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Table of Contents

The 5 Act Structure
Act 1: Exposition
Act 2: Rising Action
Act 3: Climax
Act 4: Falling Action
Act 5: Catastrophy
The Plot
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
The Ghost
Themes and Ideas
Appearance and Reality
Madness and Sanity
Justice and Revenge
Destiny and the Purpose of Life
Poison and Corruption
Shakespeare's World
The Critics

1 Structure
Elizabethan plays in general were loosely structured. They adapted the basic five-act form of ancient Roman tragedy, which had been revived by Italian scholars of the early Renaissance and brought back to London by English aristocrats traveling in Italy, to the needs of a commercial and popular theater.
The basic elements of a revenge tragedy were very simple. There had to be a hero, who had been violently wronged and was justified in seeking revenge. His revenge had to be aimed at an opponent, or antagonist, equal to him in power and in cunning, or the play would degenerate into a mindless series of victories for the superhero, and so become monotonous. The action had to be carried on in an atmosphere of gloom and terror, preferably with supernatural elements. A woman the hero loved had to be involved in the action, if possible as an innocent obstacle to his achieving his goal of revenge. And there had to be a counter plot (or subplot), started by the antagonist to defend himself, which would engulf the hero just as his vengeance was accomplished. In that way the hero would achieve what has come to be called Ђњpoetic justiceЂќ on earth, and, at the same time, be punished by Heaven for his sin of committing murder.
You can see that this simple structure is still very much with us in the violence of movies, television, and comic books. One reason we consider Hamlet better than these popular entertainments is that Shakespeare made his own variation on the form, fulfilling all its demands and at the same time rising above it through his brilliant use of language and his creation of complex characters. By making his hero a philosopher who doubts and mocks himself every step of the way, Shakespeare is able to prolong the suspense and devote the first three acts to the question of whether Hamlet will or will not take revenge. When Hamlet finally takes a decisive action, at the end of Act III (where the structure is expected to rise to a climax), it turns out to be a fatal misstep. Instead of killing Claudius, Hamlet kills Polonius. This act engulfs him in the counter plot of Claudius and Laertes, which holds our attention until the playЂ™s violent end. HamletЂ™s hesitation allows Shakespeare to explore the meaning of revenge on both the philosophic and the psychological level, and to connect that act with the much larger question of the meaning of life.
To make sure we never forget that HamletЂ™s story is that of a father, mother, and son, Shakespeare contrasts it with the subplot of Polonius and his children.
Both the plot and the subplot are fused together at the climactic moment when Hamlet kills Polonius. This act ultimately results in HamletЂ™s death at the hands of Laertes, another son avenging his father. And both stories are framed in the story of Fortinbras, who avenges his fatherЂ™s defeat at the hands of King Hamlet by taking over the Danish throne when Hamlet dies.
ShakespeareЂ™s superiority in such matters as moral and psychological subtlety is pointed up by his ability to contrast the way two characters respond to the same event or carry out the same action. Hamlet is so structured, for example, that we are forced to compare HamletЂ™s use of the play to entrap Claudius with LaertesЂ™s invasion of the palace with an angry mob; or HamletЂ™s confiding in Horatio with ClaudiusЂ™ efforts to manipulate Polonius. Shakespeare also uses the playЂ™s structure to contrast a characterЂ™s behavior with what we know of his thoughts and feelings, or to show him behaving differently in different situations. For instance, compare HamletЂ™s speeches to the ghost with his conversation immediately afterward when Horatio and Marcellus find him; or compare ClaudiusЂ™ public behavior in Act IV, Scene iii, with his ЂњDo it, EnglandЂќ soliloquy right after. Because Hamlet himself is a wit and a maker of ironies, Shakespeare often uses him to point up these contrasts verbally and so intensify them, just as his mordant jokes heighten the atmosphere of gloom rather than dispelling it. As you explore Hamlet in more and more detail, the way Shakespeare balances and arranges the elements of its story will become more visible to youЂ”and more exciting as well, since every new facet of the structure you find will reveal another nuance of ShakespeareЂ™s vision, another aspect of the seemingly infinite range of his poetic mind.
1.1 The 5 Act Structure
The main plot and subplot stories are both framed by the story of FortinbrasЂ™ avenging his father.
1.1.1 Act 1: Exposition
The rotten state of Denmark is disclosed, and the ghost appears with his call for vengeance.
1.1.2 Act 2: Rising Action
Hamlet tries to discover the truth about the ghostЂ™s accusations.
1.1.3 Act 3: Climax
Hamlet springs his ЂњmousetrapЂќ and catches his proofЂ”Claudius is guilty.
1.1.4 Act 4: Falling Action
Claudius, not Hamlet, takes charge of events.
1.1.5 Act 5: Catastrophy
The consummation of everyoneЂ™s vengeance is achieved in a bloody ending that leaves only Horatio alive to tell the tale.
2 The Plot
Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is at school in Wittenberg, Germany, when his father, King Hamlet, dies. He comes home to Elsinore Castle to find his mother, Queen Gertrude, married to his uncle Claudius, the late kingЂ™s younger brother.
Claudius has had himself crowned king. Soldiers guarding Elsinore report to Hamlet through his friend Horatio that his fatherЂ™s ghost has been seen on the battlements. Hamlet goes with them to see the ghost, which speaks to him, saying that Claudius has murdered the king by pouring poison in his ear and that he, Hamlet, must avenge his fatherЂ™s murder. Hamlet swears to do this, but his philosophic mind is deeply upset at the shock of his uncleЂ™s treachery and his motherЂ™s possible involvement in it.
In the meantime, three related series of events are happening at the Danish court. First, the nations of Denmark and Norway have been engaged in border disputes with each other and with the neighboring country of Poland; King Hamlet became a hero in the eyes of his people by winning one such battle. Now Fortinbras, son of the late king of Norway, and nephew of the present, ailing king, wants ClaudiusЂ™ permission to march his army through Danish territory on the way to fight the Poles.
