12 Attitudes and Issues

To be or not to be, that is the question. 
(Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1, line 64)

Hamlet is probably the most famously problematic play ever written’ (Watts 9).

Figure 56. Last Judgement (1536-1541) by Michelangelo (1475-1564). Part of the Sistine Chapel, fresco. Public domain

A Christian Tragedy?

Unlike the Greek and Roman tragedies that were its predecessors, Hamlet is the product of a Christian society with a firm belief in a just judgment following death. Shakespeare’s most studied work nevertheless raises existential questions that challenge faith. Like much of the leading character’s thinking, events occupy the border between earthly realities and an afterlife as imagined in poetry and religion. I contend that an ideological contest therefore exists in Hamlet between Christian belief and an agnosticism that surfaces through cracks in the theology so frequently professed. Because Hamlet is a play, audience engagement rather than theological consistency determines content.

For most of Hamlet an afterlife is an essential precondition for thoughts and events. In his first soliloquy, before he has heard of the Ghost, Hamlet believes that God has ‘set / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter’ (Act 1, scene 2, lines 135-36), and that he is obliged to obey this command. Whatever its moral failings (see the discussion under ‘Characters’), the Ghost’s existence is an answer to the never-ceasing human question, ‘what will happen when I die?’ It manifests and asserts in words the ancient cosmic trinity, continuously upheld in many branches of Christian thought, of heaven, purgatory and hell as the destinations of souls. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination, designated official belief in the Book of Common Prayer (1549), has no place in Hamlet, where occupancy of these realms before and after death is theatrically fluid. When Hamlet first hears of the ghost, for instance, he vows: ‘I’ll speak to it, though hell itself should gape’ (Act 1, scene 2, line 266). Awed by the Ghost’s manifestation he exclaims: ‘Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!’ (Act 1, scene 4, line 43). When his friends try to prevent him from following the Ghost, he asks:

Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life at a pin’s fee.
And for my soul, what can it do to that,
Being a thing immortal as itself? (Act 1, scene 4, lines 73-75)

The oaths that Hamlet afterwards forces on his friends further clinch belief in an afterlife: ‘So grace and mercy at your most need help you’ (Act 1, scene 5, line 202). Like Shakespeare’s early audiences, Hamlet also believes in devils, as attested to in the New Testament:

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’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. (Act 2, scene 2, lines 627-32)

In affirming the same belief, Polonius adds a moral ironically applicable to himself:

We are oft to blame in this
(‘Tis too much proved), that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself. (Act 3, scene 1, lines 52-55)

Claudius too has faith in God’s justice and life after death:

But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. (Act 3, scene 3, lines 55-59)

Hamlet’s reason for not murdering Claudius at prayer is likewise informed by moral theology:

Now might I do it pat, now he is a-praying,
And now I’ll do’t. [He draws his sword.]
And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. (Act 3, scene 3, lines 77-80)

And later he Christianises the Senecan avenger as an instrument of divine justice:

For this same lord [Pointing to Polonius]
I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister. (Act 3, scene 4, lines 193-196)

The same idea authorises his despatching to their deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Why, even in that was heaven ordinant. (Act 5, scene 2, line 54).

Like Hamlet an avenger, Laertes consigns Christian restraint to hell based on belief:

How came he dead? I’ll not be juggled with.
To hell, allegiance. Vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes. Only I’ll be revenged
Most throughly for my father. (Act 4, scene 5, lines 148-54)

The belief in an afterlife that pervades Hamlet is nevertheless interwoven with agnosticism. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth’ than Horatio’s philosophy dreams of (Act 1, scene 5, lines 187-88). A testament to post-mortal continuity, the Ghost disappears after Act 3. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (Act 3, scene 1, lines 64-96) paints a joyless picture of life, likens suicide to ‘an enterprise of great pith and moment’ (line 94), and posits an afterlife that is nightmarish and uncertain:

To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perhaps to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. (Act 3, scene 1, lines 72-76)

Removed from theological certitudes, Hamlet’s thinking converts to agnostic truth-telling. The grave scene with his meditation over Yorick’s skull dwells on bodily decay with uncompromising realism (Act 5, scene 1, lines 190-207). Later, in dialogue with Horatio, he achieves a degree of peace as a Christian fatalist:

There’s a divinity that shapes out ends,
Rough-hew them how we will. (Act 5, scene 2, lines 11-12)

And fatalism dominates his anticipation of the final duel:

We defy augury.
There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come.
The readiness is all. (Act 5, scene 2, lines 233-38)

Hamlet’s last words: ‘The rest is silence,’ are famously agnostic, but Horatio’s farewell, ‘Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,’ poetically reinstates belief (Act 5, scene 2, lines 395-98). Surely, this is literature’s most famous example of fence-sitting.

