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William Shakespeare




Hamlet is the unquestioned center of the play. If he is not onstage he is almost always the subject of discussion in virtually every scene. Nevertheless, Shakespeare has taken pains to give the other characters as strong and independent an existence as possible. They are not mere foils for Hamlet, but distinct individuals who coexist and conflict with him, though their stories are told in a more fragmentary fashion.


    Hamlet's mother, the queen of Denmark, is a touching and mysterious figure. You never learn explicitly how much Gertrude knows about her husband King Hamlet's death, or how deeply she is attached to her new husband, Claudius. She never expresses her feelings, either, about the morality of marrying her brother-in-law, though this was considered incestuous at the time. But she expresses her concern for her son and her affection for Ophelia, plus (in the Closet Scene) a vague sense of guilt that only adds to the mystery about her. The ambiguity of Gertrude's position reaches its height in the final scene, when she drinks from the poisoned cup. Whether she knows it's poisoned is something you will have to decide for yourself.


    The king of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle and later his stepfather, is shaped from a stock type familiar to Elizabethan theatergoers- the neglected younger brother who seeks to take over his older brother's title by unscrupulous means. Claudius, however, is a complex figure about whom Shakespeare gives you a good deal of information. You learn how the public attitude toward him has changed in Denmark (and changes again after Polonius' death); you learn about his drinking habits and his personal appearance as compared with his late brother's. Above all, you see him in action politically- manipulating, placating, and making pronouncements- and you see how his tactics in dealing with Norway or Poland link up to the conduct of his personal affairs. There is no question about his political ability, which is tied in with his talent for manipulating people and converting them to his point of view, as he does with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Some interpretations of the play suggest that we are meant to see him as more suited to the role of king than Hamlet is. His constant hypocritical smiling makes him easy to dislike, yet his genuine remorse in the Prayer Scene makes him more sympathetic, and hence more difficult for Hamlet to kill. Note that nowhere in the play does he directly express his feelings for Gertrude.


    Barnardo's remarks in the first scene make clear that the ghost is identical in appearance to the late King Hamlet. Hamlet's worry over whether it is "an honest ghost" is unusual for the time, an aspect of his intellectually probing nature. Ghosts were common figures in Elizabethan plays- an inventory of costumes for one theater included a cloak "for to go invisible." Belief in ghosts and omens was prevalent in England, and in the theater it was assumed that they could be trusted. Another long-standing but unverifiable tradition, incidentally, says the role of the ghost was played by Shakespeare himself, and was his greatest performance.


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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