Second, ClaudiusЂ™ chief adviser, the elderly Polonius, is troubled by the behavior of his hot-headed son, Laertes, and his sensitive daughter, Ophelia. He is sending Laertes off to Paris to acquire polish and courtly manners, and instructs young Reynaldo to spy on him and report back if he falls into bad company. As for Ophelia, both Polonius and Laertes are concerned that she may be becoming too attached to young Hamlet, who has been sending her trinkets and love poems. They caution her to be careful, since itЂ™s not likely that the heir to the throne would marry someone below his royal station.
Third, Claudius and Gertrude are concerned over HamletЂ™s behavior, which was moody before the ghost spoke to him and has become increasingly disturbed, though they of course do not know why. They send for two of his school friends from Wittenberg, the Danish nobles Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to try to discover the source of his moodiness. Arriving at the court, these two try to cheer Hamlet with news of a traveling company of actors on their way to Elsinore. This gives him a solution to one of his major worriesЂ”how to determine whether the ghost is really his fatherЂ™s spirit and is telling the truth, or is an evil spirit sent to tempt him into sin. He will have the actors put on a play about a courtier who poisons a king and seduces the queen. ClaudiusЂ™ reaction to the play will reveal the truth.
Meanwhile, Ophelia tells her father about a disturbing encounter she has had with Hamlet, who was behaving strangely. Polonius concludes that HamletЂ™s frustrated love for her has made him go mad. To prove this to Claudius, he has his daughter confront Hamlet in a corridor where he and the king can spy on them.
Hamlet comes in, musing on death and whether or not he has the right to take a manЂ™s life. When Ophelia interrupts him, he becomes emotionally violent, denies he ever loved her, and urges her to go into a convent. Claudius is greatly upset by the scene, which makes him begin to fear that Hamlet has found out the truth about his fatherЂ™s death.
The performance of the play confirms ClaudiusЂ™ worst fears. During the pantomime prologue, Hamlet starts making double-edged remarks that drive Claudius out, angry and ashamed, when the actors have barely begun to speak. The court scatters in confusion, and Hamlet tells Horatio he is now totally convinced the ghost was telling the truth. Gertrude, furious with her son sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to tell him she wants to see him in private, in her chambers. On the way there Hamlet sees Claudius, defenceless, kneeling and attempting to pray. Hamlet thinks about killing him then and there, but holds back, believing that a man killed while praying would go to heaven, hardly a suitable punishment for ClaudiusЂ™ crimes. Hamlet cannot of course hear ClaudiusЂ™ thoughts, which are preoccupied with his inability to pray and his unwillingness to show true repentance by renouncing both the throne and his marriage to Gertrude.
Arriving at his motherЂ™s room, Hamlet is harsh and bitter with her, despite having promised himself (and earlier the ghost) to treat her gently. He accuses her of murder and incestЂ”her new husband is her brother-in-lawЂ”attacking her so forcefully that Polonius, who has hidden behind a tapestry (ЂњarrasЂќ) in case she needs assistance, cries for help. Hamlet stabs what he thinks is Claudius, and is disappointed to learn he has killed only the meddling old man. Over the corpse, he tries to convince the now-frantic Gertrude to give up her second marriage. He is interrupted by the ghost, who reminds him that he has sworn to kill Claudius and leave his mother in peace. Their conversation convinces Gertrude, who cannot see the ghost, that her son is indeed mad.
In the meantime, Claudius has worked out a plan: He will send Hamlet, guarded by his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on a diplomatic mission to England, carrying a sealed letter that asks the English king to arrest the troublesome heir and put him to death. After a bitter confrontation Rosencrantz and Guildenstern capture Hamlet and bundle him off to the ship bound for England. On the way there they pass FortinbrasЂ™ army marching to Poland. The sight makes Hamlet reflect on his failure to avenge his father, while Fortinbras is bringing Honor to his.
When Ophelia learns of her fatherЂ™s death, she goes insane. Laertes returns from Paris, swearing vengeance on his fatherЂ™s murderer. The sight of his mad sister deflates his anger, and he allows Claudius to convince him that her madness is all HamletЂ™s fault. Meantime, Horatio learns that an unexpected stroke of luck has saved HamletЂ™s life: The ship he sailed on was attacked by pirates, who took him prisoner but let the others continue. Since Hamlet had discovered the treachery in ClaudiusЂ™ letter and replaced it with one requesting instead the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two have sailed to certain death. In return for the promise of ransom Hamlet is released by the pirates on the Danish coast.
Claudius, told of HamletЂ™s return, persuades Laertes to take his revenge in a formal duel, in which he will wound Hamlet with a poisoned sword. Before it takes place, the two have an unexpected clash in the graveyard where Ophelia, who has drowned herself, is being buried. Hamlet, who did not know of her death, is shocked into anger at the sight of Laertes leaping emotionally into the grave, and the two young men nearly get into a brawl over her coffin.
Having received LaertesЂ™ formal challenge, Hamlet apologizes to him graciously before the assembled court and the duel begins. They are evenly matched, so Claudius attempts to improve the odds by offering Hamlet a cup of poisoned wine, which, however, Queen Gertrude drinks. Laertes manages to wound Hamlet with the poisoned sword, but in the scuffle that follows they switch weapons and Laertes is wounded with it, too. Feeling the effect of the poisoned wine, Gertrude collapses, and the court finally realizes what Claudius has been up to. Hamlet at last achieves his revenge by stabbing Claudius with the poisoned weapon. Laertes, dying, confesses and begs HamletЂ™s forgiveness.
Hamlet has just enough strength left to stop Horatio from drinking the dregs of the poisoned wine, and dies in his friendЂ™s arms, begging him to tell the world the true story. Fortinbras, whom Hamlet names as his successor, arrives in time to claim the throne and lament the horrible events.
3 Characters
3.1 Hamlet
Hamlet may be the most complex character any playwright has ever placed onstage. Over the centuries critics have offered a multitude of explanations for HamletЂ™s behavior, but none of them has wholly been able to Ђњpluck out the heart of my mystery,Ђќ as Hamlet himself puts it. EighteenthЂ”and nineteenth-century theatergoers saw him as the classic ideal of the Renaissance courtier, poet, and philosopher. You can make a case for this view, since Hamlet often sees immediate events in a larger perspective. OpheliaЂ™s ЂњO what a noble mindЂќ speech is one of many suggesting that Shakespeare meant us to think of him this way.
