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Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
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Type of Work

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a tragedy. A tragedy is a dignified work in which the main character undergoes a struggle and suffers a downfall. In Shakespeare's plays, the main character of a tragedy is usually a person of noble heritage. A flaw in his personality, sometimes abetted by fate, brings about his downfall. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is also sometimes characterized as a revenge play in the tradition of the Roman playwright Seneca (4 BC-AD 65). Seneca, a tutor to Emperor Nero (AD 37-68), wrote plays that described in detail the grisly horror of murder and revenge. After Elizabethans began translating Seneca's works in 1559, writers read and relished them, then wrote plays imitating them. Shakespeare appears to have seasoned Hamlet and an earlier play, Titus Andronicus, with some of Seneca's ghoulish condiments.

Composition and Publication Dates

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet between 1599 and1601. The first performance was probably in 1602. It first appeared in print in 1603 in a pirated, unreliable version, published by Nicholas Ling and John Trundell. What happened was that the publishers or a person acting on their behalf copied the play hurriedly (perhaps during a performance). The copyist made many mistakes and omitted some passages. The play was republished within the next two years. In 1623, friends of Shakespeare (deceased by this time) published an authentic version of Hamlet and thirty-five other Shakespeare plays. The 1623 version is the one that appears in modern publications of Hamlet, with minor editorial changes in some editions. No reliable record exists of the date and place of the first performance of the play. There is a good chance that it debuted at London's Globe Theatre, completed in 1599. Shakespeare was a part-owner of the Globe.

Probable Main Sources

An important information source for Shakespeare was the third and fourth books of Gesta Danorum (The Deeds of the Danes), a Latin work by Saxo Grammaticus (1150?-1220?). Christiern Pedersen (1480-1554), a Danish humanist writer and printer, published the first edition of Gesta Danorum in Paris in 1514 with a different title: Historia Danica. Grammaticus wrote the book at the request of a priest named Absalon, who was the archbishop of Lund from 1177 or 1178 to 1201. Lund was then under the control of Denmark but is now part of Sweden. Gesta Danorum recounts the stories of sixty kings of Danish lands in Books 1 to 9 of the sixteen-volume work. Book 3 tells the tale of Amleth (the model for Hamlet) as he avenges the murder of his father, Horwendil, at the hands of Feng.

In Grammaticus's tale, Amleth lives on and becomes King of Jutland. (It is possible that Grammaticus based his tale on an Icelandic saga called Amlói.) The Amleth tale was retold in Histoires Tragiques (Tragic Stories), by François de Belleforest.

Shakespeare may also have drawn upon a lost play by Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), a play referred to as Ur-Hamlet (the prefix ur- means original), and a surviving Kyd play, The Spanish Tragedy (also spelled The Spanish Tragedie), in which the presentation of the character Hieronimo could have inspired Shakespeare's probing analysis of Hamlet. Regarding Ur-Hamlet, Shakespeare critic and scholar Peter Alexander—editor of a popular edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, first published in 1951—maintains that Ur-Hamlet was actually written by Shakespeare between 1587 and 1589 as a draft of the final version of the play. Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom supports this contention in a 2003 book entitled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (Riverhead Books, New York, page 124). Possible additional sources for Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are a tenth-century Celtic tale about a warrior named Amhlaide and an eleventh-century Persian tale from The Book of Kings (Shah-nameh), by Abu Ol-qasem Mansur.


The main setting is Elsinore Castle in eastern Denmark, which in real life is Kronborg Castle. It is on the Øresund strait separating the Danish island of Sjaelland (Zealand) from the Swedish province of Skåne and linking the Baltic Sea in the south to the Kattegat Strait in the north. Elsinore is a real town. Its Danish name is Helsingør. In Shakespeare's time, Elsinore was an extremely important port that fattened its coffers by charging a toll for ship passage through the Øresund strait.
Modern Elsinore, or Helsingør, is directly west of a Swedish city with a similar name, Helsingborg (or Hälsingborg). Within the city limits of Elsinore is Kronborg Castle, said to be the model for the Elsinore Castle of Shakespeare's play. Construction on the castle began in 1574, when Shakespeare was ten, and ended in 1585, when Shakespeare was twenty-one. It is believed that actors known to Shakespeare performed at Kronborg Castle. Other settings in Hamlet are a plain in Denmark, near Elsinore, and a churchyard near Elsinore. Offstage action in the play (referred to in dialogue) takes place on a ship bound for England from Denmark on which Hamlet replaces instructions to execute him (see the plot summary below) with instructions to execute his traitorous companions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.


The tone of the play is somber and foreboding. The tone becomes clear at the outset of the play in the exchange between Bernardo and Francisco as they stand watch on the castle:

BERNARDO:  ’Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
FRANCISCO:  For this relief much thanks; ’tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart. (1.1.9-11)

Note that it is midnight, that it is bitter cold, and that Francisco is "sick at heart." Moments later, when Horatio enters, Marcellus tells him of a "dreaded sight" that he and Bernardo saw on two nights while standing watch. Horatio is skeptical. But when Bernardo begins to report what they saw, using unsettling nature imagery, Marcellus interrupts him when the sight appears again:

BERNARDO:  Last night of all,
When yond same star that’s westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,—
MARCELLUS:  Peace! break thee off; look, where it comes again! (1.1.47-52)

Having established a dark, ominous tone or mood, Shakespeare then proceeds to unfold his tale. Revenge and death are in the air.


Hamlet: Son of a murdered Danish king (who was also named Hamlet) and nephew and stepson of the present king, Claudius. Hamlet suffers great mental anguish over the death of his father, the marriage of his mother to the suspected murderer (Claudius, the brother of the dead king), and the clash between his moral sense and his desire for revenge against his father's murderer. To ensnare the killer, Hamlet pretends madness. Some Shakespeare interpreters contend that he really does suffer a mental breakdown. Hamlet is highly intelligent and well liked by the citizens, although at times he can be petty and cruel. Hamlet is the protagonist, or main character. The play centers on him and his effort to avenge the murder of his father.
Claudius: The new king of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle and stepfather. He becomes king after Hamlet's father, the previous king, is found dead in his orchard. Hamlet suspects that Claudius murdered him.
Gertrude: Hamlet's mother and widow of the murdered king. She continues as queen of Denmark after she marries Claudius. That the marriage took place within two months after the late king's funeral deeply disturbs Hamlet.
Ghost of Hamlet's Father: An apparition of  old King Hamlet.
Polonius: Bootlicking lord chamberlain of King Claudius. A lord chamberlain managed a royal household.
Ophelia: Daughter of Polonius. She loves Hamlet, but his pretended madness—during which he rejects her—and the death of her father trigger a pathological reaction in her.
  Horatio: Hamlet's best friend. Horatio never wavers in his loyalty to Hamlet. At the end of  the play, he recites immortal lines: "Good night, sweet prince, /  And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" (5.2.304-305).
Laertes: Son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia. Circumstances make him an enemy of Hamlet, and they duel to the death in a fencing match near the end the play. As a man who reacts to circumstances quickly, with a minimum of reflection on the meaning and possible outcome of his actions, Laertes contrasts sharply with the pensive and indecisive Hamlet and, thus, serves as his foil.
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern: Courtiers and friends of Hamlet who attended school with him. They turn against him to act as spies for Claudius and agents in Claudius's scheme to have Hamlet murdered in England. Hamlet quickly smells out their deception and treachery.
Marcellus, Bernardo: Officers who are the first to see the ghost of Hamlet's father.
Francisco: Another officer.
Voltimand, Cornelius, Osric: Courtiers who bear messages for the king. Osric informs Hamlet of the fencing match arranged for him and Laertes. A courtier is an attendant at the court of a monarch.
Reynaldo: Servant of Polonius.
Fortinbras: Prince of Norway, who is on the march with an army. In battlefield combat (referred to in the play but not taking place during the play), old King Hamlet slew the father of Fortinbras and annexed Norwegian territory. Fortinbras seeks revenge.
Players: Actors who arrive at Elsinore to offer an entertainment. Hamlet directs one of them, referred to as the First Player, to stage a drama called The Mouse-trap, about a throne-seeker who murders a king. Hamlet hopes the play will cause Claudius to react in a way that reveals his guilt as the murderer of old King Hamlet. As The Mouse-trap unfolds on a stage at Elsinore, the actors are referred to as the following:
Prologue: Actor presenting a one-sentence prologue to the play.
Player King: Actor portraying a king (whom Hamlet refers to as Gonzago, the Duke of Vienna).
Player Queen: Actor portraying the queen (whom Hamlet refers to as Baptista, the Duchess of Vienna).
Lucianus: Actor portraying the king's nephew and his murderer.
Clowns (Gravediggers): Two peasants who dig Ophelia's grave. The word clown in Shakespeare's time often referred to a peasant or rustic.
Yorick: Court jester of old King Hamlet. He amused and looked after the younger Hamlet when the latter was a child. Yorick is dead during the play, But his skull, which one of the gravediggers exhumes in Act 5, Scene 1, arouses old memories in Hamlet that provide a glimpse of his childhood. The skull also feeds Hamlet's morbid preoccupation with death.
Claudio: Man who relays messages for the king and queen from Hamlet after he escapes from a ship carrying him to England.
Minor Characters: Ship captain, English ambassadors, lords, ladies, officers, soldiers, sailors, messengers, attendants.
Special Character Designations
Protagonist: Hamlet is the protagonist, or main character. The play centers on him and his effort to avenge the murder of his father.
Antagonists: Claudius is the flesh-and-blood antagonist (an opponent of the protagonist). He spends much of his time plotting against Hamlet. Another antagonist is an abstract one: Hamlet's indecisiveness in acting against Claudius.
Foil of Hamlet: Laertes is the main foil of Hamlet. A foil is a character who contrasts sharply with another character. Laertes is decisive and even headstrong whereas Hamlet is indecisive and procrastinating.