In logic, Christian faith rules out tragedy—if justice is not done on earth, God will do it after death. This is the promise of the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The heading to this section is therefore an oxymoron: in a work written for a Christian audience by a Christian author, tragedy is possible only if both agree to limit thinking to human knowledge. Sequentially agnostic and believing, the ending of Hamlet inhabits the border between unknowing and knowing. Deaths are always tragic. Christians in the audience are free to imagine an afterlife in which justice is done and mercy is shown to those who have fulfilled their vocation. The problem is that the vocation that Hamlet at last enacts is not Christian but Senecan.

Explore the Text

Do the unresolved contradictions concerning an afterlife found in Hamlet as in other Shakespearean plays result in:

  • imaginative richness?
  • intellectual confusion?
  • or do the contradictions simply reflect the human reality of not knowing?


Fortune features as a determinant of human outcomes in the three plays discussed in this Pressbook. A witty exchange between Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It pays attention to Fortune’s whimsicality:

CELIA: Though Nature hath given us wit to flout at Fortune,
hath not Fortune sent in this fool to cut off the
ROSALIND: Indeed, there is Fortune too hard for Nature,
when Fortune makes Nature’s natural the
cutter-off of Nature’s wit. (Act 1, scene 2, lines 45-50)

As befits a tragedy, references to Fortune in Hamlet are bleak and bitter:

  • A bawdy depiction transfers Fortune’s fickleness to Hamlet’s false friends:

GUILDENSTERN: Faith, her privates we.
HAMLET: In the secret parts of Fortune? O, most true!
She is a strumpet. (Act 2, scene 2, lines 252-54)

  • Her malice features in the recitations of the death of Priam in Act 2, Scene 2:

HAMLET: Out, out, thou strumpet Fortune! All you gods
In general synod take away her power,
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven
As low as to the fiends! (lines 518-522)

FIRST PLAYER: Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steeped,
’Gainst Fortune’s state would treason have pronounced. (lines 535-36)

  • Hamlet’s famous line, ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (Act Three, Scene 1, line 66), memorialises her excess and aggression.
  • Performing Gonzago in ‘The Mousetrap,’ the Player King believes that love, specifically Gonzago’s Queen, follows Fortune:

This world is not for aye, nor ’tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change;
For ’tis a question left us yet to prove
Whether love lead fortune or else fortune love.
The great man down, you mark his favorite flies;
The poor, advanced, makes friends of enemies.
And hitherto doth love on fortune tend,
And who not needs shall never lack a friend.
(Act 3, scene 2, 224-232)

  • We have seen that Hamlet admires Horatio’s equal acceptance of ‘fortunes buffets and rewards.’ Later he admires a similar attitude in Fortinbras’s indifference to Fortune:

Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. (Act 4, scene 4, lines 54-56)

Explore the Text

The quotes above suggest that a malignant Fortune determines human outcomes.

Do events in Hamlet bear this out?

Hamlet and Ethics

Further to its mixing of theology with agnosticism, Hamlet dramatises the clash between idealism, the struggle of a human being to do good and be good, and the realities of flawed human nature. Seen as foundational by philosophy student Hamlet, moral relativism and the subjection of moral action to chance are among the truths that the tragedy explores. Loosely or closely tied to Christian belief, ethics as a standard for behaviour surface constantly throughout the play. Here are some examples from Act 1:

Explore the Text

  1. Find one or two examples of ethical thinking later in Hamlet (Acts 2 to 5).
  2. Are ethical concerns as typical of contemporary people as they are of characters in Hamlet?
  3. Was it part of Shakespeare’s purpose, do you think, to teach morality to his audiences?