Yet Hamlet is a deeply troubled young man who may strive for philosophy and poetry, but has in fact, by the end of the play, caused a good many violent deaths. While the earliest view was that Hamlet is simply a victim of circumstances, later critics saw him as a beautiful but ineffectual soul who lacked the strength of will to avenge his father. Passages in the play provide justification for this point of view, most notably in HamletЂ™s own soliloquies. Detractors of this view point out the cruel and barbaric aspects of HamletЂ™s behaviorЂ”his badgering of Ophelia, his rough treatment of PoloniusЂ™ corpse, his reason for refusing to kill Claudius at prayer, and most of all the callous and seemingly unjust way he has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death. To these commentators, either Shakespeare had badly assimilated such crudities from his source material, or Hamlet is himself a crude and unpleasant character, and his poetic speeches merely sweeten the bitter pill.
As the study of psychology developed into a science in the late nineteenth century, critics began applying its precepts to the play, viewing Hamlet as something close to a manic-depressive whose melancholy moodsЂ”as his failure to take revenge continuesЂ”deepened into self-contempt. This attitude draws some historical support from the Elizabethan belief that every human is dominated by one of four mental conditions called humors, each caused by the dominance in the body of one internal organ and its secretions. Hamlet, the notion runs, would have been seen by ShakespeareЂ™s contemporaries as a victim of the melancholy humor, which was especially associated with thinkers and philosophers. The trouble with this interpretation is that it does not explain HamletЂ™s frequent jokes and his many attempts at action.
The advent of Freudian psychology provided an additional twist to the ЂњmelancholyЂќ interpretation. FreudЂ™s disciple Ernest Jones asserted that Hamlet was a victim of what Freudians call the Oedipus complex, that is, a desire to take his fatherЂ™s place in his motherЂ™s affections, a desire that would naturally trigger intense feelings of guilt if the father suddenly died. JonesЂ™ version, which partially inspired Sir Laurence OlivierЂ™s film adaptation (1948), is made believable by the intense overemphasis Hamlet puts on his motherЂ™s actions, despite the ghostЂ™s commands. Many, many other explanations of HamletЂ™s motives have been offered, ranging from an excessive ambition that uses the ghost as a chance to seize the crown and then feels guilty about doing so, to an apathy that makes him hold back on philosophic grounds, since all action is futile. A few commentators have even proposed the unlikely possibility that Hamlet is a woman who has been raised as a man to provide the throne with an heir, thus explaining HamletЂ™s reluctance to commit the ЂњmasculineЂќ act of revenge.
What commentators and interpreters sometimes forget is that Hamlet is first a character in a play, and only secondly (if at all) a demonstration of this or that view of human life. You might say that Hamlet is not a classifiable type of person because he is a specific person, who, like ourselves, is made up of many different impulses and moods. ItЂ™s possible for a soft-spoken professor of philosophy, under the right circumstances, to commit murder, just as itЂ™s possible to be depressed one day and crack jokes the next. Hamlet is a person of exceptional intelligence and sensitivity, raised to occupy a high station in life and then suddenly confronted with a violent and terrifying situation in which he must take drastic action. ItЂ™s hardly surprising to find him veering between extremes of behavior, hesitating, demanding proof, looking for the most appropriate way to carry out his task.
The fact that Hamlet is a thinking as well as a feeling person, conscious of the good and bad points in every step he takes, makes the act of revenge particularly painful for him. Revenge is not Christian, and Hamlet is a Christian prince; it is not rational, and Hamlet is a philosopher; it is not gentle, and Hamlet is a gentleman.
Unlike the typical hero of an Elizabethan revenge play (or a modern gangster movie), Hamlet does not approach his task in an unquestioning, mechanical way.
He has qualms about it, as any of us might if asked to do the same thing. It releases violent emotions in him, the intensity of which shocks and unbalances him. This questioning of what is instinctive and preordained, the testing of the old tribal code by a modern, troubled consciousness, is perhaps what makes the play so great and so universal in its interest.
As you read ShakespeareЂ™s play you will discover for yourself the specific things Hamlet says and does that make his motives understandable to you, just as every critic, reader, and playgoer over the centuries has picked the elements he or she most responded to in the young princeЂ™s tragic story. That will be your interpretation of Hamlet. If you follow the play closely and seriously, your opinions are likely to be every bit as valid as those of professional critics or teachers.
3.2 Claudius
The king of Denmark, HamletЂ™s uncle and later his stepfather, is shaped from a stock type familiar to Elizabethan theatergoersЂ”the neglected younger brother who seeks to take over his older brotherЂ™s title by unscrupulous means. Claudius, however, is a complex figure about whom Shakespeare gives you a good deal of information. You learn how the public attitude toward him has changed in Denmark (and changes again after PoloniusЂ™ death); you learn about his drinking habits and his personal appearance as compared with his late brotherЂ™s. Above all,you see him in action politicallyЂ”manipulating, placating, and making pronouncementsЂ”and you see how his tactics in dealing with Norway or Poland link up to the conduct of his personal affairs. There is no question about his political ability, which is tied in with his talent for manipulating people and converting them to his point of view, as he does with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Some interpretations of the play suggest that we are meant to see him as more suited to the role of king than Hamlet is. His constant hypocritical smiling makes him easy to dislike, yet his genuine remorse in the Prayer Scene makes him more sympathetic, and hence more difficult for Hamlet to kill. Note that nowhere in the play does he directly express his feelings for Gertrude.
3.3 Gertrude
GERTRUDE HamletЂ™s mother, the queen of Denmark, is a touching and mysterious figure. You never learn explicitly how much Gertrude knows about her husband King HamletЂ™s death, or how deeply she is attached to her new husband, Claudius. She never expresses her feelings, either, about the morality of marrying her brother-in-law, though this was considered incestuous at the time. But she expresses her concern for her son and her affection for Ophelia, plus (in the Closet Scene) a vague sense of guilt that only adds to the mystery about her. The ambiguity of GertrudeЂ™s position reaches its height in the final scene, when she drinks from the poisoned cup. Whether she knows itЂ™s poisoned is something you will have to decide for yourself.
