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Hamlet: Introduction

Hamlet: plot summary, hamlet: detailed summary & analysis, hamlet: themes, hamlet: quotes, hamlet: characters, hamlet: symbols, hamlet: literary devices, hamlet: quizzes, hamlet: theme wheel, brief biography of william shakespeare.

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Historical Context of Hamlet

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  • Full Title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
  • When Written: Likely between 1599 and 1602
  • Where Written: Stratford-upon-Avon or London, England
  • When Published: First Quarto printed 1603; Second Quarto printed 1604; First Folio printed 1623
  • Literary Period: Renaissance
  • Genre: Tragic play; revenge play
  • Setting: Elsinore Castle, Denmark, during the late Middle Ages
  • Climax: After seeing Claudius’s emotional reaction to a play Hamlet has had staged in order to make Claudius face a fictionalized version of his own murder plot against the former king, Hamlet resolves to kill the Claudius without guilt.
  • Antagonist: Claudius
  • Point of View: Dramatic

Extra Credit for Hamlet

The Role of a Lifetime. The role of Hamlet is often considered one of the most challenging theatrical roles ever written, and has been widely interpreted on stage and screen by famous actors throughout history. Shakespeare is rumored to have originally written the role for John Burbage, one of the most well-known actors of the Elizabethan era. Since Shakespeare’s time, actors John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, Jude Law, Kenneth Branagh, and Ethan Hawke are just a few actors who have tried their hand at playing the Dane. When Daniel Day-Lewis took to the stage as Hamlet in London in 1989, he left the stage mid-performance one night after reportedly seeing the ghost of his real father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, and has not acted in a single live theater production since.

Shakespeare or Not?  There are some who believe Shakespeare did not actually write many—or any—of the plays attributed to him. The most common “Anti-Stratfordian” theory is that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays and used Shakespeare as a front man, as aristocrats were not supposed to write plays. Others claim Shakespeare’s contemporaries such as Thomas Kyd or Christopher Marlowe may have authored his works. Most contemporary scholarship, however, supports the idea that the Bard really did compose the numerous plays and poems which have established him, in the eyes of many, as the greatest writer in history.

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Jeffrey R. Wilson

Essays on hamlet.

Essays On Hamlet

Written as the author taught Hamlet every semester for a decade, these lightning essays ask big conceptual questions about the play with the urgency of a Shakespeare lover, and answer them with the rigor of a Shakespeare scholar. In doing so, Hamlet becomes a lens for life today, generating insights on everything from xenophobia, American fraternities, and religious fundamentalism to structural misogyny, suicide contagion, and toxic love.

Prioritizing close reading over historical context, these explorations are highly textual and highly theoretical, often philosophical, ethical, social, and political. Readers see King Hamlet as a pre-modern villain, King Claudius as a modern villain, and Prince Hamlet as a post-modern villain. Hamlet’s feigned madness becomes a window into failed insanity defenses in legal trials. He knows he’s being watched in “To be or not to be”: the soliloquy is a satire of philosophy. Horatio emerges as Shakespeare’s authorial avatar for meta-theatrical commentary, Fortinbras as the hero of the play. Fate becomes a viable concept for modern life, and honor a source of tragedy. The metaphor of music in the play makes Ophelia Hamlet’s instrument. Shakespeare, like the modern corporation, stands against sexism, yet perpetuates it unknowingly. We hear his thoughts on single parenting, sending children off to college, and the working class, plus his advice on acting and writing, and his claims to be the next Homer or Virgil. In the context of four centuries of Hamlet hate, we hear how the text draws audiences in, how it became so famous, and why it continues to captivate audiences.

At a time when the humanities are said to be in crisis, these essays are concrete examples of the mind-altering power of literature and literary studies, unravelling the ongoing implications of the English language’s most significant artistic object of the past millennium.


Why is Hamlet the most famous English artwork of the past millennium? Is it a sexist text? Why does Hamlet speak in prose? Why must he die? Does Hamlet depict revenge, or justice? How did the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, transform into a story about a son dealing with the death of a father? Did Shakespeare know Aristotle’s theory of tragedy? How did our literary icon, Shakespeare, see his literary icons, Homer and Virgil? Why is there so much comedy in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy? Why is love a force of evil in the play? Did Shakespeare believe there’s a divinity that shapes our ends? How did he define virtue? What did he think about psychology? politics? philosophy? What was Shakespeare’s image of himself as an author? What can he, arguably the greatest writer of all time, teach us about our own writing? What was his theory of literature? Why do people like Hamlet ? How do the Hamlet haters of today compare to those of yesteryears? Is it dangerous for our children to read a play that’s all about suicide? 

These are some of the questions asked in this book, a collection of essays on Shakespeare’s Hamlet stemming from my time teaching the play every semester in my Why Shakespeare? course at Harvard University. During this time, I saw a series of bright young minds from wildly diverse backgrounds find their footing in Hamlet, and it taught me a lot about how Shakespeare’s tragedy works, and why it remains with us in the modern world. Beyond ghosts, revenge, and tragedy, Hamlet is a play about being in college, being in love, gender, misogyny, friendship, theater, philosophy, theology, injustice, loss, comedy, depression, death, self-doubt, mental illness, white privilege, overbearing parents, existential angst, international politics, the classics, the afterlife, and the meaning of it all. 

These essays grow from the central paradox of the play: it helps us understand the world we live in, yet we don't really understand the text itself very well. For all the attention given to Hamlet , there’s no consensus on the big questions—how it works, why it grips people so fiercely, what it’s about. These essays pose first-order questions about what happens in Hamlet and why, mobilizing answers for reflections on life, making the essays both highly textual and highly theoretical. 

Each semester that I taught the play, I would write a new essay about Hamlet . They were meant to be models for students, the sort of essay that undergrads read and write – more rigorous than the puff pieces in the popular press, but riskier than the scholarship in most academic journals. While I later added scholarly outerwear, these pieces all began just like the essays I was assigning to students – as short close readings with a reader and a text and a desire to determine meaning when faced with a puzzling question or problem. 

