Hamlet is widely hailed as the first modern play in the English language. Which characteristics of its central character might account for this label?
Hamlet is considered the first modern play partly because of the psychological depth of its main character -- Hamlet suffers from melancholy, self-doubt, and even delusions. The audience never quite knows what Hamlet is thinking, or what is real. In fact, Hamlet himself declares again and again that he doesn't understand his doubts either ("I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.")
Death is a constant presence in this play. Does Hamlet's speech to Yorick's skull represent a philosophy of death? How does his attitude toward death differ from that of the gravediggers?
Death was a much more ordinary presence in Elizabethan England than it is in the modern world. Infant mortality was high and plagues swept whole nations. In this sense, the gravediggers exhibit a much more realistic approach to death than most people. Hamlet uses the occasion for a more general examination of mortality. His attitude toward death is not necessarily inconsistent with that of the gravediggers, but it is different in his emphasis on metaphysical rather than physical implications of death.
Does the text hold up to a Freudian reading of Hamlet's relationship with his mother? How does Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia support, complicate or work against an Oedipal interpretation of the play?
Certainly Hamlet does visit his mother's bedchamber, and is immensely interested in her sexual relationships with other men, both of which are classic elements of an Oedipal complex. Freud's reading of the play may have influenced his sexual theories—but it is important to remember the order of events, especially because scholars tend to label Hamlet "Freudian." Better stated, Freud is Shakespearean, not the other way around.
"To be or not to be" is the famous question that Hamlet poses in Act Three, Scene One. Explore this speech. What does he mean by this famous question? What events of the play prompt this speech?
Hamlet is musing about death, but whose death, or what kind of death, is frustratingly difficult to pin down. He is perhaps contemplating suicide, perhaps thinking about the risks he must run in order to fulfill the task of revenge. He has an audience of Ophelia, Polonius and Claudius, who are eavesdropping on him; but he most likely does not realize that they are present.
The play within a play, the long soliloquies wherein Hamlet faces the audience and speaks to them directly, the vivid discussions of whether or not Hamlet is "acting" mad -- there are many elements of Hamlet that call attention to its status as a play, rather than reality. By showing the trappings of theater and non-reality, does Shakespeare make Hamlet's suffering seem more acute or more distant? How?
"Life's but a stage," another Shakespearean character proclaims, and the playwright recognized quite well the dramatic trappings of life and the life-like elements of staged productions. Soliloquies are modern in that they break what is much later termed the "fourth wall" separating audience from stage; the character speaks directly to the audience. Although the whole atmosphere seems patently false and theatrical, this serves to draw Hamlet somehow closer. Somehow, the effect of such "metatheatrical" gestures is to show not how different acting is from life, but how similar life is to acting.
In terms of the usual categorizations, Shakespeare's tragedies end in death, his comedies in marriage. By this measure, Hamlet is a tragedy. But Shakespeare's best plays are a tragicomic mix. Choose and discuss two comical or farcical elements in Hamlet.
The scene with gravediggers is a good example of tragedy mixed with comedy. The work is morbid, but the workers joke and sing as they go about their business. They seem totally unaware of the majestic tragedy unfolding itself in the castle nearby. On a smaller level, Yorick's skull embodies the tragicomic dichotomy; it is a gruesome, deathly object that once belonged to a joker. There are several other comic scenes, including much of Hamlet's dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and most of Polonius' scenes before his death. This gruesome mixture of pathos and humor is the essence of Shakespearean theater.
Define revenge. Is Hamlet a traditional revenge play? What other forces are at work in Hamlet's psyche?
Revenge is traditionally the cold-blooded pursuit to make up for one hurt with a strike against its perpetrator. Revenge is usually violent. Hamlet is hardly a traditional play of revenge, because the main character is so uncertain and ambivalent about both the original strike and what he should do about it. Melancholy and uncertainty play just as large a role in Hamlet's character as the desire for revenge.