Hamlet’s Morality

Shared with Horatio, Hamlet’s moral idealism appears in his conviction, stemming from his disgust at the ‘heavy-headed revel’ favoured by Claudius, that however virtuous in all other respects a person may be:

Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
His virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man my undergo,
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. (Act 1, scene 4, lines 35-39)

Hamlet’s recognition that evil is latent, and to a greater or lesser degree expressed, in every human, causes him to instruct Polonius to be more hospitable to the Players than they deserve: ‘Use every man after his desert and who shall ’scape whipping?’ (Act 2, scene 2, lines  555-57). Hamlet’s awareness of his own failings appears in his greeting to Ophelia: ‘Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered’ (Act 3, scene 1, lines 97-98), and later in his self-accusations, powered as these are by anguish over what he judges to be Ophelia’s disloyal submission to her father:

Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou
be a breeder of sinners? 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, with more offenses
at my beck than I have thoughts to put them
in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act
them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves
all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. (lines 131-40)

Slanted by Hamlet’s sense of betrayal, the message of universal sinfulness in this speech is central to Christian teaching (Romans 5:12). Its truth, however, is obvious to anyone, of any faith or none, who honestly examines her/himself. Many audience members will commend Hamlet’s self-awareness.

By contrast, Hamlet is most in danger of alienating the (present-day?) audience at peak moments in his contradictory role of Senecan-Christian revenger. His calculations about whether or not to murder Claudius at prayer are an example. Claudius’ crime of fratricide has condemned Hamlet’s father’s soul to purgatory. Hamlet’s revenge, however, can be satisfied only by killing Claudius amid his sins, so that ‘his soul may be as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes’ (Act 3, scene 3, lines 78-100). Unlike purgatory, hell in Christian belief is forever.

Following immediately, Hamlet’s killing of Polonius reveals the danger inherent in Senecan revenge, which, like all human action, is subject to misdirection. That Hamlet proceeds to upbraid his mother in the presence of Polonius’ corpse ironically exemplifies his thesis that human nature is depraved in its origins but perhaps the aim is simply to horrify the audience. Whatever the purpose, Hamlet is least acceptable in his role of preacher. Rather than procrastination (delay),[1] I suggest that Hamlet’s ‘fatal flaw’—Aristotle’s hamartia—is self-righteousness.

Explore the Text

  1. I regard Hamlet’s reasoning for not murdering Claudius at prayer as his moral nadir (lowest point). What is your view?
  2. How much religious language, and how much self-righteousness, can you detect in Hamlet’s address to his mother?

Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul
That not your trespass but my madness speaks.
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whiles rank corruption, mining all within,
Infest unseen. Confess yourself to heaven,
Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come,
And do not spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker. Forgive me this my virtue,
For, in the fatness of these pursy times,
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good. (Act 3, Scene 4, lines 165-77)

  1. Hamlet next advises his mother on how to behave virtuously in future (lines 180-91). What specific instruction does he give her? How ‘normal’ in its context is this advice? What does it suggest about Hamlet’s attitude to his mother?
  2. How far (if at all) do you agree with the proposition outlined above, that Hamlet’s ‘fatal flaw’ is not procrastination but self-righteousness?
  3. Hamlet is an imaginative and profound thinker. Does he perhaps suffer from intellectual pride?
  4. How true to human nature, as you experience it, is Aristotle’s concept of a (single) ‘fatal flaw’?

Following his departure for England and adventures at sea, Hamlet seems more relaxed about the duty of revenge that has been imposed upon him. He makes no plans but converses calmly with the Gravediggers and Horatio. He responds impulsively to events as they happen—Ophelia’s funeral, Laertes’ anguish, and Osric’s challenge. In Act 5 he expresses fewer doubts about his task of Senecan avenger. It’s as if taking action, against Polonius, against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the pirates, and finally Laertes, has freed him from the scruples evident in his preaching. Hamlet’s killing of Claudius, who attains his cowardly nadir in the instant before death, seems designed to rehabilitate Hamlet in the judgement of those audience members who remain morally unconvinced. At this instant Hamlet’s self-righteous equivocation transforms into righteous anger, to produce a true Aristotelian catharsis.

Branagh’s enactment of Claudius’s slaying, followed by interviews with him [0:41]:

Is Hamlet Mad? 

Let’s look for an answer to this question by asking ourselves how we would feel if the ghost of our loved and admired father materialised and told us that he had been murdered and imposed on us the duty of avenging him.