The turn from text to context in recent scholarly books about Hamlet is quizzical since we still don’t have a strong sense of, to quote the title of John Dover Wilson’s 1935 book, What Happens in Hamlet. Is the ghost real? Is Hamlet mad, or just faking? Why does he delay? These are the kinds of questions students love to ask, but they haven’t been – can’t be – answered by reading the play in the context of its sources (recently addressed in Laurie Johnson’s The Tain of Hamlet [2013]), its multiple texts (analyzed by Paul Menzer in The Hamlets [2008] and Zachary Lesser in Hamlet after Q1 [2015]), the Protestant reformation (the focus of Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory [2001] and John E. Curran, Jr.’s Hamlet, Protestantism, and the Mourning of Contingency [2006]), Renaissance humanism (see Rhodri Lewis, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness [2017]), Elizabethan political theory (see Margreta de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet [2007]), the play’s reception history (see David Bevington, Murder Most Foul: Hamlet through the Ages [2011]), its appropriation by modern philosophers (covered in Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster’s The Hamlet Doctrine [2013] and Andrew Cutrofello’s All for Nothing: Hamlet’s Negativity [2014]), or its recent global travels (addressed, for example, in Margaret Latvian’s Hamlet’s Arab Journey [2011] and Dominic Dromgoole’s Hamlet Globe to Globe [2017]). 

Considering the context and afterlives of Hamlet is a worthy pursuit. I certainly consulted the above books for my essays, yet the confidence that comes from introducing context obscures the sharp panic we feel when confronting Shakespeare’s text itself. Even as the excellent recent book from Sonya Freeman Loftis, Allison Kellar, and Lisa Ulevich announces Hamlet has entered “an age of textual exhaustion,” there’s an odd tendency to avoid the text of Hamlet —to grasp for something more firm—when writing about it. There is a need to return to the text in a more immediate way to understand how Hamlet operates as a literary work, and how it can help us understand the world in which we live. 

That latter goal, yes, clings nostalgically to the notion that literature can help us understand life. Questions about life send us to literature in search of answers. Those of us who love literature learn to ask and answer questions about it as we become professional literary scholars. But often our answers to the questions scholars ask of literature do not connect back up with the questions about life that sent us to literature in the first place—which are often philosophical, ethical, social, and political. Those first-order questions are diluted and avoided in the minutia of much scholarship, left unanswered. Thus, my goal was to pose questions about Hamlet with the urgency of a Shakespeare lover and to answer them with the rigor of a Shakespeare scholar. 

In doing so, these essays challenge the conventional relationship between literature and theory. They pursue a kind of criticism where literature is not merely the recipient of philosophical ideas in the service of exegesis. Instead, the creative risks of literature provide exemplars to be theorized outward to help us understand on-going issues in life today. Beyond an occasion for the demonstration of existing theory, literature is a source for the creation of new theory.

Chapter One How Hamlet Works

Whether you love or hate Hamlet , you can acknowledge its massive popularity. So how does Hamlet work? How does it create audience enjoyment? Why is it so appealing, and to whom? Of all the available options, why Hamlet ? This chapter entertains three possible explanations for why the play is so popular in the modern world: the literary answer (as the English language’s best artwork about death—one of the very few universal human experiences in a modern world increasingly marked by cultural differences— Hamlet is timeless); the theatrical answer (with its mixture of tragedy and comedy, the role of Hamlet requires the best actor of each age, and the play’s popularity derives from the celebrity of its stars); and the philosophical answer (the play invites, encourages, facilitates, and sustains philosophical introspection and conversation from people who do not usually do such things, who find themselves doing those things with Hamlet , who sometimes feel embarrassed about doing those things, but who ultimately find the experience of having done them rewarding).

Chapter Two “It Started Like a Guilty Thing”: The Beginning of Hamlet and the Beginning of Modern Politics

King Hamlet is a tyrant and King Claudius a traitor but, because Shakespeare asked us to experience the events in Hamlet from the perspective of the young Prince Hamlet, we are much more inclined to detect and detest King Claudius’s political failings than King Hamlet’s. If so, then Shakespeare’s play Hamlet , so often seen as the birth of modern psychology, might also tell us a little bit about the beginnings of modern politics as well.

Chapter Three Horatio as Author: Storytelling and Stoic Tragedy

This chapter addresses Horatio’s emotionlessness in light of his role as a narrator, using this discussion to think about Shakespeare’s motives for writing tragedy in the wake of his son’s death. By rationalizing pain and suffering as tragedy, both Horatio and Shakespeare were able to avoid the self-destruction entailed in Hamlet’s emotional response to life’s hardships and injustices. Thus, the stoic Horatio, rather than the passionate Hamlet who repeatedly interrupts ‘The Mousetrap’, is the best authorial avatar for a Shakespeare who strategically wrote himself and his own voice out of his works. This argument then expands into a theory of ‘authorial catharsis’ and the suggestion that we can conceive of Shakespeare as a ‘poet of reason’ in contrast to a ‘poet of emotion’.

Chapter Four “To thine own self be true”: What Shakespeare Says about Sending Our Children Off to College

What does “To thine own self be true” actually mean? Be yourself? Don’t change who you are? Follow your own convictions? Don’t lie to yourself? This chapter argues that, if we understand meaning as intent, then “To thine own self be true” means, paradoxically, that “the self” does not exist. Or, more accurately, Shakespeare’s Hamlet implies that “the self” exists only as a rhetorical, philosophical, and psychological construct that we use to make sense of our experiences and actions in the world, not as anything real. If this is so, then this passage may offer us a way of thinking about Shakespeare as not just a playwright but also a moral philosopher, one who did his ethics in drama.

Chapter Five In Defense of Polonius

Your wife dies. You raise two children by yourself. You build a great career to provide for your family. You send your son off to college in another country, though you know he’s not ready. Now the prince wants to marry your daughter—that’s not easy to navigate. Then—get this—while you’re trying to save the queen’s life, the prince murders you. Your death destroys your kids. They die tragically. And what do you get for your efforts? Centuries of Shakespeare scholars dumping on you. If we see Polonius not through the eyes of his enemy, Prince Hamlet—the point of view Shakespeare’s play asks audiences to adopt—but in analogy to the common challenges of twenty-first-century parenting, Polonius is a single father struggling with work-life balance who sadly choses his career over his daughter’s well-being.

Chapter Six Sigma Alpha Elsinore: The Culture of Drunkenness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Claudius likes to party—a bit too much. He frequently binge drinks, is arguably an alcoholic, but not an aberration. Hamlet says Denmark is internationally known for heavy drinking. That’s what Shakespeare would have heard in the sixteenth century. By the seventeenth, English writers feared Denmark had taught their nation its drinking habits. Synthesizing criticism on alcoholism as an individual problem in Shakespeare’s texts and times with scholarship on national drinking habits in the early-modern age, this essay asks what the tragedy of alcoholism looks like when located not on the level of the individual, but on the level of a culture, as Shakespeare depicted in Hamlet. One window into these early-modern cultures of drunkenness is sociological studies of American college fraternities, especially the social-learning theories that explain how one person—one culture—teaches another its habits. For Claudius’s alcoholism is both culturally learned and culturally significant. And, as in fraternities, alcoholism in Hamlet is bound up with wealth, privilege, toxic masculinity, and tragedy. Thus, alcohol imagistically reappears in the vial of “cursed hebona,” Ophelia’s liquid death, and the poisoned cup in the final scene—moments that stand out in recent performances and adaptations with alcoholic Claudiuses and Gertrudes.

