Themes of Hamlet
The themes within the Shakespearean drama Hamlet are several. Let us discuss in this essay some of the more commonly recognized themes.
In the essay “Hamlet: His Own Falstaff,” Harold Goddard makes a statement of the two main themes of the play, namely war and revenge, relating them to the final scene:
The dead Hamlet
is borne out “like a soldier” and the last rites over his body are to be the rites of war. The final word of the text is “shoot.” The last sounds we hear are a dead march and the reverberations of ordnance being shot off. The end crowns the whole. The sarcasm of fate could go no further. Hamlet, who aspired to nobler things, is treated at death as if he were the mere image of his father: a warrior. Shakespeare knew what he was about in making the conclusion of his play martial. Its theme has been war as well as revenge. (23)
The interpretation of the main theme of the play as revenge is stated by Phyllis
Abrahms and Alan Brody in “Hamlet and the Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy
There are ten deaths in Hamlet, if we include the death of Hamlet’s father and the “make-believe” death of the Player-King. The cause of each can be attributed directly to another character’s action – or lack of it. But if a play is to be a coherent work of art there must be some central action around which all the other parts revolve. What is the central, unifying action of Hamlet? Revenge. (43-44)
R.A. Foakes continues on the revenge theme in “The Play’s Courtly Setting”:
And where there is no legal punishment for his father’s death, he must stoop, driven by the universal wrong, and “being thus be-netted round with villainies”, to revenge. He must share the corruption of others in spite of his nobility, and recognize in himself the common features, "we are arrant knaves all." (53)
The opening of the play introduces the theme of supernatural influence on the present. Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes the opening scene:
For two nights in succession, just as the bell strikes the hour of one, a ghost has appeared on the battlements, a figure dressed in complete armor and with a face like that of the dead king of Denmark, Hamlet’s father. A young man named Horatio, who is a school friend of Hamlet, has been told of the apparition and cannot believe it, and one of the officers has brought him there in the night so that he can see it for himself. [. . .] Whatever the message is that has wakened the ghost, it refuses to share it with them (35).
Meanwhile Claudius is conducting some items of business: dispatching Cornelius and Voltemand to Norway to settle the Fortinbras affair, thus continuing the martial theme. Hamlet’s first soliloquy emphasizes the corruption of society and the frailty of women – an obvious reference to his mother’s hasty and incestuous marriage – another theme which echoes throughout the drama:
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!—(1.2)
Soon Horatio and Marcellus make contact with Hamlet and escort him to the ramparts of Elsinore. At one a.m. the ghost introduces the main theme of the play – revenge. The ghost says that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, who had a relationship with Gertrude prior to the murder. Hamlet swears to carry out vengeance. Philip Edwards’ “The Ghost: Messenger from a Higher Court of Values?” says that “Hamlet is galvanized into activity” (66).
The hero’s “antic disposition” causes the whole royal court to react. Ophelia agrees to be a decoy to lure the hero so that the king and lord chamberlain can study him. At the time of the “chance” meeting, Hamlet is already feeling quite low, surrounded as he is by troubles which impede his revenge:
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? (3.1)
Referring to the soliloquy, Harry Levin states in the General Introduction to The Riverside Shakespeare says that the “bold image of a warrior stalking, sword in hand, into the sea is not uncharacteristic of the Anglo-Saxon imagination” (14). This is in keeping with the hero’s determination to effect the revenge, regardless of how many troubles beset him. Shortly thereafter, the hero redesigns a standard play, The Murder of Gonzago, into The Mousetrap – a reenactment of Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet. Claudius shows himself to be guilty of the murder, consequently Hamlet prepares for revenge. En route to his mother’s room, the prince passes Claudius kneeling in prayer in the chapel, but refrains from killing him because, “I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven” – which act would contradict the hero’s revenge. While the prince berates his mother for her past, the ghost reappears to him (and only him) in order to redirect the hero:
Do not forget: this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But, look, amazement on thy mother sits:
O, step between her and her fighting soul:
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works:
Speak to her, Hamlet. (3.4)
The theme of the supernatural is revivified by this apparition. The killing of Polonius, plus the suspicion of Claudius that Hamlet knows about the king’s crime, cause Claudius to send the Prince by ship to England-- where the hero will be put to death. It seems that the ghost’s wishes will go unfulfilled; Hamlet laments his blunted impulse for revenge:
How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? (4.4)
In the meantime, Ophelia loses her sanity because of the rejection by Hamlet and the death of Polonius. Laertes, when he learns of his father’s death, returns from France at the head of a rebellious crowd who want him made king. Lily B. Campbell in “Grief That Leads to Tragedy” fits Laertes, Hamlet and Fortinbras into a thematic context of sorrow:
Grief in each for the loss of his father is succeeded by the desire for revenge. But each must act according to the dictates of his own temperament and his own humor. The fundamental problem that Shakespeare undertook to answer in Hamlet, then, is the problem of the way men accept sorrow when it comes to them. And it is evident throughout the play that the grief of Fortinbras is being presented as a grief dominated by reason, while it is equally evident that the grief of Hamlet and Laertes is excessive grief leading to destruction. (94)
Claudius is sympathetic with Laertes in his grief, “Laertes, I must commune with your grief. . . .” and wins his allegiance, so that when news arrives that Hamlet is returning to Elsinore (fortuitously, because of a kidnapping by pirates), Laertes is moved by the king’s words to collaborate in a scheme to murder the prince.
