The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a tragedy by William Shakespeare and is one of his best-known and most quoted plays. It was written at an uncertain date between 1600 and the summer of 1602.
Hamlet may be the most frequently produced work in almost every western country, and it is considered a crucial test for mature actors. Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy (Act Three, Scene One), the most popular passage in the play, is so well known that it has become a stumbling-block for many modern actors.
Hamlet is one of the world's most famous literary works, and has been translated into every major living language.
Shakespeare's play tells the story of the legendary Danish Prince Hamlet, or Amleth (see: the legendary Hamlet) whose exploits were recorded by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum around 1200 AD; François de Belleforest adapted Saxo's story in his Histoires Tragiques (1570).
Shakespeare's main source, however, is believed to be an earlier play about Hamlet (known as the Ur-Hamlet), which is attributed to Thomas Kyd and is known to have introduced a ghost to the story. The 'Ur-Hamlet' was never printed, and is now lost. However, it was praised in print in Thomas Nashe's preface to Robert Greene's Menaphon as early as 1589. It made the phrase "Hamlet, revenge!" (which does not appear in Shakespeare's play) famous. While the Ur-Hamlet is usually assumed to have been written by Kyd, it is sometimes suggested that it may have been written by Shakespeare himself, and later revised or rewritten into the play as it has been preserved in print.
Shakespeare may also have taken some elements from Kyd's other play, The Spanish Tragedy, especially the hero's procrastination.
There are three extant texts of Hamlet from the early 1600s: two quarto editions, and one from the first folio (see Quarto and Folio).
The play first appeared in print in 1603 in a version now known as the 'bad Quarto'. This edition follows essentially the same plot as the play we know as Hamlet but it is much shorter and its language is often different to that which we are accustomed to encounter; for example, where the accepted version reads "To be or not to be, that is the question", the 1603 Quarto reads "To be or not to be, aye there's the point". These discrepancies, which many critics view as aesthetically weaker than the other versions, have led to the suggestion that the text may have been published without the permission of the playing company, and put together by stenography or by minor actors recalling the lines of others by memory. It was common practise at the time for actors in rehearsal to be given only their individual part and cue lines; consequently, the finger has been pointed at the actor playing Marcellus as the likely culprit for the source of the "Bad Quarto", as his scenes and lines are rendered most "accurately" compared to other characters. When he is absent from the stage the text seems more divergent from other extant copies. Some modern textual scholars consider this theory to be fanciful, since a minor actor would be unlikely to have memorised the lines of other actors, even inaccurately — but actors and other theatrical professionals would likely dispute this point, since these workers often unintentionally memorize large portions of plays that they work on.
The authorized 'Second Quarto' (Q2) was published in 1604, and was described on its title page as "enlarged to almost as much again as it was". This is the longest text of Hamlet to be published in the period.
The third edition was the version published in the First Folio of Shakespeare's complete works. This text is shorter but also contains scenes not in Q2.
Modern editions are a compromise between the Second Quarto text and the Folio text. Some conflate the two to produce one very long text. Others assume that the Folio text represents Shakespeare's final intentions and that the cuts were made by him; they therefore present the cut Q2 passages in an appendix.
In the theatre, performing the full, conflated Q2/Folio text takes around 4 hours. Because of this, most productions use a cut text. For example, the Royal Shakespeare Company's Artistic Director Michael Boyd staged Hamlet in the summer of 2004 using lines from various Quartos; his text was dubbed the "Boyd Quarto" by newspaper reviewers.
Some theatre companies have experimented with performing the Bad Quarto, which takes only 2 hours. They claim that while it reads badly on the page, in performance it is faster-paced and more direct than the 'official' versions.
Prince Hamlet, the title character, is the son of the late King of Denmark, who was also named Hamlet. He is a student at a school in Wittenberg. He is charged by the ghost of his father to avenge his murder, which he finally succeeds in doing, but only after the rest of the royal house has been wiped out and he himself has been mortally wounded with a poisoned rapier by Laertes at the end of the play.
