Hamlet themes


Hamlet Theme of Madness

Madness – both real and feigned – is at the heart of the play. Hamlet's "antic disposition" has famously sparked a scholarly debate: Does Hamlet truly go "mad" or is it all an act? An impossible mystery, it's one of many unanswered questions raised by the play. Nevertheless, the complexity and sheer ambiguity of Hamlet's mental state and erratic behavior is compelling and seems to speak to the play's overall atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt. Ophelia's clear descent into madness (and subsequent drowning) is somewhat of a different issue. Critics tend to agree that Ophelia seemingly cracks under the strain of Hamlet's abuse and the weight of patriarchal forces, which has important implications for the play's portrayal of "Gender" and "Sex."

Questions About Madness

  1. What's does Hamlet mean when he says he's going to put on an "antic disposition" (1.3.28)? Why does Hamlet play the role of an "antic"? What's purpose does it serve?
  2. We know that Hamlet says he's going to pretend to be insane. Is there textual evidence in the play that Hamlet actually does descend into madness?
  3. What is the difference between Hamlet's madness and Ophelia's? Is there a marked difference in their behavior and speech?
  4. What causes Ophelia to go mad? What purpose does her madness serve in the play? What textual evidence would you use to support your claim?

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While Hamlet's "mad" behavior starts out as an "antic disposition," his mental state deteriorates over the course of the play to a point where it would be accurate to call him truly mad.

It's no accident that the play makes it impossible to know whether or not Hamlet is actually "mad" – the audience's uncertainty about Hamlet's mental state mirrors the general ambiguity and doubt that characterizes the entire play.




Hamlet Theme of Revenge

Hamlet gears up to be a traditional bloody revenge play – and then it stops. The bulk of the play deals not with Hamlet's ultimately successful vengeance on his father's murderer, but with Hamlet's inner struggle to take action. The play concludes with a bloodbath that's typical of revenge tragedy, but Hamlet's infamous delay sets it apart from anything that's come before it. Hamlet is also notable for the way it weaves together three revenge plots, all of which involve sons seeking vengeance for their fathers' murders. Ultimately, the play calls into question the validity and usefulness of revenge.

Questions About Revenge

  1. How does Hamlet's attitude toward revenge change throughout the play? When does he talk about revenge? How does what he says about revenge match what he actually does?
  2. How does Hamlet's attitude towards revenge contrast with Fortinbras's or Laertes's approach?
  3. Why is there such a delay when it comes to Hamlet avenging his father's murder?

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In Hamlet, Shakespeare establishes three revenge plots, all of which involve a son seeking vengeance for the death of a father. This allows Shakespeare to create two foils to Hamlet's character – Laertes and Fortinbras both take swift and immediate action that sets off and highlights Hamlet's infamous delay.

The thing that seems to most clearly separate Hamlet from other revenge tragedies is the hero's excessive delay in avenging his loved one's murder.





Hamlet Theme of Mortality

Hamlet's musings on suicide, especially the "to be or not to be" speech, are legendary and continue to direct discussions of the value of life and the mystery of death. But Hamlet himself never commits suicide. It is Ophelia, who never mentions the possibility of taking her own life, who drowns, seemingly as a result of some combination of madness and despair. Death threads its way through the entirety of Hamlet, from the opening scene's confrontation with a dead man's ghost to the bloodbath of the final scene, which leaves almost every main character dead. Hamlet constantly contemplates death from many angles. He is both seduced and repelled by the idea of suicide, but, in the famous gravedigger scene, he is also fascinated by the physical reality of death. In a way, Hamlet can be viewed as extended dialogue between Hamlet and death.

Questions About Mortality

  1. Why does Hamlet wish his "too, too solid flesh would melt"? What's the cause of his suicidal tendencies?
  2. Under what circumstances, and at which moments of the play, does Hamlet dwell on the possibility of ending his own life?
  3. What counterarguments for suicide does Hamlet provide throughout the play? Do the arguments change or evolve in any way?
  4. How does Ophelia's suicide parallel or contrast with Hamlet's discussions of suicide? In what forms does Hamlet encounter death in the play?
  5. In what ways do people in Hamlet die? Would it be fair to call Hamlet a catalogue of murders?
  6. What fascinates Hamlet about death? In what ways does he explain or evaluate death? What kinds of language does he use?
  7. Do other characters put forth perspectives on death?
  8. The premise of Hamlet is that the King has just died. What different attitudes or ways of dealing with death does the play include? Does the play suggest than any particular response to this death is more or less appropriate than others?

