William Shakespeare's Hamlet

Powerful Essays
William Shakespeare's Hamlet

Shakespeare’s works are rife with metatheatrical self-references; as Polonius blathers on about madness early in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Gertrude ends the excessive bombast with the quip, “More matter with less art” (Hamlet, II.i.97). Shakespeare mocks his own poetic form and that of his classical influences with this line, yet his plays are full of lyricism. However, the Greek and Roman texts Shakespeare studied as a boy as well as those of his contemporaries are so full of “art,” (meaning that they emphasize form over content) that they are often considered by the masses as arcane. Shakespeare has improved upon his predecessors and emerges with a canon that is not only critically praised, but often performed to the approval of the public. This essay will focus on Hamlet and the texts that influenced it because Hamlet continues to be one of the most well-known and respected of Shakespeare’s plays. Its accessibility is so enduring that it has even been translated into Klingon. The examination of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Seneca’s Thyestes, and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy in relation to Hamlet show that, although Shakespeare owes much of Hamlet’s success to his literary influences, he betters the texts the play is based on in both its content and form, which contributes to the play’s timeless popularity.

Textual Basis

Oedipus Rex , Thyestes, and The Spanish Tragedy are all revenge tragedies. Oedipus seeks revenge against the murderer of the king in an effort to stop the plague. In Thyestes, Atreus seeks revenge against his brother, Thyestes, who seduced Atreus’ wife, stole the golden fleece, and now wants to seize the throne. In The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronimo avenges the unj...

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...e created someone audiences could relate to. Hamlet is logical but heroic because he thinks through his actions before carrying them out and, in the end, makes the right choice for the good of his family, country, universe, and self. He dies, of course, but his death purges the state of the evil his father’s murder incited. Kitto argues that in “Shakespeare’s play the Tragic Hero, ultimately, is humanity itself” (Kitto 335). The audience can see themselves in Hamlet and, even though most know the story and outcome, want to take his journey toward adulthood and heroism with him. This identification is what makes Hamlet, and Shakespeare’s work at large, timeless. He charms with his poetry, breaks hearts with his tragic characters’ falls, intrigues with his stories, allows people to acknowledge their inner selves and, when the time is right, inspires them to act.