Plot Summary

At midnight behind the battlements at the top of Elsinore castle in eastern Denmark, an officer named Bernardo arrives to relieve Francisco, another officer who has been standing guard in the frigid air during an uneventful watch. "Not a mouse stirring" (1.1.13), Francisco reports as he leaves. Two other men, Horatio and Marcellus, arrive a moment later. Marcellus inquires, "What, has this thing appeared again to-night?" (1.1.31). The "thing" is a ghost that Marcellus says has appeared twice on the top of the castle to him and Bernardo. Horatio doubts the story, believing the specter is a child of their imaginations.

While Bernardo attempts to convince Horatio of the truth of the tale, the apparition appears again—a ghost in the form of the recently deceased King Hamlet, outfitted in the armor he wore when warring against Norway and slaying its king, Fortinbras. Horatio questions the phantom. But just as quickly as it appeared, it disappears. Horatio, grown pale with fright, says, "This bodes some strange eruption to our state" (1.1.85). His words foreshadow all the tragic action to follow. The ghost reappears, then disappears again.

Prince Hamlet, the son of the late king, learned of the death of his father while studying at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. When he returns to Denmark to attend the funeral, grief smites him deeply. The king's brother, Claudius, has taken the throne, even though Hamlet has a claim on it as the son of the deceased king. In addition, Claudius has married the late king's widow, Gertrude—Hamlet's mother—in little more than a month after old Hamlet died, a development that deeply distresses young Hamlet. In a soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his opposition to the marriage, his loathing of Claudius, and his disappointment in his mother:

A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears:—why she, even she—
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer—married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (1.2.151-161)

The words incestuous sheets in line 161 reflect the belief, prevalent in Europe at and before Shakespeare's time, that marriage between in-laws—Claudius had been Gertrude's brother-in-law before he married her—was a form of incest.

 As a first priority as king, Claudius prepares to thwart an expected invasion of Norwegian troops under Prince Fortinbras, the son of a Norwegian king slain in battle years earlier by old King Hamlet. Fortinbras apparently has a double goal: to avenge the death of his father (old King Fortinbras) and to win back territory the Norwegians lost to the Danes.

In the meantime, Hamlet's best friend, Horatio, tells the young prince the amazing story of the ghost. He says two guards, Bernardo and Marcellus, have reported seeing on two nights an apparition of old King Hamlet on the top of the royal castle. On the third night, Horatio says, he accompanied the guards and himself saw the apparition. ''I will watch to-night,'' Hamlet says (1.2.260).

Another young man at Elsinore—Laertes, son of the king's lord chamberlain, Polonius—is preparing to leave for France to study at the University of Paris. Before debarking, he gives advice to his sister, Ophelia, who has received the attentions of Hamlet from time to time, attentions that Ophelia apparently welcomes. Laertes advises her that Hamlet's attentions are a passing fancy; he is merely dallying with her.

For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute;
No more. (1.3.8-13)

In other words, Laertes says, Ophelia should be wary of Hamlet's courtesies and flirtations. They are, Laertes maintains, mere trifles that are sweet but not lasting. Before he debarks for Paris, Laertes receives advice from his father, Polonius:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee! (1.3.82-88)

After Laertes leaves and day yields to night, Hamlet meets on the castle roof with Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo at his side. By and by, Hamlet sees the Ghost but is uncertain whether it is the spirit of his father or the devil in disguise.

Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damn'd
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy interests wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. (1.4.46-50)

When Hamlet questions the Ghost, it says, "I am thy father's spirit, / Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night" (1.5.16). The Ghost tells him to revenge a "foul and most unnatural murder" (1.5.31) committed by Claudius. According to the Ghost's tale, Claudius poured a vial of poison extracted from a plant of the nightshade family (henbane, also called hemblane) into old King Hamlet's ear while the king was asleep, robbing him, "of life, of crown, of queen" (1.5.83). Claudius had committed the murder when King Hamlet had sin on his soul, the better to send him to the fiery regions of purgatory (in Roman Catholic theology, a place or state of being in which a soul purges itself of sin to become eligible for heaven).

 Hamlet makes Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus swear on the hilt of his sword (where the handle and a protective bar intersect, forming a cross suitable for oath-taking) never to reveal what they saw. While attempting to verify the ghost's story, Hamlet tells the others he will pretend to be mad, putting on an "antic [clownish; odd; mentally unstable] disposition" (1.5.194).

It is Ophelia, Hamlet's beloved, who first reports that he has been acting strangely. She tells her father, Polonius, the nosy lord chamberlain, that Hamlet had burst in upon her while she was sewing. His face white, his eyes crazed, he took her by the wrist, peered into her eyes, then left the room. Polonius runs to King Claudius and repeats Ophelia's report. Claudius suspects there is something sane and threatening behind Hamlet's strange behavior. So he directs two school acquaintances of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch the prince to find out the truth.

When traveling actors come to Elsinore to entertain, Hamlet engages them to stage a play, which he calls The Mouse-trap. In the play, a throne-seeker uses poison to murder a ruler named Gonzago. Claudius's reaction to the play will reveal his guilt, Hamlet believes, "For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ" (2.2.427-428). Such a revelation would confirm that the ghost was indeed telling the truth.

Meanwhile, Fortinbras sends word that he will not make war on Denmark if King Claudius allows him to march through the country to invade Poland. Claudius agrees.

After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to fathom the meaning of Hamlet's "madness," Claudius and Polonius secretly observe Hamlet conversing with Ophelia. During the conversation, Hamlet rejects and insults Ophelia as his apparent madness worsens. His words deeply wound her, and there is a question whether he is transferring to poor, frail Ophelia the loathing and anger he feels toward his mother for her marriage to Claudius. Claudius, unsure whether Hamlet pretends insanity to disguise a scheme or is really mad, decides to rid the court of his unsettling presence by sending him to England on a contrived political mission. There, while conducting the court's business, he will be murdered.

While the actors present the play, they stage a murder in which an actor pours ''poison'' into the ear of another actor playing the ruler, Gonzago. The scene so unnerves King Claudius that he rises and ends the play abruptly. His reaction convinces Hamlet of Claudius's guilt. Claudius murdered Hamlet's father; there can be no doubt of it.

Queen Gertrude reproves Hamlet for upsetting Claudius by staging the play. Hamlet in turn rebukes her for her hasty marriage. Polonius, meanwhile, has positioned himself out of sight behind a wall tapestry (called an arras) to eavesdrop. When Hamlet sees the tapestry move, he stabs through it and kills Polonius, thinking he is Claudius. After Hamlet discovers his fatal mistake, the ghost reappears to remind Hamlet of his duty. When Hamlet speaks with the apparition, Gertrude cannot see the ghost and concludes that her son is indeed insane. Later she tells Claudius that Hamlet, in a fit of madness, killed Polonius.

Claudius sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who carry sealed papers ordering Hamlet's execution after the ship's arrival. At sea, Hamlet discovers the papers in a sealed packet while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are asleep and writes a new commission ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, then re-seals the papers and places them in the packet. The next day, pirates attack the ship. Hamlet escapes and hitches a ride with them back to Denmark. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive in England and present the sealed papers, they are executed.

Meantime, Ophelia, distraught over her father's death and the apparent loss of Hamlet's love, drowns in a brook—at first floating until her clothing, heavy with water, pulls her down. She had climbed a tree and crawled out on a limb. The limb broke, and she fell into the water. The consensus at Elsinore is that she committed suicide.

Upon his return to Denmark, Hamlet encounters Horatio and they pass through a cemetery where two men are digging a grave. The first gravedigger sings as he digs and throws out a skull. Shocked, Hamlet tells Horatio, "That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once; how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain's jaw-bone, that did the first murder!" (5.1.34). The man continues to dig and throws out another skull. Hamlet says, "May not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about . . . ?" (5.1.40). After Hamlet strikes up a conversation with the gravedigger, the latter tells him that the second skull was that of Yorick, old King Hamlet's jester when Hamlet was a child. Holding the skull, Hamlet recites a short speech about Yorick that underscores Hamlet's preoccupation with death.

