months. Shakespeare telescopes time. We learn (in this scene) that Ophelia has (on Polonius's orders) refused to accept love letters from Hamlet and told him not to come near her. We learn in the next scene (which follows soon after) that the king and queen have sent to Wittenberg for Hamlet's long-time friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (two common Danish surnames), and that they are now here. Hamlet has been walking around aimlessly in the palace for up to four hours at a time.

Polonius, in private, sends his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. Polonius reminds him of how an effective spy asks open-ended questions and tells little suggestive lies. Polonius likes to spy.

Ophelia comes in, obviously upset. She describes Hamlet's barging into her bedroom, with "his doublet all unbraced" (we'd say, his shirt open in front), his dirty socks crunched down, and pale and knock-kneed, "as if he had been loosèd out of hell / to speak of horrors." Or, as might say, "as if he'd seen a ghost." Hamlet grabbed her wrist, stared at her face, sighed, let her go, and walked out the door backwards.

What's happened? Hamlet, who has set about to feign mental illness, is actually just acting on his own very genuine feelings. Hamlet cares very much about Ophelia. He must have hoped for a happy life with her. Now it is painfully obvious that they are both prisoners of a system that will never allow them to have the happiness that they should. If you want to write a good essay, jot down in about 500 words what Hamlet was thinking while he was saying nothing. Here's where we really see him starting to be conflicted. Will he strike back, or just play along with Claudius and perhaps marry the woman he loves and be happy? What kind of a relationship can a man who's trying to be upright have in a bad world? Hamlet says everything and says nothing, just as the skull will do later.

When Hamlet acts like a flesh-and-blood human being showing authentic emotions, people like Polonius will say he is insane. And Polonius suggests Hamlet is lovesick. Maybe Polonius really believes this. Maybe he just realized that perhaps his daughter might be the next Queen of Denmark.

II.ii.

The king and queen welcome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius says that except for the death of Hamlet's father, he's clueless as to why Hamlet is upset. (Uh huh.) He asks them very nicely to try to figure out what's wrong so Claudius can help. (Now Claudius might well be sincere.) Gertrude says she wants them to make Hamlet happy, and that the good and generous king will reward them well. Both say how much they appreciate the opportunity, and Claudius thanks them. Often a director will have Claudius call each by the other's name, and Gertrude point out which is which (lines 33-34). They go off to find Hamlet.

Polonius comes in and announces that the ambassadors from Norway have returned, and that after their report he will tell them why Hamlet is acting strange. Gertrude thinks that Hamlet is simply distressed over his father's death (which Claudius thought of) and her remarriage (which Claudius pretended he couldn't think of.)

The ambassadors are back from Norway. Fortinbras was indeed mounting an army to attack Claudius's Denmark. The King of Norway was sick and supposedly thought Fortinbras was going to invade Poland instead. (Uh huh.) When he "learned the truth", the King of Norway arrested Fortinbras, made him promise not to invade Denmark, and paid him to invade Poland instead. The King of Norway now requests that Claudius let Fortinbras pass through Denmark for the invasion. (Denmark is on the invasion route from Norway to Poland if the Norwegian army is to cross the sea to Denmark. And we know a sea-invasion was expected from the amount of shipbuilding mentioned in I.i.) This all seems fake and for show, and probably Claudius (who doesn't seem at all surprised) and the King of Norway had an understanding beforehand.

As before, Polonius can be a foolish busybody or a sinister old man. (Foolish busybodies do not usually become chief advisors to warrior-kings.) Polonius launches into a verbose speech about finding the cause of madness, prompting the queen to tell him to get to the point ("More matter with less art"; the queen actually cares about Hamlet.) He reads a love letter from Hamlet. It's about the genuineness of his love. Polonius asks the king, "What do you think of me?" The king replies, "[You are] a man faithful and honorable." Now Polonius tells a lie. He emphasizes that he had no knowledge of Hamlet's romantic interest in Ophelia until she told him and gave him the love letter. Polonius then truthfully tells how he forbade Ophelia to see or accept messages from Hamlet. However, Polonius does not mention the wrist-grabbing episode. He then reminds the king of how reliable an advisor he has always been, and says "Take this from this" (my head off my shoulders, or my insignia of office from me; the actor will show which is meant) "if this be otherwise." He finishes, "If circumstances lead me [i.e., allow, the actor could say "let"], I will find / Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / Within the center [of the earth]." He suggests he and the king hide and watch Ophelia and Hamlet. Polonius likes to spy.

At this time, Hamlet (who may have been eavesdropping), walks in reading a book. Polonius questions him, and Hamlet pretends to be very crazy by giving silly answers. They are pointed, referring to the dishonesty of Polonius ("To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.") Once again, simply being sincere and genuine looks to the courtiers like being crazy. Hamlet is well-aware that Polonius has forbidden Ophelia to see him, and he refers obliquely to this. Polonius notes in an aside (a movie director would use a voice-over), "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it" -- another famous line often misquoted. The speech of the insane, as Polonius notes, often makes the best sense.

Why is Hamlet pretending to be comically-crazy? He said he would "put an antic disposition on" just after he saw the ghost. You'll have to think hard about this, or suspend your judgement. Shakespeare was constrained by the original Hamlet story to have Hamlet pretend to be comically insane, and for the king to try to find whether he was really crazy or just faking. But Hamlet is also distraught, and the play is largely a study of his emotional turmoil while he is forced to endure a rotten environment. You might decide that Hamlet, knowing that his behavior is going to be abnormal because he is under stress, wants to mislead the court into thinking he is simply nuts rather than bent on revenge. (Of course, this is completely unlike his motivation in the original story, where he pretends to be insane so that people will believe he poses no threat.) I've never been able to decide for myself.

Polonius leaves, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who have been watching) enter. Hamlet realizes right away that they have been sent for. They share a dirty joke about "Lady Luck's private parts" that would have been very funny to Shakespeare's contemporaries, and Hamlet calls Denmark a prison. When they disagree ("Humor a madman"), Hamlet says "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison." Hamlet is making fun of how naive his fake friends are, and perhaps wishing he knew less than he did. (Note that Hamlet is obviously not referring to the idea that there are no moral standards common to the whole human race -- as do certain contemporary "multiculturalists". The theme of right and wrong pervades the play.) The idea that attitude is everything was already familiar from Montaigne, and from common sense. Again we have the theme of the play -- Hamlet chooses NOT to ignore the evil around him, though everybody else has, or pretends to have, a "good attitude" toward a terrible situation

The spies suggest Hamlet is simply too ambitious. This is ironic, since they are the ones who are spying on their friend for a king's money. Hamlet replies, "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." The friends continue to play on the idea that Hamlet's ambitious are being thwarted, sharing some contemporary platitudes about the vanity of earthly ambitions. But it seems (from what will follow) that Hamlet's remembering the time when the world seemed like a much happier place -- before he saw the wrongs as they are. Hamlet then questions the men again about the purpose of their visit. If they actually cared, they would say, "Your family asked us to come. We are all very worried about you." Instead, they pretend they just dropped by to visit, which is stupid. Only when Hamlet asks them "by the rites of our fellowship" (i.e., by our secret fraternity ritual) do they have to tell the truth. (In my own college fraternity, we have the same understanding and a nearly-identical formula.)

Hamlet levels with his friends. There was a time when the beauty of the earth, the sky, and the thoughts and accomplishments of the human race filled him with happiness. (All of this is good Renaissance thought, and familiar from many times and places -- and I hope you've felt this as well.) Now he has lost his ability to derive enjoyment, though he knows the earth, sky, and people should still seem wonderful. They seem instead to be "the quintessence of dust". Anyone who's experienced depression knows the feeling. "Quintessence" ("fifth essence"; compare Bruce Willis's "Fifth Element") was an idea from prescientific thought -- a mystical substance that made fire, air, water, and earth work together, and supposedly what the planets and stars were made of.

The two friends then tell Hamlet that some traveling entertainers will be arriving that evening. They used to have their own theater, but some child-actors became more popular (a contemporary allusion by Shakespeare to the late summer of 1600), and the adult actors took to the road. Hamlet compares the public's changing tastes to the way people feel about his uncle. (Q2 omits the reference to the child actors, but without it, the transition between the actor's losing popularity and the new king gaining popularity makes no sense, so it cannot be an interpolation.) Hamlet quickly and obliquely tell his friends he is only faking ("I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.")

The players arrive, heralded by Polonius, who Hamlet calls a big baby. Hamlet fakes madness for Polonius's benefit. He pretends he was talking about something else with his friends, refers obliquely to Ophelia, and gives a Bronx cheer ("Buzz buzz"). When the players arrive, Hamlet drops the pretense of madness, and greets old friends. One actor repeats a bombastic speech on the fall of Troy, overacting with tears in his eyes.

Hamlet asks Polonius to treat the actors well. Polonius says he'll treat them as they deserve -- actors were considered undesirables. Hamlet says, "[Treat them] better. Use every man after his desert [i.e., deserving], and who shall [e]scape whipping?" Hamlet gets an idea. He asks for a performance of "The Murder of Gonzago", with a short speech by Hamlet himself added. (Don't try to figure out what happened to this speech.) Everybody leaves.

Hamlet soliloquizes. He calls himself a "rogue" and a "peasant slave". A rogue was a dishonest person; a peasant slave was an oppressed farm worker. He talks about how the actor got himself all worked-up over something about which he really cared nothing (the fall of Troy). Hamlet contrasts this with his own passiveness in both word and deed. What does Hamlet really mean? He reminds us, at the end of the soliloquy, that even though he thinks the ghost is telling the truth, he needs to be sure this is not a demonic deception. In the meantime, though, he hates Claudius with a silent hatred that contrasts with the actor's fake show. Hamlet calls himself "gutless" ("I am lily-livered and lack gall").

Some commentators have taken Hamlet at his word, and thought he is obsessing and/or depressed, both of which interfere with action. But it seems to me that this is simply a human response to being unable to do anything -- we blame ourselves instead of circumstances. Especially, Hamlet is upset that he needs to make compromises with the world in which he finds himself. Perhaps this is confusing -- since Hamlet still doesn't know for sure that the king is guilty. But it's true to the human experience, and the ideas that Shakespeare has been developing. I hope you'll think about this, and decide for yourself.

III.i.

