Introduction Hamlet Essay

It can be argued that, Hamlet, is one of the greatest tragedy pieces written by William Shakespeare throughout his life.  The play provides conflict between a variety of personalities all in the pursuit of power or their own interruption of moral justice. It encompasses the themes of deception, manipulation and malevolent to create the “perfect storm” of exploitation, chaos and perhaps insanity.  One of the most puzzling elements though of this play is the personality of the protagonist, Hamlet, son of old king Hamlet and rightful heir to the throne. Although he receives supernatural assurance that Claudius secretly murdered his father, and witnesses with the questionable hasty re-marriage of his mother to his uncle, Hamlet remains incapable to take any physical revenge on the behalf of his father. His own doubts about the ghost, uncertainties of his own ambitions, and his overanalyzing of the world around him are three of the many dissensions which keep him indecisive thus prolong his revenge and resulting in his ultimate dismay.

During the first act of the play, Hamlet’s friends encounter the spirit of Old King Hamlet roaming about the outer ramparts of the castle. Seeing the spirit as a bad omen they quickly report the appearance to his very distraught son, Hamlet. The spirit explains to him that he had been murdered by his deceitful younger brother, Claudius, and that Hamlet must take revenge on the spirit’s behalf. This incident initiates Hamlet’s investigation into his father’s murder; however it is his doubt in the cause of this apparition that keeps him indecisive and prevents him for taking his revenge.  First, Hamlet almost immediately questions the authenticity his father’s spirit after its disappearance. “ The spirit that I have seen may be the devil and the devil hath the power to assume a pleasing shame; yet, and perhaps out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me to damn me.” (II, ii, 596- 601). Hamlet grows unsure if the ghost’s story holds any authentication as he plunges deeper and deeper into his own melancholy; Hamlet wonders if this is work of the devil praying on his weak state of mind. This uncertainty prompts Hamlet to test his Uncle Claudius’ conscience because of his own lack of faith in the ghost and himself; which only prolongs this revenge.

Second, because Hamlet is so doubtful about the story told to him by the ghost, he must test his Uncle’s reaction first. “Observe mine uncle, if his acute guilt. Do not itself unkennel in one speech. It is a damned ghost we have seen. And my imagination are on foul as Vulcan’s stithy.” (III, ii, 80- 84 Shakespeare). This uncertainty in the ghost results in Hamlet prolonging his revenge on Claudius in attempt to confirm the ghost’s story. This course of action leads to him being called upon by his mother, accidently murdering Polonius, and then being poisoned by Laertes. Without this additional prerequisite to begin his revenge, Hamlet could have potentially avoided the resulting confrontations and his death. Third, Hamlet’s trust in the story is only confirmed at seeing his Uncle reaction to the play. “O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound..” (III, ii, 281- 282). Without Claudius’ reaction to the play Hamlet would probably remain in limbo about his own thoughts and the ghost and may never taken revenge. The play is the confirmation for Hamlet’s revenge scheme and its lengthily process was necessary to convince Hamlet of the ghost’s story; Nevertheless Hamlet’s continual indecisive behavior after the play gave Claudius amply time to plot Hamlet’s murder. However an even greater conflict to within Hamlet to prorogue his revenge and keep him unsure is his own doubts of what he really desires in terms of kingship and life in general.

After the lost of old King Hamlet, the people of Demark are asked to choose between Hamlet or Claudius to rule in place of their lost king. The people choose Claudius to rule over them, who will be succeeded by a much older and perhaps wiser Hamlet. Knowing Claudius killed the old king, Hamlet understands he is the rightfully king of Denmark; however Hamlet is unresolved about his desires for that position and makes him hesitant to take any action. First, Hamlets confesses to Ophelia of traits that he is reprehensible of, one of which is ambitious. “I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious…”(III, ii, 132- 135). This personality presented by Hamlet provides a contradiction to his behavior. He wishes to remove Claudius from the thrown however states he would rather not be ambitious, about can be assumed, his right to be king. At this moment it seems that Hamlet is unwilling to be king, which will keep him indecisive and hinder his revenge. Second, Hamlet does however reveal to Rosencrantz he is “distempered” because he “lacks advancement”. “Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper? You do, surely, bar the door upon your own liberty, if you deny your griefs to your friend……….. Sir, I lack advancement.” Contrary to what he previously states during his conversation with Ophelia, Hamlets now reveals his desire to “advance”. This change in ambition could be seen as the possibility for his revenge to finally transpire, however Hamlet may not be referring to his succession as king but his plans for his revenge; consequently not knowing if he desires both delays Hamlets for taking his revenge. Finally, Hamlets tells Horatio of his desire to be king, and disappointment of being denied this right. “Does it not, think’st thee, stand me now upon–   He that hath kill’d my king and whored my mother, Popp’d in between the election and my hopes,   Thrown out his angle for my proper life…” (V, I, 69- 72). This final explanation by Hamlet reveals that he does have intention to become king and therefore the expectation can be made that he will take his reveal shortly, which he prompted does in the next scene. However by the time he finally discovers this truth about his ambitions it is already too late and his murder has already been planned. Furthermore, all of this could have been avoided if Hamlet did not put so much thought into his revenge and just acted upon his feelings.