A funeral procession approaches. Hamlet is unaware that the body being borne aloft is Ophelia's. It is she who will be lowered into the grave. When Hamlet sees her face, and when Laertes sees the face of Hamlet, the two men grapple, tumbling into the grave. Laertes means to avenge the deaths of his father, Polonius, and his sister, Ophelia. Attendants part them, and Hamlet declares,

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. (5.1.155-157)

Later, in secret, Laertes and Claudius plot against Hamlet and poison the tip of a sword Laertes is to use against Hamlet in a fencing match designed as an entertainment. For good measure, Claudius prepares poisoned wine he will offer Hamlet during the match. Osric, a courtier and messenger of the king, informs Hamlet of the details of the match. Hamlet is unaware of the deadly plot against him.

During the competition, Hamlet performs brilliantly, and Claudius offers him the cup of wine. But Hamlet and Laertes fight on. Meanwhile, Gertrude takes the cup, telling Hamlet, "The queen carouses to thy fortune" (5.1.224) and, before the king can stop her, she drinks the wine. Laertes grazes Hamlet with the poisoned rapier, breaking his skin and envenoming his bloodstream. Swords wave and poke wildly, and the fencers drop their weapons and accidentally exchange them. Hamlet then wounds Laertes with the same poisoned rapier. Both men are bleeding. A short while later, the queen keels over. To divert attention from the drink and himself, Claudius says Gertrude has fainted from the sight of blood. But Gertrude, drawing her last breath before dying, says, "The drink, the drink; I am poison'd." Everyone now knows that Claudius had offered Hamlet poisoned wine.

Before Laertes dies, he reconciles with Hamlet and implicates Claudius in the scheme to undo Hamlet. Hamlet then runs Claudius through, killing him. As Hamlet lies mortally wounded from the poison on the tip of Laertes sword, Prince Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore with his army after his conquest of Poland. Hamlet tells Horatio that he wishes the crown of Denmark to pass to Fortinbras. Then Hamlet dies. Ambassadors from England arrive to report the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Horatio announces that he will inform the world of the events leading up to the deaths of Hamlet and the others. While soldiers bear off the bodies in a solemn procession, canons fire a salute.

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Conflicts drive the action in the play. The main external conflict is between Hamlet and the killer of his father, Claudius. While Hamlet is attempting to confirm Claudius's guilt, Claudius is plotting and executing a plan to murder Hamlet. Hamlet is also in conflict with (1) his mother, whom he believes betrayed the memory of his father by marrying so soon after King Hamlet's death; (2) Ophelia, whom Hamlet treats with perplexing and sometimes insulting behavior; and (3) Laertes, whom Hamlet outraged by killing his father. Laertes also believes that Hamlet indirectly caused Ophelia's death. Finally, Hamlet is in conflict with himself.

Climax and Denouement

The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax in Hamlet occurs, according to the first definition, when Hamlet satisfies himself that Claudius is indeed the murderer of his father—thanks to Claudius's guilty response to the players' enactment of The Mouse-trap (The Murder of Gonzago). According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act during and just after the sword fight.

The denouement is the conclusion that follows the climax of a play. The conclusion in Hamlet takes place when Prince Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore with his army after his conquest of Poland. Hamlet tells Horatio that he wishes the crown of Denmark to pass to Fortinbras. Then Hamlet dies. Ambassadors from England arrive to report the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Horatio announces that he will inform the world of the events leading up to the deaths of Hamlet and the others. While soldiers bear off the bodies in a solemn procession, canons fire a salute.



Hamlet has an obligation to avenge his father’s murder, according to the customs of his time. But he also has an obligation to abide by the moral law, which dictates, “Thou shalt not kill.” Consequently, Hamlet has great difficulty deciding what to do and thus hesitates to take decisive action. While struggling with his conscience, Hamlet time and again postpones carrying out the ghost's decree. In the meantime, he becomes cynical, pessimistic, depressed. He tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,

    I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither. . . . (2.2.250)

In his famous critiques of Shakespeare’s works, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) has written:

        He [Hamlet] is all dispatch and resolution as far as words and present intentions are concerned, but all hesitation and irresolution when called upon to carry his words and intentions into effect; so that, resolving to do everything, he does nothing. He is full of purpose but void of that quality of mind which accomplishes purpose. . . . Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth that action is the chief end of existence—that no faculties of intellect, however brilliant, can be considered valuable, or indeed otherwise than as misfortunes, if they withdraw us from or rend us repugnant to action, and lead us to think and think of doing until the time has elapsed when we can do anything effectually. (Lectures and Notes on Shakspere [Shakespeare] and Other English Poets. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904, page 164)

Inherited Sin and Corruption

Humans are fallen creatures, victims of the devil’s trickery as described in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Allusions or direct references to Adam, the Garden of Eden, and original sin occur throughout the play. In the first act, Shakespeare discloses that King Hamlet died in an orchard (Garden of Eden) from the bite of a serpent (Claudius). Later, Hamlet alludes to the burdens imposed by original sin when he says, in his famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, that the “flesh is heir to” tribulation in the form of “heart-ache” and a “thousand natural shocks” (3.1.72-73). In the third scene of the same act, Claudius compares himself with the biblical Cain. In Genesis, Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, kills his brother, Abel, the second son, after God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Like Cain, Claudius kills his brother (old King Hamlet). Claudius recognizes his Cain-like crime when he says:

O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder. (3.3.42-44)

 In Act 5, the second gravedigger tells the first gravedigger that Ophelia, who apparently committed suicide, would not receive a Christian burial if she were a commoner instead of a noble. In his reply, the first gravedigger refers directly to Adam: "Why, there thou sayest: and the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian. Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam’s profession" (5.1.13). After the gravedigger tosses Yorick’s skull to Hamlet, the prince observes: “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder!” (5.1.34). All of these references to Genesis seem to suggest that Hamlet is a kind of Everyman who inherits “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”—that is, the effects of original sin.

Sons Seeking Revenge

Young Fortinbras seeks revenge against Elsinore because King Hamlet had killed the father of Fortinbras, King Fortinbras. Hamlet seeks to avenge the murder of his father, King Hamlet, by Claudius, the king’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle. Laertes seeks revenge against Hamlet for killing his father, Polonius, the lord chamberlain.


Deception is a major motif in Hamlet. On the one hand, Claudius pretends to be cordial and loving toward Hamlet to conceal his murder of Hamlet’s father. On the other, Hamlet conceals his knowledge of the murder. He also wonders whether the Ghost is deceiving him, pretending to be old King Hamlet when he is really a devil. Polonius secretly tattles on Hamlet to Claudius. Hamlet feigns madness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pretend to have Hamlet’s best interests at heart while attempting to carry out Claudius’s scheme to kill Hamlet. After that scheme fails, Claudius and Laertes connive to kill Hamlet during the fencing match. However, that scheme also goes awry when Gertrude drinks from a poisoned cup secretly prepared for Hamlet.


Claudius so covets the throne that he murders his own brother, King Hamlet, to win it. In this respect he is like Macbeth and Richard III in other Shakespeare plays, who also murder their way to the throne. Whether Claudius’s ambition to be king was stronger than his desire to marry Gertrude is arguable. But both were factors, as he admits to himself in when he reflects on his guilt: “I am still possessed / Of those effects for which I did the murder, / My crown, mine own ambition and my queen. . .” (3.3.60-61).


Hamlet is loyal to his father’s memory, as is Laertes to the memory of his father, Polonius, and his sister, Ophelia. Gertrude is torn between loyalty to Claudius and Hamlet. Horatio remains loyal to Hamlet to the end. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, school pals of Hamlet, betray Hamlet and spy on him.

Mischance and Serendipity

Hamlet “just happens” to kill Polonius. Pirates “just happen” to rescue Hamlet. Hamlet “just happens” to come across Ophelia’s funeral upon his return to Denmark. Hamlet and Laertes “just happen” to exchange swords—one of them with a poisoned tip—in their duel. Gertrude “just happens” to drink from a poisoned cup meant for Hamlet. Fate, or unabashed plot contrivance, works its wonders in this Shakespeare play.

Christ-like Hamlet

Hamlet is like Christ, Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) has observed, in that he struggles against the old order, which requires an eye for and eye. Christ preached against revenge.

Madness: Pretended and Real

In his attempt to prove Claudius’s guilt, Hamlet puts on an “antic disposition" (1.5.194)—that is, he pretends to be mad. In so doing he is able to say and do things that confuse and perplex others while he conducts his murder investigation. But, in the process, does he really become mentally unbalanced? That is a question for debate. But there is no question that he suffers deep mental anguish characterized by indecision and depression.