The next day, the two spies visit with the king and queen, as well as Polonius, who has brought Ophelia. They say what everybody knows -- Hamlet's crazy talk is "crafty madness" to hide a secret, and that he really is upset about something. They invite the royal couple to the play, and the king seems genuinely glad that Hamlet's found something he will enjoy.

The king sends the queen and the spies away. Polonius gives his daughter a book, plants her where Hamlet will find her, and tells her to pretend she is reading. Polonius tells her (or to the king?), "It's all right, dear, everybody pretends." ("With devotion's visage / and pious action we do sugar o'er / the devil himself.") The king sees the application to himself, and says, "No kidding." ("How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!") This is powerful -- we suddenly learn that the king feels horrible about his own crime. Maybe this surprises us. If Polonius is a sinister old man and knows all about the murder, the king says this directly to him as they are out of earshot of Ophelia. Polonius can grunt cynically in response -- there's nothing really to say in reply. If Polonius is a foolish old man, the king says this as an aside. We have just learned that the king really does hate his crime, and suffers under a "heavy burden".

From SJCA Hamlet's famous speech on whether it's worthwhile living or doing anything needs little comment. He says it seems to him that life is not worth living, mostly because people treat each other so stupidly and badly. We also suffer from disease and old age -- even living too long is a "calamity". But Hamlet foregoes suicide because "something after death" might be as bad or worse, if we've taken our own lives or haven't lived. He's saying what many people have felt, especially those who do not assume that the Christian account of the afterlife is true -- or even that there is any afterlife. Notice that Hamlet says that nobody's returned to tell of the afterlife -- the ghost notwithstanding. Shakespeare seems to be saying, loud and clear, "Don't focus on the story. Focus on the ideas." Some people have been puzzled by the lines "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, / And enterprises of great pitch and moment / With this regard their currents turn awry / And lose the name of action." Not only is Hamlet talking about actual suicide -- he's also talking about "lifelong suicide" by doing nothing, choosing the easy passive approach to life. Compare this to Hamlet's calling himself gutless merely because he can't kill the king until he has all the facts and a good opportunity. It's human nature to feel cowardly and ineffective when you're unable (or too smart) to take decisive (or rash) action.

Hamlet at RIT Hamlet sees Ophelia, reading a book. He assumes it's her prayer book (she is evidently not much of a pleasure reader), and asks her to pray for the forgiveness of his sins. Instead, she tries to give him back his love letters, saying he has "prove[d] unkind", which is ridiculous. Hamlet immediately realizes that she has been put up to this. He responds like a thoughtful man of strong feelings. He generalizes his disappointment with the two women in his life to all women -- I think unfairly. (Watch how his attitude toward women matures later in the play.) But the Olivier movie's torrent of loud verbal abuse seems wrong. Showing Hamlet's emotional turmoil and conflict seems better. Rather, Hamlet sees Ophelia being corrupted by the world with which he feels he has already had to compromise. He doesn't want this to happen to the girl about whom he cares so much. Like most men during breaking up, he says "I loved you" and "I didn't love you". More meaningfully, Hamlet talks about fakeness. He asks where her father is, and must know that she is lying. (In Ethan Hawke's version, he finds a wire microphone hidden on Ophelia.) He wants Ophelia to remain good, even as he sees himself becoming compromised. She would have an opportunity to renounce the world by joining a convent, and he urges her to do so. (Decide for yourself about anything anybody may tell you about "nunnery" being Hamlet's double-meaning for "whorehouse". I can't make sense out of this in the present context.) In our world, even being beautiful drives people to be dishonest. Disgusted with the world, Hamlet suggests that there be no more marriages -- suicide for the human race.

Ophelia thinks Hamlet, who she admired so much, is crazy. (Once again, being genuine looks like insanity.) But the king comes out and says that he thinks that Hamlet is neither in love, nor insane, but very upset about something. Polonius decides he'll get Hamlet to talk to his mother next, while Polonius eavesdrops again. Polonius likes to spy. The king decides that he will send Hamlet to England "for the demand of our neglected tribute" (i.e., to ask for protection money.)

III.ii.

Hamlet gives an acting lesson, mostly about being genuine. He wants to show people -- body and mind -- as they are. So does Shakespeare. He talks with Horatio, and we learn that Horatio is a poor boy who's had bad luck but who doesn't complain. He and Hamlet are genuine friends who know they can trust each other. (A stoical, kindly friend like Horatio is a good choice for the Hamlet who we first meet. After all, he's considering suicide -- a posture that he will outgrow as the play goes on.) Hamlet says, "Give me that man / That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him / In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart, / As I do thee." Our society doesn't talk as much about male bonding as Shakespeare's did. Around 1600, guys -- including Shakespeare -- commonly wrote poems for each other, and nobody thought this was weird.

Hamlet tells Horatio to watch the king as the players re-enact the murder of Old Hamlet. Hamlet jokes -- first bawdily, then about how his mother looks cheerful despite his father having died only two hours ago. (Ophelia, who is literal-minded and thinks he is crazy, corrects him.)

The play begins with a "dumb show", in which the story is pantomimed. The king and the queen profess love, the king falls asleep, and the villain pours poison in the king's ear and seduces the queen. If Polonius is a sinister old man and Claudius's accomplice, he can glance at the king when the poison is poured in the ear. If Gertrude knows the details of the homicide (the director can decide), she can glance at the king when the poison is poured in the ear, or be outraged herself. Many directors will choose to omit everything after the poison is poured in the dumb show, and have the King get upset and run out right now. Otherwise, the play proceeds, while Hamlet cracks dirty jokes and the king mentions that the story is "offensive". Courtiers who are suspicious or in-the-know can shoot glances at the king during the production. When the villain pours the poison in the victim's ear, and Hamlet shouts "You will see [next] how the murderer gets the love of [the murdered man]'s wife", the king stands up, shouts "Give me some light! Away!", Polonius calls for torches ("Somebody get the lights..."), and everybody runs out.

It seems to me that the entire Danish court realizes (or will soon realize) that Old Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, and that Hamlet knows too. (Hamlet is about to break through his own mother's denial.) Hamlet and Horatio congratulate each other.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come back in looking for Hamlet, telling him the king is very angry (duh) and that his mother wants to see him (king's orders). Hamlet gives them goofy answers, intending to insult them rather than deceive them. Guildenstern asks for straight answers. Rosencrantz says, "My lord, you once did love me", and asks why Hamlet is upset. Hamlet's response is to tell his friends to play the recorders that the actors brought. Neither knows how. Hamlet says they should be able to, since "it is as easy as lying". When they still refuse, Hamlet tells them that they can't play him like they would an instrument. Once again, Hamlet's genuineness looks like madness. Polonius comes in, and Hamlet, still talking crazy, gets Polonius to agree that a particular cloud looks like each of three different animals. (Appearance versus reality.) In an aside, he says to the audience that this is as good a job of acting crazy as he can manage. Alone on stage, Hamlet says, "Now could I drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on." (Unfortunately for everyone, he is about to do just that, by stabbing Polonius.) He says that he'll keep his temper and not hurt his mother physically.

III.iii.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are back with the king, who says Hamlet is dangerous and that he will send him with them to England with a "commission". The two spies talk in Elizabethan platitudes about the sacredness of kingship, the importance of stability in a monarchy, being "holy and religious", and so forth. (Uh huh, uh huh.) The spies leave. Polonius enters and tells Claudius he is going to hide in the bedroom. Claudius thanks him.

Val Kilmer Now Claudius is by himself. The play has really affected him. He tries to pray. We get to listen. If this were a contemporary action movie (today's "revenge plays"), we would simply hate the bad guy and wait for him to get his just deserts in the end. Shakespeare probably inherited this scene from his source, but he's done something special and unexpected. By giving Claudius real substance and depth, Shakespeare has at once imitated life, increased Hamlet's own stature by giving him an enemy with real character, and reinforced the theme of appearance against reality. Hamlet wants to take decisive action, but can't. It turns out that Claudius cannot, either. And it's Claudius -- not Hamlet -- who is prevented from acting by his own inner turmoil. He hates his crime. He wants to repent. He realizes he could come clean, confess all, and part with his crown... and his queen. He realizes that until he is willing to do this, he cannot find forgiveness from God. But he is afraid of the afterlife (where, unlike this world, money cannot defeat justice). And he is disgusted by the murder itself. Claudius is trying hard, and calls on God's angels to help him get up the courage simply to pray for God's grace.

Hamlet enters, sees the king unguarded. Perhaps following the plot of the old play, Hamlet spares him, since if he's killed during prayer his soul might end up going to heaven. The actor can say, "And so he goes to h.... [long pause, he meant to say "hell"], uh, heaven". Somebody will ask you to say that Hamlet is a very bad person for wanting to wait for his revenge until the king is more likely to end up going to hell. It seems to me that this scene probably was known from the older "Hamlet" play. Whatever you make of it, the King's speech is among my favorites. Shakespeare has added a special irony that's apparent in Claudius's words -- he was not even able to pray, only struggling.

Astor Theatre III.iv.

Polonius hides behind a curtain ("arras") in the bedroom. Hamlet comes in. The queen yells at him. He yells back. Hamlet accuses her of killing his father (i.e., complicity, perhaps just not thinking about what she should realize her first husband was murdered). Of course, there is no evidence she actually knows. (In the quarto version, she says she has no knowledge of the murder.) Gertrude seems puzzled. Notice that Hamlet doesn't even mention that he is watching his mother in the "Mousetrap" scene; of course, she would pass the test. Gertrude gets frightened and yells "Help!" Polonius behind the curtain yells "Help!" In the stress of the moment, Hamlet stabs him to death through the curtain. (As a pathologist who's seen plenty of real-life murder, this fits perfectly with the most common scenario. Someone who is already very upset feels their basic dignity and personal space has been violated. And Polonius has done this to Hamlet.) Trying to avenge a murder and set things to right, Hamlet has just committed another murder -- this one senseless. But Hamlet is so focused on his mother that he does not even pause to see who he has killed before he accuses his mother of complicity in the murder of his father. (Hamlet doesn't know for sure.) When Polonius's body falls out from behind the curtain, Hamlet remarks he thought it was the king (who he was just with, someplace else), and talks about how being a busybody is dangerous. He turns immediately back to his mother, who is baffled and evidently is just now realizing herself that Claudius is a murderer. (In the quarto version, the queen says something to the effect that she has just now learned of Claudius's guilt. Perhaps some of the original text of the play has been lost from the folio version.)

