Enjoying Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Hamlet, our hero, is the son of the previous king of Denmark, also named Hamlet (Old Hamlet, Hamlet Senior as wed say), who has died less than two months ago. Hamlet remembers his father as an all-around good guy, and as a tender husband who would even make a special effort to shield his wifes face from the cold Danish wind. The day Hamlet was born, Old Hamlet settled a land dispute by killing the King of Norway in personal combat.

The king and queen welcome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius says that except for the death of Hamlets father, hes clueless as to why Hamlet is upset. (Uh huh.) He asks them very nicely to try to figure out whats wrong so Claudius can help. (Now Claudius might well be sincere.) Gertrude says she wants them to make Hamlet happy, and that the good and generous king will reward them well. Both say how much they appreciate the opportunity, and Claudius thanks them. Often a director will have Claudius call each by the others name, and Gertrude point out which is which (lines 33-34). They go off to find Hamlet.

Hamlet is left alone. He talks to himself / the audience. Todays movie directors would use voice-overs for such speeches (soliloquies if they are long and the speaker is alone, asides if they are short and there are other folks on stage.) He talks about losing interest in life and how upset he is by his mothers remarriage and its implications. (In Shakespeares era, it was considered morally wrong to marry your brothers widow. Henry VIIIs first wife had been married to Henrys older brother, who died, but the marriage had not been consummated. This puzzle sparked the English reformation.) Hamlet is trapped in a situation where things are obviously very wrong. Like other people at such times, Hamlet wishes God hadnt forbidden suicide. Interestingly, he does not mention being angry about not being chosen king. Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo come in. Hamlet is surprised to see his school buddy. Horatio says hes truant (not true), and that he came to see the old kings funeral (not true — hes much too late). Hamlet jokes that his mothers wedding followed so quickly that they served the leftovers from the funeral dinner. (I think Horatio probably came to Elsinore out of concern for Hamlet, spoke with the guards first, and was invited at once to see the ghost. Some guys dont say to another guy, I came to see YOU even when its obvious.) Youll need to decide what Hamlet means when he says that he sees his father in his minds eye. Sometimes, bereaved people notice their eyes fooling them — shadows forming themselves in the mind into an image of the deceased. Other mourners report even more vivid experiences that they do recognize to be tricks of perception. Or perhaps Hamlet is simply thinking a lot about his father, or holding onto his good memories. The friends tell Hamlet about the ghost. Hamlet asks what the ghost looked like — skin color and beard colors — and agrees they match his father. Hamlet asks the men to keep this a secret and to let him join them the next night, hoping the ghost will return and talk. Afterwards he says he suspects foul play. Everybody else probably does, too, even without any ghost.

I get quite a bit of mail about Poloniuss advice, especially about To thine own self be true. Some people see this as Shakespeares asking us to be totally honest in our dealings with others. Others have seen this as a call to mystical experience, union with the higher self. I cant see this. The key is to thine own self. In Shakespeares time, the expression true to meant be loyal or look out first for the interests of…; it also meant fidelity to a romantic relationship. This usage recurs in the Beatle song All My Loving. To be false implies making a promise or a pretense and not delivering. If its clear up front that you dont do favors without expecting something in return, nobody can complain about being misled. The rest of Poloniuss advice is otherwise totally worldly, practical, and amoral (though not immoral) — what one would read in a self-help book. Polonius is not the model for scrupulous honesty. Polonius tells Reynaldo to lie. Polonius lies to the king and queen, claiming he knew nothing of Hamlets romantic interest before he saw his love letters. And Polonius tells his daughter that everybody puts on a false front. Hearing this actually makes the king feel ashamed.

At this time, Hamlet (who may have been eavesdropping), walks in reading a book. Polonius questions him, and Hamlet pretends to be very crazy by giving silly answers. They are pointed, referring to the dishonesty of Polonius (To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.) Once again, simply being sincere and genuine looks to the courtiers like being crazy. Hamlet is well-aware that Polonius has forbidden Ophelia to see him, and he refers obliquely to this. Polonius notes in an aside (a movie director would use a voice-over), Though this be madness, yet there is method in it — another famous line often misquoted. The speech of the insane, as Polonius notes, often makes the best sense.