3.4 Ophelia
Ophelia is PoloniusЂ™ daughter. Her name is generally thought to be derived from the Greek word apheleia, meaning Ђњinnocence.Ђќ This is certainly a good description of her outlook on life, every bit as ingenuous as her brotherЂ™s. It may not, however, apply to her sexual activity: The intensity of her feeling for Hamlet suggests that something more than a flirtation has gone on between them, and the bawdy ЂњSt. ValentineЂ™s DayЂќ song that she sings in her madness must have been learned somewhere, though its words should not be taken as literally describing the state of their relations. Some commentators have expressed shock at the coarse language Hamlet jokingly uses toward her in the Play Scene, but aristocratic manners were looser then, and it is really no worse than some of the interchanges between courtly lovers in ShakespeareЂ™s romantic comedies.
OpheliaЂ™s meek reactions to HamletЂ™s language presumably come not from shock, but from confusion over his abrupt change of mood and attitude toward her since the Nunnery Scene. She of course has no idea of the state he is in, and it is possible that she thinks his condition has indeed been caused by her following her fatherЂ™s instructions and refusing to see him. Note that in the conflict between her love for Hamlet and her duty of obedience to her fatherЂ™s orders, she bows to PoloniusЂ™ wishes. Hamlet is less obedient to the orders of the ghost, his father.
3.5 Laertes
PoloniusЂ™ son is one of several young men whose behavior is explicitly contrasted with HamletЂ™s. A courtier in training, he is not a politician like his father, but proud, hasty, sincere, and utterly devoted to fulfilling the demands of HonorЂ”traits that will sadly prove his undoing when he falls in with ClaudiusЂ™ plot. Apart from the implied running comparison with Hamlet, the chief interest of his character is the genuine intensity of his passion for the outward forms of Honor. To get his sister a decent burial, for instance, he will openly quarrel with the priest; to avenge his father, he will violate the code of Honor and even the dictates of his conscience with the poisoned weapon. In his own way he is an innocent like his sister, comparing himself at the end, as Polonius compared Ophelia at the start, to a game bird caught in a trap.
3.6 Horatio
HamletЂ™s trusted friend Horatio is a gentleman and a scholar, but he is not of the nobility, since he appears to have no position at court except in relation to the prince. HamletЂ™s much-quoted tribute to him before the Play Scene (ЂњGive me that man / That is not passionЂ™s slaveЂќ) points up the balanced nature of HoratioЂ™s personality, precisely the quality Hamlet himself lacks. Of course, Horatio is also not forced to undergo any experience as intense as those that Hamlet suffers through. In his moderation of temperament, as in his intermediate rank, he represents the Renaissance version of the ancient classical ideal, the man fortunate enough to live without either excessive joy or suffering in his life. His vaguely Roman name and his Roman-style attempt to join Hamlet in death at the end confirm this.
3.7 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
HamletЂ™s two fellow students from Wittenberg are unmistakably members of the Danish nobility, and noticeably frivolous students compared to the serious Horatio. (The life Polonius fears Laertes may be leading in Paris probably has some similarity to theirs in Wittenberg.) Their names, which mean Ђњwreath of rosesЂќ and Ђњgolden star,Ђќ are authentic touches of local color, since both belong to aristocratic Danish families still in existence today. (Tradition, as usual unverifiable, says that two Danish nobles so named actually were sent on a mission to England in the late sixteenth century.) They are certainly courtiers skilled at politicking, and we learn enough from their evasion at their first meeting with Hamlet to justify his being suspicious of them. Whether they deserve to be put to death, however, is debatable, since they can have no idea of the kingЂ™s true motives in employing them. On the other hand, the fact that they meddle in the business of kings and princes without questioning motives is a comment on their lack of principle, and Hamlet, in telling Horatio of their impending deaths, does not hesitate to draw the moral (Act V, Scene ii, lines 62-68).
3.8 The Ghost
BarnardoЂ™s remarks in the first scene make clear that the ghost is identical in appearance to the late King Hamlet. HamletЂ™s worry over whether it is Ђњan honest ghostЂќ is unusual for the time, an aspect of his intellectually probing nature.
Ghosts were common figures in Elizabethan playsЂ”an inventory of costumes for one theater included a cloak Ђњfor to go invisible.Ђќ Belief in ghosts and omens was prevalent in England, and in the theater it was assumed that they could be trusted.
Another long-standing but unverifiable tradition, incidentally, says the role of the ghost was played by Shakespeare himself, and was his greatest performance.
3.9 Players
Typically for professionals at work, these actors say virtually nothing that is not connected with their job, and are resolutely uninvolved with the events at court. What you learn from them is chiefly how Hamlet feels about them. As you might expect from a prince who is himself the hero of a play (at a time when the growth of Puritanism was causing constant protest against the dangerous influence of theaters in London), Hamlet is an enthusiast and a friend, one who believes deeply in the theaterЂ™s importance to society and who has many objections to performers who donЂ™t live up to his high ideals for the art. From HamletЂ™s friendly greeting, especially as contrasted with his reserve toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, you can see that Hamlet is extremely fond of this particular company of actors; he is an aficionado of their less successful plays and twice addresses the player king as Ђњold friend.Ђќ
3.10 Others
POLONIUS The father of Laertes and Ophelia is clearly a knowledgeable man. He holds an influential position at court, though the text never specifies what title he holdsЂ”or whether he is a holdover from King HamletЂ™s reign or newly appointed by Claudius, who appears to hold him in very high esteem. We know from GertrudeЂ™s reaction to his death that she is fond of him (Ђњthe good old manЂќ), and that she has considered a marriage between her son and his daughter. In the context of the Fortinbras subplot, PoloniusЂ™ name, which means Ђњfrom Poland,Ђќ is worth noting. Though a comic figure at whose bureaucratic double talk we are meant to laugh, he has a visibly sinister side as well, a penchant for political intrigue and spying. While his tactics are shady, his intentions are usually good, making him, like Claudius, a mixture of good and evil.
FORTINBRAS The prince of Norway is a conventional, correct, ambitious military man, yet he is more an image in the playЂ™s structure than an individual personality.