Throughout the play, Hamlet is constantly over analyzing the world around him. Every action that he takes, Hamlet tediously examines all the potential outcomes and reasoning behind it. This over thinking of the world around him is a reason for his indecisiveness and consequently his downfall. First, Hamlet argues to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the philosophy of what is “good” and “bad”. “Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” (II, ii, 260- 262). This point made by Hamlet only illustrates how critically he thinks of the world around him. His insight of the objectiveness of all behavior, made only subjective through perspective displays he is character of deep thought who muct analyze a problem from all angles before processing often resulting in him being indecisive on an issue. Second, Hamlet reveals in his soliloquy, his justification of why humans, and himself, fear death and anything related to it. “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment   with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action” (III, I, 91- 95). This over analyzing of death of what makes Hamlet question his right to kill another human and the fear that all humans have toward death. This scrutinizing of his own plan, only makes Hamlet doubt himself and prolong his revenge even more. It also illustrates that Hamlet does fear killing another and inaction on his behalf is this awareness of his fear. Finally, Hamlet debates to himself what the reasoning behind his inaction on his father’s behalf. Now whether it be b*stial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th’ event…” (VI, vi, 39- 46). This is a realization on Hamlet’s behalf that the cause of his inaction is indeed his overanalyzing of all his behavior just to establish his own excess thought and deliberations. The examination of so many situations of his life causes Hamlet to yet again prolong his revenge and seem indecisive to the reader.

In conclusion, there were many paths Hamlets could have taken throughout the course of the book, which he own indecisiveness prevented him from doing. Hamlet’s dismay is attributed to the hesitant behavior toward his father’s revenge due to several internal conflicts and personality traits Hamlets posses. From the beginning of the play Hamlet is in indeterminate state about the validity of anything occurring around him. Furthermore, Hamlet’s doubts in the truthfully of his father’s spirit, doubts of his own ambitions and over analyzing  of the world around him, left Hamlet an very indecisive man which ultimately led him to his own death.

Introduction to Hamlet

Hamlet, the first in Shakespeare's series of great tragedies, was initially classified as a problem play when the term became fashionable in the nineteenth century. Like Shakespeare's other problem plays -- All's Well that End's Well, Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure -- Hamlet focuses on the complications arising from love, death, and betrayal, without offering the audience a decisive and positive resolution to these complications. This is due in part to the simple fact that for Hamlet, there can be no definitive answers to life's most daunting questions. Indeed, Hamlet's world is one of perpetual ambiguity.

Although those around him can and do act upon their thoughts, Hamlet is stifled by his consuming insecurities. From the moment Hamlet confronts the spirit of his father, and consistently throughout the play from that point on, what he is sure of in one scene he doubts in the next. Hamlet knows that it is the spirit of his father on the castle wall, and he understands fully its unmistakable cry for revenge. But, when he is alone, Hamlet rejects what he has witnessed in a maelstrom of doubt and fear:
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. (2.2.600-05.)
The emphasis on ambiguity in the play, and the absence of overt instruction on how to overcome such ambiguity is Shakespeare's testament to real life. Each one of us has experienced Hamlet's struggle to find the truth in a mire of delusion and uncertainty, often to no avail. As Kenneth Muir points out in Shakespeare and the Tragic Pattern:
[Hamlet] has to work out his own salvation in fear and trembling; he has to make a moral decision, in a complex situation where he cannot rely on cut-and-dried moral principles, or on the conventional code of the society in which he lives; and on his choice depend the fate of the people he loves and the fate of the kingdom to which he is the rightful heir. (154)
Hamlet also can be sub-categorized as a revenge play, the genre popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Elements common to all revenge tragedy include: 1) a hero who must avenge an evil deed, often encouraged by the apparition of a close friend or relative; 2) scenes of death and mutilation; 3) insanity or feigned insanity; 4) sub-plays; and 5) the violent death of the hero. Seneca, the Roman poet and philosopher, is accepted to be the father of such revenge tragedy, and a tremendous influence on Shakespeare. Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, written in 1592, is credited with reviving the Senecan revenge drama as well as spawning many other plays, such as Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, the Ur-Hamlet (see the sources section), and Shakespeare's own Titus Andronicus, in addition to Hamlet.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Introduction to Hamlet. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. <" > .
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare and the Tragic Pattern. London: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973.