Nor is there any doubt that Ophelia suffers a mental breakdown. Like other young ladies of her time, she has to accept the will of the men around her: her father, her brother, the king, and of course Hamlet. She is not allowed to have a mind of her own. Consequently, she does not know what to do after circumstances isolate her. Laertes goes off to school, Hamlet rejects her, and then her father dies. Meanwhile, the king centers his attention on ridding Elsinore of Hamlet. It is Hamlet's rejection of Ophelia and her father's death that are the biggest blows to her sanity. Hamlet, disgusted with his mother's marriage (making her, in his mind, a wanton who yields her body to her late husband's brother), seems to transfer his disgust to delicate Ophelia, telling her, "Get thee to a nunnery: Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" (3.1.125). Hamlet is saying that Ophelia is unworthy to marry and bear children, who would be sinners. Instead, she should enter a nunnery, a convent for nuns. Nunnery was also used in Shakespeare's time as a slang term for a brothel. So it could be that Hamlet is telling Ophelia that she is no better than a common whore or prostitute. Ophelia's presence in the play helps to reveal Hamlet's thinking, in particular his detestation of women as a result of his mother's hasty marriage to vile Claudius.

Serpentine Satan

Imagery throughout the play dwells on Satan’s toxic influence on Elsinore and its inhabitants. Particularly striking are the snake metaphors. It is the venom of a serpent (in the person of Claudius) that kills old King Hamlet. Claudius, remember, had poured poison into the king’s ear as reported by the Ghost of the old king: While “sleeping in mine orchard,” the Ghost says, “A serpent stung me” (1.5.42-43). It is a sword—a steel snake, as it were—that kills Polonius, Hamlet, Laertes, and Claudius. (The sword that kills Hamlet and Laertes is tipped with poison.) Moreover, it is a poisoned drink that kills Gertrude. As for Ophelia, it is poisoned words that undo her. The word poison and its forms (such as poisons, poisoner, and poisoning) occur thirteen times in the play. Serpent occurs twice, venom or envenom six times, devil nine times, and hell or hellish eleven times. Garden (as a symbol for the Garden of Eden) or gardener occurs three times. Adam occurs twice.

Ambiguous Spirit World

In Shakespeare’s time, ghosts were thought by some people to be devils masquerading as dead loved ones and trying to win souls for Satan. It is understandable, then, that Hamlet is reluctant at first to believe that the Ghost on the roof of the castle is really the spirit of his father. Hamlet acknowledges his doubt:

The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. (2.2.433-438)

Empty Existence

Time and again, Hamlet bemoans the uselessness and emptiness of life. He would kill himself if his conscience would let him, as his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy reveals. But as a Roman Catholic, he cannot go against the tenets of his religion, which forbids suicide.

How Old Is Hamlet?

Early in the play, Shakespeare suggests that Hamlet is in his teens or perhaps about twenty. But in the churchyard in Act 5, the first gravedigger—holding up the skull of the late King Hamlet’s jester, Yorick, who was Hamlet’s childhood babysitter—says that “this skull hath lain you i’ the earth three-and-twenty years” (5.1.73). Hamlet’s age when Yorick died was about seven. According to this information, Hamlet should be about thirty. What’s going on? Probably this: In an edition of the play published in the early 1600s, the gravedigger says Yorick has been dead for only twelve years, which would make Hamlet about nineteen. Here is the line spoken by the gravedigger in that edition: “Here’s a scull [skull] hath bin here this dozen yeare [year].” However, in the 1623 folio edition of the play, Yorick has been dead for twenty-three years, as stated by the gravedigger. Apparently, the eleven-year discrepancy between the two editions was the result of an editing error. What it all means is that Hamlet is only nineteen or twenty.

The Women in Hamlet: Shrinking Violets

Shakespeare’s plays are well populated with strong women who lead or influence men. Examples are Portia (The Merchant of Venice), Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra), Volumnia (Coriolanus), Queen Elinor and Constance (King John), and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing). However, in Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia are both weaklings who are dominated by men.

In the second scene of the first act, Hamlet, deeply disturbed that his mother (Gertrude) has married Claudius a short time after the death of old King Hamlet, says, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (150). Hamlet well realizes that fickle Gertrude wants, needs, requires marriage—impropriety notwithstanding—to satisfy her desire for attention. As the new Mrs. Claudius, she is totally submissive to the king's will; to offer an original thought that might offend him is out of the question. Ophelia also keeps her place. Like Gertrude, she is totally dependent on a male—in her case, her father. Even though she loves Hamlet, she agrees to help her father spy on Hamlet. When Laertes returns to Elsinore from France, she says, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.” In other words, Ophelia herself withered; her spirit died.

The Meaning of "To be, or not to be"

Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (3.1.66) is one of the most famous passages in English drama and one of the most-often quoted. Its fame lies partly in the attention it receives from the endless debates it has generated about what it means. It is currently fashionable to oppose the traditional view that the passage is a deliberation in which Hamlet is trying to decide whether to commit suicide. Anti-suicide champions argue that Hamlet is really deliberating what course of action to take—or not to take—to ravel his sleeve of woe while retaining life and limb.

Which view is right? Probably the traditional view—that Hamlet is contemplating suicide with his bare bodkin. However, because Shakespeare carried ambiguity to the extreme in this passage instead of speaking his mind plainly, there is plenty of room to argue otherwise. Leading his readers through the tangled dendrites in Hamlet’s brain, Shakespeare bewilders his audience. Admittedly, though, it is jolly good fun to try to solve the passage. In the end, though, it appears that Hamlet is indeed considering suicide in this passage.

Female Hamlet

About twenty centuries before the birth of Shakespeare, the Greek playwright Sophocles (circa 497-406 BC) completed one of the finest plays in history, Electra, about a young woman from Greek myth who resembles Hamlet in temperament and who struggles against circumstances almost identical to Hamlet’s. Her father, King Agamemnon, had been murdered by her mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, who succeeds to the throne. (Hamlet’s father, old King Hamlet, was murdered by Claudius, who succeeds to the throne and marries the late king’s wife—Hamlet’s mother—Gertrude.) Like Hamlet, Electra seeks to avenge her father’s death. But in plotting the deed with her brother, Orestes, she suffers deep anguish, like Hamlet, marked by bouts of melancholy. At times Hamlet seems a carbon copy of Electra. There is no evidence suggesting that Shakespeare used Sophocles as a source for Hamlet, but it would be no great surprise if a historical document turned up suggesting that he did.

What's in a Name?

It is possible that the first syllable of Hamlet's name derives from a German word, hamm, meaning enclosed area. But his name could mimic the English word hamlet, suggesting that Hamlet is a small world unto himself. Claudius, the name of King Hamlet's murderer, derives from the Latin word claudus, meaning lame. In one sense, Claudius is indeed lame. His evil deeds hamstring him, making him incapable of ruling Elsinore while Hamlet is on the prowl. Horatio, the name of Hamlet's loyal friend, is of Latin origin and may well refer to the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known as Horace, whose major themes include love and friendship. Fortinbras, the level-headed Norwegian prince who arrives in Elsinore at the end of the play to take command and bring stability, may be so-named to suggest strength of arm (Latin, fortis: strong; French, bras: arm). Gertrude, the name of Hamlet's mother, who is Claudius's queen, means in old German spear (Ger-) and dear (-trut). Gertrude, of course, wounds Hamlet by marrying Claudius (hence, Ger-) but remains special to him as his mother (hence, -trut).

Allusion to the War of the Theaters

Between 1599 and 1600, two companies of boy actors—Paul’s Boys and the Children of the Chapel—gained enthusiastic followings in London. In fact, so popular did the boys become that they attracted large numbers of theatergoers away from adult acting companies. But the boy companies were rivals not only of their adult counterparts but also of each other. Ben Jonson 1572-1637), the chief playwright for the Children of the Chapel, despised the chief playwright for Paul’s Boys, John Marston (1576-1634). They lambasted each other in allusions in their plays, precipitating a “war of the theaters.” In the second scene of the second act of Hamlet, Shakespeare comments on the fascination with the boy actors. The occasion is the arrival of a company of adult actors (tragedians) at Elsinore to stage an entertainment, actors whom Hamlet had already seen in stage plays. When Hamlet asks Rosencrantz whether these adult actors remain as popular as ever, Rosencrantz says no. Here is the dialogue:

HAMLET:  Do they [the arriving adult actors] hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? are they so followed?
ROSENCRANTZ:  No, indeed, are they not.
HAMLET:  How comes it? do they grow rusty?
ROSENCRANTZ:  Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for't: these are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages—so they call them—that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.             
HAMLET:  What, are they children? who maintains 'em? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing? will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players—as it is most like, if their means are no better—their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession?
ROSENCRANTZ:  'Faith, there has been much to do on both sides; and the nation holds it no sin to tarre them to controversy: there was, for a while, no money bid for argument, unless the poet and the player went to cuffs in the question.
HAMLET:  Is't possible?
GUILDENSTERN:  O, there has been much throwing about of brains.
HAMLET:  Do the boys carry it away?
ROSENCRANTZ:  Ay, that they do, my lord; Hercules and his load too.

