Prince Hamlet

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This article is about Prince Hamlet in William Shakespeare's play. For earlier versions of the character, see Hamlet (legend).
"Prince of Denmark" redirects here. For other uses, see Monarchy of Denmark.
Prince Hamlet
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1880-1885
Creator William Shakespeare
Play Hamlet
Family King Hamlet (father)
Gertrude (mother)
Claudius (uncle/stepfather)
Associates Horatio
Role Prince of Denmark
Quote "To be, or not to be, that is the question"

Prince Hamlet is the title character and protagonist of William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. He is the Prince of Denmark, nephew to the usurping Claudius, and son of King Hamlet, the previous King of Denmark. Throughout the play, he struggles with whether, and how, to avenge the murder of his father, and struggles with his own sanity along the way. By the end of the tragedy, Hamlet has caused the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, Claudius, and his two childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He is also indirectly involved in the deaths of his love Ophelia (drowning) and of his mother Gertrude (poisoned either by mistake or as suicide). Hamlet himself is the final character to die in the play.

Role in the play[edit]

The play opens with Hamlet deeply depressed over the recent death of his father, King Hamlet, and his uncle Claudius' ascension to the throne and hasty marriage to Hamlet's mother Gertrude. One night, his father's ghost appears to him and tells him that Claudius murdered him in order to usurp the throne, and commands his son to avenge his death.

Claudius sends for two of Hamlet's childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to find out what is causing Hamlet so much pain. Claudius and his advisor Polonius convince Ophelia—Polonius' daughter and Hamlet's true love—to speak with Hamlet while they secretly listen. Hamlet enters, contemplating suicide ("To be or not to be"). Ophelia greets him, and offers to return his remembrances, upon which Hamlet questions her honesty and tells her to "get thee to a nunnery."

Hamlet devises a test to see whether Claudius is guilty: he hires a group of actors to perform a play about the murder of a king in front of the royal court, and waits to gauge Claudius' reaction. When Claudius leaves the audience deeply upset, Hamlet knows that the ghost was telling the truth. He follows Claudius into his chambers in order to kill him, but stops when he sees his uncle praying; he does not want to kill Claudius while he is in a state of grace. A second attempt on Claudius' life ends in Polonius' accidental death.

Claudius, now fearing for his life, sends Hamlet to England, accompanied (and closely watched) by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Alone, Claudius discloses that he is actually sending Hamlet to his death. Prior to embarking for England, Hamlet hides Polonius' body, ultimately revealing its location to the King. Meanwhile, her father's death has driven Ophelia insane with grief, and Claudius convinces her brother Laertes that Hamlet is to blame. He proposes a fencing match between the two. Laertes informs the king that he will further poison the tip of his sword so that a mere scratch would mean certain death. Claudius plans to offer Hamlet poisoned wine if that fails. Gertrude enters to report that Ophelia has killed herself.

In the Elsinore churchyard, two "clowns", typically represented as "gravediggers," enter to prepare Ophelia's grave. Hamlet arrives with Horatio and banters with one of them, who unearths the skull of a jester whom Hamlet once knew, Yorick ("Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio"). Ophelia's funeral procession approaches, led by Laertes. Hamlet interrupts, professing his own love and grief for Ophelia. He and Laertes grapple, but the fight is broken up by Claudius and Gertrude.

Later that day, Hamlet tells Horatio how he escaped death on his journey, disclosing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent to their deaths instead. A courtier, Osric, interrupts to invite Hamlet to fence with Laertes. Despite Horatio's warnings, Hamlet accepts and the match begins. After several rounds, Gertrude toasts Hamlet, accidentally drinking the wine he poisoned. Between bouts, Laertes attacks and pierces Hamlet with his poisoned blade; in the ensuing scuffle, Hamlet is able to use Laertes' own poisoned sword against him. Gertrude falls and, in her dying breath, announces that she has been poisoned. In his dying moments, Laertes reveals Claudius' plot. Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword, and then forces him to drink from his own poisoned cup to make sure he dies. In his final moments, Hamlet names Prince Fortinbras of Norway as the probable heir to the throne. Horatio attempts to kill himself with the same poisoned wine, but is stopped by Hamlet, so he will be the only one left alive to give a full account of the story.