This fact inspires Hamlet to make a long speech, So, oft it chances…, about how a persons single fault (a moral failure, or even a physical disfigurement) governs how people think about them, overriding everything that is good. Of course this doesnt represent how Hamlet thinks about Claudius (who he detests for lots of reasons), and its hard to explain what this is doing in the play — apart from the fact that its very true-to-life.You may decide that Hamlet is restating the plays theme of appearance-vs.-reality.

This page is for high school and college students, or anyone else.

The ghosts account now becomes very picturesque. Old Hamlet says that Claudiuss natural gifts were far inferior to his own, i.e., that Old Hamlet was much better looking, smarter, nicer, and so forth. Claudius was a smooth talker (wit) and gave her presents. Old Hamlet says that lust, though to a radiant angel linked / Will sate itself in a celestial bed / And prey on garbage. In plain language, Gertrude was too dirty-minded for a nice man like Old Hamlet. She jumped into bed with a dirtball.

The men talk about Old Hamlet. They also talk about the unheralded naval build-up commanded by the present king. This is in response to an expected military invasion by the Norwegian prince Fortinbras, who wishes to regain the territories lost by his fathers death. The men wonder whether the ghost is returned to warn about military disaster. The ghost reappears. The men try to talk to it to find out what it wants. They try to strike it. It looks like it is about to speak, but suddenly a rooster crows (the signal of morning) and the ghost fades away. (As usual, Shakespeare is telescoping time.) Marcellus relates a beautiful legend that during the Christmas season, roosters might crow through the night, keeping the dark powers at bay.

Hamlet was a college student at Wittenberg when his father died. (Of course the historical Hamlet, who lived around 700, could not have attended Wittenberg, founded in 1502). The monarchy went to his fathers brother, Claudius. (Shakespeare and the other characters just call him King.) Hamlets mother, Gertrude, married Claudius within less than a month.

Claudius holds court. This is apparently his first public meeting since becoming king. Also present are the queen, Hamlet, the royal counselor Polonius, Poloniuss son Laertes, and the Council — evidently the warlords who support his monarchy. Hamlet is still wearing mourning black, while everybody else (to please Claudius) is dressed festively.

Francisco leaves, and Marcellus arrives to share Bernardos watch. Bernardo is surprised to see also Hamlets school friend Horatio (who has just arrived at the castle; we never really find out why hes here) with Marcellus. Marcellus and Bernardo think they have twice seen the ghost of Old Hamlet. Horatio is skeptical. The ghost appears, the men agree it looks like the old king, and Horatio (who is a scholar and thus knows something of the paranormal) tries to talk to it. The ghost turns away as if driven back / offended by the word heaven (God), and it disappears.

Young Hamlet is very well-liked. He is a soldier, a scholar, and a diplomat. We learn that hes the glass of fashion and the mould of form, i.e., the young man that everybody else tried to imitate. Hes also loved of the distracted multitude, i.e., the ordinary people like him, and if anything were to happen to him, there would be riots.

Hamlet is no saint. But unlike most of the other characters (and most people today),Hamlet chooses not to compromise with evil.

Laertes says goodbye to Ophelia, his sister. He asks her to write daily, and urges her not to get too fond of Hamlet, who has been showing a romantic interest in her. At considerable length, he explains how Hamlet will not be able to marry beneath his station, and explicitly tells her not to have sex (your chaste treasure open) with him. Ophelia seems to be the passive sort, but she has enough spunk to urge him to live clean too, and not be a hypocrite. Laertes suddenly realizes he has to leave quickly (uh huh).

So far as I know, its the first time this theme — now so common — appeared in world literature.

A real anthropologist, Eric J. Smith [link is now down] at U. Wash., points out that its checks-and-balances system made the Iroquois government the closest thing to a matriarchy ever described.