More Resources

 In Secret Conference: The Meeting Between Claudius and Laertes
 O Jephthah - Toying with Polonius
 The Death of Polonius and its Impact on Hamlet's Character
 Blank Verse and Diction in Shakespeare's Hamlet

 Hamlet's Silence
 An Excuse for Doing Nothing: Hamlet's Delay
 Foul Deeds Will Rise: Hamlet and Divine Justice
 Defending Claudius - The Charges Against the King
 Shakespeare's Fools: The Grave-Diggers in Hamlet

 Hamlet's Humor: The Wit of Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark
 All About Yorick
 Hamlet's Melancholy: The Transformation of the Prince
 Hamlet's Antic Disposition: Is Hamlet's Madness Real?

 The Significance of the Ghost in Armor
 The Significance of Ophelia's Flowers
 Ophelia and Laertes
 Mistrusted Love: Ophelia and Polonius

 Divine Providence in Hamlet
 What is Tragic Irony?
 Seneca's Tragedies and the Elizabethan Drama
 Shakespeare's Sources for Hamlet

 Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers

Five Classic Theories on Hamlet's Delay

"Of the five classic attempts by eminent scholars and poets to solve the baffling problem of Hamlet's conduct, the first four are subjective (the fourth being purely pathological), and the fifth is objective, or based solely on external circumstances. The first and most famous is the so-called "sentimental" theory of Goethe, leading poet of Germany, advanced in his Wilhelm Meister (1795). Coming from such an eminent source, every consideration is due this opinion." Haven McClure. Read on...


More to Explore

 Hamlet: The Complete Play with Explanatory Notes
 Hamlet: Problem Play and Revenge Tragedy
 The Hamlet and Ophelia Subplot
 The Norway (Fortinbras) Subplot
 Deception in Hamlet

 The Purpose of The Murder of Gonzago
 Analysis of the Characters in Hamlet
 The Elder Hamlet: The Kingship of Hamlet's Father
 Hamlet's Relationship with the Ghost


Did You Know? ... An English translation of Belleforest's mid sixteenth-century Histories Tragiques appeared in quarto form in 1608. It is The Hystorie of Hamblet. The translation was possibly in circulation before this, but whether it or Shakespeare's work came first in unknown. The focus of Chapter Three of the The Hystorie of Hamblet is the closet scene and it is fascinating to compare it to Shakespeare's version. To say that Hamblet is more vengeful than our hero is an understatement:
"drawing his sworde thrust it into the hangings, which done, pulled the counsellor (half dead) out by the heeles, made an end of killing him, and beeing slaine, cut his bodie in pieces, which he caused to be boyled, and then cast it into a vaulte or privie, that so it mighte serve for foode to the hogges."
Please see A Note on the Hystorie of Hamblet for a discussion on its connection to Shakespeare.


 Philological Examination Questions on Hamlet
 Quotations from Hamlet (with commentary)
 Hamlet Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
 Analysis of I am sick at heart (1.1)
 Hamlet: Q & A

 Soliloquy Analysis: O this too too... (1.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!... (2.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: To be, or not to be... (3.1)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Tis now the very witching time of night... (3.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Now might I do it pat... (3.3)
 Soliloquy Analysis: How all occasions do inform against me... (4.4)

 Ophelia's Burial and Christian Rituals
 The Baker's Daughter: Ophelia's Nursery Rhymes
 Hamlet as National Hero
 Claudius and the Condition of Denmark

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