Views of Hamlet[edit]

Perhaps the most straightforward view sees Hamlet as seeking truth in order to be certain that he is justified in carrying out the revenge called for by a ghost that claims to be the spirit of his father. The 1948 movie with Laurence Olivier in the title role is introduced by a voiceover: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."

T. S. Eliot offers a similar view of Hamlet's character in his critical essay, "Hamlet and His Problems" (The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism). He states, "We find Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' not in the action, not in any quotations that we might select, so much as in an unmistakable tone...".

Others see Hamlet as a person charged with a duty that he both knows and feels is right, yet is unwilling to carry out. In this view, his efforts to satisfy himself on Claudius' guilt and his failure to act when he can are evidence of this unwillingness, and Hamlet berates himself for his inability to carry out his task. After observing a play-actor performing a scene, he notes that the actor was moved to tears in the passion of the story and compares this passion for an ancient Greek character, Hecuba, in light of his own situation:

Hamlet reclines next to Ophelia in Edwin Austin Abbey's The Play Scene in Hamlet.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wan'd;
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
For Hecuba?
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? […]

Etymology of his name[edit]

The name Hamlet occurs as early as the 10th century. His name is easily derived in from Belleforest and the lost play from Amlethus of Saxo, and remaining in this form is then derived from its Latin form of the old Jutish Amlethoe. From this point the name can be divided into sections with common meanings. In terms of etymology the root name of Hamlet is an Icelandic noun, Amlooi, meaning ‘fool.’ However, this name is derived from the way that Hamlet acts in the play and is not in all actuality the true etymology of the name. The second way of translating the name is by analyzing the noun aml-ooi into ‘raving mad’ and the second half, amla into ‘routine’. Later these names were incorporated into Irish dialect as Amlodhe. As phonetic laws took their course the name’s spelling changed eventually leaving it as Amlaidhe. This Irish name was given to a hero in a common folk story. The root of this name is ‘furious, raging, wild.’ These are all meanings Shakespeare would have been aware of when deciding on the name for his longest play.[1] Revealingly, the Danish word for secret is hemmelig.

Influence of the Reformation[edit]

Marcellus, Horatio, Hamlet, and the Ghost by Henry Fuseli

It has also been suggested that Hamlet's hesitations may also be rooted in the religious beliefs of Shakespeare's time. The Protestant Reformation had generated debate about the existence of purgatory (where King Hamlet claims he currently resides). The concept of purgatory is a Catholic one, and was frowned on in Protestant England. Hamlet says that he will not kill his uncle because death would send him straight to heaven, while his father (having died without foreknowledge of his death) is in purgatory doing penance for his. Hamlet's opportunity to kill his uncle comes just after the uncle has supposedly made his peace with God. Hamlet says that he would much rather take a stab at the murderer while he is frolicking in the "incestuous sheets", or gambling and drinking, so he could be sure of his going straight to hell.

Freudian interpretation[edit]

Ernest Jones, following the work of Sigmund Freud, held that Hamlet suffered from the Oedipus complex. He said in his essay "The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet's Mystery: A Study in Motive":

His moral fate is bound up with his uncle's for good or ill. The call of duty to slay his uncle cannot be obeyed because it links itself with the call of his nature to slay his mother's husband, whether this is the first or the second; the latter call is strongly "repressed," and therefore necessarily the former also.[2]

Harold Bloom did a "Shakespearean Criticism" of Freud's work in response.

As a mirror of the audience[edit]

Hamlet and Ophelia, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

It has also been suggested that Hamlet, who is described by Ophelia as "th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form" (Act III, Scene i, lines 148-9), is ultimately a reflection of all of the interpretations possessed by other characters in the play—and perhaps also by the members of an audience watching him. Polonius, most obviously, has a habit of misreading his own expectations into Hamlet’s actions ("Still harping on my daughter!"), though many other characters in the play participate in analogous behaviour.