Hamlet says hell remember what hes heard while memory holds a seat [i.e., still functions] in this distracted globe. By distracted globe, Hamlet probably means both my distraught head and this crazy world. (The name of the theater, too.) Hamlet already has made up his mind about Claudius and his mother, without the ghosts help. So before considering whether the ghost is telling the truth, Hamlet calls his mother a most pernicious woman, and says of Claudius one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. We all know that from experience — most really bad people pretend to be nice and friendly.

Old Hamlet died during his after-lunch nap in his garden. The public was told that Old Hamlet died of snakebite. The truth is that Claudius murdered Old Hamlet by pouring poison in his ear. Old Hamlet died fast but gruesomely.

The ghost enters. Hamlet challenges it. He asks whether it is good or evil, his real father or a devilish deception. He asks why it has returned, making us think about the unthinkable and unknown (so horridly to shake our disposition / with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls).

As before, Polonius can be a foolish busybody or a sinister old man. (Foolish busybodies do not usually become chief advisors to warrior-kings.) Polonius launches into a verbose speech about finding the cause of madness, prompting the queen to tell him to get to the point (More matter with less art; the queen actually cares about Hamlet.) He reads a love letter from Hamlet. Its about the genuineness of his love. Polonius asks the king, What do you think of me? The king replies, [You are] a man faithful and honorable. Now Polonius tells a lie. He emphasizes that he had no knowledge of Hamlets romantic interest in Ophelia until she told him and gave him the love letter. Polonius then truthfully tells how he forbade Ophelia to see or accept messages from Hamlet. However, Polonius does not mention the wrist-grabbing episode. He then reminds the king of how reliable an advisor he has always been, and says Take this from this (my head off my shoulders, or my insignia of office from me; the actor will show which is meant) if this be otherwise. He finishes, If circumstances lead me [i.e., allow, the actor could say let], I will find / Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / Within the center [of the earth]. He suggests he and the king hide and watch Ophelia and Hamlet. Polonius likes to spy.

Shakespeares Hamlet is full of talk about death, dead bodies, murder, suicide, disease, graves, and so forth. And there is no traditional Christian comfort or promise of eventual justice or happiness for the good people.But the message is ultimately one of hope. You can be a hero.

Hamlet is the first work of literature to show an ordinary person looking at the futility and wrongs in life, asking the toughest questions and coming up with honest semi-answers like most people do today. Unlike so much of popular culture today,Hamlet leaves us with the message that life is indeed worth living, even by imperfect people in an imperfect world.

Everybody brings a different set of experiences to a book, a theater, or a classroom.Although Ive tried to help, ultimately youll need to decide for yourself about Shakespeare and Hamlet.

When Hamlets friends come in, he says, Theres never a [i.e., no] villain in all Denmark… He probably meant to say, …as Claudius, but realizes in midsentence that this isnt the thing to say. He finishes the sentence as a tautology (Villains are knaves.) Hamlet says he thinks the ghost is telling the truth, says he will feign madness (put an antic disposition on — he doesnt explain why), and (perhaps re-enacting a scene in the old play) swears them to secrecy on his sword and in several different locations while the ghost hollers Swear from below the stage. Its obvious that Hamlets excitement is comic, and the scene is funny. Hamlet calls the ghost boy, truepenny, and old mole, and says to his friends, You hear this fellow in the cellarage. It seems to me that Shakespeare is parodying the older play, and even making fun of the idea of ghosts, and that hes saying, Dont take this plot seriously, but listen to the ideas.

The play opens on the battlements of the castle. Its midnight. (Shakespeare anachronistically says Tis now struck twelve.) Francisco has been keeping watch, and Bernardo comes to relieve him. Neither man recognizes the other in the darkness, and each issues a tense challenge. Francisco remarks, Its bitter cold… and I am sick at heart. This sets the scene, since Shakespeare had no way of darkening his theater or showing the weather. The fact that each guard suspects the other of being an intruder indicates all is not well, even though Francisco does not say why he is sick at heart.

