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William Shakespeare





    All the action of Hamlet is based on the one task the ghost sets the prince: to avenge his father's murder. This powerful demand is countered in Hamlet's mind by three questions: Is revenge a good or an evil act? Is Claudius truly guilty and so to be punished? Is it Hamlet's responsibility to punish him? Throughout the play Shakespeare raises questions about whether justice is to be left to the state or taken into one's own hands, and about whether it is possible, in a cunning and deceitful world, to tell the good man from the criminal. These questions are focused on Hamlet, who must decide whether to avenge his father or not, and if so, how. They are reflected in the parallel stories of Fortinbras and Laertes, who also have obligations of revenge to fulfill.


    Linked to the theme of revenge is the great question of Hamlet's inner meditations: Is there a point to life at all? Do we suffer in this harsh world for a purpose, or simply because we are afraid to find out what may lie beyond it? And if there is a higher, universal force guiding each of us in a certain direction, how do we learn what it is so that we can accept its guidance? Much of Hamlet's anguish is caused by his effort to link even the most trivial event to the order of the universe. Is he right in doing so? And does he succeed- does life finally reveal its meaning to him?


    The question of Hamlet's sanity is openly discussed in the play and has been a subject of debate for centuries. Is Hamlet really mad? If so, what causes Hamlet's madness? Is it his reluctance to take revenge? Is it his confused feelings about his mother? Is he in fact sane and the world mad for failing to understand the things he says? Is he sometimes pretending to be mad and at other times genuinely unbalanced? Remember, the play gives another example of madness in Ophelia, and you should ask some of the same questions about her.


    Allied to the question of Hamlet's madness is a variety of references to the idea of acting a part or of presenting a false image to the world. Hamlet demands honesty, but is he himself always honest? Many other characters, at various times, seem to be playing parts, and the troupe of players is in the play as an active reminder that in real life a person can play many roles, and it is not always easy to tell what is true from what only appears to be true. At the very center of the play is Hamlet's view of acting on the stage, expressed in his advice to the players. You can compare it with the picture Shakespeare gives of Hamlet, and the other characters, acting in their "real" lives.

  5. WOMEN

    Hamlet's views on women are complex and intensely emotional. The only two women characters in the play are the two who are most deeply attached to him- his mother and Ophelia, the young girl he loves. Why is his bitterness toward his mother so strong? What are the various feelings that go into his changing attitude toward Ophelia? As you study the play scene by scene, you'll see to what extent the two women's responses bear out the truth of his accusations, and to what extent they do not.


    Shakespearean tragedy often turns on the question of who is to be king- on who is best qualified to accept both the privileges and the responsibilities of rule. As you read Hamlet, keep in mind these questions: What are the obligations of a king to his people? Who in Hamlet has the most right to be king? Who is most qualified to be king? Is an honest king necessarily the best king? Is a peaceful king better than a warlike one? How much say should the public have in choosing a king, and how much the nobility? In the scene-by-scene discussion we'll also take a look at what being king means to each of the four characters who claim the Danish throne- Claudius, Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras- and how well each one would rule.


    Corruption, rot, disease, and poison are among the chief sources of poetic imagery in Hamlet. The poison with which Claudius kills King Hamlet spreads in a sense through the entire country till "something is rotten in Denmark." Look for examples of this imagery as you go through the play. Is the arrival of Fortinbras at the end meant to be a cure? If so, what sort of cure will it be?


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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