Hamlet's speech to his mother has less to do with the murder and how it is wrong than with her sexual misbehavior and her not mourning her loving first husband. Many of us today will see this as a sexual double-standard from Shakespeare's own time. Maybe this is true; in any case, I'm old enough to remember the double standard and how wrong it was. Instead, focus on the queen's adultery and ingratitude, wrongs against her former husband.

The ghost enters, visible to Hamlet but not to the queen. Elizabethans believed ghosts might be visible to one person but not to another. Perhaps the queen is too morally debased to see the ghost, or perhaps Shakespeare didn't want to clutter his story by having the ghost and the queen have it out between themselves. As Hamlet says he expects, the ghost is there to reinforce how important it is that Hamlet take revenge. But the ghost also asks Hamlet to "step between [the queen] and her fighting soul", and help her in this moment of crisis to make the right choice. The queen thinks Hamlet is crazy. The ghost leaves.

Central Florida Hamlet tells the queen not to dismiss what he has said about her as the result of madness, and says how ironic it is that virtue (his blunt talk to his mother) has to ask pardon for its bad manners. Hamlet tells his mother to confess herself to heaven and to repent, and not to have sex with the king. "Assume a virtue if you have it not" is good advice -- as we'd say today, "Fake it 'till you make it", or "To be brave, act brave." Carrying out Polonius's body (as in the sources), Hamlet remarks that he's become "heaven's scourge and minister" against a corrupt world. He also says it has "pleased heaven (God)" -- in his killing of the old man -- to punish Polonius for his mean-minded, foolish spying, and to punish Hamlet, who will have to take the consequences of his nasty-and-stupid act. He tells the queen not to reveal that he's feigning madness. He also indicates that he already knows the spies are going to do him mischief on the English trip, and that he has a counter-plan that will destroy them. Exiting, he remarks that for once, Polonius doesn't have anything to say. We never do figure out why Gertrude cannot see the ghost (if there is a reason). Nor does the scene focus on her realizing that the king is a murderer. Probably Hamlet couldn't persuade her since he still doesn't have the evidence; she'll only realize this at the climax when she drinks the poison. Hamlet talks to her, as he does to others (Ophelia, the spies, Horatio) about not being sullied by a crooked, corrupt world. Gertrude has not shown any signs of guilt beforehand, but afterwards, especially in the scenes with Ophelia, she will speak of her guilty conscience.

Now that Hamlet has killed Polonius, he has become himself a murderer and the object of Laertes's just quest for revenge. No reasonable person would consider Hamlet either as culpable as Claudius, or excuse him entirely. (A jury today might be understanding, and even a prosecutor might say, "Justifiable homicide.") Just recently, we heard Hamlet talk about his own "patient merit". Now Hamlet is all-too-human. But there's something else. In this scene, Hamlet and his mother reaffirm their love for one another. From now on, Hamlet will no longer talk about life not being worth living. Perhaps this is the real turning-point of the play.

IV.i.

The queen tells the king what has happened to Polonius, and that Hamlet is insane. The king says he will need to send Hamlet off immediately, make some kind of excuse for him, and think how to protect the king's own good name (uh huh). Line 40 is defective. It should conclude with something about "slander".

IV.ii.

Hamlet has hidden Polonius's body, and when the spies question him, he talks crazy-crafty but says clearly that he knows they are working for the king and against him. He warns them that this is dangerous. By now the two spies do not even pretend they care about Hamlet.

IV.iii.

The king and "two or three" of his courtiers enter. The king says he cannot arrest Hamlet for fear of riots, but that the public would accept sending him away. The two spies bring Hamlet in. He talks crazy, commenting that everybody ends up dead in the end -- fat kings and lean beggars end up both food for worms, simply different menu items. The king tells Hamlet he just go to England, and gives sealed letters to the two spies. He tells them, "Everything is sealed and done". It sounds as if the spies know the contents of the letters; a director who wishes to make this clear can have the king show the letters to the spies first. The spies leave with Hamlet. The king, alone, tells the audience that the letters instruct the King of England to kill Hamlet upon his arrival.

IV.iv.

Fortinbras's army crosses the stage, and Fortinbras drops a captain off to visit the Danish court. The captain meets Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Hamlet asks about the army, and the captain says that Norway and Poland are fighting a stupid war over a worthless piece of land. Two thousand people are going to get killed over this nonsense. Hamlet says this is the result of rich people not having enough to do, a hidden evil like a deep abscess rupturing into the blood. Alone on stage, Hamlet contrasts himself to Fortinbras. Hamlet has something worth doing that he hasn't yet done. Fortinbras is busy doing something that isn't worthwhile. Hamlet reaffirms his bloody intentions. You may be asked to comment on this passage. You'll need to decide for yourself exactly what it means. If you've made it this far, you're up to the challenge.

C A Deblois, Ophelia IV.v.

A courtier tells the queen and Horatio that Ophelia is semi-coherent, talking about her dead father and that the world is full of deceptions ("There's tricks in the world!") The queen does not want to talk to her; in an aside, she says it will trouble and expose her own guilty conscience. Since the scene in her bedroom, the queen has felt guilty. She speaks of her own "sick soul" and of "sin's true nature"; she also worries if she can keep her own composure with her own bad conscinece ("So full of artless jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt.") Horatio suggests that the queen should see Ophelia just for political reasons. Ophelia comes in, singing a song about a dead man, then one about premarital sex. When she leaves, the king talks to the queen about all the wrong things that have happened -- Polonius killed and quietly buried without a state funeral, Hamlet sent ("just[ly]") away, the people confused and upset, and Laertes on his way back, angry. (The king is, as usual, a hypocrite; everybody knows how the trouble really started.)

Central Florida Just then, Laertes (at the head of a mob) breaks down the castle door. The mob wants Claudius deposed and Laertes crowned king. Laertes runs in, armed, and faces off with Claudius. He is doing exactly what Hamlet considered doing, and didn't do. Gertrude risks her own life by wrestling Laertes down. Claudius tells her to let him go, because God protects kings (uh huh). Laertes yells, and Claudius asks for a chance to explain. Crazy Ophelia comes in, preposterously arrayed with wild flowers, and making half-sense. Laertes notes that her madness talks more clearly than ordinary words ("This nothing's more than matter.") She sings another song about a dead man, and passes out symbolic flowers. You can have fun trying to figure out who gets the rosemary (remembrance, "thinking of you" -- weddings and funerals), who gets the pansies ("thoughts", a pun on pensées), who gets the fennel (flattery / infidelity) and columbines (unchastity), who (with Ophelia) gets the rue (repentance / sorrow; probably Gertrude gets it, as she must "wear her rue with a difference" as to distinguish two coats of arms, since they have different reasons to be sorry), and who gets the daisies (unrequited love; you know the game with the daisy, "She loves me, she loves me not"). Ophelia regrets there have been no violets (faithfulness and friendship) available since her father died. Later, Laertes will ask violets to grow from Ophelia's body.

IV.vi.

Horatio gets a letter from Hamlet. Supposedly he boarded a pirate ship during a sea scuffle. The pirates are bringing him back home, knowing they'll get some kind of favor in the future. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on their way to England and Hamlet will have more to say about them.

IV.vii.

Hamish Linklater as Laertes with poison The king explains to Laertes that he couldn't arrest or prosecute Hamlet because the queen loves him and he's popular with the common people. He's about to tell Laertes that his revenge is imminent ("Don't lose any sleep over that" -- l. 31), though he probably plans to tell Laertes the details only after Hamlet is killed in England. Just then a letter comes from Hamlet announcing he's back in Denmark. The king already has "Plan B". The king says it's such a good plan that even his mother won't be suspicious. (Uh huh. The plot that Shakespeare inherited has some credibility problems, and Shakespeare does not seem to care.) He will have Laertes have a fencing match with Hamlet. Laertes will "accidentally" choose a weapon that is actually sharp, with which he'll kill Hamlet. (Hamlet is "most generous, And free from all contriving", so he won't check the swords.) Laertes mentions that he has some blade poison. He must have bought it to use on Claudius (who he thinks is the murderer of Polonius). Even a scratch will kill. (Uh huh, nobody will be suspicious?) Now the king decides that for backup (in case Laertes is unable to stab Hamlet and make it look like an accident), he will have a poisoned drink ready, and Hamlet will want some when he's thirsty. (Uh huh, nobody will be suspicious?)

Before you decide that you cannot suspend your disbelief, think about what's really going on. The king knows that the court knows that he's already a murderer, and that they don't care. So nobody will do anything even when the king and Laertes kill Hamlet treacherously in plain view.

The queen comes in, crying. Ophelia was hanging chains of flowers on trees. She climbed a willow that hung out over a river. She fell into the river, simply continued singing, and drowned when her clothes waterlogged. Please note that this is obviously an accident, not a suicide -- just as when a crazy person walks in front of a bus nowadays. I think Claudius gives it out as a suicide just to inflame Laertes. We don't know who saw Ophelia drown, or why nobody tried to save her. Perhaps an observer from the castle battlements, or perhaps her last acts were reconstructed from the scene, or perhaps we are asking the wrong question.

V.i.

Two men are digging Ophelia's grave. One asks whether someone who tries to go to heaven by the short route (suicide) can be given Christian burial. In Shakespeare's time (as Hamlet already mentioned in I.ii.), suicide was considered a sin, and sometimes even unforgivable. Suicides would ordinarily be buried in unconsecrated ground without a Christian service. Sometimes they'd be buried at a crossroads (as a warning to everybody not to do the same), and sometimes with a stake through the heart (to prevent them from rising as undead, of course.)

The men joke about how politics has influenced the coroner's decision to allow Christian burial. They parody lawyer talk ("Maybe the water jumped on her, instead of her jumping into the water. Or maybe she drowned herself in her own defense.") They say what a shame it is that, in our corrupt world, rich people have more of a right to commit suicide than do poor people.