Why Hamlet Is All of Us

       English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote that one reason for the appeal and success of Hamlet is that audience members and readers recognize themselves in the main character. Hazlitt said:

Hamlet is a name: his speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poet's brain. What then, are they not real? They are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the reader's mind. It is we who are Hamlet. This play has a prophetic truth, which is above that of history. Whoever has become thoughtful and melancholy through his own mishaps or those of others; whoever has borne about with him the clouded brow of reflection, and thought himself "too much i' th' sun;" whoever has seen the golden lamp of day dimmed by envious mists rising in his own breast, and could find in the world before him only a dull blank with nothing left remarkable in it; whoever has known "the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office, or the spurns which patient merit of the unworthy takes;" he who has felt his mind sink within him, and sadness cling to his heart like a malady, who has had his hopes blighted and his youth staggered by the apparitions of strange things; who cannot be well at ease, while he sees evil hovering near him like a spectre; whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought, he to whom the universe seems infinite, and himself nothing; whose bitterness of soul makes him careless of consequences, and who goes to play as his best resource to shove off, to a second remove, the evils of life by a mock-representation of them—this is the true Hamlet. . . . [Hamlet) is the one of Shakespear's plays that we think of oftenest, because it abounds most in striking reflections on human life, and because the distresses of Hamlet are transferred, by the turn of his mind, to the general account of humanity. (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817)

Shakespeare and the Booths

Edwin Booth, one of the nineteenth Century's greatest Shakespearean actors, was the brother of actor John Wilkes Booth, assassin of the sixteenth U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln. The Booth brothers were sons of Junius Brutus Booth, an actor born in London. The latter's middle name was the same as that of the most prominent assassin of Julius Caesar. Ironically, Edwin and John Wilkes portrayed Brutus and Mark Antony in a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the Winter Garten Theatre in New York on November 25, 1864, the 300th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare. After John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Edwin Booth observed the following in a published letter:

The news of the morning has made me wretched, indeed, not only because I have received the unhappy tidings of the suspicions of a brother's crime, but because a good man and a most justly honored and patriotic ruler has fallen in an hour of national joy by the hand of an assassin. The memory of the thousands who have fallen on the field in our common country's defence during this struggle, cannot be forgotten by me even in this the most distressing day of my life. And I most sincerely pray that the victories we have already won may stay the brand of war and the tide of loyal blood.

While mourning in common with all other loyal hearts, the death of the President, I am oppressed by a private woe not to be expressed in words. But whatever calamity may befall me or mine, my country, one and indivisible, has been my warmest devotion. EDWIN BOOTH. (quoted in The New York Times on April 19, 1865, after the letter—addressed to Henry C. Jarret, Esq., and dated April 15, 1865—was published in Boston newspapers)

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in Hamlet.


Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds, as indicated by the boldfaced letters below.

With which she follow’d my poor father’s body. (1.2.152)
And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch. (1.3.20)  
I know a hawk from a handsaw. (2.2.272) 
Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! (3.4.39) 
The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit. (5.2.298)


Anaphora is the repetition of a word, phrase, clause, or sentence at or near the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other, as indicated by the boldfaced words below.

’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, modes, shows of grief,
That can denote me truly. (1.2.-81-86)

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love. (2.2.125-128)

How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters;
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause. (5.2.329-332)


An epithet is a miniature portrait that identifies a person or thing by a prominent characteristic of that person or thing. Often, an epithet follows a name to form a title, as in Ivan the Terrible, Richard the Lion-Hearted, or Alexander the Great. (The underlined words are the epithets.) Sometimes an epithet appears without a named person. The Great Emancipator, for example, is an epithet for Abraham Lincoln. The Brown Bomber is an epithet for the great African-American boxer, Joe Louis. Following is an epithet from Hamlet.

O! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!  (1.2.133-136)
[Everlasting is an epithet for God.]


Hyperbole is an exaggeration or overstatement, as the following examples demonstrate.

By ’r lady, your ladyship is nearer heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine. (2.2.301)
[Hamlet tells one of the players that he is nearer to heaven because of the thick-soled shoes (chopines) that he wears. (Males played women's parts in the plays of Shakespeare's time.)]

Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers, . . . get me a fellowship in a cry of players, sir? (3.2.210)
[Hamlet speaks these words to one of the actors, asking whether his acting ability would get him a job as a player if he wore plumes—as actors often did. The phrase forest of feathers is a hyperbole.

Irony, Dramatic

Dramatic irony is a situation in a play or another literary work in which the audience or the reader grasps the irony or incongruity of the words or attitude of a character when the character does not. Here is an example:

Our late dear brother’s death (1.2.21)
The king is speaking to Gertrude and other characters. The audience is aware that Claudius, who refers to the late King Hamlet as dear, murdered the king. Gertrude is not aware of his foul deed.


A metaphor is a comparison between unlike things. In making the comparison, it does not use like, as, or than. Note the following examples.

                                         The moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse. (1.1.135-137)
[Comparison of the moon to a star and the oceans to an empire. In Roman mythology, Neptune's empire was the sea.]
[Comparison of the moon to a sick creature]

                                    I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day.  (1.1.169-172)
[Comparison of the rooster to a trumpet]

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads. (1.3.52-55)
[Comparison of a lifestyle to a steep and thorny trail and another lifestyle to a primrose path]

The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail. (1.3.63)
[Comparison of the wind to a seated object; comparison of the billowed canvas of a sail to a shoulder]

The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel. (1.3.69-70)
[Comparison of the bonds of friendship to steel hoops]

                              The sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn’d,
Hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again. (1.4.54-57)
[Comparison of the opening of a sepulchre to jaws]

Thou still hast been the father of good news. (2.2.48)
[Comparison of good news to children of Polonius.

Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating. (5.1.28)
[The first clown (gravedigger) compares the second clown's brains to an ass that will not change course when beaten.]


Metonymy (muh TAHN uh me) is the use of a word or phrase to represent a thing, an entity, a group of people, an institution, and so on. The church, for example, may represent clergymen who make decisions on moral issues. The White House may represent the U.S. president and his advisors. Here is an example from Hamlet.

’Tis given out that, sleeping in mine orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death  
Rankly abus’d. (1.5.42-45)
[Whole ear represents the populace of Denmark.]


An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines contradictory words, as in the following example.

[His words] are like sanctified and pious bawds. (1.3.138)
[A bawd is a prostitute. Therefore, pious and bawds are contradictory words.]

Personificaton and Metaphor

Personification is a type of metaphor that compares a place, a thing, or an idea to a person, as in the following example.

          Never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall      
On Mars’s armour, forg’d for proof eterne,      
With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam. (2.2.342-345)
[Personification and metaphor: comparison of a sword to a person with little remorse; metaphor: comparison of a sword to a bleeding creature]

Play on Words

A play on words, or pun, is the use of a word or words that can be interpreted in more than one way. The purpose is to achieve an ironic or a humorous effect. Here is an example from Hamlet.

CLAUDIUS:  How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
HAMLET:  Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun. (1.2.69-70)
[Claudius asks why dark clouds still hang over Hamlet—that is, why Hamlet continues to be depressed. Hamlet replies that he remains in the shadows because he is too much i' the sun. Here, Hamlet is saying that he dislikes being regarded as the son (sun) of Claudius.


A simile is a comparison between unlike things. In making the comparison, it uses like, as, or than. Note the following examples.

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres. (1.5.21-23)
[Use of like to compare Hamlet's eyes to stars]

Duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. (1.5.39-41)
[The ghost uses than to say Hamlet would be a motionless weed on the banks of the Lethe—the river of forgetfulness in Hades—if he did not desire to avenge the murder of his father.

Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend. (4.1.9)
[Use of as to compare Hamlet's state of mind to contending elements]


Why Claudius, Not Hamlet, Became King of Denmark

Keen readers and audiences often ask why Claudius acceded to the throne in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Should not the crown have passed to the dead king’s son, Prince Hamlet?

Not necessarily. In Denmark, the setting of the play, an elective monarchy held sway until 1660, when a hereditary monarchy replaced it. Therefore, Shakespeare’s fictional Hamlet, based on a legendary Dane of the Middle Ages, could not claim the crown as a birthright.

In an elective monarchy, court officials—noblemen in high standing—selected the new king by vote. The son of a king was, to be sure, the prime candidate for the royal chair, and usually he won it. But the voting nobles had the right to reject him in favor of another candidate. And that was precisely what happened in fictional Elsinore. The nobles approved the king’s brother, Claudius. In a hereditary monarchy, the king’s oldest son automatically ascended the throne when his father died.  But of course Danish laws do not explain why the nobles chose Claudius over Hamlet. Shakespeare offers no explanation of their vote. However, Hamlet refers to the election of Claudius, saying, “He that hath kill’d my king and whor’d my mother, / Popp’d in between the election and my hopes” (5.2.71-72). These lines appear in a passage in which Hamlet—conversing with his best friend, Horatio—is discussing Claudius’s murder plot against him and his moral right to kill Claudius. The words “my hopes” may signify that Hamlet expected to succeed his father. In the same scene of the same act, Hamlet—dying from the wound inflicted by Laertes’ poisoned-tip sword—again refers to the  Denmark election system when he says Fortinbras should be the new king: “But I do prophesy the election lights / On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice” (5.2.300-301).

