Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
The main setting is Elsinore Castle in eastern Denmark, on the Øresund strait separating the Danish island of Sjælland (Zealand) from the Swedish province of Skåne and linking the Baltic Sea in the south to the Kattegat Strait in the north. Elsinore is a real town. Its Danish name is Helsingør. In Shakespeare’s time, Elsinore was an extremely important port that fattened its coffers by charging a toll for ship passage through the Øresund strait (which means “The Sound”). Modern
Elsinore, or Helsingør, is directly west of a Swedish city with a similar name, Helsingborg (or Hälsingborg). Within the city limits of Elsinore is Kronborg Castle, said to be the model for the Elsinore Castle of Shakespeare’s play. Construction on the castle began in 1574, when Shakespeare was ten, and ended in 1585, when Shakespeare was twenty-one. It is believed that actors known to Shakespeare performed at Kronborg Castle. Other settings in Hamlet are a plain in Denmark, near Elsinore, and a churchyard near Elsinore. Offstage action in the play (referred to in dialogue) takes place on a ship bound for England from Denmark on which Hamlet replaces instructions to execute him (see the plot summary below) with instructions to execute his traitorous companions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and on a pirate ship that returns him to Denmark.
Foils of Hamlet: Laertes, Fortinbras, Polonius
Hamlet: Son of a murdered Danish king (who was also named Hamlet) and nephew of the present king, Claudius. Hamlet suffers great mental anguish over the death of his father, the marriage of his mother to the suspected murderer (Claudius), and the clash between his moral sense and his desire for revenge against his father’s
murderer. To ensnare the killer, Hamlet pretends madness. Some Shakespeare interpreters contend that he really does suffer a mental breakdown. Hamlet is highly intelligent and well liked by the citizens, although at times he can be petty and cruel. Claudius: The new King of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle. He becomes king after Hamlet’s father, the previous king, is found dead in his orchard. Hamlet suspects that Claudius murdered him.
Gertrude: Queen of Denmark, Hamlet's mother, and widow of the murdered king. Her marriage to Claudius within two months after the late king’s funeral deeply disturbs Hamlet.
Polonius: Bootlicking Lord Chamberlain of King Claudius.
Ophelia: Daughter of Polonius. She loves Hamlet, but his pretended
madness–during which he rejects her–and the death of her father trigger a
pathological reaction in her.
Horatio: Hamlet’s best friend. Horatio never wavers in his loyalty to Hamlet. At the end of the play, he recites immortal lines: "Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" (5. 2. 304-305).
Laertes: Son of Polonius, brother of Ophelia. Circumstances make him an enemy of Hamlet, and they duel to the death in a fencing match at the climax of the play. As a man who reacts to circumstances quickly, with a minimum of reflection on the meaning and possible outcome of his actions, Laertes contrasts sharply with the pensive and indecisive Hamlet and, thus, serves as his foil.
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern Courtiers and friends of Hamlet who attended school with him. They turn against him to act as spies for Claudius and agents in Claudius’s scheme to have Hamlet murdered in England. Hamlet quickly smells out their deception and treachery.
Fortinbras: Prince of Norway, who is on the march with an army. In battlefield combat (referred to in the play but not taking place during the play), old King Hamlet slew the father of Fortinbras and annexed Norwegian territory. Fortinbras seeks revenge.
Players: Actors who arrive at Elsinore to offer an entertainment. Hamlet directs one of them, called the First Player, to stage a drama called The Mouse-trap, about a
throne-seeker who murders a king. Hamlet hopes the play will cause Claudius to react in a way that reveals his guilt as the murderer of old King Hamlet. As the play unfolds on a stage at Elsinore, the actors are referred to as the following:
Prologue: Actor presenting a one-sentence prologue to the play.
Player King: Actor portraying the king (whom Hamlet refers to as Gonzago, the Duke of Vienna).
Player Queen: Actor portraying the queen (whom Hamlet refers to as
Baptista, the Duchess of Vienna).
Lucianus: Actor portraying the king's nephew and his murderer.
Yorick: Court jester of old King Hamlet. He amused and looked after Hamlet when the latter was a child. Yorick is dead during the play, but his skull–which a
gravedigger exhumes in Act V, Scene I–arouses old memories in Hamlet that
provide a glimpse of his childhood. The skull also helps to develop Hamlet’s morbid preoccupation with death.
Hesitation: Hamlet has an obligation to avenge his father’s murder, according to the customs of his time. But he also has an obligation to abide by the moral law, which dictates, “Thou shalt not kill.” Consequently, Hamlet has great difficulty
deciding what to do and, thus, hesitates to take decisive action. In his famous critiques of Shakespeare’s works, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) has
He [Hamlet] is all dispatch and resolution as far as words and present intentions are concerned, but all hesitation and irresolution when called upon to carry his words and intentions into effect; so that, resolving to do everything, he does nothing. He is full of purpose but void of that quality of mind which accomplishes purpose. . . . Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth that action is the chief end of existence–that no faculties of intellect, however brilliant, can be considered valuable, or indeed otherwise than as misfortunes, if they withdraw us from or rend us repugnant to action, and lead us to think and think of doing until the time has elapsed when we can do anything effectually.