Chapter Seven Tragic Foundationalism

This chapter puts the modern philosopher Alain Badiou’s theory of foundationalism into dialogue with the early-modern playwright William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet . Doing so allows us to identify a new candidate for Hamlet’s traditionally hard-to-define hamartia – i.e., his “tragic mistake” – but it also allows us to consider the possibility of foundationalism as hamartia. Tragic foundationalism is the notion that fidelity to a single and substantive truth at the expense of an openness to evidence, reason, and change is an acute mistake which can lead to miscalculations of fact and virtue that create conflict and can end up in catastrophic destruction and the downfall of otherwise strong and noble people.

Chapter Eight “As a stranger give it welcome”: Shakespeare’s Advice for First-Year College Students

Encountering a new idea can be like meeting a strange person for the first time. Similarly, we dismiss new ideas before we get to know them. There is an answer to the problem of the human antipathy to strangeness in a somewhat strange place: a single line usually overlooked in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet . If the ghost is “wondrous strange,” Hamlet says, invoking the ancient ethics of hospitality, “Therefore as a stranger give it welcome.” In this word, strange, and the social conventions attached to it, is both the instinctual, animalistic fear and aggression toward what is new and different (the problem) and a cultivated, humane response in hospitality and curiosity (the solution). Intellectual xenia is the answer to intellectual xenophobia.

Chapter Nine Parallels in Hamlet

Hamlet is more parallely than other texts. Fortinbras, Hamlet, and Laertes have their fathers murdered, then seek revenge. Brothers King Hamlet and King Claudius mirror brothers Old Norway and Old Fortinbras. Hamlet and Ophelia both lose their fathers, go mad, but there’s a method in their madness, and become suicidal. King Hamlet and Polonius are both domineering fathers. Hamlet and Polonius are both scholars, actors, verbose, pedantic, detectives using indirection, spying upon others, “by indirections find directions out." King Hamlet and King Claudius are both kings who are killed. Claudius using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet mirrors Polonius using Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. Reynaldo and Hamlet both pretend to be something other than what they are in order to spy on and detect foes. Young Fortinbras and Prince Hamlet both have their forward momentum “arrest[ed].” Pyrrhus and Hamlet are son seeking revenge but paused a “neutral to his will.” The main plot of Hamlet reappears in the play-within-the-play. The Act I duel between King Hamlet and Old Fortinbras echoes in the Act V duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Claudius and Hamlet are both king killers. Sheesh—why are there so many dang parallels in Hamlet ? Is there some detectable reason why the story of Hamlet would call for the literary device of parallelism?

Chapter Ten Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Why Hamlet Has Two Childhood Friends, Not Just One

Why have two of Hamlet’s childhood friends rather than just one? Do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have individuated personalities? First of all, by increasing the number of friends who visit Hamlet, Shakespeare creates an atmosphere of being outnumbered, of multiple enemies encroaching upon Hamlet, of Hamlet feeling that the world is against him. Second, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not interchangeable, as commonly thought. Shakespeare gave each an individuated personality. Guildenstern is friendlier with Hamlet, and their friendship collapses, while Rosencrantz is more distant and devious—a frenemy.

Chapter Eleven Shakespeare on the Classics, Shakespeare as a Classic: A Reading of Aeneas’s Tale to Dido

Of all the stories Shakespeare might have chosen, why have Hamlet ask the players to recite Aeneas’ tale to Dido of Pyrrhus’s slaughter of Priam? In this story, which comes not from Homer’s Iliad but from Virgil’s Aeneid and had already been adapted for the Elizabethan stage in Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Dido, Pyrrhus – more commonly known as Neoptolemus, the son of the famous Greek warrior Achilles – savagely slays Priam, the king of the Trojans and the father of Paris, who killed Pyrrhus’s father, Achilles, who killed Paris’s brother, Hector, who killed Achilles’s comrade, Patroclus. Clearly, the theme of revenge at work in this story would have appealed to Shakespeare as he was writing what would become the greatest revenge tragedy of all time. Moreover, Aeneas’s tale to Dido supplied Shakespeare with all of the connections he sought to make at this crucial point in his play and his career – connections between himself and Marlowe, between the start of Hamlet and the end, between Prince Hamlet and King Claudius, between epic poetry and tragic drama, and between the classical literature Shakespeare was still reading hundreds of years later and his own potential as a classic who might (and would) be read hundreds of years into the future.

Chapter Twelve How Theater Works, according to Hamlet

According to Hamlet, people who are guilty of a crime will, when seeing that crime represented on stage, “proclaim [their] malefactions”—but that simply isn’t how theater works. Guilty people sit though shows that depict their crimes all the time without being prompted to public confession. Why did Shakespeare—a remarkably observant student of theater—write this demonstrably false theory of drama into his protagonist? And why did Shakespeare then write the plot of the play to affirm that obviously inaccurate vision of theater? For Claudius is indeed stirred to confession by the play-within-the-play. Perhaps Hamlet’s theory of people proclaiming malefactions upon seeing their crimes represented onstage is not as outlandish as it first appears. Perhaps four centuries of obsession with Hamlet is the English-speaking world proclaiming its malefactions upon seeing them represented dramatically.

Chapter Thirteen “To be, or not to be”: Shakespeare Against Philosophy

This chapter hazards a new reading of the most famous passage in Western literature: “To be, or not to be” from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet . With this line, Hamlet poses his personal struggle, a question of life and death, as a metaphysical problem, as a question of existence and nothingness. However, “To be, or not to be” is not what it seems to be. It seems to be a representation of tragic angst, yet a consideration of the context of the speech reveals that “To be, or not to be” is actually a satire of philosophy and Shakespeare’s representation of the theatricality of everyday life. In this chapter, a close reading of the context and meaning of this passage leads into an attempt to formulate a Shakespearean image of philosophy.

Chapter Fourteen Contagious Suicide in and Around Hamlet

As in society today, suicide is contagious in Hamlet , at least in the example of Ophelia, the only death by suicide in the play, because she only becomes suicidal after hearing Hamlet talk about his own suicidal thoughts in “To be, or not to be.” Just as there are media guidelines for reporting on suicide, there are better and worse ways of handling Hamlet . Careful suicide coverage can change public misperceptions and reduce suicide contagion. Is the same true for careful literary criticism and classroom discussion of suicide texts? How can teachers and literary critics reduce suicide contagion and increase help-seeking behavior?