That Hamlet did not gain accession after the murder of his father could have been due to one or all of the following reasons: (1) Claudius actively campaigned for the kingship, winning votes by promising political favors. (2) Gertrude, eager to remarry and remain queen, campaigned on his behalf. (3) The nobles perceived Hamlet as too young and callow—and perhaps more likely to support the views of the common people instead of their views—and thus denied him succession.

In the tale on which Shakespeare based Hamlet—Amleth, a Latin work by Saxo Grammaticus (1150?-1220?)—Feng (the character after whom Shakespeare modeled Claudius) murders his brother, King Horwendil, out of jealousy. The opening paragraph of Amleth explains the cause of the jealousy:

Horwendil, King of Denmark, married Gurutha, the daughter of Rorik, and she bore him a son, whom they named Amleth. Horwendil's good fortune stung his brother Feng with jealousy, so that the latter resolved treacherously to waylay his brother, thus showing that goodness is not safe even from those of a man's own house. And behold when a chance came to murder him, his bloody hand sated the deadly passion of his soul.—(Eton, Oliver, trans. The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: David Nutt, 1894.)

The Amleth tale also says Feng gained favor with the nobles by telling lies: "Nor did his smooth words fail in their intent; for at courts, where fools are sometimes favored and backbiters preferred, a lie lacks not credit" (Eton).

Denmark has had three monarchical systems since the tenth century:

(1) Elective system. In 940, Harald Bluetooth became the first king of a unified Denmark under an elective system requiring the monarch to sign a charter guaranteeing a division of power between the king and the people.
(2) Hereditary system and absolutism. In 1660, Denmark adopted absolutism, granting the king full power, under a hereditary system conferring the right of succession on the oldest son. In 1665, a royal edict affirmed the hereditary system under the principle of primogeniture, a legal term referring to the right of the oldest son to inherit his father’s property.
(3) Constitutional monarch. In 1849, Denmark abandoned its absolutist monarchy in favor of a constitutional monarchy that invested government power mainly in the people’s representatives while retaining the king as a ceremonial figure. In 1953, Denmark granted women the right to accede to the throne.

Hamlet, Oedipus, and Freud

In an 1899 book entitled Die Traumdeutung (Interpretation of Dreams) Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, introduced the term Oedipus complex. This term describes a psychological stage of development in which a male child desires sexual relations with his mother or a female child desires sexual relations with her father. The child also exhibits hostility toward the parent of the same sex. In normal development, a child outgrows this desire. However, in abnormal development, a child may retain his or her sexual fixation on the parent of the opposite sex.

After Freud coined the term Oedipus complex, Shakespeare scholars noted that Hamlet exhibits the symptoms of this condition in his relationship with his mother, Gertrude, and stepfather-uncle, Claudius. In a soliloquy in the second scene of Act I, Hamlet condemns Claudius as a “satyr” (line 144) and agonizes over his mother’s hasty marriage to him, saying, “O! most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” (160-161). Ample evidence exists elsewhere in the play to support the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet’s character while buttressing the view that Hamlet is mentally deranged.

In coining his term, Freud drew upon the story of Oedipus in Greek mythology. Here is the story, in brief:

 An oracle warns King Laius of Thebes that his wife, Jocasta, will bear a son who will one day kill him. After Jocasta gives birth to a boy, Laius acts to defeat the prophecy. First, he drives a spike through the child's feet, then takes him to Mount Cithaeron and orders a shepherd to kill him. But the shepherd, taking pity on the baby, spares him after tying him to a tree. A peasant finds the baby and gives him to a childless couple—Polybus (also Polybius), the king of Corinth, and his wife, Periboea (also Merope). They name the boy Oedipus (meaning swelled foot) and raise him to manhood.

One day, when Oedipus visits the oracle at Delphi, the oracle tells Oedipus that a time will come when he slays his father and marries his mother. Horrified, Oedipus later strikes out from Corinth. He does not want to live anywhere near his beloved parents, Polybus and Periboea, lest a trick of fate cause him to be the instrument of their demise. What he does not know, of course, is that Polybus and Periboea are not his biological parents.

On the road to Thebes, which leads away from Corinth, Oedipus encounters his real father Laius, whom he does not recognize, and several attendants. Laius, of course, does not recognize Oedipus either. Oedipus and Laius quarrel over a triviality—who has the right of way. The quarrel leads to violence, and Oedipus kills Laius and four of his attendants.

Outside Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a woman. The grotesque creature has killed many Thebans because they could not answer her riddle: What travels on four feet in the morning, two at midday, and three in evening? Consequently, the city lives in great terror. No one can enter or leave the city. When Oedipus approaches the Sphinx, the beast poses the riddle. Oedipus, quick of mind, replies with the right answer: man. Here is the explanation: As an infant in the morning of life, a human being crawls on all fours; as an adult in the midday of life, he walks upright on two legs; as an old man in the evening of life, he walks on three legs, including a cane.

Surprised and outraged, the Sphinx kills herself. Jubilant, the people of Thebes then offer this newcomer the throne. Oedipus accepts it and marries its widowed queen, Jocasta. Jocasta is, of course, the mother of Oedipus, although no one in Thebes becomes aware of this fact until much later. Thus, the oracle's prophecy to Laius and Oedipus is fulfilled.

Hamlet, of course, does not marry his mother. But, according to Freudian interpreters of the play, he does desire her—at least subconsciously. What is more, he solves a riddle of sorts, a homicide case, and kills his father—that is, stepfather. However, unlike Oedipus, Hamlet does not live on to anguish over the past.

The Feudal Age and the Castle


Many of Shakespeare plays, including Hamlet, are set in the Feudal Age. This age of kings and castles was born in Europe in the dawning shadows of the Dark Ages. After the Roman Empire collapsed in the late Fifth Century AD, its former territories in central Europe had to fend for themselves. In time, without the might of the imperial Roman sword to protect them, these territories fell prey to Viking invaders from the north and Muslim invaders from the south.

By the 730s, the Muslims had penetrated central Europe through Spain. However, Charles Martel, the ruler of the kingdom of the Franks in northeastern Europe and southwestern Germany, repulsed the Muslims with soldiers granted land in return for military service as horsemen. (Horse soldiers, or cavalry, had the speed and maneuverability to quell the Muslim threat.) This arrangement—granting land in exchange for service—was the founding principle of feudalism.

The Franks continued to stand as a protective bulwark under Martel's successors, Pepin the Short and Charlemagne. But after Louis I the Pious assumed power in 813, the Franks commenced fighting among themselves over who should succeed to the throne. This internal strife, along with Viking attacks, resulted in the eventual breakup of the Frankish kingdom. In 911, Viking marauders seeded themselves in western France, in present-day Normandy, and took root. By the late 900s, much of Europe (France, England, western Germany, northern Spain, and Sicily) had evolved into a land of local kingdoms in which rulers took refuge behind the walls of castles and leased land to people willing to protect and maintain a kingdom against rival kingdoms or outside invaders. The feudal system of offering land in exchange for service then bloomed to full flower.

How Feudalism Worked

The king of a domain granted an expanse of land (fief) to selected men of high standing in return for a pledge of allegiance and military service. These men, who came to be known as great lords (or grands seigneurs) then awarded portions of their land to lesser lords, or vassals, for a similar pledge of loyalty, or fealty, as well as dues and an agreement to fight the lord's enemies. In return, the great lord met the everyday needs of the vassals. Knights, highly trained mounted warriors, were the backbone of the great lord's army. Failure by a great lord or a vassal to live up to a commitment, or warranty, was a felony, a crime punishable by loss of the offender's title, land, and other assets. In severe cases, the offender sometimes lost his life or a limb.

The estate on which a lord lived was called a manor. Peasants, or serfs, were attached to the land as property. They paid rents and taxes, farmed the land, and performed many other servile duties. Sometimes freemen also worked the land. The lord exercised full political and social control over his land.

The Castle

Most of the scenes in Hamlet are set in a castle. A castle was a walled fortress of a king or lord. The word castle is derived from the Latin castellum, meaning a fortified place. Generally, a castle was situated on an eminence (a piece of high ground) that had formed naturally or was constructed by laborers. The high ground constructed by laborers was called a motte (French for mound); the motte may have been one hundred to two hundred feet wide and forty to eighty feet high. The area inside the castle wall was called the bailey.

Some castles had several walls, with smaller circles within a larger circle or smaller squares within a larger square. The outer wall of a castle was usually topped with a battlement, a protective barrier with spaced openings through which defenders could shoot arrows at attackers. This wall sometimes was surrounded by a water-filled ditch called a moat, a defensive barrier to prevent the advance of soldiers, horses, and war machines.

At the main entrance was a drawbridge, which could be raised to prevent entry. Behind the drawbridge was a portcullis [port KUL ihs], or iron gate, which could be lowered to further secure the castle. Within the castle was a tower, or keep, to which castle residents could withdraw if an enemy breached the portcullis and other defenses. Over the entrance of many castles was a projecting gallery with machicolations [muh CHIK uh LAY shuns], openings in the floor through which defenders could drop hot liquids or stones on attackers. In the living quarters of a castle, the king and his family dined in a great hall on an elevated platform called a dais [DAY ihs], and they slept in a chamber called a solar. The age of castles ended after the development of gunpowder and artillery fire enabled armies to breach thick castle walls instead of climbing over them.

