Hamlet is an enigma, a paradox, a multi-layered mystery. For centuries it has fascinated audiences, critics and scholars alike and some have called it Shakespeare’s most famous play. Even those who haven’t seen or read the play will find many of the lines familiar: “To be or not to be, that is the question”, “To sleep: perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”, “Frailty thy name is woman”, and many, many more.
As so often with Shakespeare, Hamlet is a recycling of an old tale. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a figure from Danish legend described in Saxo Grammaticus’ 12th Century Historiae Danicae and known to Elizabethan audiences through a 16th Century French translation. A more immediate source may have been the lost play, Ur-Hamlet, possibly written by Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), a successful dramatist and older contemporary of Shakespeare. Certainly Kyd is recognised as the undisputed master of the revenge play, a genre that became one of the most popular and successful types of drama on the Elizabethan stage. The themes of his The Spanish Tragedy are immediately recognisable in Hamlet: revenge, ghosts, impassioned soliloquies, spectacular murders, reflections on cosmic injustice and a play-within-a-play.
Written around 1600, shortly after Julius Caesar, whenhis reputation as a dramatist was well established, Shakespeare may have felt ready with Hamlet to present his audience with a deeper, more thoughtful challenge; a plot encompassing recognised themes but with no straightforward answers or conclusions. Indeed, it has been suggested that the play’s moral complexity, its psychological depth and philosophical power mark a considerable shift not just in Shakespeare’s career, but also in Western drama.
So what’s the play about? It’s a complex plot, but the simple, top-layer-of-the-onion answer is: Revenge.
Hamlet, young Prince of Denmark, is distraught by the mysterious death of his father and disturbed by the hasty marriage of his mother, Gertrude, to his uncle, Claudius. A ghostly apparition, resembling Hamlet’s father, orders the young prince to avenge a terrible murder – the king’s poisoning by Hamlet’s uncle, the man who has usurped the throne and taken his brother’s wife.
To keep his mother, his uncle and Lord Chamberlain, Polonius, at bay while he decides what to do, Hamlet’s questionable strategy is to feign madness. Given his already tortured disposition, it is quickly difficult for the audience (as for the play’s other characters) to discern the extent to which Hamlet’s madness is genuine or faked. His soliloquies contain many moments of clarity, intelligence and philosophical detachment; his interactions with the other characters are often convincingly deranged.
Hamlet intercepts a troupe of actors about to perform for the royal court and persuades them to re-enact the murder exactly as the Ghost has described. Claudius’s reaction to the play becomes Hamlet’s proof of guilt. He follows Claudius as he flees the room and finds him praying. Afraid that murder during prayer is a poor revenge, Hamlet delays and misses his moment. He then goes to confront his mother and accidentally kills Polonius, who has hidden behind a curtain. Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia, already confused by Hamlet’s erratic behaviour and withdrawal of love, goes mad with grief at the death of her father and drowns.
To avoid scandal, Hamlet is exiled to England but the ship is attacked and he escapes back to Denmark, just in time to face a vengeful Laertes. Polonius’ son has been persuaded by Claudius that Hamlet is to blame for the deaths of both his father and sister. A fencing match is arranged and Claudius hatches a plot to ensure Hamlet’s death whatever the outcome of the duel. It is a plot which goes horribly wrong.
In his dying moments, Hamlet asks Horatio to tell his story. But, what’s to tell? Even in his soliloquies – the accepted vehicle for expressing a character’s innermost thoughts – the prince does not reveal to anyone the source of his impenetrable melancholy. Do the roots of his despair lie more in suicide than revenge? Is his tortured soul – as suggested by Goethe and frequently portrayed on stage – that of a poet, sensitive, delicate and complex? Or, to take the Freudian approach, does he harbour an unresolved Oedipus complex which prevents him from taking action? Or, as Hamlet’s friends suggest, is he suffering simply from political ambition – a prince denied the throne?
The key to our mystery perhaps lies, therefore, in one line. Hamlet states that he has “that within which passeth show”. What “that within” might be remains one of the biggest talking points in English literature.