Discuss the setting of Hamlet. What effect does setting the psycho-drama in a bleak northern castle -- similar to that in Macbeth -- have on the characters and audience?
From the script, the audience gathers that Elsinore Castle is a remote place in northern Europe. Not much else is known: there were no sets in Shakespeare's time. But the setting certainly matches Hamlet's melancholy mood, and the isolation of the place helps make the violence and implied incest believable.
The play begins with the fantastical appearance of a ghost. Are we meant to believe that this is really Hamlet's father, or is he a figment of Hamlet's imagination? If he is imagined, is the rest of the play imagined as well?
Hamlet struggles with the question of whether the ghost is his father and decides that he must be who he says he is. The audience remains in doubt, however, because of the ghost's claim that he comes from Purgatory (blasphemous in Elizabethan England), and the fact that Gertrude is unable to see it when it appears to Hamlet in her chamber. One of the moral questions of the play is resolved, however, when it becomes clear that Claudius is a murderer. Whether the ghost is Old Hamlet or a demon, he has told the truth about Claudius' guilt.
Can a healthy state be presided over by a corrupt ruler? Shakespeare draws frequent comparisons between the moral legitimacy of a leader and the health of a state. Is Denmark's monarchy responsible for the demise of the state in this play?
At the end of the tragedy, it is not only Hamlet and most of the characters who die. The entire state of Denmark fails after Norway invades, and the health of the nation seems very much wrapped up with the moral state of the leader. This accords with the medieval idea of the "body politic" with the leader making up the head, literally, and the people the body of a personified state.
Facts About ‘To Be Or Not To Be’
1. The first performance of Hamlet was by the King’s Men at the Globe theatre between 1600 and 1601.
2. The first actor to perform the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy was Richard Burbage (1567-1619), the famous Elizabethan tragic actor, for whom Shakespeare wrote most of his tragic roles.
3. The first American performance of ‘to be or not to be’ was by Lewis Hallam, who played Hamlet in The American Company’s production of the play in Philadelphia in 1759.
4. The ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy is 33 lines long, and consists of 262 words. Hamlet, the play in which ‘to be or not to be’ occurs is Shakespeare’s longest play with 4,042 lines.
5. It takes four hours to perform Hamlet on the stage, with the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy taking anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes.
6. There is evidence that William Shakespeare played the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the play.
7. Hamlet is the most frequently performed play around the world. It has been calculated that a performance begins somewhere in the world every minute of every day.
8. Edwin Booth, the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, performed ‘to be or not to be’ for one hundred nights in his role of Hamlet at the Winter Garden Theatre, New York, in the 1864/65 season.
9. The castle, Elsinor, where ‘to be or not to be’ is spoken, really exists. It is called Kronborg Castle and is in the Danish port of Helsingør. It was built in 1423 by the Danish king, Eric of Pomerania.
10. The opening line of the soliloquy, ‘to be or not to be, that is the question,’ is the most searched for Shakespeare quote on the internet.
11. More than 200 women have performed ‘to be or not to be’ in the role of Hamlet on the professional stage.
12. The first woman to have performed ‘to be or not to be’ on the stage was Sarah Siddons, the toast of Dury Lane, and famous in her time for her Lady Macbeth. She first played Hamlet in 1776.
13. The ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy has appeared in over 50 film adaptations of Hamlet since 1900.
14. The storyline of Disney film The Lion King is based on Hamlet.
15. Tom Stoppard’s acclaimed play, Rosencrantz and Guildensternare dead, features two minor characters in Hamlet.
16. At least two films have been named after quotes from the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy – 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (line 24, “The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn“) and 1998’s What Dreams May Come (line 11 “For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come“)
17. In a 1963 debate in Oxford, Malcolm X quoted the first few lines of the ‘to be or not to be’ to make a point about “extremism in defence of liberty.”
Any ‘to be or not to be’ facts we’re missing? Let us know in the comments below.