- JUSTICE AND REVENGE
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.
- DESTINY AND THE PURPOSE OF LIFE
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?
- MADNESS AND SANITY
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.
- APPEARANCE AND REALITY
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.
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.
- RIGHTS AND DUTIES OF KINGSHIP
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.
- POISON AND CORRUPTION
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?
Table of Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
Further distribution without the written consent of PinkMonkey.com