How Shakespeare Prepared Manuscripts

Writing Tool: Quill Dipped in Ink

A quill was the hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The word “pen” is derived from the Latin name for “feather”—“penna.” Shakespeare and other writers of his day used a variety of quills that they dipped in an ink container (inkwell) on a stand (standish) that held all the writing materials. If a writer’s pocket lacked jingle, he invested in a goose quill. If he could afford something better, he invested in a swan quill. Writers or artists who needed quills to produce fine lines purchased crow quills. Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks and owls also served as “word processors,” producing plays, poems, and sometimes revolution.

Quills were the writing instruments of choice between AD 500 and AD 1850. (In the ancient world, writers used a variety of other instruments to write history, literature, announcements, bureaucratic records, and so on. These instruments included shaped twigs or branches that impressed words into clay, mallet-driven chisels that etched words in stone, brushes that wrote on pottery and other smooth surfaces —such as plaster and animal skins—sharpened bone or metal that inscribed words on wax surfaces, and sharpened reed stems dipped in ink that wrote on papyrus, an Egyptian water plant that was dried and pressed to make thin sheets suitable for receiving impressions. The introduction of the quill in the 500s—an event recorded by St. Isidore, a Spanish theologian—greatly eased the task of writers, much as personal computers did when they replaced typewriters in the last half of the twentieth century.)

Lighting: Daylight, Candlelight, Oil Lamps

Shakespeare probably tried to do most of his writing during the day, perhaps near a window, because writing at night required lit candles or an oil lamp. Candles were expensive. A writer could easily spend a day's earnings or more on candlelight illuminating the first draft of a poem or a soliloquy in a play. The alternative—oil lamps—gave off smoke and unpleasant odors. And they, too, required a pretty penny to buy and fuel, and maintain.

However, if Shakespeare attempted to confine all of his writing to mornings and afternoons, he probably failed. After all, as a playwright and an actor, he had to appear for the daytime rehearsals and performances of his works. Like people today, he had a "nine-to-five job" that probably forced him to moonlight. Also, passages in his plays suggest that he could have been something of an insomniac addicted to "burning the candle at both ends." In his book Shakespeare: the Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2005), Peter Ackroyd speculates that as a result of his various employments in the theatre, [Shakespeare] was obliged to write at night; there are various references in the plays to "oil-dried lamps," to candles, and to "the smoakie light" that is "fed with stinking Tallow" (Page 273).

Word Choice and Spelling

No official English dictionaries existed in Shakespeare's time. Therefore, he was free to use spellings and meanings that did not agree with accepted spellings and meanings. He could also choose from among words imported from Italy, France, and other countries by seafaring traders, soldiers, tourists, and adventurers.

When words did not exist to express his thoughts, Shakespeare made up his own—hundreds of them. Many of his neologisms are now in common use around the world. Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless, authors of Coined by Shakespeare (Merriam-Webster, 1998), list numerous words originated by Shakespeare, including bedroom, eyeball, generous, investment, madcap, obscene, radiance, torture, unreal, and varied.

Hundreds of words used by Shakespeare have changed meanings or connotations over time. For example, "Fellow, which has friendly overtones for us, was insulting in Shakespeare's day. Phrases that were metaphors to him have often lost their coloring with us: Since we seldom play the game of bowls, we overlook the concrete implications of 'There's the rub' (an impediment on the green)."—Levin, Harry. "General Introduction." The Riverside Shakespeare. G. Blakemore Evans, textual ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, page 9.)

Sources and Settings

To write his plays, Shakespeare borrowed from history, Greek and Roman mythology, and literary works, then used his genius to enliven histories and myths and improve on plots, reworking them and sometimes adding new characters.

Because settings on an Elizabethan stage were spare, Shakespeare had to write descriptions of them into his dialogue. This handicap proved to be a boon, for it motivated Shakespeare to write some of his best descriptions.

Whenever place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic effects were needed, they could be created by the poet's pen. Hence, it is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover, encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience in the production of a play, and this active participation was further increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy, soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as they are in modern theatre.—Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (page 8).

Drafts of Plays and Censorship

Shakespeare's manuscripts had to be submitted for approval. After writing out a manuscript, Shakespeare (or a professional scribe) made a copy of it in which obvious errors were corrected. An acting company could alter a playwright's manuscript with or without his approval. It is possible that editors improved some of Shakespeare's manuscripts. It is also possible that they weakened manuscripts. The original manuscript was called the "foul papers" because of the blots and crossouts on it. The new version was called a "fair copy." It was submitted to the Master of Revels, a government censor who examined it for material offensive to the crown. If approved, the fair copy became known as a "prompt copy," which the actors used to memorize their lines. The acting company bought the prompt copy, gaining sole possession of it, after paying the writer. The company then wrote in the stage directions (exit, enter, etc.). John Russell Brown, author of Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, page 31) discusses the circumstances under which the censor forbade the staging of one of Shakespeare's plays:

At a time of unrest, when the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen's [Elizabeth's] authority and armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain's Men [Shakespeare's company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed and performed, because it contained a scene in which a king is compelled to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen's counsellors believed that this might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in ancient Rome or foreign countries.

No original copy, or foul papers, of a Shakespeare play has survived to the present day except for a few pages of Sir Thomas More, partly written by Shakespeare. Fredson Bowers explains why the manuscripts were lost:

No Shakespeare manuscript is in existence. This is not surprising: they were not collectors' items. Printers would have thrown them away after setting type from them; almost twenty years passed in the Commonwealth with no public performances of plays, and the manuscripts of the disbanded theatrical companies were completely dispersed; the Great Fire of London must have destroyed some. Indeed, only a relative handful of the hundreds and hundreds of Elizabethan plays have come down to us in manuscript form, and it is our bad luck that so few of these are by major dramatists. None is Shakespeare's if we except the good possibility that one scene in the manuscript of the unacted Sir Thomas More is in his hand.—Bowers, Fredson. ''What Shakespeare Wrote.'' Approaches to Shakespeare, by Norma Rabkin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964 (page 266).

Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry

Shakespeare wrote his plays partly in verse and partly in prose, freely alternating between the two in the same acts and scenes. It is not unusual, in fact, for one character to address a second character in verse while the second character responds in prose. Sometimes, the same character speaks in verse in one moment and in prose in another.

Verse is a collection of lines that follow a regular, rhythmic pattern. In Shakespeare, this pattern is usually iambic pentameter, a rhythm scheme in which each line has five pairs of syllables. Each pair consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Verse resembles poetry. Prose, on the other hand, is the everyday language of conversation, letters, lectures, sermons, newspaper articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia articles. Prose has no rhyme or metric scheme.

Why did Shakespeare mix verse (including poetry) and prose in his plays? That is a question that inevitably occupies anyone studying Shakespeare’s writing techniques. Before considering that question, the Shakespeare analyst first needs to learn how to identify the verse and prose passages in a play. That task is easy. Here’s why:

In most modern editions of the plays, each line in multi-line verse passages begins with a capital letter, and each line in multi-line prose passages begins with a small letter except the first line or a line beginning with the opening word of a sentence. In addition, verse passages have a shortened right margin, but prose passages have a full right margin. Following are examples of these visual cues in verse and prose passages from Hamlet:

Verse Passage Spoken by Hamlet

Look here, upon this picture, and on this;   
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.   
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;           
Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself,   
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,   
A station like the herald Mercury   
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill,   
A combination and a form indeed,           
Where every god did seem to set his seal,   
To give the world assurance of a man. (3.4.63-72)

Prose Passage Spoken by Hamlet

Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing. (5.1.80)

Now, then, what about single lines—those spoken in conversation as questions or replies? They are in prose if one line has no paired rhyming line or is too abrupt to contain a rhythmic or rhyming pattern. The following exchange between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth contains such short lines.

HORATIO: Friends to this ground.    
MARCELLUS: And liegemen to the Dane.           
FRANCISCO: Give you good-night.    
MARCELLUS: O! farewell, honest soldier:    
Who hath reliev’d you?    
FRANCISCO: Bernardo has my place.    
Give you good-night.  [Exit. [Exit is a stage direction indicating that one character leaves the stage—in this case, Marcellus.]        
MARCELLUS: Holla! Bernardo!    
BERNARDO: Say,    
What! is Horatio there?    
HORATIO: A piece of him.    
BERNARDO: Welcome, Horatio; welcome, good Marcellus.           
MARCELLUS: What! has this thing appear’d again to-night?    
BERNARDO: I have seen nothing. (1.1.19-31)  

But what of the multi-line passages? Why are some in verse and others in prose? The answer some Shakespeare commentators provide—an answer that is simplistic and not wholly accurate—is that Shakespeare reserved verse for noble, highborn characters and prose for common, lowborn characters. It is true that royalty and nobility often speak in verse and that peasants and commoners often speak in prose. But it is also true that noble characters sometimes speak in prose and that lowborn characters, like the witches in Macbeth, often speak in verse. Why, then, does Shakespeare alternate between verse and prose?