FortinbrasЂ™ chief role is to remind you, in the sphere of politics and kingship, of what Hamlet is not, just as Laertes does in the realm of family honor. Fortinbras figures in the play three times: at the beginning, when Horatio and, later, Claudius discuss his actions; in the middle, when Hamlet meets his troops; and at the very end. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is the nephew of a reigning king, who is physically weak as HamletЂ™s uncle is morally weak. The throne of Norway being occupied, he seeks conquests elsewhere, never questioning their value. When he assumes the throne, he reverses the military victory that was the great triumph of King HamletЂ™s life. Fortinbras displays his inability to understand Hamlet when he orders a military funeral for him and declares that Hamlet would have made an excellent king. (He couldnЂ™t possibly know this; in any case, itЂ™s not likely to be true, at least not by FortinbrasЂ™ own standards.) In short, FortinbrasЂ™ soldierlike ability to ignore the moral complexity of life is a sort of saving grace for him. He is aptly summed up in his name, french for "strong of arm."
MARCELLUS, BARNARDO, AND FRANCISCO The three soldiers of the Danish KingЂ™s Guard are all ordinary, honest men, all suffering in their own way from the sight of the ghost, and from the mysterious air of gloom that has settled on Denmark with King HamletЂ™s death. Marcellus is apparently of slightly higher rank than Francisco and Barnardo (also spelled Bernardo); he is on sociable terms with Hamlet and up to date on his whereabouts. Both he and Barnardo are articulate officers of an elite guard rather than common soldiers. Barnardo is more bluntly straightforward but not less intelligent. MarcellusЂ™ belief in ghosts, like his religious faith, is balanced against his honest practicality. His assumption that there is a logical reason for every phenomenon makes him similar in character to the captain of FortinbrasЂ™ army, who speaks bluntly to Hamlet about the valuelessness of the land they are marching to conquer; possibly the same actor played both parts.
CLOWNS The two characters usuallyЂ”and mistakenlyЂ”designated as ЂњFirst and Second GravediggerЂќ are a comedy act, the companyЂ™s resident low comedian and his straight man, identified in early editions of the play as ЂњClownЂќ and ЂњOther.Ђќ Although in many Elizabethan plays the material performed by clowns is irrelevant to and detachable from the story (since they traditionally Ђњworked upЂќ their own material), Shakespeare always took unusual pains to make them an organic part of the larger work. The role he creates here for the clown is a comic contradiction in termsЂ”a cheerful gravedigger. His robust good spirits, talkativeness, and a love of argument are all amusingly inappropriate to the cemetery where he works, and are balanced by his democratically stoic sense that everyone is equal because we all come to the same end. IsnЂ™t that exactly how you might expect human life to look from a gravediggerЂ™s point of view? This simple workingmanЂ™s philosophy is elegantly balanced, at exactly the right point in the action, against the complexity of HamletЂ™s soul-searching. The gravediggerЂ™s companion, though often erroneously played as an apprentice or younger work partner, is a warden or church official in charge of the placement of graves in the churchyard. He does not argue with the clown for the simple reason that, as he is finally forced to admit, he agrees with him.
4 Themes and Ideas
4.1 Appearance and Reality
Allied to the question of HamletЂ™s madness is a variety of references to the idea of acting a part or of presenting a false image to the world. Hamlet demands honesty, but is he himself always honest? Many other characters, at various times, seem to be playing parts, and the troupe of players is in the play as an active reminder that in real life a person can play many roles, and it is not always easy to tell what is true from what only appears to be true. At the very center of the play is HamletЂ™s view of acting on the stage, expressed in his advice to the players.
You can compare it with the picture Shakespeare gives of Hamlet, and the other characters, acting in their ЂњrealЂќ lives.
4.2 Madness and Sanity
The question of HamletЂ™s sanity is openly discussed in the play and has been a subject of debate for centuries. Is Hamlet really mad? If so, what causes HamletЂ™s madness? Is it his reluctance to take revenge? Is it his confused feelings about his mother? Is he in fact sane and the world mad for failing to understand the things he says? Is he sometimes pretending to be mad and at other times genuinely unbalanced? Remember, the play gives another example of madness in Ophelia, and you should ask some of the same questions about her.
4.3 Kingship
Shakespearean tragedy often turns on the question of who is to be kingЂ”on who is best qualified to accept both the privileges and the responsibilities of rule.
As you read Hamlet, keep in mind these questions: What are the obligations of a king to his people? Who in Hamlet has the most right to be king? Who is most qualified to be king? Is an honest king necessarily the best king? Is a peaceful king better than a warlike one? How much say should the public have in choosing a king, and how much the nobility? In the scene-by-scene discussion weЂ™ll also take a look at what being king means to each of the four characters who claim the Danish throneЂ”Claudius, Hamlet, Laertes, and FortinbrasЂ”and how well each one would rule.
4.4 Justice and Revenge
All the action of Hamlet is based on the one task the ghost sets the prince: to avenge his fatherЂ™s murder. This powerful demand is countered in HamletЂ™s mind by three questions: Is revenge a good or an evil act? Is Claudius truly guilty and so to be punished? Is it HamletЂ™s responsibility to punish him? Throughout the play Shakespeare raises questions about whether justice is to be left to the state or taken into oneЂ™s own hands, and about whether it is possible, in a cunning and deceitful world, to tell the good man from the criminal. These questions are focused on Hamlet, who must decide whether to avenge his father or not, and if so, how. They are reflected in the parallel stories of Fortinbras and Laertes, who also have obligations of revenge to fulfill.
4.5 Destiny and the Purpose of Life
Linked to the theme of revenge is the great question of HamletЂ™s inner meditations: Is there a point to life at all? Do we suffer in this harsh world for a purpose, or simply because we are afraid to find out what may lie beyond it? And if there is a higher, universal force guiding each of us in a certain direction, how do we learn what it is so that we can accept its guidance? Much of HamletЂ™s anguish is caused by his effort to link even the most trivial event to the order of the universe. Is he right in doing so? And does he succeedЂ”does life finally reveal its meaning to him?
4.6 Women
HamletЂ™s views on women are complex and intensely emotional. The only two women characters in the play are the two who are most deeply attached to himЂ”his mother and Ophelia, the young girl he loves. Why is his bitterness toward his mother so strong? What are the various feelings that go into his changing attitude toward Ophelia? As you study the play scene by scene, youЂ™ll see to what extent the two womenЂ™s responses bear out the truth of his accusations, and to what extent they do not.