Claudius is the current King of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle, who succeeded to the throne upon the death of his brother. The ghost of King Hamlet tells Prince Hamlet that he was murdered by brother Claudius, who poured hebenon in his ear while he was asleep. Claudius is killed with a poisoned rapier by Hamlet. Claudius also accidentally kills Gertrude, his wife and Hamlet's mother, with the draught he actually had intended to poison Hamlet with at the end of the play.
King Hamlet (referred to in the stage directions as Ghost) was Hamlet's father. At the start of the play, it has not been long since his death. He appears to Hamlet as a ghost seeking vengeance for his murder by poison at the hands of his brother, Claudius. Hamlet questions the contention that the spirit really is the ghost of King Hamlet or is actually a malicious demon in disguise. He cannot find a definitive answer until The Murder of Gonzago is performed by the Players.
Gertrude is Hamlet's mother. Widowed because of King Hamlet's death, she has quickly been remarried to Claudius, the late king's brother, a relationship considered incestuous by Hamlet and in Shakespeare's time (although religious authorities could and did grant dispensations for such marriages). She dies by drinking poisoned wine intended for Hamlet at the end of the play.
Polonius is Claudius's chief councillor, who is distrustful of Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia, his own daughter, because she is a social inferior to him. He fears Hamlet will only take her virginity and won't marry her, so he forbids her from continuing with their relationship. He is sometimes portrayed as a fatuous bore, and Hamlet frequently teases him while pretending to be mad. He is fatally stabbed by Hamlet, who mistakes him for Claudius, when he hides himself behind an arras while trying to eavesdrop on a conversation between Hamlet and his mother.
Laertes is Polonius's son, who deeply cares for Ophelia, his sister, and spends much of the play in France. In the end, appalled by Hamlet's role in his sister's death, he works with Claudius to rig a duelling contest. In this contest, he kills Hamlet with a poisoned rapier to avenge the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. Hamlet kills him with the same rapier, without realising that it was poisoned.
Ophelia is Polonius's daughter. She and Hamlet have had romantic feelings for each other, although they (at least implicitly) have been warned that it would be politically inexpedient for them to marry. Tormented by Hamlet as part of his 'madness', her father's death causes her to go insane, and she falls into a brook and drowns (either on purpose or accidentally, depending on the interpretation).
Horatio is a friend of Hamlet's from university. Apparently a commoner, or in any event not a close relative of the royal family, he is not directly involved in the intrigue at the Danish court, which enables the author to use him as a foil or sounding board for Hamlet. Hamlet commissions him to name Fortinbras King of Denmark after the deaths of the royal household.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are old school-fellows of Hamlet, who were summoned to the castle by Claudius to keep a watch on Hamlet. Hamlet soon suspects that they are spies. They die off-stage in England, executed by the King's warrant for Hamlet's death which was altered by Hamlet to name them instead.
Fortinbras is the Norwegian crown prince. He is the son of King Fortinbras, who was killed in battle by Hamlet's father, and thus has vengeance on his mind. His firm and decisive action contrasts with Hamlet's procrastination.
Osric is a courtier who referees the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes, in which both are fatally wounded by a poisoned rapier.
The play concerns the revenge of Prince Hamlet, whose father, the late King of Denmark, victor over the Polish army, died suddenly while Hamlet was away from home at Wittenberg University, supposedly bitten by a poisonous snake. Prior to the opening of the play, the King's brother Claudius has been proclaimed king, and cemented his claim to the throne by marrying Hamlet's mother Gertrude, the widowed Queen.
The play opens on the battlements of Elsinore Castle, seat of the Danish monarchy, where a group of sentries are visited by the ghost of the recently deceased King Hamlet. Hamlet's friend Horatio joins the soldiers on their watch and when the ghost appears, bids it to speak. They suspect it has some message to deliver, but it vanishes without speaking.
The next day, the Danish court meets to celebrate the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude. The new King urges Hamlet not to persist in his grief. When he is alone, Hamlet expresses his anger at the accession of his uncle Claudius to the throne and his mother's hasty remarriage. Horatio and the guards come to the scene and tell him of the appearance of the ghost of his father. Hamlet is determined to investigate this.