Horatio comments how strange this all is, and Hamlet (who likes puns) says that they should welcome the ghost as a stranger in need. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (Ethan Hawke has our philosophy. I wonder if this might be what Shakespeare actually wrote.) In Shakespeares era, philosophy means what we call natural science. Notice that Horatio, who is skeptical of ghosts, is the one who suggests trusting God when the ghost appears, and who will later talk about flights of angels carrying Hamlets soul to heaven. Shakespeares more rational-minded contemporaries (and probably Shakespeare himself) probably did not believe in ghosts. Butscientific atheism(scientific reductionism, nave naturalism) wasnt a clearly-articulated philosophy in Shakespeares era.

Why is Hamlet pretending to be comically-crazy? He said he would put an antic disposition

Polonius comes in and lays some famous fatherly advice on Laertes. Its todays self-centered worldly wisdom. Listen closely, and say less than you know. Think before you act. Dont be cold, but dont be too friendly. Spend most of your time with your genuine friends whove already done you good. Choose your battles carefully, and fight hard. Dress for success. Dont loan or borrow money. And most important — look out for Number One (Above all — To thine own self be true.)

Some time has passed. From Ophelias remarks in III.ii. (which happens the day after II.i), we learn that Old Hamlet has now been dead for four months. Shakespeare telescopes time. We learn (in this scene) that Ophelia has (on Poloniuss orders) refused to accept love letters from Hamlet and told him not to come near her. We learn in the next scene (which follows soon after) that the king and queen have sent to Wittenberg for Hamlets long-time friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (two common Danish surnames), and that they are now here. Hamlet has been walking around aimlessly in the palace for up to four hours at a time.

Polonius, in private, sends his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. Polonius reminds him of how an effective spy asks open-ended questions and tells little suggestive lies. Polonius likes to spy.

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The ambassadors are back from Norway. Fortinbras was indeed mounting an army to attack Claudiuss Denmark. The King of Norway was sick and supposedly thought Fortinbras was going to invade Poland instead. (Uh huh.) When he learned the truth, the King of Norway arrested Fortinbras, made him promise not to invade Denmark, and paid him to invade Poland instead. The King of Norway now requests that Claudius let Fortinbras pass through Denmark for the invasion. (Denmark is on the invasion route from Norway to Poland if the Norwegian army is to cross the sea to Denmark. And we know a sea-invasion was expected from the amount of shipbuilding mentioned in I.i.) This all seems fake and for show, and probably Claudius (who doesnt seem at all surprised) and the King of Norway had an understanding beforehand.

The scene change is to indicate that the place has changed, i.e., Hamlet and the ghost are higher up. Hamlet demands that the ghost talk, and he does. He claims to be Old Hamlet. Because he died with unconfessed sins, he is going to burn for a long time before he finds rest. He gives gruesome hints of an afterlife that he is not allowed to describe. (Even the more fortunate dead returning to earth are fat weeds.) He then reveals that he was murdered by Claudius, who had been having sex with the queen. (At least the ghost says they were already having an affair. Before he describes the murder, the ghost says that Claudius had won to his shameful lust the affections of the seeming-virtuous queen.)

Or the royal title may have gone to Claudius simply because he married the royal widow, who he calls our imperial jointress. Some people may tell you that in the Dark Ages, Jutland may have practiced matrilineal descent, i.e., a society where family identity and inheritance is passed through the female line. Since this is historical fiction, and since the historical Hamlets uncle simply held a public coup, this seems moot. Matrilineal descent is known among some primitive people in our own century, and is attested to by ancient writers on various cultures. The advantage of this system is that the best men tend to get picked for hereditary positions of power. With male-line succession, the old king is followed by his oldest son, who may be stupid and get himself killed quickly. Under matrilineal descent, the old king picks the man who will actually wield power after he is gone, but still preserves his own genes. In spite of what anybody else may tell you, we know of no human culture where the men, who are physically stronger and do the fighting, let the women make the laws and the big decisions (amatriarchy). You may decide this is unfortunate.