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The fact that Hamlet is still talking about suicide even after he has sworn to avenge his father shows that the Prince's problems lie much deeper than simple grief over his father's murder.

Hamlet's anger against his mother is rooted in the fear that if someone's life can be so easily forgotten after death, life itself has no meaning. His crisis is therefore an existential one, not one of morality.

Hamlet Theme of Religion

Hamlet is not necessarily a play about "religion" but it does register many of religious ideologies and spiritual anxieties of the 16th century. Here we're talking about the effects of the Protestant Reformation, and Christian ideas about "Mortality" and the afterlife, all of which have major implications for the play's portrayal of the ghost. Hamlet is also interesting for the way it weaves together Christian attitudes toward murder, suicide, and revenge, which don't necessarily square with the basic tenets we typically find in the "Genre" of Revenge Tragedy.

Questions About Religion

  1. Why are the castle guards afraid of the Ghost? What is it? Where does it claim to come from?
  2. How do Hamlet's ideas about religion and spirituality shape the way he sees and reacts to the world? Do his attitudes shift throughout the play?
  3. What kind of burial is Ophelia given? Why?
  4. What does Hamlet mean when he says "we defy augury" at 5.2.37?
  5. What kinds of biblical allusions do we find in the play? How do the effect the story?

Chew on This

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Hamlet is a play that dramatizes the spiritual uncertainty and religious confusion of sixteenth century Europe.

Shakespeare's play weaves together Christian attitudes toward murder with the classic tenets of revenge tragedy, which can't always be reconciled; this makes the play all the more dramatic and complex.





Hamlet Theme of Art and Culture

Literary critics consider Hamlet to be one of Shakespeare's most "self-reflexive" plays, which is to say that Hamlet self-consciously refers to the workings of the theater and also draws the audience's attention to the fact that the play is a theatrical production. In the play, Hamlet frequently takes on various theatrical roles (he famously plays an "antic," tries on the role of a typical "revenge hero," and so on), which allows the play to explore ideas about human nature and character. Shakespeare's also interested in contemplating the power of the theater. When Hamlet organizes a group of traveling players to perform The Murder of Gonzago (a.k.a. The Mousetrap), a play that mimics Claudius's murder of Old Hamlet, he hopes that such a device will reflect the truth or, "hold a mirror up to nature."

Questions About Art and Culture

  1. What kinds of "roles" does Hamlet try on throughout the play?

What does Hamlet hope to accomplish by organizing the play-within-the-play?

  1. How does Hamlet interpret theater? What powers or influences does he think theater has?
  2. At the play's end, why do Fortinbras and Horatio say the bodies of the tragic victims should be placed up high on a "stage" while Hamlet's story is told? What purpose will this serve?

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In Hamlet, theater is exactly what Hamlet says it is: a faithful reflection of what is going on in the world.

Hamlet himself defines theater as an art designed to "hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to Nature" (3.2.1). But in Hamlet, Shakespeare presents theater as something that shapes reality, rather than merely reflecting it.




Hamlet Theme of Lies and Deceit

Hamlet, more than almost any character in literature, hates deception and craves honesty. It is one of the brilliant ironies of the play that Hamlet, an absolutist in his quest for truth, is trapped in a seamy political world where deception is a necessary part of life and political "spin" rules the day. This contrast, fascinating to the audience, is a torment to Hamlet. Deception is necessary for and used by every character in Hamlet, for every purpose ranging from love to parenting to regicide.

Questions About Lies and Deceit

  1. What is Hamlet's stance towards deception or "seeming?" Does he provide any explanation as to why he is so disgusted by these things? Are we supposed to share his opinion?
  2. How do characters other than Hamlet discuss deception?
  3. Who in the play engages in some kind of deception or deceit? Which characters avoid deception completely?
  4. Does Hamlet himself avoid deception? Is he a hypocrite?
  5. Polonius says, "To thine own self be true / and it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man." Is this evaluation of truth and deception backed up by the play? Does Polonius follow his own advice? Does anyone follow it?

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Hamlet is miserable in Denmark not just because of his father's death, but because he craves honesty while everyone else around him is engaged in deception and manipulation.

