Hamlet themes


Action, inaction and uncertainty

  • The action we expect to see is continually postponed while Hamlet tries to obtain more certain knowledge about what he is doing.
  • Can we have certain knowledge about ghosts? Is the ghost what it appears to be, or is it really a misleading fiend?
  • Can Hamlet know the state of Claudius’s soul by watching his behavior? If so, can he know the facts of what Claudius did by observing the state of his soul? Can Claudius (or the audience) know the state of Hamlet’s mind by observing his behavior and listening to his speech? Can we know whether our actions will have the consequences we want them to have? Can we know anything about the afterlife?
  • Hamlet himself appears to distrust the idea that it’s even possible to act in a controlled, purposeful way. When he does act, he prefers to do it blindly, recklessly, and violently. The other characters obviously think much less about “action” than Hamlet does, and are therefore less troubled about the possibility of acting effectively. They prove that Hamlet is right, because all of their actions miscarry. 
  • Hamlet does not provide a conclusion about the merits of action versus inaction. Instead, the play makes the deeply cynical suggestion that there is only one result of both action and inaction—death.
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Death and mortality

  • Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of death. He ponders both the spiritual aftermath of death, embodied in the ghost, and the physical remainders of the dead, such as by Yorick’s skull and the decaying corpses in the cemetery.
  • The idea of death is closely tied to the themes of spirituality, truth, and uncertainty in that death may bring the answers to Hamlet’s deepest questions.
  • The question of his own death plagues Hamlet as well, as he repeatedly contemplates whether or not suicide is a morally legitimate action in an unbearably painful world. 
  • It is the fear of life after death which causes complex moral considerations to interfere with the capacity for action.
  • Hamlet's anger against his mother is rooted in the fear that if someone's life can be so easily forgotten after death, life itself has no meaning. His crisis is therefore an existential one, not one of morality.
  • Hamlet only seems comfortable with things that are dead: he reveres his father, claims to love Ophelia once she's dead, and handles Yorick's skull with tender care. No, what disgusts him is life: his mother's sexuality, women wearing makeup to hide their age, worms feeding on a corpse, people lying to get their way. 
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Corruption, deceit and disease

  • Characters draw explicit connections between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of the nation. Denmark is frequently described as a physical body made ill by the moral corruption of Claudius and Gertrude.
  • Hamlet is miserable not just because of his father's death, but because he craves honesty while everyone else around him is engaged in deception and manipulation.
  • Hamlet's form of justice involves punishing every character that practices deception, often by his own form of treachery.
  • The political livelihood of Denmark can be directly linked back to the mental state of Hamlet at many points throughout the play. The state of the nation in Denmark is deteriorating.
  • In medieval times people believed that the health of a nation was connected to the legitimacy of its king.
  •  It is as if the poison Claudius poured into Old Hamlet's ear has spread through Denmark itself.
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  • While Hamlet's "mad" behavior starts out as an "antic disposition," his mental state deteriorates over the course of the play so that he ends up legitimately insane.
  • It's impossible to know whether or not Hamlet is actually "mad," because our uncertainty about Hamlet's mental state is supposed to mirror the play's general ambiguity and doubt.
  • His acting mad seems to cause Hamlet to lose his grip on reality.
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Religion, honour and revenge

  • Hamlet deals with three revenge plots, all of which involve a son seeking vengeance for the death of a father. In the end, though, the resolution of each revenge plot highlights the inadequacy of revenge.
  • Hamlet's delay is what separates the play from other revenge tragedies; it's also what marks the play as modern.
  • Hamlet is a play that dramatizes the spiritual uncertainty and religious confusion of sixteenth century Europe.
  • Shakespeare's play weaves together Christian attitudes toward murder with the classic tenets of revenge tragedy, which can't always be reconciled; this makes the play all the more dramatic and complex.
  • Religion actually opposes revenge, which would mean that taking revenge could endanger Hamlet's own soul. In other words, Hamlet discovers that the codes of conduct on which society is founded are contradictory. In such a world, Hamlet suggests, the reasons for revenge become muddy, and the idea of justice confused.
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Sex, gender and family

  • Hamlet's suicidal disgust with the world has more to do with his mother's sexual betrayal of his father than Claudius's murder of his father.
  • Hamlet's view that all women are "breeders of sinners" not only reveals a sexist attitude but also suggest that Hamlet (a "sinner") finds himself to be just as revolting as the corrupt world around him.
  • Hamlet is critical of women because he believes that their sexual "appetites" constantly lead them to betray men.
  • The play doesn't share Hamlet's sexist attitude. In fact, it paints a sympathetic picture of Ophelia and seems to blame the men for her tragic death.
  • In Hamlet, parents can't be trusted to look out for their children, especially when matters of politics are involved.
  • Hamlet is at his most agitated state when talking to either female character. In both cases, Hamlet feels as if each woman has let him down.
  • The few times that Hamlet's pretend madness seems to veer into actual madness occur when he gets furious at women.
  • Women are living embodiments of appearance's corrupt effort to eclipse reality.
  • As for women's social position, its defining characteristic is powerlessness. 
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Appearance vs. Reality

  • Hamlet argues that death is the one true reality, and he seems to view all of life as "appearance" doing everything it can—from seeking power, to lying, to committing murder, to engaging in passionate and illegitimate sex—to hide from that reality.
  • Women are living embodiments of appearance's corrupt effort to eclipse reality.
  • Hamlet's obsession with what's real has three main effects: 1) he becomes so caught up in the search for reality that he ceases to be able to act; 2) in order to prove what's real and what isn't Hamlet himself must hide his "reality" behind an "appearance" of madness; 3) the more closely Hamlet looks, the less real and coherent everythingseems to be.
  • The characters try to figure each other out by using deception of their own, such as spying and plotting.
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