…pluck out the heart of my mystery…– Hamlet

Ophelia comes in, obviously upset. She describes Hamlets barging into her bedroom, with his doublet all unbraced (wed say, his shirt open in front), his dirty socks crunched down, and pale and knock-kneed, as if he had been loosd out of hell / to speak of horrors. Or, as might say, as if hed seen a ghost. Hamlet grabbed her wrist, stared at her face, sighed, let her go, and walked out the door backwards.

I hope you have as much fun as I have!

Whats happened? Hamlet, who has set about to feign mental illness, is actually just acting on his own very genuine feelings. Hamlet cares very much about Ophelia. He must have hoped for a happy life with her. Now it is painfully obvious that they are both prisoners of a system that will never allow them to have the happiness that they should. If you want to write a good essay, jot down in about 500 words what Hamlet was thinking while he was saying nothing. Heres where we really see him starting to be conflicted. Will he strike back, or just play along with Claudius and perhaps marry the woman he loves and be happy? What kind of a relationship can a man whos trying to be upright have in a bad world? Hamlet says everything and says nothing, just as the skull will do later.

Claudius poured poison in the kings ear. Old Hamlet tells the grisly effects of the poison. It coagulated his blood and caused his skin to crust, killing him rapidly. His line O horrible, O horrible, most horrible! is probably better given to Hamlet. The ghost calls on Hamlet to avenge him by killing Claudius. He also tells him not to kill his mother. (Taint not thy mind… doesnt mean to think nice thoughts, which would be impossible, but simply not to think of killing her.) The ghost has to leave because morning is approaching.

As you read the play,watch how Hamlet — who starts by wishing he was dead — comes to terms with life, keeps his integrity, and strikes back successfully at whats wrong around him.

Exactly why Claudius rather than Hamlet succeeded Old Hamlet is not explained. Hamlet refers (V.ii) to the election, i.e., the choosing of a new king by a vote of a small number of warlords (as inMacbeth). (By Shakespeare time, it was the Danish royal family that voted.) Interestingly, the Norwegian king is also succeeded by his brother, rather than by his own infant son Fortinbras.

Claudius calls Hamlet cousin (i.e., close relative) and son (stepson), and asks why he is still sad. Hamlet puns. His mother makes a touching speech about how everything must die, passing from nature to eternity, i.e., a better afterlife. She asks him why he is still acting (seems) sad. Hamlet replied hes not acting, just showing how he really feels. Claudius makes a very nice speech, asks that Hamlet stay at the court, and reaffirms that Hamlet is heir to his property and throne. Hamlets mother adds a nice comment, and Hamlet agrees to stay. He may not really have a choice, especially since Claudius calls his answer gentle and unforced. Does Claudius really care about Hamlet? Maybe. The meeting is over, and Claudius announces there will be a party, at which hell have the guards shoot off a cannon every time he finishes a drink.

Polonius comes in and announces that the ambassadors from Norway have returned, and that after their report he will tell them why Hamlet is acting strange. Gertrude thinks that Hamlet is simply distressed over his fathers death (which Claudius thought of) and her remarriage (which Claudius pretended he couldnt think of.)

Claudius wants to show what a good leader he is. He begins by talking about the mix of sorrow for his brothers death, and joy in his new marriage. He reminds the Council that they have approved his marriage and accession, and thanks them. Claudius announces that Fortinbras of Norway is raising an army to try to take back the land his father lost to Old Hamlet. Claudius emphasizes that Fortinbras cant win militarily. Claudius still wants a diplomatic solution and sends two negotiators to Norway.

Dying,Hamlet reaffirms the tragic dignity of a basically decent person in a bad world.

Revenge should know no bounds.– Claudius

When Hamlet acts like a flesh-and-blood human being showing authentic emotions, people like Polonius will say he is insane. And Polonius suggests Hamlet is lovesick. Maybe Polonius really believes this. Maybe he just realized that perhaps his daughter might be the next Queen of Denmark.

