William Shakespeare and his works occupy an honorary place in world literature. At the same time, the play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, briefly referred to as Hamlet, is one of the most famous. The plot reveals complex themes of revenge, mortality, deception, madness, and other issues. The main character, Prince Hamlet, is full of internal torment, and his experiences reveal most of the themes. Despite the fact that the motive of revenge is the basis for the plot, the theme of mortality, fear of death, and afterlife questions is more revealed in the play.
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The play’s plot describes the actions in the royal court in Denmark, where the king recently died. His son Hamlet is upset by his father’s death and disappointed with the behavior of his mother, that married her late husband’s brother a few months after the funeral. Having met the ghost of the king, Hamlet learns that his uncle is also a murderer, and his father calls him for revenge. The prince comes up with a plan to kill his uncle Claudius, part of which is a simulation of madness.
In his game, Hamlet becomes sure of the guilt of the new king. At the same time, the mother and stepfather try to learn by deception whether the prince is really insane. They even involve Ophelia, Hamlet’s sympathy, and the prince’s two friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Moreover, the king is plotting a new murder and gives an order to kill Hamlet. Intrigues lead to tragic deaths – the father of Ophelia, the young woman herself, and the friends of Hamlet. There is also a duel in the finale, where Ophelia’s brother Laertes, Hamlet’s mother and stepfather, and the protagonist himself, dies.
The key themes driving the plot of the play are revenge and mortality. Revenge is the central motive for the actions of the protagonist. It intertwines with death issues – the desire to avenge the murder and leads to new victims and a bloody end. Nevertheless, the topic of mortality is especially worrying for the protagonist, reinforced by trauma after his father’s death. Questions related to death and what follows after it significantly distract Hamlet from his goal – revenge. Moreover, Shakespeare dramatically focuses on the character’s inner world, their struggles with trauma, and estrangement (Saleem and Pandit 15). Revenge delay and focus on internal experiences and not only external conflicts distinguishes the play from other works of that time.
Concern with death issues is transmitted through the protagonist’s monologues and his behavior. For example, when Hamlet appears in front of the audience for the first time, he is dressed in black mourning colors, which causes upset of his mother. However, the young man emphasizes that his clothes cannot display all his feelings. Moreover, a little later, he expresses the desire for his own death:
O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
as little as 3 hours
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (Shakespeare 1.2.133-138)
In these lines, besides the desire for suicide, Hamlet also points out that nothing pleases him in this life, and it seems meaningless. The death of a loved one could explain his feelings. However, even having set himself the goal of revenge, the prince still doubts the meaning of life. For example, in a monologue beginning with the well-known phrase “To be or not to be,” Hamlet again expresses doubts about whether it is better to live and endure or put an end to this existence (Shakespeare 3.1.64). In the modern world, such conversations of a young man would cause serious concern.
Nevertheless, an additional analysis of Hamlet’s behavior and thinking may reveal that his motives are not just the death of his father but more profound experiences. For example, Hamlet’s anger at his mother is that she very quickly married and forgot his father, and he even makes the remark that “The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (Shakespeare 1.2.187). In the scene at the cemetery, when the gravedigger digs up the skull of a jester, the prince reflects on the fact that all people look the same after death, regardless of their position in life. He thinks of great people, like Caesar and Alexander the Great, who also died and became ashes. These episodes demonstrate that prince Hamlet’s experiences are more existential. For example, no matter how much Hamlet talks about death, another important question for him is the fear of what can be expected after:
Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of? (Shakespeare 3.1.84-90)
The main character of Hamlet, not seeing the beauty of life, is trying to dig deeper and understand the issues of life and death, morality, and the essence of a person. His reflections correlate with questions of existentialism – the philosophical direction, which draws attention to the difficulties in finding the meaning of life, making a choice, and the importance of understanding oneself (Saleem and Pandit 14). Shakespeare, through his character, conveys the complexity of these questions and is ahead of the appearance of this direction of philosophy (Saleem and Pandit 15). These features make Hamlet outstanding – the themes raised in it are relevant at all times, and the experiences of the main character often reflect questions of concern to readers.
As noted, Hamlet is worried about the questions of virtue and the fears of what can be expected after death. These feelings are also related to existential questions of choice and consequences, which affect the development of the plot. Particularly, there are several special causal relationships that can be traced to each death in the play. Wilson (284-285) notes that the manner each character dies significantly depends on their hamartia. The concept of hamartia denotes errors or guilt of characters, which leads to their destruction (Wilson, 283). In total, the play presents the death of nine characters, and only two of the key people represented to the audience survive – Horatio and Young Fortinbras. The leading causes of death among characters are poison and being stabbed, and hamartia includes deception and revenge (Wilson 284-285). At the same time, some characters have two critical errors, and the rest – have one. The death that awaits the characters is the consequences of their guilt, its volume, and its severity.
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The seriousness of character fault determines the spectacularity of their death. For example, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, involved in deception and being under the control of others, die offstage. Ophelia’s death, whose fault is only in fraud, is considered an accident or suicide. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deceive Hamlet more cruelly, and they are executed in another country. Ophelia’s father, Polonius, deceives Hamlet for his favor and dies on the scene, but he hides, and the audience will not see him. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, ‘s fault is that she deceived her son and also married soon, she dies on stage from poison. Finally, Laertes and Hamlet, whose fault is revenge and deception, and Claudius, with hamartia of deceit and murder for the sake of his ambitions, die on stage. Moreover, these characters are stabbed with poisoned blades, combining two methods of killing, and Claudius drinks other poison. Thus, the characters’ hamartia determines their death, demonstrating the consequences of their past actions.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s Hamlet not only talks about revenge but raises many philosophical questions. Although revenge is the basis of the whole story, the main character’s reflections and inner torment expand the plot, delaying the moment of vengeance. In addition to revenge, Hamlet is concerned about mortality, life after death, and the consequences of choice. These problems also affect the plot, as most of the characters die, and actions in the past significantly determine the manner of their death. Existential experiences, many philosophical questions ahead of their time, and a well-crafted plot make the author, character, and play outstanding in the literature of all times.
Saleem, Mohd, and Muzafar Ahmad Pandit. “Shakespeare–A Precursor Of Existentialism.” DR Research Journal, vol. 10, no. 6, 2020, pp. 13-21.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster, 2012. Folger Shakespeare Library,Web.
Wilson, Jeffrey. “The Meaning of Death in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews, vol. 34, no. 4, 2021, pp. 282-286.