Chapter Fifteen Is Hamlet a Sexist Text? Overt Misogyny vs. Unconscious Bias

Students and fans of Shakespeare’s Hamlet persistently ask a question scholars and critics of the play have not yet definitively answered: is it a sexist text? The author of this text has been described as everything from a male chauvinist pig to a trailblazing proto-feminist, but recent work on the science behind discrimination and prejudice offers a new, better vocabulary in the notion of unconscious bias. More pervasive and slippery than explicit bigotry, unconscious bias involves the subtle, often unintentional words and actions which indicate the presence of biases we may not be aware of, ones we may even fight against. The Shakespeare who wrote Hamlet exhibited an unconscious bias against women, I argue, even as he sought to critique the mistreatment of women in a patriarchal society. The evidence for this unconscious bias is not to be found in the misogynistic statements made by the characters in the play. It exists, instead, in the demonstrable preference Shakespeare showed for men over women when deciding where to deploy his literary talents. Thus, Shakespeare's Hamlet is a powerful literary example – one which speaks to, say, the modern corporation – showing that deliberate efforts for egalitarianism do not insulate one from the effects of structural inequalities that both stem from and create unconscious bias.

Chapter Sixteen Style and Purpose in Acting and Writing

Purpose and style are connected in academic writing. To answer the question of style ( How should we write academic papers? ) we must first answer the question of purpose ( Why do we write academic papers? ). We can answer these questions, I suggest, by turning to an unexpected style guide that’s more than 400 years old: the famous passage on “the purpose of playing” in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet . In both acting and writing, a high style often accompanies an expressive purpose attempting to impress an elite audience yet actually alienating intellectual people, while a low style and mimetic purpose effectively engage an intellectual audience.

Chapter Seventeen 13 Ways of Looking at a Ghost

Why doesn’t Gertrude see the Ghost of King Hamlet in Act III, even though Horatio, Bernardo, Francisco, Marcellus, and Prince Hamlet all saw it in Act I? It’s a bit embarrassing that Shakespeare scholars don’t have a widely agreed-upon consensus that explains this really basic question that puzzles a lot of people who read or see Hamlet .

Chapter Eighteen The Tragedy of Love in Hamlet

The word “love” appears 84 times in Shakespeare’s Hamlet . “Father” only appears 73 times, “play” 60, “think” 55, “mother” 46, “mad” 44, “soul” 40, “God" 39, “death” 38, “life” 34, “nothing” 28, “son” 26, “honor” 21, “spirit” 19, “kill” 18, “revenge” 14, and “action” 12. Love isn’t the first theme that comes to mind when we think of Hamlet , but is surprisingly prominent. But love is tragic in Hamlet . The bloody catastrophe at the end of that play is principally driven not by hatred or a longing for revenge, but by love.

Chapter Nineteen Ophelia’s Songs: Moral Agency, Manipulation, and the Metaphor of Music in Hamlet

This chapter reads Ophelia’s songs in Act IV of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the context of the meaning of music established elsewhere in the play. While the songs are usually seen as a marker of Ophelia’s madness (as a result of the death of her father) or freedom (from the constraints of patriarchy), they come – when read in light of the metaphor of music as manipulation – to symbolize her role as a pawn in Hamlet’s efforts to deceive his family. Thus, music was Shakespeare’s platform for connecting Ophelia’s story to one of the central questions in Hamlet : Do we have control over our own actions (like the musician), or are we controlled by others (like the instrument)?

Chapter Twenty A Quantitative Study of Prose and Verse in Hamlet

Why does Hamlet have so much prose? Did Shakespeare deliberately shift from verse to prose to signal something to his audiences? How would actors have handled the shifts from verse to prose? Would audiences have detected shifts from verse to prose? Is there an overarching principle that governs Shakespeare’s decision to use prose—a coherent principle that says, “If X, then use prose?”

Chapter Twenty-One The Fortunes of Fate in Hamlet : Divine Providence and Social Determinism

In Hamlet , fate is attacked from both sides: “fortune” presents a world of random happenstance, “will” a theory of efficacious human action. On this backdrop, this essay considers—irrespective of what the characters say and believe—what the structure and imagery Shakespeare wrote into Hamlet say about the possibility that some version of fate is at work in the play. I contend the world of Hamlet is governed by neither fate nor fortune, nor even the Christianized version of fate called “providence.” Yet there is a modern, secular, disenchanted form of fate at work in Hamlet—what is sometimes called “social determinism”—which calls into question the freedom of the individual will. As such, Shakespeare’s Hamlet both commented on the transformation of pagan fate into Christian providence that happened in the centuries leading up to the play, and anticipated the further transformation of fate from a theological to a sociological idea, which occurred in the centuries following Hamlet .

Chapter Twenty-Two The Working Class in Hamlet

There’s a lot for working-class folks to hate about Hamlet —not just because it’s old, dusty, difficult to understand, crammed down our throats in school, and filled with frills, tights, and those weird lace neck thingies that are just socially awkward to think about. Peak Renaissance weirdness. Claustrophobicly cloistered inside the castle of Elsinore, quaintly angsty over royal family problems, Hamlet feels like the literary epitome of elitism. “Lawless resolutes” is how the Wittenberg scholar Horatio describes the soldiers who join Fortinbras’s army in exchange “for food.” The Prince Hamlet who has never worked a day in his life denigrates Polonius as a “fishmonger”: quite the insult for a royal advisor to be called a working man. And King Claudius complains of the simplicity of "the distracted multitude.” But, in Hamlet , Shakespeare juxtaposed the nobles’ denigrations of the working class as readily available metaphors for all-things-awful with the rather valuable behavior of working-class characters themselves. When allowed to represent themselves, the working class in Hamlet are characterized as makers of things—of material goods and services like ships, graves, and plays, but also of ethical and political virtues like security, education, justice, and democracy. Meanwhile, Elsinore has a bad case of affluenza, the make-believe disease invented by an American lawyer who argued that his client's social privilege was so great that it created an obliviousness to law. While social elites rot society through the twin corrosives of political corruption and scholarly detachment, the working class keeps the machine running. They build the ships, plays, and graves society needs to function, and monitor the nuts-and-bolts of the ideals—like education and justice—that we aspire to uphold.

Chapter Twenty-Three The Honor Code at Harvard and in Hamlet

Students at Harvard College are asked, when they first join the school and several times during their years there, to affirm their awareness of and commitment to the school’s honor code. But instead of “the foundation of our community” that it is at Harvard, honor is tragic in Hamlet —a source of anxiety, blunder, and catastrophe. As this chapter shows, looking at Hamlet from our place at Harvard can bring us to see what a tangled knot honor can be, and we can start to theorize the difference between heroic and tragic honor.