When Laertes leaves, Polonius questions Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet. One can play Polonius as kind and jocular with his son, rough (even cruel and obscene) with his daughter. He calls her nave, orders her not even to talk to Hamlet, and demands to see his love letters to her. Contemporary readers who are puzzled by this should remember that in Hamlets era (and Shakespeares), a father would probably get less money from his future son-in-law if his daughter was not a virgin. Polonius, of course, pretends he cares only about Ophelias well-being.

Aristotlewrote that in a tragedy, the protagonist by definition learns something. Whatever you may think of Aristotles reductionist ideas about serious drama, Shakespeares heroes all develop philosophically. (You may not agree with everything they decide.)

Once you get past the minor difficulties posed by the language, youll probably enjoy Hamlet — and not just for its action.

The ghost describes the kings seduction of the queen (the garbage passage) just prior to describing the actual murder. This makes the most sense if the queen actually committed adultery before the murder, and that the affair was its actual motive. Even in our modern age, if a twenty-plus-year marriage ends with the sudden death of one partner, and the survivor remarries four weeks later, Id believe that there had probably been an adulterous affair. And everybody at the Danish court must have thought the same thing. If you dont know this, youre naive. Its not clear that Gertrude actually knew a murder was committed, and we never get proof that anyone else knew for certain, either. But everybody must have been suspicious. And nobody was saying anything.

Hamlet is the first work of literature to look squarely atthe stupidity, falsity and sham of everyday life, without laughing and without easy answers. In a world where things are not as they seem, Hamlets genuineness, thoughtfulness, and sincerity make him special.

Next, Laertes asks permission to return to France. The king calls on Polonius. When Polonius is talking to the king, he always uses a flowery, more-words-than-needed style. Polonius can be played either for humor, or as a sinister old man. (Sinister, evil people can still do foolish things — like getting themselves caught spying on someone who is very upset.) Either fits nicely with the plays theme of phoniness. Polonius says he is agreeable, and the king gives permission. This was rehearsed, and Claudius is taking advantage of the opportunity to look reasonable, especially because he is about to deal with Hamlet, who wants to return to college.

Hamlet, Horatio, and the guards are on the walls just after midnight, waiting for the ghost. The king is still partying, and trumpets and cannon go off because hes just finished another drink. Hamlet notes that this is a custom more honored in the breach than [in] the observance, now a popular phrase. (This was a Danish custom in Shakespeares time too. The Danish peoples neighbors make fun of them for this. Old Hamlet may not have engaged in the practice, hence the breach.)

The ghost beckons Hamlet. Horatio warns him not to follow, because the ghost might drive him insane. Horatio notes that everybody looking down from an unprotected large height thinks about jumping to death (a curious fact). Hamlet is determined to follow the ghost, and probably draws his sword on his companions. (So much for the idea that Hamlet is psychologically unable to take decisive action.) Hamlet says, My fate cries out, i.e., that hes going to his destiny. He walks off the stage after the ghost. Directors often have Hamlet hold the handle of his sword in front of his face to make a cross, holy symbol for protection. Marcellus (who like everybody else surely suspects Claudius of foul play) says, Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (usually misquoted and misattributed to Hamlet himself.) Horatio says God will take care of Hamlet (Heaven will direct it). Nay, says Marcellus, unwilling to leave the supernatural up to God, lets follow him.

How old is Hamlet? We have contradictory information. The gravedigger mentions that Hamlet is thirty years old, and that the jester with whom Hamlet played as a child has been dead for twenty-three years. A thirty-year-old man might still be a college student. However, Ophelia is unmarried in an era when girls usually married in their teens, and several characters refer to Hamlets youth. So we might prefer to think that Hamlet is in his late teens or early twenties. And many people have seen Hamlets bitter, sullen outlook at the beginning of the play as typical of youth. Youll need to decide that one for yourself. (I think thirty might be a mistake for twenty. Richard Burbage, who played Hamlet first, was older than twenty, and perhaps the editor thought twenty must be wrong. You decide.)

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