4.7 Poison and Corruption
Corruption, rot, disease, and poison are among the chief sources of poetic imagery in Hamlet. The poison with which Claudius kills King Hamlet spreads in a sense through the entire country till Ђњsomething is rotten in Denmark.Ђќ Look for examples of this imagery as you go through the play. Is the arrival of Fortinbras at the end meant to be a cure? If so, what sort of cure will it be?
5 Shakespeare's World
William Shakespeare lived in a time of great change and excitement in EnglandЂ”a time of geographical discovery, international trade, learning, and creativity. It was also a time of international tension and internal uprisings that came close to civil war.
Under Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) and James I (reigned 1603-1625), London was a center of government, learning, and trade, and ShakespeareЂ™s audience came from all three worlds. His plays had to please royalty and powerful nobles, educated lawyers and scholars, as well as merchants, workers, and apprentices, many of whom couldnЂ™t read or write. To keep so many different kinds of people entertained, he had to write into his plays such elements as clowns who made terrible puns and wisecracks; ghosts and witches; places for the actors to dance and to sing the hit songs of the time; fencing matches and other kinds of fight scenes; and emotional speeches for his star actor, Richard Burbage.
There is very little indication that he was troubled in any way by having to do this. The stories he told were familiar ones, from popular storybooks or from English and Roman history. Sometimes they were adapted, as Hamlet was, from earlier plays that had begun to seem old-fashioned. Part of ShakespeareЂ™s success came from the fact that he had a knack for making these old tales come to life.
When you read Hamlet, or any other Shakespearean play, the first thing to remember is that the words are poetry. ShakespeareЂ™s audience had no movies, television, radio, or recorded music. What brought entertainment into their lives was live music, and they liked to hear words treated as a kind of music. They enjoyed plays with quick, lively dialog and jingling wordplay, with strongly rhythmic lines and neatly rhymed couplets, which made it easier for them to remember favorite scenes. These musical effects also made learning lines easier for the actors, who had to keep a large number of roles straight in their minds.
The actors might be called on at very short notice to play some old favorite for a special occasion at court, or at a noblemanЂ™s house, just as the troupe of actors in Hamlet is asked to play The Murder of Gonzago.
The next thing to remember is that Shakespeare wrote for a theater that did not pretend to give its audience an illusion of reality, like the theater we are used to today. When a housewife in a modern play turns on the tap of a sink, we expect to see real water come out of a real faucet in something that looks like a real kitchen sink. But in ShakespeareЂ™s time no one bothered to build onstage anything as elaborate as a realistic kitchen sink. The scene of the action had to keep changing to hold the audienceЂ™s interest, and to avoid moving large amounts of scenery, a few objects would be used to help the audience visualize the scene. For a scene set in a kitchen, ShakespeareЂ™s company might simply have the cook come out mixing something in a bowl. A housewife in an Elizabethan play would not even have been a woman, since it was considered immoral for women to appear onstage. An older woman, like HamletЂ™s mother Gertrude, would be played by a male character actor who specialized in matronly roles, and a young woman like HamletЂ™s girlfriend Ophelia would be played by a teenage boy who was an apprentice with the company. When his voice changed, he would be given adult male roles. Of course, the apprentices played not only women, but also pages, servants, messengers, and the like. It was usual for everyone in the company, except the three or four leading actors, to Ђњdouble,Ђќ or play more than one role in a play. ShakespeareЂ™s audience accepted these conventions of the theater as parts of a game. They expected the words of the play to supply all the missing details. Part of the fun of Shakespeare is the way his plays guide us to imagine for ourselves the time and place of each scene, the way the characters behave, the parts of the story we hear about but donЂ™t see. The limitations of the Elizabethan stage were significant, and a striking aspect of ShakespeareЂ™s genius is the way he rose above them.
Theaters during the Elizabethan time were open-air structures, with semicircular Ђњpits,Ђќ or Ђњyards,Ђќ to accommodate most of the audience. The pit could also serve as the setting for cock fights and bear baiting, two popular arena sports of the time.
The audience in the pit stood on three sides of the stage. Nobles, well-to-do commoners, and other more ЂњrespectableЂќ theatergoers sat in the three tiers of galleries that rimmed the pit. During breaks in the stage actionЂ”and sometimes while the performance was underwayЂ”peddlers sold fruit or other snacks, wandering through the audience and calling out advertisements for their wares.
The stage itself differed considerably from the modern stage. The main part, sometimes called the ЂњapronЂќ stage, was a raised platform that jutted into the audience. There was no curtain, and the audience would assume when one group of actors exited and another group entered there had been a change of scene.
Because there was no curtain someone always carried a dead character off. It would, after all, have spoiled the effect if a character who had just died in the play got up in full view of the audience and walked off stage to make way for the next scene. The stage often had one or more trapdoors, which could be used for entry from below or in graveyard scenes.
Behind the main stage was a small inner stage with a curtain in front of it.
During productions of Hamlet, the curtain served as the tapestry (or arras) that Claudius and Polonius hide behind when they spy on Hamlet, and later it was opened to disclose GertrudeЂ™s bedchamber.
Above the apron stage, on the second story, was a small stage with a balcony.
In Hamlet this small stage served as a battlement and in Romeo and Juliet as the balcony in the famous love scene.
Still higher was the musiciansЂ™ balcony and a turret for sound effectsЂ”drum rolls, trumpet calls, or thunder (made by rolling a cannon ball across the floor).
Now that you know something about the theater he wrote for, who was Shakespeare, the man?
Unfortunately, we know very little about him. A writer in ShakespeareЂ™s time was not considered special, and no one took pains to document ShakespeareЂ™s career the way a writerЂ™s life would be recorded and studied in our century. Here are the few facts we have.
Shakespeare was born in 1564, in the little English country town of Stratford, on the Avon River. He was the grandson of a tenant farmer and the son of a shopkeeper who made and sold gloves and other leather goods. We know that ShakespeareЂ™s family was well off during the boyЂ™s childhoodЂ”his father was at one point elected bailiff of Stratford, an office something like mayorЂ”and that he was the eldest of six children. As the son of one of the wealthier citizens, he probably had a good basic education in the townЂ™s grammar school, but we have no facts to prove this. We also have no information on how he spent his early years or on when and how he got involved with the London theater.