Chapter Twenty-Four The Meaning of Death in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

By connecting the ways characters live their lives in Hamlet to the ways they die – on-stage or off, poisoned or stabbed, etc. – Shakespeare symbolized hamartia in catastrophe. In advancing this argument, this chapter develops two supporting ideas. First, the dissemination of tragic necessity: Shakespeare distributed the Aristotelian notion of tragic necessity – a causal relationship between a character’s hamartia (fault or error) and the catastrophe at the end of the play – from the protagonist to the other characters, such that, in Hamlet , those who are guilty must die, and those who die are guilty. Second, the spectacularity of death: there exists in Hamlet a positive correlation between the severity of a character’s hamartia (error or flaw) and the “spectacularity” of his or her death – that is, the extent to which it is presented as a visible and visceral spectacle on-stage.

Chapter Twenty-Five Tragic Excess in Hamlet

In Hamlet , Shakespeare paralleled the situations of Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras (the father of each is killed, and each then seeks revenge) to promote the virtue of moderation: Hamlet moves too slowly, Laertes too swiftly – and they both die at the end of the play – but Fortinbras represents a golden mean which marries the slowness of Hamlet with the swiftness of Laertes. As argued in this essay, Shakespeare endorsed the virtue of balance by allowing Fortinbras to be one of the very few survivors of the play. In other words, excess is tragic in Hamlet .


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Read our detailed notes below on the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Our notes cover Hamlet summary, themes, characters and analysis.


Hamlet is a tragic play written by William Shakespeare somewhat in 1599. The exact date of publication is unknown, however, many believe that it was published between 1601 and 1603. The play is set in Denmark.

Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is Shakespeare’s longest play and is well-thought-out as the most influential literary work of literature. The play stages the revenge that Hamlet is to wreak upon his uncle, Claudius, for killing his (Hamlet’s) father.

The story of Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, is supposed to be derived from the fable of Amleth, written in the 13th century and reiterated in the 16th century by a scholar named Francois de Belleforest. We can assume the popularity of the play by this that throughout centuries, the role of Hamlet is staged by the highly skillful artist.

Hamlet has different version published at different ages. Each version is different from others as it includes lines or excludes them making them entirely different from other. The main characters of the play are Hamlet, the protagonist; Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle; Queen Gertrude; Polonius; Ophelia; Laertes. The major themes of the play include fate, free will, revenge, political instability, mortality, and madness. Yorick’s skull is the major symbol used by the writer to introduce artistic effect in the play.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare Summary

The play opens with Prince Hamlet being summoned to Denmark from Germany for his father’s funeral. When he reaches there, he finds that his mother Queen Gertrude has already remarried to his fraternal uncle, Claudius. For Hamlet, this marriage was a big shock and considered it “foul incest”. Even worse than this, Claudius has crowned himself disregard of the fact that being King’s son, this crown belongs to Hamlet. Hamlet doubts the whole scenario as foul play.

All of Hamlet’s doubts and suspicions are confirmed when his father’s ghost visits the Castle and complains that because he is murdered, he is unable to rest in peace. Moreover, the ghost claims that Claudius had poured poison in the ear of King Hamlet when he was sleeping causing his death. The king’s ghost, impotent to confess and find redemption, is now condemned to pass his days in despair and walk on earth at night. He persuades and begs his son Hamlet to take revenge from Claudius, however, he asks to spare Gertrude and let her fate decided by heaven.

Hamlet pledges to avenge his father’s death and wears a mask of madness so that he would be able to observe the interactions among people in the castle. However, by doing so, Hamlet finds himself somewhat very confused and questions the trustworthiness of the ghost. What if the ghost is a devil’s agent directed to allure him? What if by killing Claudius consequences Hamlet to revive his memory throughout for life? Hamlet cannot stop himself from over-thinking and worries over his thought and perceive them as his cowardice. Words restrict action, however, the world in which he lives pay back every action.

To test the sincerity of the Ghost. Hamlet takes help from the troupe of actors who staged a play named The Murder of Gonzago. Hamlet added few scenes to play that resembles the murder of the King Hamlet as described by the ghost. Hamlet named this revised play as “The Mousetrap”. The play is proved successful as the Claudius reacted to the play and seems to be conscience-stricken, as hoped by Prince Hamlet. Claudius immediately leaves the place as he faces difficulty to breathe. Prince Hamlet, being convinced by the sincerity of the ghost, vows to avenge his father’s death and decided to kill Claudius. But “conscience doth make cowards of us all”, as observed by Hamlet.

Hamlet, by his unwillingness to avenge Claudius, causes six subsidiary deaths. The first victim is Polonius, an old man, who is stabbed by Hamlet through a wall hanging as Polonius spies on hamlet and his mother. Claudius banishes Hamlet to England to punish him for Polonius’ death and instructs Hamlet’s school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to handover him to English king for execution. Hamlet, during the journey, discovers what is going on and arranges a plot for the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Ophelia, highly upset on her father’s death and Hamlet’s behavior, drown herself while singing a song and lamenting over the fate of a despised lover. Laertes, her brother, follows next.

When Laertes returned to Denmark to kill Claudius to avenge his father’s death, sees that Ophelia, his sister, has drowned by madness. Laertes, in the love of her sister, pledges to kill Hamlet for being the cause of Ophelia’s death. Through his creative words, Laertes convinced Claudius to kill Hamlet. Hamlet and Laertes have a sword fight. In the middle of the fight, Laertes drops his poisoned sword that is retrieved by Hamlet and wounds Laertes. Laertes tells Hamlet of the poisoned sword and as Hamlet is already been wounded by the sword, he, too, will die soon. Meanwhile, Horatio informs Hamlet that “Queen Falls”. Gertrude has drunk a sip from the poisoned cup, that was prepared by Claudius for Hamlet and she dies.

Laertes, before he dies, made another confession to Hamlet of his part in the plot and tell him the Claudius is responsible for Gertrude’s death. Enraged Hamlet stabs the poisoned sword into Claudius and pours the remaining poisoned wine into Claudius’ throat.

Before he dies, the throne should pass to the Prince Fortibras of Norway, declares Hamlet. He also begs his friend Horatio to tell him accurately the events that lead to such bloodshed.

The play ends with a grand funeral for Prince Hamlet as ordered by King Fortinbras of Denmark.

Themes in Hamlet

The question of life and death is introduced just as the play opens. Hamlet, throughout the play, ponders the complexity of life and considers the meaning of life. Throughout the play, many questions emerge as what happens when one dies? Will someone directly goes to heaven, if he/she is murdered? etc. Furthermore, Hamlet is very uncertain about the afterlife and causes him to quit suicide. The death of almost all the major characters of the play, towards the end of the play, doesn’t fully answer the question of mortality. The character of Hamlet represents exploration and discussion disregard of a true perseverance.