Ophelia accidentally drowns in her madness, extending the theme of death which the demise of her father initiated. Hamlet’s meditation on death, prompted by the unearthed skull of Yorick, continues this theme:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? (5.1)
This meditation on death also prepares the audience for the coming bloody climax. After Ophelia’s burial, Claudius and Laertes implement their plan to kill the hero with poisoned cup and poisoned rapier. One might say that their revenge stands against the prince’s revenge. In the contest of foils, both Laertes and Hamlet are stuck with the poisoned rapier, and the queen imbibes the poisoned drink. Laertes in his dying moments explains the truth to the prince, saying that “the king, the king's to blame.” With this revelation, Hamlet promptly dispatches the king: “The point!--envenom'd too! / Then, venom, to thy work.” Thus death envelops most of the court. Michael Neill in “None Can Escape Death, the ‘Undiscovered Country’” interprets the main theme of the play as a “prolonged meditation on death”:
How we respond to the ending of Hamlet – both as revenge drama and as psychological study – depends in part on how we respond to the play – that is, to Hamlet as a prolonged meditation on death. The play is virtually framed by two encounters with the dead: at one end is the Ghost, at the other a pile of freshly excavated skulls. The skulls (all but one) are nameless and silent; the Ghost has an identity (though a questionable one) and a voice; yet they are more alike than at first seem. For this ghost, though invulnerable “as the air,” is described as a “dead corse,” a “ghost . . . come from the grave,” its appearance suggesting a grotesque disinterment of the buried king. The skulls for their part may be silent, but Hamlet plays upon each to draw out its own “excellent voice” just as he engineered that “miraculous organ” of the Ghost’s utterance, the “Mousetrap” (112-13).
As Fortinbras of Norway succeeds to the Danish throne, the dormant theme of military action comes to life once more. But all his opponents are dead; so, like the themes of death, revenge and the supernatural, this theme also finds resolution in the final scene of Act V.
Abrahms, Phyllis and Alan Brody. “Hamlet and the Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy Formula.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from Introduction to Hamlet. Ed. Michael Martin. New York: Prestige Books, 1968.
Campbell, Lily B. “Grief That Leads to Tragedy.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion. New York: Cambridge Univ. P., 1930.
Chute, Marchette. “The Story Told in Hamlet.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Excerpted from Stories from Shakespeare. N. p.: E. P. Dutton, 1956.
Edwards, Philip. “The Ghost: Messenger from a Higher Court of Values?” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from Introduction to Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Philip Edwards. N. P.: Cambridge University P., 1985.
Foakes, R.A.. “The Play’s Courtly Setting.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. of “Hamlet and the Court of Elsinore.” Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study and Production. No. 9. Ed. Allardyce Nicoll. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univ. P., 1956.
Levin, Harry. General Introduction. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.
Neill, Michael. “None Can Escape Death, the ‘Undiscovered Country’.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. of “Hamlet: A Modern Perspective.” The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. N. P.: Folger Shakespeare Lib., 1992.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/hamlet/full.html No line nos.