Gertrude has a similar tendency to interpret all of her son’s activities as the result of her "o’erhasty marriage" alone. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tend to find the stalled ambitions of a courtier in their former schoolmate’s behaviour, whereas Claudius seems to be concerned with Hamlet’s motivation only so far as it reveals the degree to which his nephew is a potential threat. Ophelia, like her father, waits in vain for Hamlet to give her signs of affection, and Horatio would have little reason to think that Hamlet was concerned with anything more pressing than the commandment of the ghost. And the First Gravedigger seems to think that Prince Hamlet, like that "whoreson mad fellow” Yorick, is simply insane without any need for explanation. Several critics, including Stephen Booth and William Empson have further investigated the analogous relationship between Hamlet, the play, and its audience.

Parallels with other characters[edit]

One aspect of Hamlet's character is the way in which he reflects other characters, including the play's primary antagonist, Claudius. In the play within a play, for instance, Gonzago, the king, is murdered in the garden by his nephew, Lucianus; although King Hamlet is murdered by his brother, in The Murder of Gonzago - which Hamlet tauntingly calls "The Mousetrap" when Claudius asks "What do you call the play?" - the regicide is a nephew, like Prince Hamlet. However, it is also worth noting that each of the characters in the play-within-a-play maps to two major characters in Hamlet, an instance of the play's many doubles:

  • Lucianus, like Hamlet, is both a regicide and a nephew to the king; like Claudius, he is a regicide that operates by pouring poison into ears.
  • The Player King, like Hamlet, is an erratic melancholic; like King Hamlet, his character in The Murder of Gonzago is poisoned via his ear while reclining in his orchard.
  • The Player Queen, like Ophelia, attends to a character in The Murder of Gonzago that is "so far from cheer and from [a] former state"; like Gertrude, she remarries a regicide.

Hamlet is also, in some form, a reflection of most other characters in the play (or perhaps vice versa):

  • Hamlet, Lertes, Fortinbras and Pyrrhus are all avenging sons. Hamlet and Laertes both blame Claudius for the death of their fathers. Hamlet and Pyrrhus are both seized by inaction at some point in their respective narratives and each avenges his father. Hamlet and Fortinbras both have plans that are thwarted by uncles that are also kings.
  • Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Osric and Polonius are all courtiers.
  • Hamlet, his father, Bernardo, Marcellus, Francisco, Fortinbras and several other characters are all soldiers.
  • Hamlet and his father share a name (as do Fortinbras and his father).
  • Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Laertes are all students.
  • Hamlet, his father, Gertrude and Claudius are all members of the Royal Family. Each of them is also killed by poison—poison that Claudius is responsible for.
  • Hamlet and Ophelia are each rebuked by their surviving parent in subsequent scenes; the surviving parent of each happens to be of the opposite gender. Both also enter scenes reading books and there is a contrast between the (possibly) pretend madness of Hamlet and the very real insanity of Ophelia.
  • Hamlet, Horatio, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Claudius are each "lawful espials" at some point in the play.

Hamlet's age[edit]

In Act V, scene I of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the First Gravedigger is asked by Hamlet at about line 147 and following, how long he has "been a grave-maker." His reply appears to determine the age of Hamlet for us in a roundabout but very explicit manner. The Gravedigger says that he has been in his profession since the day that Old Hamlet defeated Old Fortinbras, which was "the very day that young Hamlet was born." Then, a little later, he adds that "I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years." According to this logic, Hamlet must be thirty years old. Yorick, the dead jester whose skull Hamlet holds during this scene, is said to have been in the earth "three-and-twenty years," which would make Hamlet no more than seven years old when he last rode on Yorick's back.

This view of Hamlet's age is supported by the fact that Richard Burbage, the actor who originally played the role, was thirty-two at the time of the play's premiere.

However, a case has been made[3] that at an early stage in Hamlet—with its apparent history of multiple revisions—Hamlet was presented as a sixteen-year-old. Several pieces of evidence support this view. Hamlet attends the University of Wittenberg, and royals and nobles (Elizabethan or medieval Danish) did not attend university at age 30. Additionally, a 30-year old Prince Hamlet would clearly have been of ruling age. Given his great popularity (mentioned by Claudius), this would raise the question of why it was not he, rather than his uncle, who was elected to succeed to the throne upon the death of King Hamlet.