Joining Horatio on the watch on the battlements that night, the ghost appears again. It beckons him to come along with him and then reveals a fearful secret: his father was murdered. He was poisoned through the ear by Claudius, and the Ghost commands Hamlet to avenge him. Shocked by this discovery, Hamlet returns to Horatio and the sentries, making them swear an oath not to reveal details of the night's events to anyone.
Fortinbras enters with English ambassadors. Shocked by the carnage, he orders a military funeral for Hamlet, whilst Horatio offers to relate the whole tale.
Hamlet as a character
Like the play itself, Hamlet the character is possibly the most discussed and contentious character in drama and indeed in Western literature. While conceding he is one of Shakespeare's greatest creations, critics are at odds over the inner motivations and psyche of this character. His relationships with the various characters of the story, including his father, his uncle Claudius, his mother Gertrude and his beloved Ophelia, have all been subjected to multiple speculations, including modern psychological theories. Critics as varied as Goethe, Coleridge, Hegel, Schlegel, Nietzsche, Turgenev, Freud, T. S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Asimov have written essays on him, each with an alternately fascinating insight. J. Dover Wilson produced one of the most influential readings of the first half of the 20th century; Harold Bloom was dominant in the second half. Besides being Shakespeare's most demanding role (with over 1,400 lines), Hamlet is also the most introspective. Actors have traditionally struggled with this role, and it can be safely said that any one performance can capture only some of the many facets of the creation. This, however, has made the role of Hamlet one of the most desired roles in theatre.
The plot summary above presents perhaps the simplest view of Hamlet, as a person seeking truth in order to be certain that he is justified in carrying out the revenge called for by a ghost that claims to be the spirit of his father. The most standard view is that Hamlet is highly indecisive, which is the view as proposed by Coleridge and a number of other critics. "Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth, that action is the chief end to existence". The 1948 movie with Laurence Olivier in the title role is introduced by a voiceover: "This is a story of a man who could not make up his mind."
Others see Hamlet as a person charged with a duty that he both knows and feels is right, yet is unwilling to carry out. In this view, all of his efforts to satisfy himself of King Claudius' guilt or his failure to act when he can are evidence of this unwillingness, and Hamlet berates himself for his inability to carry out his task. After observing a play-actor performing a scene, he notes that the actor was moved to tears in the passion of the story and compares this passion for an ancient Greek character, Hecuba, in light of his own situation:
Another view of Hamlet, advanced by Isaac Asimov in his Guide to Shakespeare, holds that his actions are attributable not to indecision, but to multiple motivations: his desire to avenge the wrong done to his father, coupled with his own ambition to succeed to the throne. The tragic error committed by Hamlet, in Asimov's view, is his overreaching wish to see Claudius damned, and not merely dead, which prevents him from killing Claudius at the opportune moment.
It has also been suggested that Hamlet's hesitations may also be rooted in the religious beliefs of Shakespeare's time. The Reformation had generated debate about the existence of purgatory (where King Hamlet claims he currently resides). The concept of purgatory is a Catholic one, and was frowned on in Protestant England. A devout Protestant might therefore presume the Ghost to be a spirit from Hell that must be ignored. This has led to the speculation that the elder Hamlet represented Catholicism while the son represented Protestantism.
Ernest Jones, following the work of Freud, held that Hamlet suffered from the 'Oedipus complex'. He said in his 'The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of Hamlet's Mystery: A Study in Motive': “His moral fate is bound up with his uncle's for good or ill. The call of duty to slay his uncle cannot be obeyed because it links itself with the call of his nature to slay his mother's husband, whether this is the first or the second; the latter call is strongly "repressed," and therefore necessarily the former also.”
Performances, adaptations, influences and references
Hamlet in cinema and TV
Hamlet in music
At least 26 operas have been written based on Hamlet, including:
Instrumental works based on Hamlet include:
Contemporary popular music includes: