- FULL TITLE – The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
- TYPE OF WORK – Play
- GENRE – Tragedy, revenge tragedy
- PROTAGONIST – Hamlet
- MAJOR CONFLICT – Hamlet feels a responsibility to avenge his father’s murder by his uncle Claudius, but Claudius is now the king and thus well protected. Moreover, Hamlet struggles with his doubts about whether he can trust the ghost and whether killing Claudius is the appropriate thing to do.
- RISING ACTION – The ghost appears to Hamlet and tells Hamlet to revenge his murder; Hamlet feigns madness to his intentions; Hamlet stages the mousetrap play; Hamlet passes up the opportunity to kill Claudius while he is praying.
- CLIMAX – When Hamlet stabs Polonius through the arras in Act III, scene iv, he commits himself to overtly violent action and brings himself into unavoidable conflict with the king. Another possible climax comes at the end of Act IV, scene iv, when Hamlet resolves to commit himself fully to violent revenge.
- FALLING ACTION – Hamlet is sent to England to be killed; Hamlet returns to Denmark and confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s funeral; the fencing match; the deaths of the royal family
- SETTING (TIME) – The late medieval period, though the play’s chronological setting is notoriously imprecise
- SETTINGS (PLACE) – Denmark
- FORESHADOWING – The ghost, which is taken to foreshadow an ominous future for Denmark
- TONE – Dark, ironic, melancholy, passionate, contemplative, desperate, violent
- THEMES – The impossibility of certainty; the complexity of action; the mystery of death; the nation as a diseased body
- MOTIFS – Incest and incestuous desire; ears and hearing; death and suicide; darkness and the supernatural; misogyny
- SYMBOLS – The ghost (the spiritual consequences of death); Yorick’s skull (the physical consequences of death)
Important Quotations Explained
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self – slaughter! O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! O fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead!—nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother,
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month,—
Let me not think on’t,—Frailty, thy name is woman!—
A little month; or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body
Like Niobe, all tears;—why she, even she,—
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer,—married with mine uncle,
My father’s brother; but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month;
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married:— O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good;
But break my heart,—for I must hold my tongue.
This quotation, Hamlet’s first important soliloquy, occurs in Act I, scene ii (129–158). Hamlet speaks these lines after enduring the unpleasant scene at Claudius and Gertrude’s court, then being asked by his mother and stepfather not to return to his studies at Wittenberg but to remain in Denmark, presumably against his wishes. Here, Hamlet thinks for the first time about suicide (desiring his flesh to “melt,” and wishing that God had not made “self – slaughter” a sin), saying that the world is “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” In other words, suicide seems like a desirable alternative to life in a painful world, but Hamlet feels that the option of suicide is closed to him because it is forbidden by religion. Hamlet then goes on to describe the causes of his pain, specifically his intense disgust at his mother’s marriage to Claudius. He describes the haste of their marriage, noting that the shoes his mother wore to his father’s funeral were not worn out before her marriage to Claudius. He compares Claudius to his father (his father was “so excellent a king” while Claudius is a bestial “satyr”). As he runs through his description of their marriage, he touches upon the important motifs of misogyny, crying, “Frailty, thy name is woman”; incest, commenting that his mother moved “[w]ith such dexterity to incestuous sheets”; and the ominous omen the marriage represents for Denmark, that “[i]t is not nor it cannot come to good.” Each of these motifs recurs throughout the play.
Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new – hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice:
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy:
For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be:
For loan oft loses both itself and friend;
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all,—to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
This famous bit of fatherly advice is spoken by Polonius to Laertes shortly before Laertes leaves for France, in Act I, scene iii (59–80). Polonius, who is bidding Laertes farewell, gives him this list of instructions about how to behave before he sends him on his way. His advice amounts to a list of clichés. Keep your thoughts to yourself; do not act rashly; treat people with familiarity but not excessively so; hold on to old friends and be slow to trust new friends; avoid fighting but fight boldly if it is unavoidable; be a good listener; accept criticism but do not be judgmental; maintain a proper appearance; do not borrow or lend money; and be true to yourself. This long list of quite normal fatherly advice emphasizes the regularity of Laertes’ family life compared to Hamlet’s, as well as contributing a somewhat stereotypical father – son encounter in the play’s exploration of family relationships. It seems to indicate that Polonius loves his son, though that idea is complicated later in the play when he sends Reynaldo to spy on him.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
This line is spoken by Marcellus in Act I, scene iv (67), as he and Horatio debate whether or not to follow Hamlet and the ghost into the dark night. The line refers both to the idea that the ghost is an ominous omen for Denmark and to the larger theme of the connection between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of the state as a whole. The ghost is a visible symptom of the rottenness of Denmark created by Claudius’s crime.
I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
In these lines, Hamlet speaks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, scene ii (287–298), explaining the melancholy that has afflicted him since his father’s death. Perhaps moved by the presence of his former university companions, Hamlet essentially engages in a rhetorical exercise, building up an elaborate and glorified picture of the earth and humanity before declaring it all merely a “quintessence of dust.” He examines the earth, the air, and the sun, and rejects them as “a sterile promontory” and “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” He then describes human beings from several perspectives, each one adding to his glorification of them. Human beings’ reason is noble, their faculties infinite, their forms and movements fast and admirable, their actions angelic, and their understanding godlike. But, to Hamlet, humankind is merely dust. This motif, an expression of his obsession with the physicality of death, recurs throughout the play, reaching its height in his speech over Yorick’s skull. Finally, it is also telling that Hamlet makes humankind more impressive in “apprehension” (meaning understanding) than in “action.” Hamlet himself is more prone to apprehension than to action, which is why he delays so long before seeking his revenge on Claudius.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?—To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep: perchance 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: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,—
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,—puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
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.
This soliloquy, probably the most famous speech in the English language, is spoken by Hamlet in Act III, scene i (58–90). His most logical and powerful examination of the theme of the moral legitimacy of suicide in an unbearably painful world, it touches on several of the other important themes of the play. Hamlet poses the problem of whether to commit suicide as a logical question: “To be, or not to be,” that is, to live or not to live. He then weighs the moral ramifications of living and dying. Is it nobler to suffer life, “[t]he slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” passively or to actively seek to end one’s suffering? He compares death to sleep and thinks of the end to suffering, pain, and uncertainty it might bring, “[t]he heartache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to.” Based on this metaphor, he decides that suicide is a desirable course of action, “a consummation / Devoutly to be wished.” But, as the religious word “devoutly” signifies, there is more to the question, namely, what will happen in the afterlife. Hamlet immediately realizes as much, and he reconfigures his metaphor of sleep to include the possibility of dreaming; he says that the dreams that may come in the sleep of death are daunting, that they “must give us pause.”
He then decides that the uncertainty of the afterlife, which is intimately related to the theme of the difficulty of attaining truth in a spiritually ambiguous world, is essentially what prevents all of humanity from committing suicide to end the pain of life. He outlines a long list of the miseries of experience, ranging from lovesickness to hard work to political oppression, and asks who would choose to bear those miseries if he could bring himself peace with a knife, “[w]hen he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin?” He answers himself again, saying no one would choose to live, except that “the dread of something after death” makes people submit to the suffering of their lives rather than go to another state of existence which might be even more miserable. The dread of the afterlife, Hamlet concludes, leads to excessive moral sensitivity that makes action impossible: “conscience does make cowards of us all . . . thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
In this way, this speech connects many of the play’s main themes, including the idea of suicide and death, the difficulty of knowing the truth in a spiritually ambiguous universe, and the connection between thought and action. In addition to its crucial thematic content, this speech is important for what it reveals about the quality of Hamlet’s mind. His deeply passionate nature is complemented by a relentlessly logical intellect, which works furiously to find a solution to his misery. He has turned to religion and found it inadequate to help him either kill himself or resolve to kill Claudius. Here, he turns to a logical philosophical inquiry and finds it equally frustrating.