Hamlet, after hearing confessions from the ghost acts like a mad person to fool people in order to know the reality of the people around him. He acts so to prove himself harmless. However, this madness was recognized by Polonius. The irony arises when he falsely believes that Hamlet’s method stems from his love for Ophelia. It was impressive of Polonius that he recognizes the method behind Hamlet’s madness.

However, Hamlet starts losing his hold on reality by acting mad. He faces difficulty in handling the circumstances that are emotionally driven. Surrendering himself to physical violence displays that he has more issues than merely acting mad. This all scenario comes up with a question that what compels Hamlet to act such without considering the consequences?

There are only two female characters in the play Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter and Hamlet’s beloved.

Hamlets seem to be nervous while communicating with both of the women. In Hamlet’s life, both of these women have a special position, however, he is suspicious of both. The too early remarriage of her made him very suspicious of her mother. Secondly, Ophelia is in cahoots with her family and Hamlet realizes it when he starts acting mad.

Both of the ladies let Hamlet down. However, Ophelia is viewed as a victim of Hamlet brutality while Gertrude is represented as the more flexible character.

Political Livelihood

With the death of King Hamlet, the nation of Denmark starts deteriorating as the death of a king causes political turmoil in the country. Hamlet erratic behavior leads to unrest in the country. At various points in the play, the mad behavior of Hamlet is linked with the political livelihood of the country.

Hamlet Characters Analysis

He is the Prince of Denmark and son of the deceased king. He is called from Wittenberg University in Germany to attend his father’s funeral. When he reaches Denmark, he comes to know that his mother has remarried very soon to his uncle. Moreover, his uncle has crowned himself. This makes Hamlet very suspicious. These suspicious changes to reality when Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost. After hearing his father’s confession he vows to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet, in the play, is a highly confused person that leads to the bloody end of the play. To be or not to be is one the most celebrated dialogue of Hamlet and representation of his confused state of mind.

He is the present king of Denmark and brother of the deceased king, King Hamlet. He is accused of killing his brother and remarries widow of the Queen.

She is the Queen of Denmark and also the wife of deceased King Hamlet. She immediately remarries to Claudius, brother of King Hamlet.

He is a son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia. He is a student in Paris. Who first appears at the funeral of the King Hamlet and secondly at the death of his sister, Ophelia.

He is a loyal friend and a schoolmate of Prince Hamlet.

He is an old chief counselor of Claudius. He is murdered by Prince Hamlet when caught him spying.

She is the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes and Hamlet’s beloved. She commits suicide after her father’s death.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

The classmates of Hamlet at Wittenberg whom Claudius called to spy on him.

The minor characters of the play are:

He is King of Norway, who vows to avenge his father’s death who was killed by the Danes’ hands.

A minor character who acts as the messenger between Hamlet and Laertes.

Voltimand and Cornelius

They are the courtiers of Danish kingdom who are directed as diplomats to the Courtyard of Norway.

Marcellus and Barnardo

They are Danish officers who guard the castle of Elsinore.

A Danish soldier to guard castle of Elsinore.

A young man whom Polonius trains to spy on his son and report him.

Hamlet Literary Analysis

Throughout the play, Hamlets seems to be highly confused regarding the idea of death. His famous soliloquies line “to be or not to be” shows Hamlet confused mindset for suicide; whether he should suicide or not; what would be an afterlife.

The play has a turning point where Hamlet realizes at the graveyard and encounters the skull of a man whom he is fond of. In his contemplation, Hamlet realizes that death vanishes the class difference among society. Everything is created by man himself. All these differences are illusions that diminish with death.

The play demonstrates a conflict between fate and free will and this what the classical tragedians appreciated. In every great tragedy, there lies a struggle between the predisposition a man to accept the fate and his natural desire to control his destiny.

Whether it is Sophocles or Shakespeare, both demonstrate that there is a continuous struggle between destiny and choice to control human life. To Shakespeare, man’s dilemma is represented when he is given to choose between good and bad. In the play, Hamlet was well aware of his shortcomings and his powerlessness to stand for what is right and to correct what seems to be wrong to him.

He, through his intellectual guidance, tries to pursue his fate. Hamlet resembles a modern man who is tossed between good and bad. To him, there is nothing good or bad, it is what our thinking makes it so. Like Hamlet, every man struggles to live between what he expects and what he gets; the battle that a man never wins. God asks man one thing and he demands another.

More From William Shakespeare

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • As You Like It
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • The Comedy of Errors

Hamlet Essay Topics & Samples

It can be argued that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the most significant play ever written and performed. It is much more than just a play about revenge as it deals with universal philosophical questions. Life and death, love and betrayal, friends, and woes are all explored through the mind of the protagonist, Hamlet. In this article, you will see a plethora of Hamlet essay prompts to focus on. Besides, you will find some good Hamlet essay ideas with examples to inspire your writing.

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Hamlet Essay Topics

  • A theme of suicide in the play . This Hamlet essay aims to examine a suicide theme from a moral, religious, and existential perspective. Does Hamlet contemplate an idea of suicide? What stops Hamlet from committing it? Students should pay close attention to “to be or not to be” soliloquy.
  • Elaborate on the relationship between Gertrude and King Hamlet. In this Hamlet essay, you can analyze what the reader knows about their marriage. What was Gertrude’s reaction to her husband’s death? Did she see the Ghost in the scene with Hamlet? Could she have pretended that she didn’t? Discuss how we can explore the status of women in Elizabethan times through Gertrude’s behavior.
  • The question of genre in Hamlet. In his timeless Hamlet , Shakespeare does not follow the rules of a tragic play or a revenge tragedy. So, it makes it quite hard to say what genre is Hamlet. However, in your essay, you can focus on explaining how Hamlet is a tragic hero. Explain what makes Hamlet a unique tragedy.
  • A theme of madness in Hamlet. This theme is by far the most prevalent in the entire play. Moreover, it overlaps with other topics in Hamlet , such as death, deception , love, and betrayal. Students can analyze both the nature of Hamlet’s forced insanity and Ophelia’s madness.
  • An analysis of Shakespeare’s writing style in Hamlet. In this Hamlet essay, students can analyze the language and literary devices that Shakespeare used. What does Hamlet’s way of speaking tell about him? Why are some lines written in prose, while others in verse? Analyzing these topics can help you to get started.
  • A motif of incest in Hamlet. Throughout the play, there are plenty of sexual references and allusions in Hamlet . Critics found an incestuous desire between Claudius and Gertrude, Gertrude and Hamlet. Even Laertes ’ attitude towards Ophelia and her love life can be interpreted this way. What does this motif contribute to Hamlet? Discuss Hamlet’s obsession with Gertrude’s sexual relationships from the Freudian perspective.
  • Hamlet’s attitude towards women. The only women in the entire play are Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and love interest, Ophelia . Both of them are very close to Hamlet, even though he regularly verbally abuses them. However, the protagonist does not merely attack their qualities—the whole Hamlet’s tone is misogynistic. What makes him hate women? Discuss it in your Hamlet essay.
  • A theme of revenge in Hamlet. This theme is one of the most fruitful Hamlet essay topics. It unites three characters: Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras. Why is Hamlet the only character who hesitates to act? Elaborate on his internal conflict concerning vengeance and how other mentioned characters serve as his foils. What makes Hamlet a unique revenge tragedy?
  • An existentialist reading of Hamlet. To elaborate on a more challenging Hamlet research paper topic, choose this one. Is Hamlet an existentialist? Why Hamlet’s inability to act can be seen as a form of action? How can existentialist philosophy provide a fresh view of the play?
  • Compare and contrast Hamlet and Laertes. Hamlet and Laertes have very different personalities yet share a lot of traits. Discuss their attitude towards women, their parents, and each other. How does Shakespeare portray the similarities between the characters? Why does Laertes serve as Hamlet’s character foil?