Delacroix Hamlet and Horatio walk in. The gravedigger sings a contemporary song about having been in love and making love, and thinking it was great, but now being dead and in a grave as if he'd never lived at all. The marks "-a-" signify his grunting as he shovels. He tosses up a skull. Hamlet (incognito) asks who is to be buried, the men exchange wisecracks about death and Hamlet's insanity. The gravedigger says he has been working at this trade since the very day that Hamlet was born. (Thus the gravedigger comes to stand for Hamlet's own mortality.) Hamlet asks about dead bodies, makes a four-way pun on the word "fine", and jokes about "chop-fallen" (in the living it means frowning, but the skull has lost its "chop", i.e., jawbone.) Loggits is the game we call horseshoes. "Let her paint an inch thick" is a reference to the new fashion of women wearing make-up. Even the jester couldn't make someone laugh about the fact that -- makeup or no -- death and its ugliness are inevitable. The gravedigger tells him which skull belonged to the court jester, Yorick. Hamlet also remembers Yorick's jokes and his kindness. But there is more.

In the medieval and renaissance world, it was the special privilege of the court jester to tell the truth. He could do this without fear of reprisals. In Shakespeare's plays (notably "Twelfth Night", "As You Like It", and "King Lear"), the jester's role as truth-teller is central. "Hamlet" has dealt with the themes of honesty, dishonesty, and truth-telling. In this most famous scene of all, Yorick tells the truth without saying a word. We all end up in the same place, dead.

The funeral party comes in, and Hamlet recognizes "maimed rites", i.e., much of the era's normal Christian burial service is eliminated because of the suspicion of suicide. Hamlet and Horatio hide. Laertes protests the fact that the service is limited. The pastor's reply is organized religion at its worst. Laertes says the priest is the one who will go to hell. He jumps into the grave, picks up the corpse and embraces it, and launches into a bombastic speech. Hamlet comes out and jumps into the grave too. He calls himself "Hamlet the Dane", claiming the royal title. (In Shakespeare's era, a monarch was called by the name of his country for short.) Shakespeare's heroes all develop as people, and many people (myself included) dislike Hamlet's attitude toward women as evidenced in the first half of the play. But in striking contrast to the "nunnery" scene, he now proclaims boldly, "I loved Ophelia." Laertes drops the corpse and starts choking Hamlet. Separated, Hamlet parodies Laertes's bombastic speech. Horatio takes Hamlet off and the king says to Laertes, "Good. Now we have an excuse for a duel right away."

V.ii.

Hamlet is explaining to Horatio about how he substituted his own letter to the King of England, ordering the execution of the spies. (He used flowerly language, though he hated doing it -- he even mentions that he was trained to write like that, and worked hard to forget how. Again, this is the theme of sincerity.) Hamlet already had a pretty good idea of what the English trip was all about, so his having a copy of the royal seal, and some wax and paper, is no surprise (as he already indicated at the end of the bedroom scene.) Surprisingly, Hamlet talks about reading and changing the letters on an impulse, and has a famous line, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends / Rough-hew them how we will." Rough-hew was to carve the basics of a woodcarving or sculpture, with the fine-shaping to follow. Horatio (who seems more inclined to faith in God than do the other characters) agrees: "That is most certain." Since this doesn't make perfect sense with the plot, Shakespeare probably placed it here for philosophic reasons, especially given what is about to happen -- coincidences ("Providence"?) are going to work events out for Hamlet's cause. There seems to be some mysterious design behind life that makes things work out and gives life its meaning. Unfortunately for Hamlet and other decent people, it doesn't always bring about altogether happy endings. Still, it's grand being part of things. One can find similar ideas in Montaigne, Proverbs 16:9, and the modern Christian saying, "A person proposes, God disposes."

Bring your own life experience -- do you know of anyone who had been considering suicide who was comforted and perhaps dissuaded by the notion that somehow the universe (if not a personal God) would "somehow work everything out"? Do you think this is true? I can't answer.

Horatio remarks that it'll only be a short time before the king finds out about the execution of the spies. Hamlet says life itself is short ("The interim is mine, / And a man's life's no more than to say 'One'.")

Osric brings Laertes's challenge, Hamlet accepts. The king has bet heavily on Hamlet, probably to divert suspicion. Don't try to figure out the terms of the bet -- the two accounts contradict each other. Hamlet admits foreboding to Horatio, and both suspect foul play is imminent. But Hamlet decides to go forward anyway. "We defy augury" -- Hamlet is not going to let his apprehensions interfere with his showing courage and doing what he must. "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow." This is an allusion to the gospel. God knows every sparrow that falls. Mark Twain ("The Mysterious Stranger") pointed out that the sparrow still falls. Hamlet is about to die, too, although God is watching. Hamlet notes that death is going to come, sooner or later. "The readiness is all" -- being ready to live and die with courage and integrity is all the answer that Hamlet will find for death. Hamlet points out that nobody really knows what death is, so why be afraid to die young? "Let be" -- don't fight it. Is "Let be" the answer to "To be or not to be?" (!).

The duel is set up. In Q1 and Q2, they bring foils (long slender swords) and daggers; in Q2 and F foils and gauntlets (metal gloves). Hamlet puns on "foil", a metal backing that made gemstones shine brighter; he will make Laertes look even more the champion fencer. (Thanks to Hamlet, "foil" has come to mean any character who contrasts with the hero, showing up what kind of person the hero is.) Hamlet apologizes to Laertes, and blames his distracted mental state -- he wasn't himself. (There is a parallel in Romans 7-8).

As the king expected, Hamlet is not at all suspicious about the swords, and merely asks whether they're all the same length.

In the first round, Hamlet tags Laertes (who is thinking about the poison and perhaps doesn't have his heart really in it). The king drops the poison in the cup, pretending he thinks it's a pearl. (Okay, this is silly.) Whether the court thinks the pearl is to be dissolved in acidified wine and drunk (occasionally done as conspicuous-consumption), or is a gift to Hamlet, you'll need to decide for yourself. The king probably takes a drink (from another cup, or he drinks before the poison is dissolved, or he just pretends to drink.) The queen mentions that Hamlet is "fat and out of breath". Fat just means "sweating", so she wipes his forehead. In the second round, Hamlet hits Laertes again. The queen grabs the cup and drinks despite the king's warning. We'll never know whether she has just realized what is going on, and wants to save Hamlet's life and maybe end her own miserable existence. (She does realize quickly that the cup is poisoned. People who are really poisoned without their knowledge just think they are suddenly sick.)

Laertes says in an aside that he's having moral qualms about killing Hamlet by treachery. The third round ends in a draw (perhaps locked weapons), then Laertes reaches out and scratches Hamlet illegally when he is not looking. (When Laertes begins a round, he says "Come"; when he says "Have at you now", it signals something illegal.) They scuffle (because of the illegal blow, Hamlet is "incensed"). During the scuffle, they exchange swords. This was a recognized move in fencing. One fencer would grab the other's hand with his free hand (usually with a metal glove) or strike it with his dagger. The right response was for the other fencer to do the same, and swords could then be exchanged. On stage, the exchange is usually done by having Hamlet disarm Laertes with his sword, which flies up. Hamlet puts his foot on the sharp poisoned sword (he knows it's sharp, but not that it's poisoned, and he intended to scratch Laertes back). Hamlet gives his own sword to Laertes, fights again, and inflicts a deeper wound on him, explaining why Laertes dies quicker.

The queen announces the drink is poisoned, and drops dead. Laertes tells everything, and shouts "The king's to blame!" For the first time, Hamlet can kill the king and have people realize he was right. Hamlet stabs the king with the poisoned blade, then forces the poisoned beverage down his throat. Elizabethans pretended to believe that kings were sacred, so Shakespeare had to have everybody shout "Treason", but nobody does anything. (If the director wishes, the guards and court can draw their own weapons and surround the king. Horatio can show the letters to England at this time, too.) Hamlet says he is dying, and Horatio offers to commit suicide like a Roman soldier when his side was defeated. Hamlet drinks the poison instead, to ensure Horatio won't. If Hamlet saw no reason to live, then Horatio has one -- to tell the truth about Hamlet.

In the final scene, Fortinbras happens by, as do the English with word of the spies' execution. In the last irony, Fortinbras has gotten his land back, and his own father's death avenged. Horatio says he'll tell about "accidental judgments", i.e., people have gotten their just deserts through seeming accidents -- the theme of God working in the world to make things right. Fortinbras calls for military honors to be shown Hamlet's body. Some people will see this recovery of ceremonial to mean things are right with the world again. Others will simply see one more example of power passing in an unfair world -- as it was in the real Dark Ages. In Ingmar Bergman's production of "Hamlet", Fortinbras's words, "Bid the soldiers shoot!" is their signal to pull out their guns and slaughter Horatio and the rest of the surviving Danish court.

The Background


Shakespeare's "Hamlet" was a remake of an already popular play, based in turn on historical fiction, based in turn on an episode from the Dark Ages, the lawless, might-makes-right era that followed the collapse of Roman-era civilization.

The Historical Hamlet was the son of a Danish "King of the Jutes", who lived during the Dark Ages.

Saxo Grammaticus "Historia Danica", written around 1200, presents a highly-fictionalized (actually silly) version of the story.

  • Horwendil, warlord of Jutland, kills the King of Norway in single combat and is given Gurutha, daughter of the King of Denmark. Their son is "Amleth".

  • Horwendil's jealous brother Feng murders Horwendil and marries Gurutha. The murder is no secret. (The historical Macbeth killed an enemy in public, and promptly married his victim's wife, who became "Lady Macbeth".) Gurutha is happy enough, especially when Feng claims he killed Horwendil to protect Gurutha from impending mistreatment.

  • Amleth pretends to be crazy. Feng tries to find out whether he is really crazy, or just pretending.

  • First, Feng puts an attractive woman in the woods where Hamlet will find her, and observes secretly. Amleth is warned of the plot, and takes the woman off for a private date. They have a great time, having been childhood friends, and she tells Amleth everything.

  • Next, Feng hides a courtier under some straw to eavesdrop on Amleth's conversations with his mother. Amleth suspects a trap, pretends to think he is a chicken, jumps around on the straw, stabs the eavesdroper to death through the straw, cuts the body up, and tosses it into the sewer where it is eaten by the pigs.

  • Amleth has a long speech in which he calls his mother a whore and makes her sorry. She agrees to help him. She begins weaving a net to entrap Feng's courtiers.

  • Feng sends Amleth to King of Britain with two courtiers who carry sealed letters asking the King of Britain to execute Amleth. Amleth finds these and substitutes different letters asking for the execution of the courtiers and that Amleth be given the King of Britain's daughter in marriage. Again, this all works out for Amleth. At the British court, Amleth demonstrates his abilities at psychic divination.

