Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
by William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)
Type of Work:
Elsinore, Denmark; c. 1200
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and son of the former king The Ghost, Hamlet's dead father
Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, and Queen of Denmark
Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and new stepfather, and now, King of Denmark
Polonius, Claudius'chief counselor
Laertes, Polonius' son
Ophelia, Polonius' obedient daughter
Horatio, Hamlet's faithful friend
Prince Hamlet bitterly opposed the marriage of his mother, Gertrude, to Claudius, her own brother-in-law, so soon after her husband's death. Moreover, Hamlet had a strange suspicion that the new king - his stepfather and former uncle - had somehow plotted his father's mysterious demise, and he refused to cease mourning his natural father, now two months dead.
As Hamlet languished in resentfulness, he was approached by his close friend Horatio, who revealed that for three nights now castle guards had seen the former king stalking the parapets as a ghost. He persuaded the prince that his father must have some message of importance to impart, and thus Hamlet should wait with him that night for the ghost to appear again.
The bloody apparition was indeed the image of Hamiet's father. In horror, the son listened with Horatio as the dead king described how his brother Claudius had seduced Gertrude, and how the two of them together had arranged for his murder, while claiming that a serpent had injected the fatal poison.
Hamlet was appalled - though not entirely surprised - at this revelation. But he was even more shaken when the ghost made a desperate plea: he ordered Hamlet to avenge his death by killing Claudius, but cautioned that Gertrude must be spared; heaven alone should punish her for her sins.
Now, Hamlet considered himself an intellectual, not a soldier or a man of action. This charge to exact revenge posed a real dilemma in the prince's mind. He swore Horatio to secrecy concerning the ghost and continued for the next few days to fret on what he must do.
Filled with suppressed anger toward both his mother and Claudius, and torn between doing his duty in honor and carrying out a most distasteful and bloody task, Hamlet began to act more and more erratic. Ophelia, his lady friend and the daughter of the new king's most trusted counselor, Polonius, reported Hamlet's eccentric behavior to her father. Polonius insisted that Hamlet had become demented, and cautioned Ophelia to keep her distance. He then reported Hamlet's bizarre turn to the king and queen.
Perceiving Hamlet as a possible threat to the throne, Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius hired two dull-witted courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on the prince, to learn whether he in fact coveted their power or was merely mad. But Hamlet, within minutes, recognized the charade and the motives behind it, and caustically mockcd them. And shortly, it seemed to Hamlet that everyone - including Ophelia was a spy and an informant for King Claudius and Queen Gertrude.
By now the prince was dashed by doubts and worries. He began to wonder if his father's ghost had really appeared; maybe it had been a vision from the devil instead. After all, the thought of murdering Claudius, vile and hated though he was, still repelled Hamlet. But soon he struck upon an idea: a company of traveling actors visited Elsinore, and Hamlet persuaded them to perform a murder scene that was actually a reenactment of the death of the old king. He was sure that if Claudius and Gertrude had in fact killed his father, their guilt would play on their faces and show in their actions.
The play proceeded. Sure enough, Claudius became so unnerved both by the drama and by Hamlet's sly, taunting comments, that he stormed from the performance, with Gertrude close behind.
Gertrude immediately sent for her insolent son. When he visited her in her room to discuss the matter, Polonius was hidden behind a curtain, listening. Soon the exchange between mother and son grew more heated and violent. When Polonius cried out for the guards, Hamlet, thinking he was Claudius, stabbed through the curtain and killed him. Amid this confusion, the ghost of Hamlet's father once more appeared (invisible to Gertrude) and again reminded his son of his original commission: to kill Claudius.
With renewed determination, Hamlet gripped his dagger and made for Claudius'bedchamber. But when he entered the room, prepared at last to do the deed, he found Claudius praying. This undid the prince's resolve; be could not slay this man while in the posture of supplication to God - a prayerful soul, he reasoned, would be swept straight to heaven, and Claudius deserved nothing higher than hell. So, the prince once again delayed his revenge.
Now Claudius, seeing the danger he was in, ordered that Hamlet be hurried off to England on the next possible ship. Again, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern were commissioned to carry out this errand, which secretly included orders for the murder of the prince on his arrival.