Hamlet Essay Samples

In this section, you will see several essay samples on writings of William Shakespeare to get inspired from. You can also find the description of each essay below.

  • Literature Analysis: Hamlet’s Appearance Vs. Reality Shakespeare’s Hamlet depicts the tensions between appearance and reality. Characters’ emotions and actions often appear to be real, when in fact, they are not. The topic is analyzed via Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. In the play, Shakespeare highlights the deceitfulness of these characters.
  • Revenge in the Play “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” The main character of the play, Hamlet, is used to depict the theme of revenge. The essay demonstrates that he was avenging his father with the motivations for revenge, the process of revenge, and the actual revenge. These stages are described by examples from the play and literary analyses.
  • Literature Analysis of Hamlet’s Soliloquies The paper analyses Hamlet’s qualities based on his monologues. His character is well portrayed through his soliloquies. The essay takes on his religiosity, the fear of damnation, the want of justified revenge, the talent of critical thinking, and his flaws.
  • Women Role in Shakespeare’s Othello and Hamlet These Shakespearens plays portrayed women as one of the significant causes of conflict. The essay examines their roles in both pieces and compares their actions, age, and depiction.
  • Hamlet’s Costume Design Scenic design is a vital part of any play. It communicates the mood through illustrations of climate conditions, people’s statuses, and political instability. Thus, the paper examines the importance of colors and clothes design and how they reveal the characters’ emotions.
  • Modern Film Version of “Hamlet” by Shakespeare The essay describes the modern film version of Hamlet and why it is worth seeing. The author mentions the excellent acting, modern-dress production, and single-camera setup.
  • Ophelia in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare Ophelia’s unhealthy love for Hamlet and consequent tragedy are stressed in the present paper. She is the embodiment of tragedy in the play. The author discusses her actions by using lack of maternal guidance, lack of exposure, and naivety.
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Home — Essay Samples — Literature — Plays — Hamlet Madness

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Essays on Hamlet Madness

Prompt examples for "hamlet" madness essays, exploring hamlet's madness.

Examine the character of Hamlet and his descent into madness throughout the play. What are the triggers for his madness, and how does his behavior change over the course of the story?

Madness as a Theme

Discuss the theme of madness in "Hamlet." How is madness portrayed in the play, and what purpose does it serve in the overall narrative? Explore different characters' experiences with madness.

The Feigned Madness of Hamlet

Analyze Hamlet's decision to feign madness as part of his plan for revenge. What are his motivations for this deception, and how does it impact the other characters and the unfolding events?

Ophelia's Madness

Explore the character of Ophelia and the circumstances leading to her madness. How does Ophelia's madness highlight the themes of love, loss, and vulnerability in the play?

Polonius's Role in Hamlet's Madness

Discuss the role of Polonius in Hamlet's descent into madness. How does Polonius's spying and manipulation contribute to the unfolding events, and what are the consequences?

Moral and Psychological Implications

Examine the moral and psychological implications of madness in "Hamlet." How does the theme of madness shed light on the characters' inner conflicts and the broader moral questions raised in the play?

Comparative Analysis: Madness in Shakespeare's Works

Compare and contrast the portrayal of madness in "Hamlet" with its treatment in other Shakespearean plays, such as "King Lear" or "Macbeth." How do these depictions differ?

Madness and Reality

Explore the blurred lines between madness and reality in "Hamlet." How do characters, including Hamlet, perceive the world around them, and how does this perception influence their actions?

The Impact of Madness on Relationships

Analyze how madness affects the relationships between characters in "Hamlet." How do characters' perceptions of each other change as madness becomes a central theme?

The Tragic Consequences of Madness

Discuss the tragic outcomes resulting from the theme of madness in "Hamlet." How do the characters' actions driven by madness lead to the play's final events and resolution?

The Representation of Madness in Shakespeare's Text, Hamlet

Analysis of the expression of madness in shakespeare’s hamlet, made-to-order essay as fast as you need it.

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The Important Theme of Madness in Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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How Hamlet is Faking Insanity: Appearance Vs Reality in Shakespeare's Play

Hamlet’s and ophelia’s experience of madness in shakespeare’s play, a study of the complexity of hamlet's mind as illustrated in hamlet, a play by shakespeare, madness and identity crisis in hamlet, get a personalized essay in under 3 hours.

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Unveiling Motives Why Does Hamlet Pretend to Be Mad

A mad tragic hero as one of the themes in shakespeare's 'hamlet'.

c. 1599-1601, by William Shakespeare

Set in Denmark, the play depicts Prince Hamlet and his revenge against his uncle, Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet's father in order to seize his throne and marry Hamlet's mother.

Madness is one of the most pervasive themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Several of the characters in Hamlet could be considered mad. Most notably, Hamlet and Ophelia characterize the idea of madness in this play. The madness displayed by each of these characters is driven in part by the deaths of their fathers, however, they each portray it in different ways regardless of the similar origins. The madness of each of these characters ultimately ends in tragedy.

Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Goratio, Laertes, Voltimand and Cornelius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Osric, Marcellus, Barnardo, Francisco, Ghost

Shakespeare’s telling of the story of Prince Hamlet was derived from several sources, notably from Books III and IV of Saxo Grammaticus’s 12th-century Gesta Danorum and from volume 5 (1570) of Histoires tragiques, a free translation of Saxo by François de Belleforest. The play was evidently preceded by another play of Hamlet (now lost), usually referred to as the Ur-Hamlet, of which Thomas Kyd is a conjectured author.