Inherited Sin and Corruption: Humans are fallen creatures, victims of the devil’s
trickery as described in Genesis. Allusions or direct references to Adam, the Garden of Eden, and original sin occur throughout the play. In the first act, Shakespeare discloses that King Hamlet died in an orchard (Garden of Eden) from the bite of a serpent (Claudius). Later, Hamlet alludes to the burdens imposed by original sin when he says, in his famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, that the “flesh is heir to” tribulation in the form of “heart-ache” and a “thousand natural shocks” (3. 1. 72-73).
In the third scene of the same act, Claudius compares himself with the biblical Cain. In Genesis, Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, kills his brother, Abel, the second son, after God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Like Cain, Claudius kills his brother, old King Hamlet. Claudius recognizes his Cain-like crime when he says: O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
5It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder. (3. 3. 42-44)
In Act V, the second gravedigger tells the first gravedigger that Ophelia, who apparently committed suicide, would not receive a Christian burial if she were a commoner instead of a noble. In his reply, the first gravedigger refers directly to Adam: "Why, there thou sayest: and the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian. Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam’s profession" (5. 1. 13). After the gravedigger tosses Yorick’s skull to Hamlet, the prince observes: “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder!” (5. 1. 34). All of these references to Genesis seem to suggest that Hamlet is a kind of Everyman who inherits “the slings and
arrows of outrageous fortune”–that is, the effects of original sin.
Sons Seeking Revenge: Young Fortinbras seeks revenge against Elsinore because
King Hamlet had killed the father of Fortinbras, King Fortinbras. Hamlet seeks to avenge the murder of his father, King Hamlet, by Claudius, the king’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle. Laertes seeks revenge against Hamlet for killing his father, Polonius, the lord chamberlain.
Deception: Deception makes up a major motif in Hamlet. On the one hand, Claudius conceals his murder of Hamlet’s father. On the other, Hamlet conceals his knowledge of the murder. He also wonders whether the Ghost is deceiving him, pretending to be old King Hamlet when he is really a devil. Polonius secretly tattles on Hamlet to Claudius. Hamlet feigns madness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pretend to have Hamlet’s best interests at heart while attempting to carry out Claudius’s scheme to kill Hamlet. After that scheme fails, Claudius and Laertes connive to kill Hamlet during the fencing match. However, that scheme also goes awry when Gertrude drinks from a poisoned cup prepared for Hamlet.
Ambition: Claudius so covets the throne that he murders his own brother, King Hamlet, to win it. In this respect he is like Macbeth and Richard III in other Shakespeare plays, who also murder their way to the Crown. Whether Claudius’s ambition to be king was stronger than his desire to marry Gertrude is arguable, but both were factors, as he admits to himself in Act III, Scene III, when he reflects on his guilt: “I am still possessed / Of those effects for which I did the murder, / My crown, mine own ambition and my queen. . .” (60-61).
Loyalty: Hamlet is loyal to his father’s memory, as is Laertes to the memory of his father, Polonius, and his sister, Ophelia. Gertrude is torn between loyalty to Claudius and Hamlet. Horatio remains loyal to Hamlet to the end. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, school pals of Hamlet, betray Hamlet and spy on him. Mischance, Coincidence, and Serendipity: Hamlet “just happens” to kill Polonius.
Pirates “just happen” to rescue Hamlet. Hamlet “just happens” to come across
Ophelia’s funeral upon his return to Denmark. Hamlet and Laertes “just happen” to exchange swords–one of them with a poisoned tip–in their duel. Gertrude “just
happens” to drink from a poisoned cup meant for Hamlet. Fate, or unabashed plot contrivance, works its wonders in this Shakespeare play.
Christ-like Hamlet: Hamlet is like Christ, George Bernard Shaw has observed, in that he struggles against the old order, which requires an eye for and eye, as Christ did. Madness: Madness, pretended or real, wears the mask of sanity. In his attempt to prove Claudius’s guilt, Hamlet puts on an “antic disposition”–that is, he pretends
madness. But is he really mentally unbalanced? Perhaps.
Serpentine Satan: Imagery throughout the play dwells on Satan’s toxic influence on
Elsinore and its inhabitants. Particularly striking are the snake metaphors. It is the venom of a serpent (in the person of Claudius) that kills old King Hamlet. Claudius, remember, had poured poison into the king’s ear as reported by the Ghost of the old
king: While “sleeping in mine orchard,” the Ghost says, “A serpent stung me” (1. 5. 42-43). It is a sword–a steel snake, as it were–that kills Polonius, Hamlet, Laertes, and
Claudius. (The sword that kills Hamlet and Laertes is tipped with poison.) Moreover, it is a poisoned drink that kills Gertrude. As for Ophelia, it is poisoned words that kill her. The word poison and its forms (such as poisons, poisoner, and poisoning) occur
thirteen times in the play. Serpent occurs twice, venom or envenom six times, devil nine times, and hell or hellish eleven times. Garden (as a symbol for the Garden of Eden) or gardener occurs three times. Adam occurs twice.
Ambiguous Spirit World: In Shakespeare’s time, ghosts were thought by some people to be devils masquerading as dead loved ones. Their purpose was to win souls for Satan. It is understandable, then, that Hamlet is reluctant at first to assume that the Ghost on the castle battlements is really the spirit of his father. Hamlet acknowledges his doubt at the end of Act II:
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. (2. 2. 433-438)
Empty Existence: Time and again, Hamlet bemoans the uselessness and emptiness of life. He would kill himself if his conscience would let him. He considers taking his life, as his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy” reveals. But as a Roman Catholic, he
cannot go against the tenets of his religion, which forbids suicide.