Several days before Hamlet was taken aboard ship, he witnessed a conquering Norwegian army marching past enroute to a distant battle. Their leader-captain was young Fortinbras, whose father had once lost many skirmishes and much property to Hamlet's own father. In harmony with his threats to invade Denmark to avenge these losses, Fortinbras, "a delicate and tender prince," was now dutifully acting on his father's wishes. Hamlet felt ashamed that he lacked equal willpower and character in response to filial duty.
As Hamlet was departing for England, Laertes, Polonius' hot-tempered son, arrived from Paris, seeking his own revenge. Enraged that Ophelia, his own sister, would allow Hamlet to escape unpunished, he lashed into her. Ophelia, now rejected by her banished lover and driven to madness by feelings of guilt borrowed from an embittered brother, drowned herself.
Hamlet, sensing a plot against his life, had altered his guards' orders: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not he, were killed by assassins on touching English soil. The prince sent word back to Denmark that he had been captured by pirates and would soon be returning to his home.
Claudius was dismayed to learn that his plans to do away with his pesky stepson had gone awry. So, together with Lacrtes, he hatched a new plan: Laertes would challenge Hamlet to a duel and kill him with a poison-tipped foil. If the fencing match failed to do the trick, a poison spiked drink would be in easy reach of the dueler. One way or another, meddling Prince Hamlet would be no more.
Upon Hamlet's return, he and Horatio stood in a churchyard, discussing the prince's perilous journey. In the distance they spied a funeral procession. The two concealed themselves and looked on at the passage of Ophelia's funeral train, led by Laertes, pompously bewailing his dead sister. Unable to endure such a false and pretentious display, Hamlet leapt out of hiding and lunged toward Laertes. Both men were restrained, but not until after the challenge to duel was made - and accepted.
To diminish suspicion that he was in any way involved with the plot, King Claudius bet heavily on the practiced swordsman Hamlet. Then, according to plan, poison was dripped onto Laertes' rapier and into the convenient cup.
But things soon began to miscarry. First the unsuspecting Gertrude raised and drank from the poison-laced cup in a toast to her son. In the contest that followed, Laertes wounded Hamlet, and Hamlet in turn fatally pierced Laertes. Then, as the queen fell to the ground crying, "The drink, the drink! I am poison'd!" Hamlet demanded that the treachery be revealed. At this, dying Laertes spoke up and exposed the plot - the poisoned wine and the venom-tipped foil, whose effects Hamlet would soon feel. Laertes further divulged that "the King's to blame": Claudius had authored the entire miserable scene.
Hesitating no longer, Hamlet rushed forward, stabbed Claudius, and cursed the "incestuous, murderous, damn'd Dane." Then Laertes and Hamlet turned and implored each other's forgiveness, that they might both die in peace. Within minutes, Fortinbras arrived, and, with Hamlet's dying approval, appropriated the throne of Denmark - a throne so tragically twice vacated in the previous few months.
What can be said about the most famous work of English drama? A lot, actually. In fact scholars have been pawing over this play for three hundred years, searching to explain the inner workings of its plot, and particularly debating why the intelligent young Hamlet had such a hard time mustering the courage to avenge his father's death. Often the only thing these scholars agree upon is that Hamlet's speeches and mannerisms are complex, allusive, and sometimes cryptic.
One thing is certain: Hamlet follows the conventions of a standard Elizabethan genre - the, revenge play" - of which there are many examples. But Shakespeare's poetic drama is by far more expansive and more ambiguous than any of these other works.
It has been suggested that the prince's delayed revenge, as opposed to Fortinbras' decisiveness, is meant to contrast two universal individuals - the man of contemplation and the man of action. The university-bred Hamlet analyzes everything too deeply and is thus prevented from taking any clear course:
... Thinking too precisely on the event
a thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
and ever three parts coward, I do not know
why, yet I live to say "this thing's to do," sith I have cause and will and strength and means to do't.
But Hamlet's essential dilemma is one that has confronted men throughout the ages; and this confrontation -between duty and morality, courage and fear, right and wrong - will assuredly persist for all ages to come.
To be discussed to the class by Jakosalem's group on Monday.