There is justice in Hamlet because every character that practices deception is ultimately punished for doing so, often by his own form of treachery.




Hamlet Theme of Sex

Hamlet's preoccupation with female sexuality seems to dominate much of the play. The young prince is disgusted by his aging mother's sexual appetite and his attitude eventually infects his relationship with Ophelia and his attitude toward all women in general. In the play, sexuality is frequently associated with deception, sin, and a seemingly fallen world. According to Hamlet, female sexuality makes the entire world seem like an "unweeded garden."

Questions About Sex

  1. What is Hamlet's attitude towards sexuality? What metaphors and language does he use when describing sex?
  2. In what ways is Hamlet's relationship to mother's sexuality and Ophelia's sexuality the same? In what ways are they different?
  3. Does Hamlet focus more on female sexuality or male sexuality? Why?
  4. In what ways does Hamlet's attitude towards sexuality affect or mirror his attitude towards the entire world?
  5. What is the relationship, for Hamlet, between sexuality and betrayal?

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Hamlet's suicidal disgust with the world is rooted more in his mother's sexual betrayal of his father than in Claudius's murder of his father.

Hamlet's view that all women are "breeders of sinners" not only reveals a sexist attitude but also suggest that Hamlet (a "sinner") finds himself to be just as revolting as the corrupt world around him.





Hamlet Theme of Gender

"Frailty, thy name is woman," so says Hamlet in his first scene (1.2.6). Hamlet's attitude toward women is notoriously sexist and stems from his disgust at his mother's sexuality and seeming unfaithfulness to his dead father. This outlook eventually spills over to include all women, especially the hapless Ophelia, who has virtually no power or control, even over her own body. To some extent, the play also considers notions of masculinity (or lack thereof). Claudius warns Hamlet that his grief is "unmanly" and Hamlet notoriously refers to himself as a promiscuous woman when he finds himself unable to avenge his father's death, which, again, circles back to Hamlet's association between women and deception. Yet, the play does not share Hamlet's furious dismissal of women. Hamlet's mother's final guilt is left ambiguous, and his lover ultimately inspires pity. Hamlet's attitude toward women reveals something about him more than it reveals women's true nature.

Questions About Gender

  1. What is Hamlet's attitude toward women? Why does he criticize women? Are these criticisms justified based on what he has seen and experienced?
  2. Do other characters in the play share Hamlet's attitude towards women? What kind of advice does Laertes give Ophelia in Act I, scene iii? What does his advice suggest about his attitude about gender roles? How does Ophelia respond to her brother's remarks? What does her response say about Ophelia's character?
  3. Why does Hamlet call himself a "whore," a "drab," and a "scullion" in Act II, Scene ii?
  4. Do you think Ophelia's limited social role (as a powerless young woman) plays any part in why she goes mad and drowns? What evidence would you use to support your claims?
  5. Does the play provide evidence to support Hamlet's criticisms of women? Or, does it challenge his views?

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Hamlet is critical of women because he believes that their sexual "appetites" constantly lead them to betray men.

The play does not share Hamlet's sexist attitude. In fact, it paints a sympathetic picture of Ophelia and seems to suggest that her madness and tragic death are the result of unfair attitudes toward women.


Hamlet Theme of Family

Family is a significant theme in Hamlet. The play is notorious for the way it dwells on the issue of incest – Gertrude's marriage to her dead husband's brother, Hamlet's fixation on his mother, and even Laertes's obsession with Ophelia's sexuality. It's also important to note how the play is particularly concerned with the way politics impact the dynamics of family relationships, especially when domestic harmony is sacrificed for political gain. Also of importance is the fact that Hamlet involves three revenge plots that all hinge on sons avenging the deaths of their fathers.

Questions About Family

  1. What is the purpose of the Fortinbras plot? Why does Fortinbras keeping popping up in the play?
  2. Why is Hamlet so upset about Gertrude's marriage to Claudius?
  3. Hamlet often accused Gertrude of being a bad mother – is he right? Why or why not?
  4. Why do Laertes and Polonius warn Ophelia about being intimate with Hamlet?
  5. Do parents always/ever look out for their children's best interests in the play? What evidence supports your answer?

Chew on This

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In Hamlet, parents cannot be trusted to care for their children, especially when matters of politics are involved.

Hamlet grieves for the loss of his father but it seems that his mother's marriage to Claudius is more upsetting to Hamlet than anything else.