  • Amleth returns a year later. He arrives at Feng's court, where he again pretends to be insane. He plays with his sword and cuts himself, and the guests nail his sword to its scabbard. Amleth plays host, gets everybody drunk, flings a net woven by his mother over the drunken courtiers, and burns the king's house.

  • Feng is asleep nearby. Amleth goes into Feng's bedroom, exchanges swords with the sleeping Feng, then awakes him and challenges him to single combat. Feng now has the sword that is nailed to the scabbard, and Amleth kills him.

  • Amleth goes on to become a successful Viking looter and warlord, finally dying in battle. Saxo confirms that Amleth's Scottish wife betrayed him and married Wiglek (Viglek), the man who had killed him in battle.

  • Saxo in Translation
    Saxo in English, chapter III
    Saxo in English, chapter IV
    The Hamlet Legend -- Wikipedia

Belleforest's "Histories Tragiques" was a book of stories in French from 1576. Belleforest adapted Saxo's historical fiction.

  • The queen committed adultery before the murder of Hamlet's father.

  • Hamlet is melancholy and brooding.

  • There is a lot of dialogue. Hamlet's very long speech in his mother's bedroom is closely followed by Shakespeare.

  • There was an English translation in 1608, "The History of Hamblet" (sic.); it borrows Shakespeare's "A rat! A rat!", and specifically makes the "covering" through which the spy is stabbed into a wall hanging.

    My link to Belleforest in translation is now down. Please let me know if this ever reappears online.

"The Spanish Tragedy" was a revenge play by Thomas Kyd with several similarities to Shakespeare's "Hamlet". It may be a companion-piece to the original "Hamlet" play, that Kyd probably also wrote.
  • The background is one of international political intrigue.

  • A ghost reveals a secret murder (but to the audience, not the hero).

  • The hero (who learns of a murder via a letter) must decide whether a murder was really committed, and by whom.

  • The hero acts crazy; it is not clear how much of this is pretending

  • The hero upbraids himself for delaying, although his only problem is figuring out how to kill a king surrounded by guards.

  • There is a play-within-the-play. The bad guys play roles, and are actually killed onstage.

  • Synopsis

The older "Hamlet" play... ("Ur-Hamlet")

    There are several records of a play, performed in 1594 at Newington Butts outside London, and probably earlier, about Hamlet. It is described as a tragedy with a ghost crying "Hamlet, revenge!". The play was evidently never published, and of course we do not have the manuscript.

    Thomas Nashe wrote in 1589 in his introduction to a book by Robert Greene, "English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences -- as 'Blood is a beggar' and so forth; and if you entreat him fair on a frosty morning he will offer you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches!" Nashe is mostly spoofing Thomas Kyd, who wrote blood-and-thunder revenge plays. So Kyd is probably the author of the first "Hamlet" play.

    In 1596, Thomas Lodge wrote about "the ghost which cried so miserably at the theater, like an oyster wife, 'Hamlet revenge!'".

    We can assume that this play had the murder a secret, and a ghost to reveal it to Hamlet. Some people will tell you that this play must be the source of these plot elements, which fit with the genre:

    • the play within a play;

    • Ophelia's madness;

    • Hamlet's death and the surrounding circumstances.

    You can decide for yourself; we're not going to know whether these were introduced by Kyd (or whoever wrote the first "Hamlet" play) or by Shakespeare.

The First Quarto of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (Dated 1603, pirated, the "bad quarto") seems to have been put together from an actor's memory. (Maybe Marcellus -- his lines are best-preserved).

    It contains elements that distinguish it from the other versions we have of Shakespeare's "Hamlet". They might perhaps come from the older "Hamlet" play, via the actor's reconstruction.

    • The spy is called Corambis, not Polonius. His servant is Montano, not Reynaldo.

    • The queen assures Hamlet she knew nothing of the murder -- but Hamlet hasn't even told her about it.

    • The queen promises to "conceal, consent, and do her best" to aid Hamlet in his revenge against the king.

    • The queen warns Hamlet, via Horatio, of a plot.

    Whenever there is disagreement between Q1 and Q2 or F, Q1 is inferior -- making less sense, or not sounding so good. Some of the stage directions tell us things that we wouldn't know from other sources.

    • The ghost comes into the queen's bedroom in his pajamas ("night gown");

    • Ophelia plays the lute (an early kind of guitar) when she's crazy.

    • When Hamlet and Laertes fight, "they catch one another's rapiers".

    Here is Hamlet's most famous speech as it appears in the Bad Quarto...

      To be, or not to be, aye, there's the point,
      To die, to sleep, is that all? Aye, all.
      No, to sleep, to dream, aye merry, there it goes,
      For in that dream of death, when we awake,
      And borne before an everlasting Judge,
      From whence no passenger ever returned,
      The undiscovered country, at those sight
      The happy smile, and the accursed damned.
      But for this, the joyful hope of this,
      Who'd bear the scorns and flattery of the world,
      Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor?
      The widow being oppressed, the orphan wronged,
      The taste of hunger, or a tyrant's reign,
      And thousand more calamities besides,
      To grunt and sweat under this weary life,
      When that he may his full quietus make,
      With a bare bodkin? Who would this endure,
      But for a hope fo something after death?
      Which puzzles the brain, and doth confound the sense,
      Which makes us rather bear those evils we have,
      Than fly to others that we know not of.
      Aye that, oh this conscience makes cowards of us all.

    First Quarto (1603) -- visit here to see just how bad the "bad quarto" is. Warning: This link crashed my IE browser twice.
    Second Quarto (1604) -- for comparison.
    Folio (1623) -- for comparison.

"Antonio's Revenge" by John Marston, is mentioned by a contemporary source as 1601, and has a very similar plot to Shakespeare's "Hamlet".

    • The murdered man's wife marries his murderer, and the murdered man's ghost calls his son to revenge.

    • The son pretends to be insane, and is melancholy. He walks around in black reading a book.

    • There is a play-within-a-play for no reason.

    • The son foregoes an opportunity to kill the murderer in hopes of a better revenge later.

    • The ghost speaks from beneath the stage, and reappears in the mother's bedroom.

    • The son's girlfriend dies of a broken heart.

    Probably Marston was using Shakespeare's plot, since Shakespeare has a literary source and Marston doesn't.

"Der Bestrafte Brudermord" ("Fratricide Punished") is a German play that is obviously an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet", which it resembles in contradistinction to Belleforest.

    • A ghost appears to Francisco, Horatio, and the other guards at the beginning.

    • Hamlet says he is "sick at heart" over his father's death and his mother's remarriage.

    • Hamlet wants to go back to Wittenberg but the king asks him to stay in Denmark.

    • Corambus's son Leonhardus goes to France.

    • The king gets drunk, as is his habit.

    • The ghost tells how he was killed by having "hebona" poured in his ear.

    • Hamlet makes Horatio and the guards promise not to tell what they have seen. They swear in several locations. The ghost calls on them to swear from below ground.

    • Hamlet begins acting crazy. Corambus remembers his own youth, and suggests that Hamlet is in love.

    • Hamlet tells Ophelia to "go to a nunnery."

    • Hamlet stages a play-within-a-play. The king's guilt is revealed by his reaction when poison is poured into the player-king's ear.

    • Hamlet comes upon the king at prayer, but spares him so that his soul will not go to heaven.

    • Hamlet kills Corambus by stabbing him through a tapestry.

    • Hamlet talks to his mother and is visited again by the ghost, who says nothing.

    • Ophelia goes crazy and commits suicide by jumping off a cliff.

    • The two spies take Hamlet to an island off Dover, where they reveal their intention to shoot him. They stand on either side and let him give the signal. He ducks and they shoot each other. Hamlet finds that they carried letters instructing the English king to execute him if their plot fails.
    • Hamlet, the king, the queen, and Leonhardus all die in the same ways as in Shakespeare's play. The king uses diamond dust as poison. ("That won't work." -- Ed the Pathology Guy.).

    What's more, the scenes and narrative proceed in the same order as in Shakespeare's play. Somebody will tell you that the old man's name being "Corambus" is proof that "Der Bestrafte Brudermord" must therefore derive from the older Hamlet play. This seems silly to me. I'd conclude, rather, that in the first run of Shakespeare's "Hamlet", Polonius and Reynaldo were named Corambis and Montano, and that Shakespeare changed their names for some reason.

    "Der Bestrafte Brudermord" has some other points of agreement with Q1 against Q2, but even more with Q2 against Q1. So both seem to be adaptations of Shakespeare's original.

So what did Shakespeare add?

    Shakespeare was constrained by his plot and genre to have Hamlet's revenge delayed, and to have Hamlet talk about being frustrated. Belleforest provided the essential plot. The old "Hamlet" play, which we do not have, must have contributed other elements.

    Shakespeare adds more. The play is very long, and must have been trimmed for production. So Shakespeare must have written much of it to please himself.

    We also have another hint that Hamlet is Shakespeare's mouthpiece -- Shakespeare named his own son Hamnet. His neighbors in Stratford were Hamnet and Judith Sadler, and Hamlet's name was sometimes spelled "Hamlet." Hamnet Shakespeare died in August 1596.

    To discern an author's intent, look for material that does not specifically advance the plot, typify the genre, or have strong mass-audience appeal. Here is what Shakespeare added...

    • Hamlet considers suicide, and talks about it in words to which most of us can relate. Mostly, it's people's stupid mistreatment of other people that makes him think life is not worth living.

    • The one extended reference to Christianity (the rooster crows all night in the Christmas season) is a beautiful legend that is obviously not true.

    • Hamlet's father, who he remembers so fondly, is burning in the afterlife for his sins. Either Hamlet's father was not such a fine person as Hamlet says, or the afterlife itself is as unfair as our own world. (Of course Shakespeare could not talk about this possibility openly.)

    • Speaking of the afterlife... Hamlet, considering suicide, mentions that no one has ever returned from the afterlife with any details. This is despite the fact that we just saw him talking to a ghost. I think Shakespeare is saying, "This story is fiction. The ideas Hamlet talks about are basic to human experience."

    • The girl who is used as a spy on Hamlet is one about whom he cares very much, and who may be pregnant by him.

