How To Understand William Shakespeare's Hamlet

William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet is a rich, complex and somber play, one of the greatest accomplishments of English literature. In Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark is visited by the ghost of his father. The former king's spirit reveals that he was murdered by his brother, Claudius, who has since married his widow, Hamlet's mother Gertrude and taken the throne of Denmark. Hamlet agonizes over what course of action he is to take after the ghost visits him. Should Hamlet kill Claudius to avenge his father? Most often, people interpret Hamlet as the story of a young man who cannot make a decision -- for whom hesitation is a "fatal flaw." But there is far more meaning to be gleaned from Shakespeare's tragedy if you read Hamlet with attention to certain details (or watch -- remember, Shakespeare's plays were meant to be performed!). These are but a few that can give you a richer experience of Hamlet.

  1. Do not read Hamlet with the assumption that Hamlet cannot make a decision. Many people are frustrated that Hamlet does not immediately avenge his father's death but spends much time testing the ghost's story and pondering the nature of mortality (as in his famous soliloquy "To be or not to be," in which he contemplates suicide). However, you should remember that what Hamlet is contemplating, whether it is for vengeance or not, is murder, and murder of a king at that. Regicide, in the far more socially stratified world of the 16th century, is a far more serious crime than simple homicide. Thus, Hamlet must make certain that Claudius is guilty so he will not be guilty of killing an innocent man. 

    You should also keep in mind that Hamlet is suffering from an illness that in Shakespeare's time was called "melancholy adust," caused by an overabundance of black bile (medical science was still dominated by the idea of the four humors then) -- called depression in our time. Depression often diminishes one's will to act. In 1621, about twenty years after Hamlet was written, a book called The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton was published, describing melancholy in terms that we would find quite recognizable as depression. The symptoms of melancholy would be recognizable to Shakespeare's audience, and he establishes early on the condition with which Hamlet is suffering.

    In act one, scene two his mother, Queen Gertrude, encourages Hamlet to stop wearing his black mourning clothes, but Hamlet replies that he cannot, for his "inky cloak" is the only way he can express the sadness within him. (Nearly three centuries later, Morrissey would express similar sentiments with "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside"). In the same scene, after Gertrude and Claudius have exited, Hamlet says, "How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!" In such a state of mind, Hamlet struggles to believe that revenge, or even justice, has any meaning at all.

  2. Question the identity and motivations of the Ghost. Hamlet does. In act two, scene two, he questions whether the ghost is a demon, preying on him in his depressed state to try to make him commit an act that will damn his soul: 

    The spirit that I have seen
    May be the devil: and the devil hath power
    To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
    Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
    As he is very potent with such spirits,
    Abuses me to damn me...

    To Shakespeare's audience, the possibility that the ghost is a demon would have been very plausible. Would a father ask a son to commit an act that would damn the son's soul? Or might a demon, armed with true information that might drive a son to commit murder, use it to tempt him into that sin? If you read with this same frame of mind, Hamlet's hesitation becomes even more understandable. As his "To be or not to be" soliloquy later reveals, Hamlet is very much concerned with the afterlife. He hesitates in killing Claudius and attributes his hesitancy to commit suicide to his fear of Hell.

    Hamlet's soul is something to consider as you read; even if you don't believe in such a thing as the soul, most of Shakespeare's audience certainly did. It's notable that once Hamlet resolves to kill King Claudius in act four, scene four, vowing, "from this time forth,/ My thoughts be bloody or nothing worth," he begins to take on a nihilistic view of life. He tells Horatio in act five, "Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust" -- he sees the grave as the only aftermath of life.

  3. Pay attention to Hamlet's interactions with Ophelia. Hamlet derides Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for presuming to "pluck out the heart of my mystery," but the play Hamlet requires the audience to do just that: to puzzle about Hamlet's motivations, his true self, his despair. Ophelia, Hamlet's once-beloved, is, in a sense, a window into Hamlet's mystery. Much about Hamlet is revealed because of Ophelia. Through his love letters to her, we see a different young prince -- one who is playful, loving, even adoring. After Hamlet's torrid confrontation with Ophelia in act three, scene one, in which her father and King Claudius use her to gain insight into Hamlet's mind, she describes what he once was to her and how fall he has fallen: 

    The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
    The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
    The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
    The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!

    Compare the whole of this speech to Hamlet's description of idealized humanity in act two, scene two, "What a piece of work is a man!" Much of the language Ophelia uses is similar to Hamlet's. When Hamlet faces her, he faces how she once appeared to him, how he once was. She is the keeper of his virtuous, happy self in her memory. Throughout the play, Hamlet hides his self-loathing from the questioning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and from that of Polonius, but to Ophelia, who is the seat of his reason and the holder of his idealized form, he cannot help but reveal himself. Ophelia is so linked to Hamlet's virtue and state of mind that after he relinquishes his hesitancy and declares he will kill Claudius, she finally succumbs to madness and despair, carrying out the act of suicide that Hamlet had wrestled with. Through his unguarded interactions with her, you can gain much insight into Hamlet's psyche.

Lastly, keep in mind that these are but a few of the strategies you can use to gain insight into Hamlet's meaning and artistry. It is a complex work that can support differing interpretations, and all the richer because of that.


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Your explanations and thought-provoking questions have made me want to seek out Shakespeare's work once again and look at it from a new point of view. Will you be publishing articles on some of his other work? Inquiring minds would like to know!

By Marion Cornett

Excellent work! Am glad this was published here!

By Mary Norton

Brilliant! Shakespeare always goes deep into the soul of his characters...

By Marcos Riso