Title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Published / Performed: 1600
Type of Text: Play
Main Characters: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; the ghost of his dead father; his schoolmates, including Rosencrantz and Guilderstern and Horatio; his mother Queen Gertrude, and his uncle and step-father Claudius. Polonius, a royal counsellor; his son Laertes and daughter Ophelia.
Themes & Imagery:
Synopsis: Prince Hamlet plots to kill his murderous uncle and avenge his father – but he’s not the only one with thoughts of revenge. The play opens dramatically with the ghost of the dead king silently stalking the battlements; his son Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, soon encounters the ghost himself, and learns that his father the king was murdered by his uncle Claudius, who has married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and taken the throne. Hamlet swears his companions to secrecy about the ghost, and vows revenge; to do so, he feigns madness as a disguise. Meanwhile, Ophelia has been warned by her father Polonius and her brother Laertes – who leaves Denmark for France – not to trust in Hamlet’s claims of love, since his duty as a prince might prevent him from marrying her; Polonius attributes Hamlet’s apparent madness to her rebuffing him. The entrance of a group of players (who perform lines based on the fall of Troy in the “Aeneid”), along with Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (summoned by the king to find the cause of Hamlet’s apparent madness), gives Hamlet the idea of testing his uncle’s guilt by seeing how he reacts to a staged reconstruction of the murder of Hamlet’s father. Before this performance can take place, Claudius and Polonius try to restore Hamlet’s sanity by encouraging Ophelia to return his love, but he cruelly rejects her – and then flirts with her outrageously during the performance. The players themselves have the desired effect, as Claudius storms off and thereby reveals his guilt; Claudius decides Hamlet must be sent away, to England, and then kneels to pray for forgiveness for killing his brother (which now weighs heavily on his soul); Hamlet finds him like this, vulnerable, but doesn’t dare to kill him, for fear of sending him straight to heaven. Hamlet next confronts his mother, and kills Polonius (who is spying on them) while he’s at it; he goes to hide the body, is caught, and sent to England as planned. Grief for Polonius sends Ophelia to madness, and eventually to her death by drowning, while it brings Laertes back from France to lead a revolt against Claudius and then, when he has heard the full story, to kill Hamlet instead for revenge. Hamlet returns to Denmark in time to see the burial of Ophelia, whom he claims he loved after all; he reveals to Horatio that he has sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England, a fate which they (or rather Claudius) had intended for Hamlet himself; and then he is challenged to a duel with Laertes, in which the latter’s blade and the refreshments on offer are both poisoned, in which deaths occur much as is expected in a tragedy such as this.
Favourite Part: My two favourite (short) scenes were when Hamlet tries to get Guildenstern to play the recorder after the players have performed, and when Ophelia sings in the madness of her grief. I also enjoyed the speech given by Polonius to his departing son Laertes in Act 1 scene 3, which reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, and contains the great line: “This above all: to thine own self by true.”
My Top Five Lines & Passages:
Hamlet mourns his father, 1.2.129-146:
Hamlet: O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon gainst self-slaughter! O God, O God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! O, fie, fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed: things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should could to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet within a month –
Let me not think on’t: frailty, thy name is woman! –
Polonius promises to talk plainly about Hamlet’s madness, 2.2.91-109:
Polonius: My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the sould of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,
What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go –
Gertrude: More matter, with less art.
Polonius: Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad, ’tis true: ’tis true ’tis pity,
And pity it is true: a foolish figure,
But farewll it, for I will use no art.
Mad let us grant him, then, and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause.
To be or not to be (Hamlet’s most famous speech to himself, even though it is a cliche), 3.1.62-94:
Hamlet: To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep –
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartahce and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep:
To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life,
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these 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 traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all:
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn away,
And lose the name of action.
Hamlet promises not to kill his mother, 3.2.331-342:
Hamlet: ‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. Soft, now to my mother.
O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural.
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites:
How in my words somever she be shent,
To give them seals never my soul consent!
Gertrude reports the death of Ophelia, 4.6.147-173:
Gertrude: One woth doth tread upon another’s heel,
So fast they’ll follow: your sister’s drowned, Laertes.
Laertes: Drowned? O, where?
Gertrude: There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream:
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down the weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Laertes: Alas, then, is she drowned?
Gertrude: Drowned, drowned.
Laertes: Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears. But yet
It is our trick: nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will: when these are gone,
The woman will be out.