At 18 he married a local girl, Anne Hathaway, who gave birth to their first childЂ”a daughter, SusannaЂ”six months later. This does not mean, as some scholars believe, that Shakespeare was forced into marriage: Elizabethan morals were in some ways as relaxed as our own, and it was legally acceptable for an engaged couple to sleep together. Two years later, Anne gave birth to twins, Hamnet (notice the similarity to ЂњHamletЂќ) and Judith, but by this time ShakespeareЂ™s parents were no longer so well off. The prosperity of country towns like Stratford was declining as the city of London and its international markets grew, and so Shakespeare left home to find a way of earning a living.
One unverified story says Shakespeare was driven out of Stratford for poaching (hunting without a license) on the estate of a local aristocrat; another says he worked in his early twenties as a country schoolmaster or as a private tutor in the home of a wealthy family.
Shakespeare must somehow have learned about the theater, because the next time we hear of him, at age 28, he is being ridiculed in a pamphlet by Robert Greene, a playwright and writer of comic prose. Greene called Shakespeare an uneducated actor who had the gall to think he could write better plays than a university graduate. One indication of ShakespeareЂ™s early popularity is that GreeneЂ™s remarks drew complaints, and his editor publicly apologized to Shakespeare in GreeneЂ™s next pamphlet. Clearly, by 1592 the young man from Stratford was well thought of in London as an actor and a new playwright of dignity and promise.
Though England at the time was enjoying a period of domestic peace, the danger of renewed civil strife was never far away. From abroad came threats from hostile Roman Catholic countries like Spain and France. At home, both ElizabethЂ™s court and ShakespeareЂ™s theater company were targets of abuse from the growing English fundamentalist movement we call Puritanism. In this period, England was enjoying a great expansion of international trade, and LondonЂ™s growing merchant class was largely made up of Puritans, who regarded the theater as sinful and were forever pressing either the Queen or the Lord Mayor to close it down. Then there were members of ElizabethЂ™s own court who believed she was not aggressive enough in her defiance of Puritans at home or Catholics abroad. One such man was the Earl of Essex, one of ElizabethЂ™s court favorites (and possibly her lover), who in 1600 attempted to storm the palace and overthrow her. This incident must have left a great impression on Shakespeare and his company, for they came very close to being executed with Essex and his conspirators, one of whom had paid them a large sum to revive ShakespeareЂ™s Richard II, in which a weak king is forced to abdicate, as part of a propaganda campaign to justify EssexЂ™s attempted coup dЂ™etat.
The performance, like the coup, apparently attracted little support. Elizabeth knew the publicity value of mercy, however, and ShakespeareЂ™s company performed for her at the palace the night before the conspirators were hanged. It can hardly be a coincidence that within the next two years Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, in which a play is performed in an unsuccessful attempt to depose a reigning king. The Essex incident must have taught him by direct experience the risks inherent in trifling with the power of the established political order.
ElizabethЂ™s gift for keeping the conflicting elements around her in balance continued until her death in 1603, and her successor, James I, a Scotsman, managed to oversee two further decades of peace. James enjoyed theatrical entertainment, and under his reign, Shakespeare and his colleagues rose to unprecedented prosperity. In 1604 they were officially declared the KingЂ™s Men, which gave them the status of servants to the royal household.
ShakespeareЂ™s son Hamnet died in 1596, about four years before the first performance of Hamlet. Whether he inspired the character of Hamlet in any way, we probably will never know. Some scholars have suggested that the approaching death of ShakespeareЂ™s father (he died in 1601) was another emotional shock that contributed to the writing of Hamlet, the hero of which is driven by the thought of his fatherЂ™s sufferings after death. This is only speculation, of course. What we do know is that Shakespeare retired from the theater in 1611 and went to live in Stratford, where he had bought the second biggest house in town, called New Place. He died there in 1616; his wife Anne died in 1623. Both ShakespeareЂ™s daughters had married by the time of his death. Because JudithЂ™s two sons both died young and SusannaЂ™s daughter ElizabethЂ”though she married twice and even became a baronessЂ”had no children, there are no descendants of Shakespeare among us today.
On ShakespeareЂ™s tombstone in Stratford is inscribed a famous rhyme, putting a curse on anyone who dares to disturb his grave:
Good friend, for JesusЂ™ sake forbear To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.
The inscription had led to speculation that manuscripts of unpublished works were buried with Shakespeare or that the grave may in fact be empty because the writing attributed to him was produced by other hands. (A few scholars have argued that contemporaries like Francis Bacon wrote plays attributed to Shakespeare, but this notion is generally discredited.) The rhyme is a final mystery, reminding us that Shakespeare is lost to us. Only by his work may we know him.
6 The Critics
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY ...we must allow to the tragedy of Hamlet the praise of variety. The incidents are so numerous, that the argument [summary] of the play would make a long tale.... The action is indeed for the most part in continual progression, but there are some scenes which neither forward nor retard it. Of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity. He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.
Samuel Johnson, from the notes to his Edition of ShakespeareЂ™s Dramatic Works, 1765 Tender and nobly descended, this royal flower [Hamlet] grew up under the direct influences of majesty; the idea of the right and of princely dignity, the feeling for the good and the graceful, with the consciousness of his high birth, were unfolded in him together. He was a prince, a born prince. Pleasing in figure, polished by nature, courteous from the heart, he was to be the model of youth and the delight of the world.... A beautiful, pure, noble and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which makes a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off....