Shakespeare used verse to do the following:

(1) Present a play with an elegant format that was a tradition of the times. He also used verse to express deep emotion requiring elevated language. Because nobles and commoners were both capable of experiencing profound emotion, both expressed their emotions in verse from time to time.

(2) Make wise and penetrating observations or reflect in soliloquies on one's response or reaction to conditions and circumstances. For example, in the following soliloquy, Hamlet reflects on his failure to act decisively to gain revenge against Claudius. He chastises himself for not being like those who act without delay even on trivial matters.

How all occasions do inform against me,   
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,   
If his chief good and market of his time   
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.           
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,   
Looking before and after, gave us not   
That capability and god-like reason   
To fust in us unus’d. Now, whe’r it be   
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple           
Of thinking too precisely on the event,   
A thought, which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom,   
And ever three parts coward, I do not know   
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’   
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means           
To do ’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me:   
Witness this army of such mass and charge   
Led by a delicate and tender prince,   
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d   
Makes mouths at the invisible event,           
Exposing what is mortal and unsure   
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,   
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great   
Is not to stir without great argument,   
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw           
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,   
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,   
Excitements of my reason and my blood,   
And let all sleep, while, to my shame, I see   
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,           
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,   
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot   
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,   
Which is not tomb enough and continent   
To hide the slain? O! from this time forth,           
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (4.4.37-71)

(3) Present a poem within a play. Here is a poem recited by Hamlet after Claudius, guilt-stricken by the performance of The Mouse-Trap in the second scene of the third act, stops the play and abruptly walks out.

Why, let the stricken deer go weep,   
The hart ungalled play;   
For some must watch, while some must sleep:   
So runs the world away. (3.2.206-209)

And here is a poem sung by the First Clown (first gravedigger) as he shovels dirt while Hamlet and Horatio look on.

In youth, when I did love, did love,
 Methought it was very sweet,
To contract, O! the time, for-a my behove,
 O! methought there was nothing meet. (5.1.29)

(4) Suggest order and exactitude. A character who speaks in precise rhythms and patterns is a character with a tidy brain that plans ahead and executes actions on schedule.

Shakespeare used prose to do the following:

(1) Express ordinary, undistinguished observations coming from the surface of the mind rather than its active, ruminating interior.

(2) Make quick, one-line replies such as “Ay, my lord” that are the stuff of day-to-day conversations.

(3) Present auditory relief for audiences (or visual relief for readers) from the intellectual and connotative density of some verse passages.

(4) Suggest madness or senility, as in Shakespeare's play King Lear. Lear shifts from measured verse to rambling, aimless, slapdash prose to reflect the deterioration of his mind. Prose lacks the regular beat and meter of verse passages.

(5) Depict the rambling, desultory path of conversation from a tongue loosened by alcohol.

(6) Poke fun at characters who lack the wit to versify their lines.

(7) Demonstrate that prose can have merits as a literary medium. In Shakespeare’s day, verse (and its elegant cousin, poetry) was the sine qua non of successful writing. As an innovator, Shakespeare may have wanted to tout the merits of prose. Thus, on occasion, he infused his plays with prose passages so graceful and thought-provoking that they equaled, and sometimes even surpassed, the majesty of verse or poetry passages. Such a prose passage is the following, spoken in Hamlet by the title character:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (2.2.250)

Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter

Under Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry, you read that Shakespeare wrote his plays in verse, prose, and poetry and that he used a rhythm format called iambic pentameter. 
When his verse lines in iambic pentameter do not rhyme, they are said to be in blank verse.
To understand iambic pentameter, you first need to understand the term iamb. An iamb is a unit of rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Consider the words annoy, fulfill,  pretend, regard, and serene. They are all iambs because the first syllable of each word is unstressed (or unaccented) and the second syllable is stressed (or accented): an NOY, ful FILL, pre TEND, re GARD, and ser ENE. Iambs can also consist of one word with a single unstressed (unaccented) syllable followed by another word with a single stressed (accented) syllable (example: the KING). In addition, they may consist of a final unstressed syllable of one word followed by an initial stressed syllable of the next word. The following lines from Hamlet demonstrate the use of iambs. The stressed words or syllables are boldfaced:

He took me by the wrist and held me hard,   
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,          
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,   
He falls to such perusal of my face  (2.1.99-102)

When a line has five iambs, it is in iambic pentameter. Each line in the passage above has five iambs. For example, the iambs in the first line are (1) He took, (2) me by, (3) the
, (4) and held, (5) me hard.

The prefix pent- (in pentameter) means five. The suffix -meter refers to the recurrence of a rhythmic unit (also called a foot). Thus, because the above lines contain iambs, they are iambic. Because they contain five iambs (five feet) they are said to be in iambic pentameter. Finally, because the words at the end of each line do not rhyme, the lines are said to be in unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse.

Blank verse was modeled after ancient Greek and Latin verse. It was first used in 1514 in Renaissance Italy by Francesco Maria Molza. In 1539, Italian Giovanni Rucellai was the first poet to label the unrhymed iambic pentameter in his poetry as blank verse (versi sciolti in Italian). Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, first used blank verse in English in his translation of Vergil's epic Latin poem The Aeneid. The first English drama in blank verse was Gorboduc, staged in 1561, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. It was about an early British king. Later in the same century, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare turned blank verse into high art when they used it in their plays. Marlowe used the verse form in Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, and Edward II. Shakespeare used it in all of his plays. In Germany, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) popularized blank verse in his long poem Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), published in 1779.

Publication of a Play

The publishing industry in Shakespeare's England operated under the control of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, a trade organization which the government established and supervised in order to guard against the publication of subversive books or books unduly critical of the government. If a play met government standards—that is, if it did not attempt to inflame the people against the crown—a publisher could print and sell the play. Authors of plays often had misgivings about committing their work to print, as the following quotation points out.

The plays of the first professional companies [in Shakespeare's day] were written mainly by actors themselves. . . . The players were reluctant to allow their dramas to be printed. They apparently thought that if a play could be read, few people would wish to see it acted. They may also have feared that their plays, if printed, would be appropriated for acting by rival companies. This reluctance explains the fact that only eighteen of Shakespeare's plays were printed during his lifetime. They were published in small pamphlets called quartos, which sold for only sixpence a piece.—Alden, Raymond MacDonald. A Shakespeare Handbook. Revised and enlarged by Oscar James Campbell. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1970, page 74.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Hamlet faces a moral dilemma. On the one hand, the ghost of his father urges him to gain revenge by killing Claudius. On the other hand, Hamlet's conscience tells him that killing is wrong. After all, he is a college boy who has been exposed to the teachings of theologians, philosophers, and other thinkers who condemn revenge. What was the attitude of people in Hamlet's day—as many as a thousand years ago—toward law and order and revenge? 
  • Another dilemma Hamlet faces is whether the ghost is trustworthy. Is it really the ghost of his father? Is it a demon? Is there really a ghost at all? What was the attitude of people in Shakespeare's time—he was born in 1564 and died in 1616—toward the supernatural: ghosts, witches, etc.?
  • In Act 1, Scene 2, Claudius refers to Gertrude as "our sometime sister." What does he mean by this phrase?
  • Does Hamlet himself covet the throne? Why didn't he—the son of old King Hamlet—inherit the throne? (Look for a clue in these lines: He that hath kill'd my king and whored my mother, / Popp'd in between the election and my hopes (5.2.4). The play is full of deceit. Who attempts to deceive whom?  
  • Before he leaves to study at the University of Paris (Act 1, Scene 3), Laertes warns his sister, Ophelia, to be wary of Hamlet's attentions toward her, saying Hamlet regards her as little more than a "toy." Is it possible that Laertes is right, that Hamlet really is not serious about Ophelia? 
  • Hamlet is angry because his mother married Claudius so soon after the death of old King Hamlet. Was Gertrude having an affair with Claudius before her husband's death? Was she in on the murder?
  • Hamlet puts on an "antic disposition"—that is, he pretends to be insane. But is he, in fact, insane or mentally unstable?
  • Does Ophelia go insane? Does she commit suicide or was her death an accident?
  • What circumstances do Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras have in common? Do they share similar character traits?  
  • In ancient and medieval times, ambitious men often murdered their way to the throne, as Claudius did in Hamlet. Shakespeare was right on the mark in Henry IV Part II when he wrote, "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." In other words, a ruler often had to sleep with one eye open to watch for attempts on his life. What were some of the methods monarchs used to protect themselves or uncover plots against them? For example, did they employ spies or food tasters? Did they stay in the company of trusted guards?
  • Identify metonymy (a figure of speech) in the following excerpt from the play: "O that . . . the Everlasting had not fix'd / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!  What does Shakespeare mean by canon and self-slaughter?