    • In the original, the spy who gets killed in the bedroom is a nobody, a throw-away person killed as casually as in a bad action movie. The spy who Hamlet kills in his mother's bedroom is not only somebody we have gotten to know -- he is the father of the woman Hamlet loves. Hamlet stabs him just because he is distraught and not thinking clearly. Hamlet -- who lives in a bad world -- himself becomes culpable. Shakespeare does not allow us to overlook this.

    • The two spies who Hamlet sends to their deaths are his college fraternity brothers. It is not absolutely certain that they actually intend Hamlet any harm. It's just conceivable that they are too stupid to realize what's going on.

    • Hamlet is interested in acting, and coaches actors. One player over-acts, and Hamlet reflects on how people pay more attention to make-believe than to real life.

    • In the prayer scene, Shakespeare lets us listen to the King as he tries to repent his crime, and fails. The king gains much stature and some sympathy.

    • Hamlet talks to a foot soldier who knows that the war is stupid and that he is likely to die for no good reason. Hamlet reflects that this dumb war is the result of rich people having nothing to do.

    • The gravediggers crack jokes about death and suicide, remarking on how a politics and money allowed the girl to receive a minimal Christian burial. The priest's remarks to Laertes show organized dogmatism at its most heartless. (In fact, this pathologist thinks Ophelia probably died accidentally.)

    • Hamlet handles Yorick the beloved jester's skull and meditates on how everybody ends up dead in the end.

    • Hamlet likes the man with whom he fights his duel. Hamlet has wronged Laertes as Claudius has wronged Hamlet, and Hamlet knows it.

    • Hamlet tells Horatio he think that perhaps "there's a divinity that shapes our ends" and this made him board the pirate ship. From time to time, Hamlet talks about a sense that he is God's agent, with his steps guided by divine providence. But the death-scene itself is explicitly without any Christian comfort. In Q1 (recalled by the actor either from the earlier play, or from what a good-guy hero might be expected to say), Hamlet's last words were, "Heaven receive my soul." Instead, Shakespeare's Hamlet speaks cryptic last words: "The rest is silence."

    • Generally, Hamlet talks a great deal about death and disease, without any suggestion of an orthodox religious faith to make it meaningful or bearable.

    Almost all readers and viewers come away from "Hamlet" liking the prince very much. He is a thinker, and he is funny. We see into his own mind, and discover him to be genuine and sincere. We admire him for resisting the evil around him.

    But Hamlet is both stupid and mean when he kills Polonius. And it is hard to like his nasty, bitter outlook on life in the first half of the play. Especially, if you do not like everything about today's teenaged "Goth" culture (wearing black, being clever and disrespectful, playing with people's feelings, complaining that life seems meaningless and empty), you won't like everything about the Hamlet who we meet at the beginning.

    If this were an action-movie or something by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, the prince might be entirely sympathetic, and his enemies altogether despicable. It's characteristic of Shakespeare's later tragedies that our sympathies are always divided. Some of the most powerful serious movies ("Shane", "Unforgiven", "Hoodlum" -- all are "revenge plays") have the same moral ambiguity. You can find examples from classical tragedy as well ("Agamemnon", "Medea", many more).

    In "Hamlet", Shakespeare explains why he writes in this way -- he intends to "hold a mirror up to nature", to show us ourselves.

Being Genuine
"I know not 'seems'..." -- Hamlet.

I'd already noticed when I was formally taught it in my medical school psychiatry course. For most twenty-year-olds, the biggest life-issue is, "What has happened to most forty-year-olds that caused them to lose the ideals and the authenticity of youth?" For most forty-year-olds, the biggest life-issue is, "How did I lose the ideals and authenticity that made me who I was when I was twenty?"

It's no coincidence that college Greeks profess high ideals. It's what makes them work... for people not yet corrupted by the world.

Teenaged Holden Caulfield ("Catcher in the Rye") described the shams of the "phony" society of the wealthy, and heard Hamlet had talked about the same theme. He plans to read the play eventually. In the 1970's, it was usual for people to call each other "phony" if they thought differently about something, and there was no defending against it.

Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" uses another young person to comment on the falsity of adult society. Huck lives fairly well, as Hamlet does. Huck speaks only by his actions, without Hamlet's eloquence. Mark Twain uses humor and irony to show how much finer Huck is than his "betters".

As you enjoy the play, watch for the theme of ceremony, and the theme of play-acting.

  • The king holds a ceremonious first-public-meeting in I.ii.

  • Polonius is buried without ceremony.

  • Ophelia gets a limited ceremony.

  • At the end, Fortinbras holds a ceremonial memorial for Hamlet.

  • Find more.

In Macbeth, we are treated to a spectacle from the same era of warlords that gives the setting for "Hamlet". Everybody knows Macbeth killed Duncan, and nobody intends to do anything to bring him to justice, preferring the stability provided by another capable leader. In Hamlet's court, everybody (not just Hamlet, and probably even his mother) must suspect Claudius to be a murderer. After the play-within-the-play, it's obvious.

      Son: Dad, what's the difference between ignorance and apathy?
      Dad: Son, I don't know and I don't care.
      -- Contemporary.

At the end, Hamlet's fideism, a vague faith in God's ability to sort out the mess of this world without any more specific religious dogma, is the kind of faith that many honest, thinking people have reached in our own day. Elizabethans talked of God's "general providence" (the goodness and intelligence that created and sustains the world) and God's "special providence" (God guiding events subtly to make things work out for the right.) You will need to decide for yourself whether "special providence" is at work in our own world, or whether Shakespeare actually believed so. But Hamlet thinks it does.

  • Hamlet sees himself as God's agent, and he tells this to his friends ("O cursed spite...") and his mother ("scourge and minister").

  • Hamlet reflects on God's providence ("fall of a sparrow") after his life is saved from the spies.

  • Laertes sees his own death as God's judgment, and Hamlet as God's avenger.

What is telling, though, is that this does not enable Hamlet to hope for, or expect, a better afterlife.

Is Life Worth Living?

      ... What is a man,
      If his chief good and market of his time
      Is but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
      -- Hamlet

Pathologists joke, "Is life worth living? It depends on the liver!". Seriously, we've all asked this question. Shakespeare offers no pat answer, only Hamlet's courage and dignity in accepting the human condition, saying "No!" to corruption, and in meeting his own task and his own death.

In the "noir" genre of hard-boiled detective fiction, the hero gradually learns about both public and private corruption. Nothing is as it seems. The hero strikes back, but the ending is never completely happy.

Hamlet is called to his revenge "by heaven and hell", i.e., something that Shakespeare thought of as more fundamental than "the struggle between good and evil". Hamlet talks a great deal about the nature of human beings, characterizes himself as "indifferent[ly] honest" and "could accuse" himself of things for which it would have been better if he hadn't been born. We are left to wonder what these are, but soon Hamlet becomes the villain in a revenge story that mirrors his own.

Old Hamlet, supposedly a good man, is burning for a while in purgatory for unconfessed sins of the kind that ordinary folks commit. Claudius, who Hamlet considers a very bad man, shows us his true mind twice, and we see a struggle between his hunger for divine grace and his need to keep his wife's love.

The morality plays that preceded Shakespeare showed examples of good and bad people, and heroes that had a clear choice and made it. Shakespeare seems to be telling us in "Hamlet" that we can and should try to live well, but that both good and bad are inherent in the human condition. Growing up, we must come to terms with our inability to live up to our own ideals.

    (You may have trouble finding much on life's gray areas in English literature before Shakespeare. Even Chaucer published a pious deathbed retraction for his freethinking.)

Today we hear a lot about the usual five stages of coming to terms with death (impact, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.) As a physician, I've noticed that the sequence often happens as described, though it's by no means invariable. (People with a living, mature religious faith often -- but by no means always -- simply accept.)

At the end, Hamlet is no longer depressed, but accepts the human condition. Whether he's right to do so is something you'll need to decide. But it's a common experience for people growing up. And Shakespeare's shown it to us in "Hamlet".

Ophelia by Diana Elliott Elsewhere (for example, in "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Tempest"), Shakespeare shows us the world being redeemed by love. Even in King Lear (where he seems to be saying, as explicitly as he can, that the comforts of religion are make-believe), Shakespeare still shows us the power of love to make life good -- at least temporarily. Love and reconciliation are less likely to be showcased in a revenge play.

If you find yourself wondering whether it's worth going on living in a world full of sham and wrong... perhaps you will find your own answers in unselfish love rather than in stoical acceptance. And perhaps you, too, can be a hero.

Is Hamlet Crazy?

Shakespeare was constrained by his plot...

  • to have Hamlet pretend to be delusional; and...

  • to have Hamlet kill the spy in his mother's bedroom.

The principal scene in which Hamlet pretends to be crazy ("puts [his] antic disposition on") is the one in which he teases Polonius, calling him a fishmonger (compare "fleshmoner", or pimp... remember that Polonius wants money for his virgin daughter.)

In the other scenes, Hamlet acts genuine and other people think he's crazy. Ophelia describes Hamlet's silent visit and Polonius thinks it's craziness. Ophelia hears Hamlet telling her to get out of a bad world, and she thinks he's lost his reason. Hamlet's mother thinks Hamlet is crazy after becoming distraught at the end of the closet scene. After the play-within-the-play, the king knows Hamlet isn't crazy, but tells the rest of the court that he must be sent away to England because of his mental illness. Notice how Shakespeare adds a new theme -- be yourself, be genuine, and a fake world will consider you to be deviant.

Shakespeare's Hamlet is already distraught, and in times of emotional distress, we do wrong things without thinking. Afterwards, Hamlet (who is "indifferent honest"), blames his "madness" for the killing of Polonius. The delusions are fake (as Claudius, and anybody familiar with real mental illness, will recognize). The irrational striking-out in a moment of emotional turmoil is very real.

Shakespeare's play focused on the mind of a man who's profoundly distraught and who is asking himself whether life is worth living. Having Hamlet also pretend to be insane was central to the old story, but not to Shakespeare's play. Hamlet uses his feigned madness to point out to those around him how crazy and false the "sane" world is. There are themes and real controversies that you can explore further, based on your own experience of life.

T.S. Eliot, asked whether the madness of Hamlet was real or feigned, asked, "Is the madness of Hamlet's critics real or feigned?" This sums it up for me.

Does Hamlet Hesitate?


