William Shakespeare. This was Shakespeare’s eighth tragedy, and is the most widely performed today.
The play is set in the royal palace in Denmark, around the sixteenth century. Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, has just died, supposedly bitten by a rattlesnake. King Hamlet’s brother, Claudius, has inherited the throne, and Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and King Hamlet’s widow, is now the queen, having married Claudius almost immediately after his death. In the nearby Norway, King Fortinbras has recently died, slain in battle by the late King Hamlet, and his invalid brother has taken the throne.
Hamlet: The crown prince of Denmark, Hamlet appears to go insane after his father’s ghost appears to him. He runs amok, judging others for apparent sins without regard for the consequences, and is at least partially responsible for six deaths. His superior attitude, his presumption, and several other factors, seem to display him as a christ figure who thought too highly of himself. He dies poisoned by one he considered a friend.
Gertrude: The Queen of Denmark, Gertrude marries Claudius soon after her late husband’s death. The circumstances are suspicious, to say the least, but both Hamlet and his father seem to forgive her. Interestingly, she is the character whose death is least linked to Hamlet’s involvement – indeed, it is the death that seems the most voluntary, and the only one that occurs by choice. However, it is caused by her husband.
Claudius: The King of Denmark, Claudius is the ‘snake’ in the Garden of Eden interpretation of the death of King Hamlet. He shows remorse at some points in the play, especially during the ‘play within a play’ and the ‘praying scene’, but is intelligent enough to recognize that such remorse will ultimately ring hollow, as long as he keeps his ill-gotten spoils. He dies due to his own plot, after killing his wife, the one thing he seemed to love.
Ghost of King Hamlet: The most mysterious character, the Ghost of King Hamlet is the catalyst for all the action in the play. The actions of the ghost ironically destroy all that the king stood for in life, leading to the deaths of his son, widow, brother, and friend, and allowing Norway to conquer Denmark.
Friends and Advisors:
Laertes: Hamlet’s friend and the son of Polonius. Laertes is initially good-natured and protective but hot-blooded. His close relationship with Ophelia conflicts with Hamlet’s, and this makes Ophelia’s death still more important. He dies by his own poison.
Ophelia: Hamlet’s love interest. She goes mad after her father dies. Her father’s controlling attitude suggests that the death may have been so impactful because she doesn’t know what to do without someone telling her what to do. Her death is a result of her madness.
Polonius:The father of Ophelia and Laertes, and an advisor to the King. He seems an old fool, but does give good advice to his children, being very protective, perhaps a bit nosy. This nosiness transfers itself into other places, as well. He spies on Hamlet while using his daughter as bait, then does the same with Gertrude. This brings about his death.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: These are childhood friends of Hamlet. Initially received genially, they are eventually viewed with contempt by Hamlet, much like Polonius. Their sacrifice is poetic – they die because of their orders. Their dim intelligence, and the unawareness of their death, echoes the classic “lamb to be slaughtered”.
Fortinbras: Prince of Norway, with many similarities to Hamlet.
Outside of the castle, Barnardo and Francisco, two sentinels, are standing watch. The play opens, suggestively, with the statement “Who’s there?”, a question from Barnardo to Francisco. Francisco leaves, and Marcellus and Horatio join Barnardo in the watch. Horatio asks why he is there; it is revealed that Marcellus and Barnardo have seen a ghost their previous two watches. Horatio is initially unbelieving, so Marcellus begins explaining the circumstances of these occurances; he is interrupted by the ghost of King Hamlet, appearing in full armor. A cock crows. It says nothing; Horatio, attempting to make it speak, orders Marcellus to attack it. It stalks away, offended. Horatio and Marcellus resolve to tell Hamlet about the incident.
The scene opens with a speech by Claudius, who thanks his courtiers for their support. In the speech, he explains why his marriage to Gertrude so closely followed King Hamlet’s death, and orders Voltemand and Cornelius to communicate with Fortinbras. Laertes asks for leave to return to France, it is granted. Hamlet is still bitter about Gertrude’s remarriage, and is curt Claudius. His request to return to school is denied by Claudius. After a soliloquy about his mother’s short memory, Horatio and Marcellus enter and tell Hamlet about what they saw. Hamlet knows something is wrong, stating “all is not well”.
Ophelia is seeing her brother Laertes off back to school in France. As he is leaving, Laertes warns his sister that she would do well to be cautious of Hamlet’s advances. Ophelia agrees, and states that she will obey, but also states “show me not the steep and thorny way to heaven, while you ignore the same”. Laertes compares Ophelia to a violet. Polonius enters and echoes Laertes, adding some extra advice for Ophelia, and some for Laertes as well. Ophelia is more submissive. Polonius seems less the fool and more a good parent here.