  • First, we would want proof that the Ghost was real and that we were not hallucinating.
  • Secondly, we would examine the Ghost’s credentials—we would need to be sure that he was not the instrument of some fiendish power and that he spoke the truth.

Regarding the first, Shakespeare rules out hallucination by having the Ghost appear first to three soldiers and Horatio, who is the play’s anchor point for moral rectitude and good sense. These four testify to the Ghost’s reality in advance of its address to Hamlet in the climax of Act 1. Secondly, Hamlet devises an elaborate test of the Ghost’s credentials. In Act 3 Claudius’ reaction to ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ proves its truthfulness beyond doubt.

The ghostly apparition, the threat to Denmark from Fortinbras’s army, and the disloyalty of his family and friends subject Hamlet to intense psychological pressure. Everyone except Horatio betrays him (see ‘Characters’). Claudius has murdered Hamlet’s father and plans his secret murder, not once (Hamlet’s arrest and deportation) but twice (by poisoning Hamlet, as he did his father). I contend that Hamlet’s awareness of his targeting imparts the energy of inventiveness to what is no more than a performance of madness. The evidence is as follows:

  1. Act 1, scene 5, lines 99-212: immediately after the Ghost has imposed its mission, Hamlet is full of frenetic energy. He treats the Ghost’s off-stage admonitions both seriously—‘Swear!’—and with gruesome humour—‘old mole!’ ‘worthy pioneer’, ‘true-penny’, etc. He insists on secrecy with good reason (so as not to attract Claudius’ vengeance). Despite his near-hysteria, he recognises that ‘an antic disposition’ will provide him with opportunities to test the corrupt court:

But come.
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd some’er I bear myself
(As I, perchance, hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on)
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumbered thus, or this headshake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As “Well, well, we know,” or “We could an if we would,”
Or “If we list to speak,” or “There be an if they might,”
Or such ambiguous giving-out, to note
That you know aught of me—this do swear,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you. (lines 188-202).

The audience is therefore primed to regard Hamlet’s madness as a performance.

Explore the Text

‘Hamlet, undercover detective’—a model for modern detective thrillers perhaps?

2. Following his killing of Polonius, Hamlet clarifies to Gertrude that he isn’t mad, that the Ghost’s manifestation to him in her presence is real, and that her swift remarriage was a betrayal:

My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time
And makes as healthful music. It is not madness
That I have uttered. Bring me to the test,
And I the matter will reword, which madness
Would gambol from. Mother for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul
That not your trespass but my madness speaks. (Act 3, scene 4, lines 161-67)

Hamlet is manic after the Ghost’s departure. His isolation intensifies as he uncovers betrayals by his family, friends, and much-loved Ophelia. His bouts of mania become more frequent until they cease in Act 5.

Hamlet’s feigned madness is in itself revenge against Claudius. He aims to test the Ghost’s testimony and Claudius’s guilt, and secondly to cause Claudius fear and uncertainty.

From this standpoint, Hamlet’s retreat into the dramatic limbo of his ‘antic disposition’ (Act 1, scene 5, line 192), the cryptic quibbling of his feigned madness, isn’t a symptom of some mysterious malaise that’s incapacitated him, but the only sane response to an insane predicament in a society that no longer makes sense (Ryan).

Parents in Hamlet

These tedious old fools!
(Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2, line 237)

Explore the Text

How worthy as a parent or step-parent is each of the following?

  • King Hamlet’s Ghost
  • Claudius
  • Gertrude
  • Polonius
  • Fortinbras’s uncle

How worthy as a son, stepson or daughter is each of the following?

  • Hamlet
  • Laertes
  • Ophelia
  • Fortinbras

I wonder if Shakespeare’s plays generally favour adult children over their parents, especially fathers? In the plays discussed in this Pressbook we have seen an evil father (Frederick), an escapist father (Duke Senior), and fathers whose unexplained enmity causes their children’s deaths (Montague and Capulet). Ranging more widely, King Lear begins as a vain fool while Gloucester plays favourites between his sons; in The Tempest, Prospero’s treatment of Miranda and Ferdinand defines ‘controlling parent.’ These fathers learn from their mistakes, but in Hamlet this is not true of Polonius, Claudius, or the Ghost—purgatory has not purged his unchristian vengefulness. Hamlet’s memory of playing as a child with Yorick the jester, another paternal figure, is tainted with mortality: ‘He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it’ (Act 5, scene 1, lines 192-94). Audiences are invited especially to despise Polonius. Under ‘Characters’ we noted Polonius’s doting on Laertes, his despatching of Reginald to spy on him, and his tyranny over Ophelia. In modern popular culture, the ‘precepts’ that Polonius loads on Laertes are sometimes quoted as wisdom, but most deal merely with worldly advancement.