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, from Wilhelm Meister, Book V, 1795
NINETEENTH CENTURY One of ShakespeareЂ™s modes of creating characters is to conceive any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess, and then to place himself, Shakespeare, thus mutilated or diseased, under given circumstances. In Hamlet he seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balanceЂ”between our attention to the objects of our sense and our meditation on the working of our mindsЂ”an equilibrium between the real and the imaginary worlds. In Hamlet this balance is disturbed; his thoughts and the images of his fancy are far more vivid than his actual perceptions.... Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it.... This character Shakespeare places in circumstances under which he is obliged to act on the spur of the moment: Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve.... He mistakes the seeing of his chains for the breaking of them, delays action till action is of no use, and dies the victim of mere circumstance and accident.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from Notes and Lectures on Shakespeare, 1808 Hamlet is single in its kind: A tragedy of thought inspired by continual and never-satisfied meditation on human destiny and the dark perplexity of the events of this world, calculated to call forth the very same meditation in the minds of the spectators.... Respecting HamletЂ™s character, I cannot pronounce altogether so favorable a judgment as GoetheЂ™s.... The weakness of his volition is evident: He does himself only justice when he says there is no greater dissimilarity than between himself and Hercules. He is not solely impelled by necessity to artifice and dissimulation; he has a natural inclination to go crooked ways; he is a hypocrite towards himself, his far-fetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his lack of resolution... he is too much overwhelmed with his own sorrow to have any compassion to spare for others.... On the other hand we evidently perceive in him a malicious joy when he has succeeded in getting rid of his enemies more through necessity, and accident, which are alone able to impel him to quick and decisive measures, than from the merit of his courage.... Hamlet has no firm belief in himself or anything else.... The destiny of humanity is here exhibited as a gigantic Sphinx, which threatens to precipitate into the abyss of skepticism whoever is unable to solve her dreadful enigma.
August Wilhelm Schlegel, from
Lectures on Art and Dramatic Literature, 1809 Hamlet is a name: His speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poetЂ™s brain. What, then are they not real? They are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the readerЂ™s mind. It is we who are Hamlet.... We have been so used to this tragedy, that we hardly know how to criticize it, any more than we should know how to describe our own faces.... It is the one of ShakespeareЂ™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. Whatever happens to him we apply to ourselves, because he applies it to himself as a means of general reasoning.... [He] is not a character marked by strength of will, or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment.... He is the prince of philosophical speculators, and because he cannot have his revenge perfect, according to the most refined idea his wish can form, he misses it altogether.... His ruling passion is to think, not to act; and any vague pretense that flatters this propensity instantly diverts him from his previous purposes.... The character of Hamlet is made up of undulating lines; it has the yielding flexibility of Ђ˜a wave oЂ™ thЂ™ sea.Ђ™ William Hazlitt, from Characters of ShakespeareЂ™s Plays, 1812 [Hamlet] is not master of his acts; occasion dictates them; he cannot plan a murder, but must improvise it. A too-lively imagination exhausts energy by the accumulation of images, and by the fury of intentness which absorbs it. You recognize in him a poetЂ™s soul, made not to act but to dream, which is lost in contemplating the phantoms of its own creation, which sees the imaginary world too clearly to play a part in the real world; an artist whom evil chance has made a prince, whom worse chance has made an avenger of crime, and who, destined by nature for genius, is condemned by fortune to madness and unhappiness.
Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine, from History of English Literature, 1866 Much discussion has turned on the question of HamletЂ™s madness, whether it be real or assumed. It is not possible to settle this question.... Shakespeare meant Hamlet to be in a state of intense cerebral excitement, seeming like madness. His sorrowing nature has suddenly been plunged to its depths by a horror so great as to make him recoil every moment from a belief in its reality. The shock, if it has not destroyed his sanity, has certainly unsettled him.
George Henry Lewes, from On Actors and the Art of Acting, 1875 [Hamlet] is a man in whom the common personal passions are so superseded by wider and rarer interests, and so discouraged by a degree of critical self-consciousness which makes the practical efficiency of the instinctive man on the lower plane impossible to him, that he finds the duties dictated by conventional revenge and ambition as disagreeable a burden as commerce is to a poet. Even his instinctive sexual impulses offend his intellect; so that when he meets the woman who excites them he invites her to join him in a bitter and scornful criticism of their joint absurdity... all of which is so completely beyond the poor girl that she naturally thinks him mad. And, indeed, there is a sense in which Hamlet is insane; for he trips over the mistake which lies on the threshold of intellectual self-consciousness: That of bringing life to utilitarian or Hedonistic tests, thus treating it as a means instead of an end.
George Bernard Shaw, from his review of Johnston Forbes-RobertsonЂ™s production of the play, in Our Theaters in the Nineties, Vol. 3, 1897
TWENTIETH CENTURY One would judge that by temperament [Hamlet] was inclined to nervous instability, to rapid and perhaps extreme changes of feeling or mood.... This temperament the Elizabethans would have called melancholic.... Next, we cannot be mistaken in attributing to [him] an exquisite sensibility to which we may give the name Ђњmoral.Ђќ... To the very end, his soul, however sick and tortured it may be, answers instantaneously when good and evil are presented to it, loving the one and hating the other.... Now, in HamletЂ™s moral sensibility there undoubtedly lay a danger. Any great shock that life might inflict on it would be felt with extreme intensity. Such a shock might even produce tragic results....
A. C. Bradley, from Shakespearean Tragedy, Lecture 3, 1904
So far from being ShakespeareЂ™s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways [it] is puzzling and disquieting as is none of the others.... Probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the ЂњMona LisaЂќ of literature.... The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an Ђњobjective correlativeЂќ; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion...
and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.... Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him.... We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem that proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know.
T. S. Eliot, from ЂњHamlet and His Problems,Ђќ in Selected Essays, 1920 Whenever a person cannot bring himself to do something that every conscious consideration tells him he should doЂ”and which he may have the strongest conscious desire to doЂ”it is always because there is some hidden reason why a part of him doesnЂ™t want to do it; this reason he will not own to himself and is only dimly, if at all, aware of. That is exactly the case with Hamlet.... The more intense and the more obscure is a case of deep mental conflict, the more certainly will it be found on adequate analysis to center about a sexual problem....
[HamletЂ™s] long ЂњrepressedЂќ desire to take his fatherЂ™s place in his motherЂ™s affection is stimulated to unconscious activity by the sight of someone usurping this place exactly as he himself had once longed to do. More, this someone was a member of the same family, so that the actual usurpation further resembled the imaginary one in being incestuous. Without his being in the least aware of it, the ancient desires are ringing in his mind, are once more struggling to find conscious expression