Scene Four, Five:
Horatio, Hamlet, and Marcellus stand watch, waiting for the ghost. It appears, and Hamlet is awestruck. He is so enamored that he cannot be stopped from following it, disregarding Horatio and Marcellus’s cautions. “My fate cries out”. Horatio and Marcellus follow him. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. The ghost tells Hamlet the “truth” about ‘his’ death – Claudius poisoned him in the ear, while he was sleeping. He condemns Claudius, and Hamlet rashly swears to do anything to stop Claudius. He forcibly swears Marcellus and Horatio to secrecy.
Polonius sends Reynaldo to investigate his son’s actions, going so far as to suggest that Reynaldo slander Laertes. This is the first of the rather strange examples of surveillance in the play. Reynaldo exits, and Ophelia enters, claiming that Hamlet entered her room and near-attacked her. Polonius declares that Hamlet must be mad with love for Ophelia. This is the first mention of Hamlet’s insanity.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make their entry. They have come because the King and Queen sent for them. The King and Queen order them to spy on Hamlet, to see what he is doing, and to look for a cure for Hamlet’s apparent madness. Voltemand and Cornelius report that Fortinbras has relented. Polonius declares that he has found the reason for Hamlet’s madness – it is caused by Ophelia. The Royal couple and Polonius devise a plan to observe Hamlet’s madness in action. They are to wait behind a tapestry, and use Ophelia as bait. Polonius engages Hamlet, and is inconspicuously mocked. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter – they are initially recieved genially, but Hamlet is suspicious of their intentions. Hamlet states “Denmark’s a prison”, an apt statement considering the amount of surveillance he is under. Players enter, and they and Hamlet enact one of his favourite scenes, the death of Priam. This, too, is never concluded. Hamlet arranges for them to play The Murder of Gonzago. He reflects, in a soliloquy, upon his inaction on killing Claudius. He respects the power of the player to move himself so artfully.
Polonius and Claudius set the aforementioned trap for Hamlet. While describing the nature of the deception to Ophelia, Claudius feels a pang of conscience, a first for him. Hamlet enters, and gives his famous “to be, or not to be” speech. Interestingly, he is unaware of an audience. Ophelia attempts to return Hamlet’s communications to him, and Hamlet denies recognition. Instead, he acts superior to Ophelia, telling her to get to a nunnery, instead of “breeding sinners”. Ophelia is distraught, and declares Hamlet utterly mad. Claudius is disillusioned with Polonius’s interpretation of Hamlet’s insanity, and resolves to send Hamlet away.
People prepare for the play; Hamlet tells Horatio of his plan to get Claudius to show remorse. The plan works spectacularly; Claudius’s nerve is broken, though the Queen appears little fazed. Claudius retreats to his rooms, Interrupting the play within the play. Hamlet is triumphant, although little has actually been done; this is an anticlimax. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter; Hamlet confronts them about their activities. They admit to lying to him, there is an anecdote with a recorder, in which the Rosencrantz protests playing the recorder, offered to him by Hamlet to illustrate their attempts to manipulate him. Hamlet prepares to kill Claudius (finally).
The King, nervous about Hamlet’s madness, and worried that Hamlet will turn on him, prepares to send Hamlet to England, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. King Claudius tries to pray, but finds that he cannot, because he feels that repentance cannot be reached while he retains his ill-gotten gains.Hamlet sneaks up behind Claudius, and has a chance to kill him. However, he refrains, presuming to control whether Claudius goes to heaven or to hell. He leaves, resolving to kill Claudius later.
Hamlet confronts Gertrude about her role in assisting the King, suggesting that she is betraying her husband. Gertrude, frightened, cries out for help – Polonius, hiding behind a tapestry, comes out to help. Hamlet, ‘mistaking’ him for Claudius, kills him. Gertrude is still more frightened, but is forced to listen to Hamlet recount her perceived sins. Distraught, she is weeping when the ghost of Hamlet comes in and warns Hamlet to be gentle. At this point, she is certain that Hamlet is mad. Nonetheless (or perhaps because of this), she swears to help undermine the King.
Things escalate – Hamlet is sent to England. Along the way, he slays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, condemning them, ironically, for following their orders. Meanwhile, in Denmark, Ophelia goes mad, stating that “the violets all withered when my father died; e.g. she lost her innocence when her father died. Laertes is infuriated, he swears to kill Hamlet, indeed, to “cut his throat in the church”. Ophelia dies, an apparent suicide.
Hamlet returns from England, miraculously appearing after some time away. He looks at a skull, and ponders the meaning of death. Ironically, the skull may or may not be who the digger claims it is. Hamlet and Laertes fight over Ophelia’s dead body, a suggestive scene. Hamlet is invited to a duel, and he accepts. At the duel, he kills Laertes with his own poisoned sword, and kills Claudius with his own cup. Gertrude dies of the same cup as Claudius, again suggestively. Hamlet dies of a friend’s poison. Fortinbras takes over Denmark. Horatio is the only surviving main character.
Garden of Eden
Hamlet as a Christ figure