Explore the Text

Which of Polonius’ propositions (Act 1, scene 3, lines 64-86, paraphrased below) do you, regard as wise?;  see as ambiguous or doubtful?;  judge as ‘worldly,’ i.e., as expedient for a young man seeking a career in courts?:

  • Keep your thoughts to yourself.
  • Don’t act on any thought that seems extreme.
  • Be friendly, but don’t make friends with just anybody.
  • Be true to friends whose loyalty you have tested.
  • Don’t get into unnecessary fights, but once you’re committed make your enemy afraid of you.
  • Don’t talk too much, but listen to others.
  • Listen to others’ opinions, but keep your opinion to yourself.
  • Choose expensive, but not gaudy or fancy clothes.
  • Don’t borrow money and don’t lend it.
  • Above all, be true to yourself because if you’re true to yourself you can’t be false to anyone else.

In respect of the last aphorism, how ‘true’ is Polonius to himself? How ‘false’ is he to others?

This website explores the possibility that Queen Elizabeth’s advisor, William Cecil, Lord Burghley (July 1572 – 4 August 1598), was Shakespeare’s model for Polonius. If deliberate, the similarities suggest that Shakespeare created Polonius as a parody of Cecil, rather than as a tribute to him.  Visit the National Portrait Gallery’s collection to see portraits of William Cecil.


As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, Romeo and Juliet, the conflict in Hamlet is inter-generational. The sins and crimes of King Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius are visited upon their children, first in the form of excruciating choices and finally of their deaths. In defending himself from Polonius (who of course is an old man), Hamlet adopts an openly agist attitude:

Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here
that old men have gray beards, that their faces are
wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and
plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of
wit, together with most weak hams; all which, sir,
though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I
hold it not honesty to have it thus set down; for
yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if, like a crab,
you could go backward. (Act 2, scene 2, lines 214-22)

Explore the Text

  1. What attitude does Hamlet display towards its mature characters—i.e., how ageist is this famous play?
  2. What judgements does Shakespeare invite of his young characters—Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia, Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Osric—in comparison with their elders?
  3. Who is the wisest character in Hamlet?

‘Frailty, Thy Name is Woman!’

(Act 1, scene 2, line 150)

In contrast with Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet is strong, brave and clever, in Hamlet women seldom do anything right.

The case for regarding Hamlet as a sexist work is as follows:

  • There are fifteen named male characters and two named female characters. (This ratio is not unprecedented in Shakespeare’s canon, e.g., Julius Caesar; female characters are more numerous and have larger parts in comedies such as As You Like It.)
  • Of the female characters, Ophelia lacks perception and moral consistency. She is disloyal to Hamlet when she agrees to Laertes’ advice to distance herself, and when in obedience to Polonius she returns Hamlet’s presents. Later she furthers Polonius’s eavesdropping. After Hamlet has responded with fury to what is surely her weakness and a betrayal, Ophelia accepts Polonius’s mistaken diagnosis that Hamlet is mad. During ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ Ophelia defends herself with more spirit from Hamlet’s attacks. In her madness afterwards she speaks her grief over Hamlet’s rejection and her distress at his killing of her father. Like Bertha, the mad and imprisoned wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, it is only in madness that Ophelia acquires a voice with which to protest her oppression.
  • Gertrude, likewise, is morally obtuse, but achieves insight after being lectured by Hamlet. She then realises (Act 3, scene 4) that her (possible? probable?) complicity in first husband’s murder was evil, and that her instant remarriage was an undignified succumbing to lust. Commentary on this scene has focussed on Hamlet’s alleged oedipal complex, rather than on the effect on Gertrude of his inappropriate? embarrassing? instruction on how to withdraw from her sex life with Claudius. In the same scene, Gertrude’s inability to see the Ghost may be a reinforcement of her guilt or signify women’s dullness of spiritual perception. For the remainder of Hamlet, Gertrude’s is a path of repentance and attempted expiation.