The nonsense about Hamlet being "unable to make up his mind" begins with his own speeches after hearing the Player King's speech on Hecuba (he berates himself for hesitating), and especially after talking to Fortinbras's soldier ("thinking too precisely on the event" -- i.e., people who obsess a lot are the ones who do the least). Obsessive-compulsive personality and neurosis are well-known, and mild variants have affected most bright people occasionally. Bradley points out that Hamlet seems depressed ("melancholy") and that this will slow a person down; early 20th century writers influenced by psychoanalysis talked about a mother-fixation causing the depression.

But the truth is that Hamlet has no opportunity to kill the king and then justify his action, until the final disaster, when Laertes reveals "The king's to blame". In the case, "providence" provides the opportunity. Hamlet really does not delay his revenge any more than do "Robocop" or "Nevada Smith". Heroes of earlier revenge plays soliloquize about having to delay, and criticize themselves for it. But revenge plays require that the revenge take time and planning -- or there would be no play.

Sam Coleridge (an obsessive who blamed the failure of his grandiose projects on his opium habit) talked about Hamlet thinking too hard. Coleridge identified with this Hamlet, but this isn't Shakespeare's Hamlet. Schlegel called Hamlet "thought-sick". Goethe found Hamlet "lovely", "sensitive" and "without strength of nerve".

Now, when Hamlet expresses regrets that he's not completed his revenge, he compares himself unfavorably to the Player King (who has just recited a ridiculous, bombastic speech) and to Fortinbras (who is getting thousands of people killed for no good reason at all -- I first became interested in Shakespeare during the Vietnam war). It is no coincidence that both the Player King and Fortinbras are pursuing stupid, vain goals.

What is Shakespeare trying to tell us?

Hamlet's "revenge" isn't so much simply the killing of the king, as it is the purging of all the rottenness in the Danish court. And although it costs him his life, he succeeds.

At some time, we all consider how much wrong there is in the world. "Hamlet" gives us a chance to watch an ordinary person consciously choose to say "No!" to the world's wrongness and phoniness, and to strike back with intelligence and power. From the bare-bones of an old revenge story, Shakespeare has held up the mirror to something in us that is precious.

I hear Hamlet saying, "So many people put so much effort into doing things that are not worthwhile. It's a bad world, and I am far from a perfect human being. And we all end up dead in the end. But I am going to do something worthwhile, and do it right."

Think about it.

More on whether Hamlet has a "tragic flaw." I believe that the whole "there has to be a tragic flaw" business was dreamed up by Aristotle, who got paid to tell young people that if they were really good, then bad things couldn't happen to them, and that people went to sad shows just to have a good cry ("purge the emotions of pity and fear"). If it is helpful, point out the obvious. Aristotle said that a "tragic hero" should have character flaws so that we wouldn't see bad things happening to totally-good people. Maybe the heroes of Shakespeare's tragedies are not all-virtuous because Shakespeare wants to show us life as it really is.

Revenge

Since Sophocles's ultra-coldblooded "Electra", revenge plays have been among the favorite genre for theater and movies. Why?

First, a revenge play presumes that to right a wrong, somebody is forced to take the law into his or her own hands. This showcases one of the most important and serious of human concerns -- how do we maintain good law (i.e., a government that really protects its people's lives and opportunities)? It's the central question of civilization. (The conclusion of "Electra" is chilling -- read Sophocles's answer.)

Second, the revenger must overcome obstacles to revenge. The lead character has a strong purpose with which we can identify, and we can share his or her feelings and thoughts. There is a satisfaction when revenge is finally won.

"Shakespeare's philosophy?" You decide!

One may find ideas similar to those in "Hamlet" in Montaigne's essays (here's a top-flight college paper for an eager student), in "Ecclesiastes" (Old Testament, of course) and in the following famous twentieth-century piece (sometimes stated to be much older).

"The Desiderata"

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble, it's a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

      --Max Ehrmann, 1927

Contrast this with Polonius's advice to Laertes.

Other Ideas

Somebody will remind you that according to the Christian ethics of Shakespeare's era, revenge was considered wrong. A saint would forgive and bring about reconciliation. (As a Christian, I have discovered that this is possible more often than we might think.) Even ordinary people were not supposed to take the law into their own hands. It's hard, though, to see this as a major theme of this revenge play.

Somebody will tell you that "Hamlet" is about how it's difficult to know the right thing to do. Somebody else will tell you that the real tragedy is that Hamlet kills the king, rather than forgiving him and living in love and harmony.

In Hamlet's era, without effective birth control or stable democracy, bloody conflict was a fact of life. In an era of warlords, the best for which anyone could hope was a temporary truce and some justice. Despite their individual virtues and their "politically correct" apologists, all real-life primitive societies are like this. Hamlet was fundamentally correct -- the world, by its very nature, is full of unpleasantness and wrong.

How does Hamlet's attitude toward women change during the play? Is this a major theme? Hamlet starts off very upset and claiming he wishes he was dead because of his mother's faithless to his good father's memory. He urges Ophelia to withdraw from a rotten world full of rotten women. Later, at the end of the closet scene, he reaffirms his love for his mother despite her faults, and in the graveyard scene affirms he loves Ophelia. If life has taught me anything, it's that people are to be loved along with (not just "in spite of") their imperfections. Perhaps you believe this as well.

Eric Jones MD came up with an idea in "Hamlet and Oedipus". Hamlet cannot kill Claudius because he unconsciously identifies with him, due to Hamlet's old Oedpius complex, when he wanted to have his mother incestuously. Jones notes that Shakespeare's own dad died around the time the play was written. Nowadays, almost all psychiatrists will tell you that Freud's psychoanalysis is of historical interest, having shown very limited ability to predict the thoughts and actions of patients or to effect recovery. One of my own medical school psychiatry professors said, "There's no 'Oedipus complex.'" You can decide for yourself about Jones's claims.

Aaron Ravensoul Is Ophelia pregnant with Hamlet's baby? Hamlet was romantically interested in Ophelia, and she in him, and they lived in the same castle. Hamlet jokes with Polonius about how his daughter might become pregnant, a pregnant rich girl might be sent for secrecy's sake to a convent ("nunnery") and the child given for adoption, and Ophelia sings about lost virginity. We aren't going to know.

Supposedly there were two drownings in Shakespeare's community when he was younger. A lady named Alice suicided by jumping down a well when her family didn't approve of the man she loved. Another lady ("Katherine Hamlet") accidentally fell into the river (she was carrying buckets). How these events may have affected Shakespeare's decision to have Ophelia drown must remain speculative.

You've already noticed that Shakespeare follows a rule from his era -- the highest-ranking person on stage gets the first and last lines in each scene.

An easy high-school paper can focus on how different characters approach the questions posted in the "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy.

  • Ophelia is mostly passive. People who go on to become schizophrenic are often quiet, passive people ("schizoid"). Shakespeare probably noticed this.

  • Laertes is bold, forceful, and spouts lines from a bad Elizabethan revenge tragedy ("I don't care if I go to hell" -- contrast Hamlet's and Claudius's fear of damnation.)

  • Fortinbras bides his time, and grabs the opportunity.

  • Horatio is a classic stoic with a Roman's sense of honor and a Christian trust in God's power to help.

  • Polonius is a manipulator.

From Shakespeare's Era

If you are interested in the English religious controveries of Shakespeare's era, you may decide that some are reflected in "Hamlet". People who held to the Roman tradition might believe in Purgatory, a place of suffering where sins committed in life were burned away, and where sufferings could be eased by purchasing the ministry of the church. Before the Reformation, this had helped make the relgious orders wealthy, and also sparked the founding of schools and hospitals where the beneficiaries were asked to pray for the sould of their benefactors. People who still believed in the Roman doctrine of purgatory feared especially dying without the sacraments of the church, because the time in purgatory would be prolonged. The English government church forbidden even praying for the dead. Probably many people didn't like this. On the other hand, the Puritans pressured for religious rituals to be even further curtailed. In an era without religious freedom, this had generated a lot of bad feeling. Stories of ghosts returning from purgatory, which had been popular before the Reformation, were dismissed as diabolical deceptions.

For purposes of the plot, there is really no reason for Old Hamlet to talk about his being in torment or having died "with all his imperfections on his head" (i.e., unconfessed sins). Hamlet swears by Saint Patrick, who is sometimes described as the patron saint of Purgatory. Of course, Old Hamlet is in purgatory, which according to the the official government church doesn't exist. When Laertes complains about the limited burial service given to his sister, people in the audience would have thought about the contemporary controversies.

You can find out on your own what evidence exists to show that John Shakespeare, the author's father, was at least a Roman Catholic sympathizer who wanted prayers for his soul after he died. (Ask about documents found in Stratford centuries later.) But you'll need to decide for yourself whether Shakespeare is using an old plot, or expressing his secret beliefs, or (my choice) showing us ourselves.

More For Students

Background

Hamlet fish

Commentary:

    T.S. Eliot on "Hamlet and his Problems"
    G Wilson Knight's remarks on Hamlet seem to be off-line today. Shakespeare always divides our sympathies. Knight sees Hamlet as more the villain than Claudius is.
    Hamlet Online
    Introduction to Hamlet Postmodernist. "... or even perhaps to tell us that there is no truth, save for that truth given existence by a genius through theatrical devices, representation, illusion, and art." Uh?
    Hamlet for the Shakespeare-Impaired. Modern-language and humor. Highly recommended.
    No Fear -- text along with 21st-century English translation
    Hamlet: A Shortened Version in Modern English -- by my cyberfriends, John and Leela Hort
    Sixty-Second Shakespeare -- "Bloodbath at Danish Court -- 'Mad' Prince Hamlet Was Right All Along"
    A Night in Elsinore -- parody
    Trysto Hamlet -- extremely abridged, could be performed by small children
    Oor Hamlet -- mock Scots ballad, very funny.
    here, here, or here.
    McGoodwin Summary
    Shakespeare's Sonnets. A remarkable sequence even by today's standards. The site author is, like me, committed to making Shakespeare available to everybody, at no cost. Enjoy.

    shakespeare.about.com -- lots of good contemporary essays.
    Duane Morin -- an e-book is in preparation
    Absolute Shakespeare. Good introductions!
    .

    Teachers: Click here to begin your search for online essays intended for would-be plagiarists. "Dishonesty was your tragic flaw, kid!" Good luck.

    turnitin.com -- anti-plagiary software
    Plagtracker.com -- a new, free plagiary-catcher service


    Shakespeare Playing Cards

    The Undiscovered Country -- Hamlet site, promoting the author's e-book. Looks good.