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.” “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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hamlet essay outline

Hamlet vs. Oedipus Compare and Contrast Essay

Oedipus rex, works cited, further study: faq.

The present paper focuses on the Hamlet and Oedipus comparison – the two literary characters who seek the murderer of their father. They are the central figures of two famous classic tragedies: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet .

So, who is more resilient – Hamlet or Oedipus?

In Sophocles’ play, King Oedipus appears a persistent seeker of the truth who disregards the dangers this truth might bring to him. Shakespeare’s drama discloses Hamlet as a doubting philosopher whose search for truth destroys his inner balance and necessitates a change in his personality. Oedipus and Hamlet shall be compared in this essay.

From the summary of the play, it is obvious that King Oedipus is a type of character who initially attracts by his desire to solve the problems of his state at any cost. When he hears that the reason for the terrible plague epidemic in Thebes is the unfound murderer of the previous king Laius, Oedipus reasonably wonders at why the perpetrator has not been found yet.

Since the Sphinx curse has been solved, Oedipus decides that it is time to settle the present troubles, “… I will start afresh and once again / Make dark things clear” (Sophocles 12). In his speech to his brother-in-law Creon, the proud king voices the desire to find the murderer to secure not only the wellbeing of his state but his safety as a ruler as well.

In the compare and contrast essay on Oedipus Rex and Hamlet , it is necessary to mention that, on the way to discovering the truth, King Oedipus demonstrates remarkable persistence. He uses every chance of finding out the details that might lead to the answer and interrogates every possible witness to the case of Laius’ murder. First, he questions the blind prophet Tiresias, then he hears his wife Jocasta’s story of Laius’ murder, and finally has the courage to let a shepherd tell the true story of his origins.

Hot-tempered and decisive, King Oedipus appears not to possess any political duplicity since he strives for the truth, even facing the danger of losing the throne and his life. Unaware of the terrible curse put on him by gods, he is sure that he is doing the right thing by trying to reveal the truth and thus acting according to his conscience.

In a dialogue with the chorus warning him about the circumstances of Laius’ murder, King Oedipus states that “Words scare not him who blenches not at deeds” (Sophocles 19). This utterance demonstrates the assuredness of his righteousness and the desire to know the truth since the truth cannot harm the innocent.

In Hamlet vs. Oedipus comparison, it is clear that in contrast to King Oedipus’ persistence in seeking the truth and his active life position and attitude to solving the existing problems, Hamlet appears a much less energetic character. It is not that he does not want to find out the truth; on the contrary, he desires it strongly since he suspects something is not right with his mother marrying so soon after his father’s death. However, Hamlet is more a philosopher than a warrior, and therefore he precedes his actions with much contemplation and reflection on the events.

He uses much of his intuition in approaching the answer to the question torturing him; in one of the monologues, he voices a suspicion that things are not as smooth as they seem, “nor it cannot come to good” (Shakespeare 116). This foreboding of evil appears to be confirmed in the astonishing truth about the murder that Hamlet learns from the ghost of his father.

While King Oedipus demonstrates decisive action in his search for truth, Hamlet chooses to find out the real state of events in a bypass way. He checks the veracity of the ghost’s words not by inquiring about the truth directly (like a man of Oedipus’ character would have done) but via observing his murderous uncle’s reaction to the play acted by visiting comedians.

Unlike the bold and straightforward King Oedipus, who does not give much about insinuating words that help to find out the truth, Hamlet appears rather inventive in his search for the real murderer. Still, there are some similarities between Hamlet and Oedipus.

Staying on his own before the play, Hamlet builds an ingenious psychological strategy to reveal the perpetrator: “I’ll observe his looks; / I’ll tent him to the quick. If he but blench, / I know my course” (Shakespeare 173). In doing this, Hamlet presents himself as a rational person, able to stepping aside and taking a balanced decision despite the emotional breakdown he is experiencing.

The critical situation Hamlet finds himself in provokes a major change in the prince’s personality. Spurred by the ghost of his murdered father to revenge the crime, the young philosopher renounces all the learned books he has studied and lets his actions be guided by the oath he gives to his father: “And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain“ (Shakespeare 140).

Apparently, in this situation, Hamlet is led not by his ideas and aspirations but mostly by the solemn pledge he has undertaken to restore justice and punish the murderer of his father. In order to fit the requirements of the situation, the young scholar has to demonstrate a new, more active attitude to life and conquer his fear of struggle and conflict.

In a monologue, Hamlet confesses, “Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, / That I, the son of a dear murdered, / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, / Must like a whore unpack my heart with words / And fall a-cursing like a very drab, / A scullion!” (Shakespeare 173). Those words reveal the deep inner tragedy of the young philosopher who is struggling with his true personality to fulfill the oath to his father.

United by their desire to reveal the truth and punish the perpetrators, King Oedipus and Hamlet demonstrate various approaches to the search. The active and energetic personality of the one and the philosophic, pensive, and doubting personality of the other lead both to the achievement of their aims. However, the finger of fate foreordains a tragic end to them both. After revealing the truth and accomplishing their task, Oedipus and Hamlet are crushed by the severity of their doom.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet . Ed. Robert Hapgood. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King . Minneapolis, MN: Filiquarian Publishing LLC, 2006. Print.

📌 Who if either showed greater resilience: Oedipus or Hamlet?

📌 how are hamlet and oedipus tragic heroes, 📌 how are oedipus and hamlet similar, 📌 does hamlet have stature of a tragic hero such as oedipus.

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IvyPanda. (2022, August 31). Hamlet vs. Oedipus Compare and Contrast Essay. https://ivypanda.com/essays/comparison-and-contrast-of-the-characters-king-oedipus-and-hamlet/

"Hamlet vs. Oedipus Compare and Contrast Essay." IvyPanda , 31 Aug. 2022, ivypanda.com/essays/comparison-and-contrast-of-the-characters-king-oedipus-and-hamlet/.

IvyPanda . (2022) 'Hamlet vs. Oedipus Compare and Contrast Essay'. 31 August.

IvyPanda . 2022. "Hamlet vs. Oedipus Compare and Contrast Essay." August 31, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/comparison-and-contrast-of-the-characters-king-oedipus-and-hamlet/.

1. IvyPanda . "Hamlet vs. Oedipus Compare and Contrast Essay." August 31, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/comparison-and-contrast-of-the-characters-king-oedipus-and-hamlet/.


IvyPanda . "Hamlet vs. Oedipus Compare and Contrast Essay." August 31, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/comparison-and-contrast-of-the-characters-king-oedipus-and-hamlet/.

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