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But if so, why, in Act 4, scene 5, is Gertrude so active in protecting Claudius from the enraged Laertes?

Figure 59. Hamlet-Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before the King and Queen) (c.1792) by Benjamin West (1738-1820). Oil on canvas. Public domain

To summarise: in Hamlet the two women characters are guilty of weakness and disloyalty. Neither is morally perceptive, and both submit to tutelage from men who act as rulers (Polonius and Ophelia); as moral and strategic mentors (Laertes and Ophelia, Hamlet and Gertrude); and as accusers and judges (Hamlet and Ophelia, Hamlet and Gertrude).

Explore the Text

  1. What might it imply about worldwide British-influenced culture that a play in which women characters are weak and subservient has become an enduring icon?
  2. Shakespeare was a practical dramatist with little or no interest in sexual politics. This is an extraneous issue that feminist commentators have foisted upon Shakespeare’s works. How true is this statement?

Power and Rule, War and Peace

The family tragedy central to Hamlet has consequences for four nations: Denmark, Norway, Poland and England. Like Shakespeare’s British and Roman history plays, Hamlet is a study in power and power’s ability to corrupt.

  1. What are Claudius’s motives for murdering his brother? How important among them is a desire for power (kingship)?
  2. How important to Hamlet is the prospect of kingly power?
  3. In their servile flattering of Claudius, how much value do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern place on kingly power? Read Act 3, scene 3, lines 9-24.
  4. How obsequious is Polonius in his dealings with royalty: a) Claudius—see Act 2, scene 2, lines 46-48; and 144-48); and b) Hamlet?
  5. Define the relationships that Gertrude and Ophelia have with power. Gertrude is royal, but does she rule?
  6. Who is the single character in Hamlet whom power cannot corrupt?
  7. Is the war-like Fortinbras, who is a simpler man than Hamlet, and less morally aware, likely to make a better king?

Explore the Text

Shakespeare wrote, and probably performed in, nine English history plays before he wrote Hamlet. What mature reflections on war and peace can you find in Hamlet?

Hamlet: The Search for Meaning

Under ‘Ethics’ we considered the Christian virtues that function in Hamlet as guides for human action. Most of the characters accept these virtues as a standard, but all except Horatio, whose loyalty is exemplary, fall short:

  • Polonius’s aphorisms demonstrate the gulf between saying and being;
  • Claudius hides evil under displays of righteousness;
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are self-interested flatterers;
  • Gertrude’s moral awareness is unstable;
  • Laertes mistakes hatred for righteousness;
  • Hamlet offers moral advice, to the audience, to Horatio and the soldiers, to his mother, to the Players, and to Polonius, to the point, as suggested above, that he becomes self-righteous.

Yet Hamlet’s words and actions provide invaluable insight into the human predicament, as he struggles to navigate a universe ruled capriciously by Fortune, an arbitrary ‘divinity,’ and the uncertainties of choice. The murder of his father, the misdirected killing of Polonius, and the suffering and deaths of Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself exemplify the irrationality of a theatrical world that is shaped only partly and superficiously by Christian belief. Even the deaths that the play glosses as just, those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Claudius, disturbingly blend human agency with chance.

Hamlet pivots on the point where four modes of thinking intersect: poetry, drama, philosophy and religion. With so many factors at play in every situation, all interpretations are open to question.

Explore the Text

Hamlet ends with most of the major characters dead. Exceptions are the two characters with missions—Horatio, who survives to tell Hamlet’s story, and Fortinbras, who will reign over Denmark.

What, if any, sources of comfort can you find in the ending of Hamlet?

If you’ve obtained an understanding of the plot, characters and themes of Shakespeare’s tragedy, I recommend that you relax and read To Be or Not to Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure by Ryan North, William Shakespeare and YOU. This very funny, lavishly illustrated production allows you to make your own version of Hamlet, in fact, your own many versions of Hamlet, by rearranging events according to how you feel at the time.

‘To Be or Not To Be’ Trailer [0:59]

  1. A comment frequently made about Hamlet is that he waited too long to take his revenge, and that was what caused most of the tragic events of the play to unfold. Olivier's 1948 movie famously called Hamlet "the tragedy of a man who couldn't make up his mind"


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