    To the best of my knowledge, all the links on my literature pages are to free sites. In August 2000, the operator of the large for-profit help-with-homework online Shakespeare site offered to buy these pages out "for a price in the low four figures." I refused, and the site owner replied that "I wish you would just close down the domain and spare everybody from a lot of wasted time. It's a shame." This site will always remain free, to help everybody enjoy the works that I have, myself, enjoyed so much. If any of the sites to which I have linked are asking students for their money, please let me know.

    Hamlet Questions
    Shakespeare Illustrated

Ophalia by Jason Beam I've occasionally gotten E-mails from puzzled students whose instructors have told them that Hamlet is a villain. Upon inquiry, it's turned out that the instructor is a political extremist. (There are evidently people who hate Hamlet for expressing his doubts about conventional religion. There are evidently others who hate Hamlet and Shakespeare because they are the wrong race and gender and are not preoccupied with grievance-group special-interest politics.) If you run into this, handle it any way you want, remembering that the large majority of your classmates do not agree with the instructor. G. Wilson Knight once made an issue of the fact that in the prayer scene, Claudius is interested in forgiveness and Hamlet isn't, and that Claudius is right to have Hamlet killed because Hamlet is unstable and dangerous. Decide for yourself, remembering that in Shakespeare's works, our sympathies are always divided, and that this scene may have been a plot element from the older play. Another commentator makes political capital by voicing the same complaints about The Lion King ("Hamlet on the Savannah"). Accepting authority is bad, and fighting back is bad. There's no reasoning with people like this.

Videos:

Productions: Southeast Oklahoma

More:

    101 reasons to see Branagh's Hamlet
    Ethan Hawke's Hamlet is set in contemporary New York City. I liked it much better than most of the critics did. Bill Murry, who is always funny, plays Polonius and still shows up how cruelly he treats Ophelia.
    Hamlet and Ophelia in art
    Green Eggs and Hamlet
    Scooby Doo solves the mystery

    The popular movie "Coraline" quotes Hamlet's speech, "What a piece of work..." when the heroine, who is neglected by her parents, is tempted with false promises of a richer and more meaningful life. The theme of the book and movie, which surely explains their popularity, is that if parents don't attend to their children's needs to grow emotionally and mentally, someone else will. And it will probably be the wrong people.

    Robert H. Rempe, Ph.D. on Stoppard and Hamlet.
    Words and phrases by Shakespeare -- under development

Antony & Cleopatra -- just getting started
Julian of Norwich
King Lear
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
The Lady of Shalott
Macbeth
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Moby Dick
Oedipus the King -- including something about the "tragic hero" business

    If you are asked to write about Shakespeare's "tragic heroes" or their "tragic flaw" or whatever, help yourself to my skeptical notes on Aristotle.

    You may find it more rewarding to focus on something at once more obvious and more profound. Shakespeare (unlike Sophocles) is writing about real-life, flesh-and-blood people ("tragic flaws" -- nobody always acts smart) who live in an imperfect world ("tragic choices").

    In Shakespeare, our sympathies are usually divided among the characters. For this reason, Aristotle's thoughts on tragedy (i.e., people are imperfect) really seem more useful in discussing Shakespeare than in discussing Sophocles.

    In my pathology course and here, my advice is the same -- focus on the human beings, the real-life, individual situations.

Prometheus Bound
The Book of Thel
The Knight's Tale
The Seven Against Thebes
The Tyger
Timbuctoo
Twelfth Night


It has often been noted that The Lion King has plot elements in common with the Hamlet story that Shakespeare inherited.

You may also decide there are some common theme elements (real vs. fake friendship; bad government is bad for the country; despite what has happened to you, you can still be a hero).

If you decide that the philosophical Hakuna Matata ("Everything is fine") song is ironic, then the central theme of "The Lion King" is that life is by its nature full of troubles and wrongs, and you find its meaning in what you do about it this fact.

Of course, "compare and contrast" papers are for beginners.


I've received several requests for my thoughts on Othello, and wish I had time to put something together. For now, if you're asked to write on the play, here are two ideas.

(1) Look at the short story that provided the plot (click here. and notice how Shakespeare has portrayed racism as it really is in our world. Ordinary decent folks (i.e., the Venetian government) care only who a person is and what that person can do. They consider Brabantio a jerk for accepting a person of another race as a friend but not as a son-in-law. Iago, who for whatever reason has a chip on his shoulder, spews racial venom for his own dark reasons. Desdemona is originally frightened by someone who looks different, but quickly learns to love that person so that race become indifferent.

(2) It is very common for special-forces operatives who return to civilian life and/or who try to sustain a marriage to have terrible difficulties. Those who are successful deserve our special admiration. Too many become terribly confused and end up in self-destructive behaviors, both loving and hating. It's one of our world's strangest ironies that romantic love is more treacherous and incomprehensible than war.

Marin Shakespeare Company

Shylock and Jessica Likewise, it'll be a while before I can put anything online about "The Merchant of Venice." I do want to take a minute to ask people considering Shakespeare's presentation of Shylock to consider his era. In all but Shakespeare's earliest plays, our sympathies are always divided. Shakespeare's English contemporaries would seldom or never see a real Jew (they had been expelled from England in 1280), and the "stage Jew" of the time was an evil, comic figure. Nevertheless, Shakespeare is the first writer to present a Jew as a human being. And it is easy to understand why Shylock is bitter and angry. Even at the beginning, the protagonists of the play talk trash to him simply because he is a Jew, obviously without even thinking. It's impossible not to notice this. They invite Shylock to their party simply so that his daughter can rob him, and afterwards they are only amused when his feelings are trampled. The play is actually about anger -- and Shakespeare has chosen a Jew to represent somebody who is right to be angry. This is more than a progressive choice -- it must have taken a great deal of courage. Defending himself, Shylock points out the evils of slavery, which the Jews did not practice but which was accepted at the time by some Christians. (It was illegal in Shakespeare's England but would soon re-emerge in the colonies.) The most famous speech ("The quality of mercy...") anticipates what I've found to be Shakespeare's greatest theme, i.e., in a godless universe, our only hope is to be kind to one another. No matter what your grievance is, why not be the first to take the brave step to end the stupid hatreds that darken our world?

Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" may have been spoiled for you as required reading in high school, and/or by parodies of the balcony scene and/or a bad (left-wing, right-wing) college "Western Civ" course. Think: The play's about godawful teenaged murder-suicide. (Juliet is 14, Romeo 16.) Shakespeare's plot-source was a warning to teenagers to obey their parents. The themes of the play, which were pretty-much new with Shakespeare and very radical in his time, are (1) young people ought to be allowed to marry for love, not just whoever their parents choose for them; (2) young people's tragedies likely result from their parents' stupidity and meanness; (3) love matures people, and gives dignity, meaning, and beauty even in the worst of circumstances. By the way, did you notice that Papa Capulet is an old guy ("past [his] dancing days", thirty years since he was "in a mask"), but Mama Capulet was pregnant with Juliet at age 13. In other words, she was the old lecher's forced child-bride and she is setting up the same thing for Juliet. Forced marriage is still common (and the typical cause for a young girl's suicide) in much of our world. Did you notice that the Capulets are not terribly surprised to find Juliet dead on her wedding day? The fact that forced marriage is illegal in the United States and England may be due, at least in part, to the fact that we listened when Shakespeare showed us who we are.

E-mail me

I'm Ed. You can visit me at my own page and follow the links from there to my autopsy page, my notes on disease (the largest one-man online medical show, helping individuals around the world), my Adventure Gaming sites, or any of the other sites.

You can E-mail me at erf@kcumb.edu.

Brown University, Department of English -- my home base, 1969-1973.

    Fellow English majors -- Okay, okay, I know the commas are "supposed" to go inside the quotation marks and parentheses. This became standard to protect fragile bits of movable type. My practice lets me know I'm the one who's typed a particular document.

In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.

Anagram of:

    "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..."

Teens: Stay away from drugs, work yourself extremely hard in class or at your trade, play sports if and only if you like it, and get out of abusive relationships by any means. Tell the grownups who support you that you love them (no matter what the circumstances or what feelings you really harbor -- get guidance from other adults if you need it, and remember Polonius's advice, which works often enough in our crazy world). The best thing anybody can say about you is, "That kid likes to work too hard and isn't taking it easy like other young people."

Hamlet considers suicide. It is almost certainly a bad idea. Among young people who made serious attempts and failed, 99% said a year later that they are glad they failed.

To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/hamlet.htm

For Modern Language Association sticklers, the name of the site itself is "The Pathology Guy" and the Sponsoring Institution or Organization is Ed Friedlander MD.

Thanks for visiting. Health and friendship.

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    Athar: "Hamlet" is post-Christian.
    Bleakers: Sigh. Hamlet didn't find meaning, because there isn't any, but he did find peace.
    Ciphers: Hamlet found out he could act instead of brood.
    Doomguard: The court goes bad and everybody dies.
    Dust Folk: Hamlet finds peace in death.
    Free League: There are many meanings here.
    Godsfolk: Hamlet develops as a person.
    Guvnurs: Nowadays with good forensic pathology, we could have proved the case against Claudius without Hamlet having to take the law into his own hands.
    Hardheads: See what happens when law and order break down.
    Mercykillers: We love a good revenge play.
    Revolutionaries: Authority corrupts.
    Sensates: "Hamlet" showcases powerful feelings.
    Signers: There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
    Takers: Hamlet learned to quit moping and got what he wanted.
    Xaositects: Crazy make sense people the most.

"What is there about Shakespeare that would interest a contemporary American?"

Visitors send me this question from time to time.

If being a "contemporary American" means being focused on dirty TV sitcoms, greed, casual sex, big-money sports, shout-and-pout grievance-group politics, televangelism, professional wrestling, crybabies, slot machines, postmodernism, political action committees, and "war on drugs" profiteering... then the answer is probably "Nothing."

If a contemporary American can still ask, "Is life worth living in a world full of wrong? And can I live well?" -- then the answer is maybe that "Shakespeare deals with basic human issues."


Travis Morgan -- gym buddy, skydiver, long-term friend -- has a new site to help ordinary folks catch computer misbehavior.


Taser Video
83.4 MB
7:26 min
Click here to see the author prove you can have fun skydiving without being world-class.

Click here to see the author's friend, Dr. Ken Savage, do it right.