The line about the length of the Gravedigger's career does not appear in the First Quarto of Hamlet; in that text Yorick is said to have been in the ground only twelve years. Furthermore, in Belleforest, possibly one of Shakespeare's sources for the story, it is said that Amleth has "not attained to man's estate." And in the original spelling of the Folio text, one of the two authoritative texts for the play, the Gravedigger's answer to how long he has "been a grave-maker" reads "Why heere in Denmarke: I haue bin sixeteene heere, man and Boy thirty yeares.." "Sixteene" is usually rendered as "sexton" (a modernization of the second quarto's "sexten"), even in modern texts that take F1 as their "copy text." But modernizing the punctuation—a normal practice in modernized texts—renders "Why heere in Denmarke: I haue bin sixeteene heere—man and Boy thirty yeares." In other words, this reading suggests that he has been a grave-digger for sixteen years, but that he has lived in Denmark for thirty. According to this logic, then, it is the Grave-digger who is thirty, whereas Hamlet is only sixteen.

Although the difference between a sexton and a grave digger must also be taken into account. A sexton oversees many different jobs around the church and surrounding areas. A grave digger simply digs graves. There are sextons also dig graves and some that do not. It is completely possible that the Gravedigger has been a sexton a for 30 years, but has not been digging graves for that entire time. This could be another example of the character's very round-about way of speaking.

However, this reading has the disadvantage that in the Folio the length of time Yorick has been in the ground is said to be twenty-three years, meaning that he had been dead seven years by the time Hamlet was born. Another theory offered is that the play was originally written with the view that Hamlet was 16 or 17, but since Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, and not read, these lines were likely changed so Burbage (who was almost always the protagonist in Shakespeare's plays) could play the role.

Performers[edit]

The day we see Hamlet die in the theatre, something of him dies for us. He is dethroned by the spectre of an actor, and we shall never be able to keep the usurper out of our dreams.

Maurice Maeterlinck (1890).[4]

Below are listed some of the notable acting portrayals of Hamlet.

Stage
Film
Television

Other versions[edit]

In the comic book series Kill Shakespeare, Hamlet is the central character. After he is exiled from Denmark, his ship is attacked and he washes up on England. He is encountered by Richard III of England, who tells him that he is the "Shadow King", a figure of prophecy. He tells Hamlet that he must find and kill the wizard William Shakespeare and retrieve his quill. He goes off, but is relentlessly pursued by assassins from Richard and his lieutenant, Iago. He is eventually captured by the fool known as Falstaff, who helps him get out of the woods after an encounter with a being known as a Prodigal. He is shot in the leg by Iago, but is saved by Juliet Capulet and Othello. Hamlet stops Othello from killing Iago, but is taken captive by Juliet and her resistance army. After going with them into a town and seeing the cruelty of Richard, Hamlet flees into the woods, where he is forced to face the ghost of his father. He defeats the ghost and is eventually picked up by two travellers: Lysander and Demetrius.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Kemp Malone The Review of English Studies, Vol. 3, No. 11 (Jul.,1927),pp.257-271 <http://www.jstor.org/view/00346551/ap020014/02a00000/0>
  2. ^ The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 1. (Jan., 1910), pp. 72-113.[1]
  3. ^ Roth, Steve Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country <http://www.princehamlet.com/chapter_1.html>
  4. ^ Writing in La Jeune Belgique in 1890; quoted by Braun (1982, 40).

Sources[edit]

  • Braun, Edward. 1982. The Director and the Stage: From Naturalism to Grotowski. London: Methuen. ISBN 978-0-413-46300-5.
  • Jenkins, Harold. Hamlet. Ed. Methuen, 1982. (The Arden Shakespeare)
  • Wilson, J. Dover, What Happens in Hamlet. Cambridge University Press; 3rd edition, 1951. (First published in 1935)

External links[edit]