Sunday, March 27, 2011

Required Work: Hamlet

While Hamlet does make it on my top 5 list of favorite Shakespeare plays, it is by no means a fun and quick read. It is incredibly long (Shakespeare’s longest), and can be quite complicated. Sure, it has fun parts in between all of the madness, corruption, and death (and sometimes those are the fun parts), but for the most part it is a struggle, and there are a billion interpretations. I will do my best to keep it simple.


One word: tragedy. So many dead bodies on the stage at the end of this play. Then there are the four that died before – one onstage and three off, five if you count old King Hamlet. Nothing really happy about it


The play explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption. While most of these pertain to King Claudius, he isn’t the only one susceptible to them. Obviously his ultimate treachery is killing his brother and marrying the widow to become king. He then plots to kill Prince Hamlet once he believes that Hamlet knows the truth. His treachery even spreads to Polonius and his son Laertes, and also Hamlet’s good friends, but somewhat obscure characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The revenge of course mostly applies to Hamlet’s attempts to expose his uncle and then kill him, but we can’t forget Laertes, who joins in with King Claudius in a plot to kill Hamlet after the prince kills Polonius, albeit by accident. The incest as far as I can tell only applies to King Claudius marrying and sleeping with his now dead brother’s wife. And the moral corruption runs rampant amongst pretty much everyone, and very few of the characters are innocent of it. One ongoing debate has been whether or not Queen Gertrude is completely innocent. And as soon as we meet King Hamlet’s ghost, it becomes apparent that he wasn’t completely innocent during his life as he knows as soon as he is done with his business on earth he will be given over to “sulph’rous and tormenting flames” for the “foul crimes done in [his] days of nature.” Ophelia may be the only one who was completely innocent. But of course, even *that* comes into question when the gravediggers are digging her grave. Because she threw herself into the water and consequently drowned, the gravediggers are not sure if she deserves a Christian burial since she committed suicide. So when it comes down to it, everyone can be accused of something.

Another theme that comes up is that of religion. The play appears to be alternately Catholic and Protestant. King Hamlet’s ghost appears to be in purgatory, and Ophelia’s burial ceremony is characteristically Catholic. The play takes place in Denmark, which was then (and still is now) predominantly Protestant. Also, Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all attend Wittenberg, where Martin Luther first began ushering in the Protestant Reformation.

Another theme that cannot be ignored is that if language. Hamlet is the most skilled at rhetoric, and much of his language is courtly. He uses highly developed metaphors and puns to both reveal his thoughts and conceal them at the same time. King Claudius’s high status is reinforced by his language, and it is also full of rhetorical figures as is Hamlet’s and sometimes Ophelia’s. Meanwhile, the language of Horatio, the guards, and the gravediggers is much simpler.


Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest and often believed to be most powerful and influential tragedy. During his lifetime it was one of his most popular works. People really took to the ghost and the vivid dramatization of melancholy and insanity.

It was written at a time of religious upheaval and in the wake of the English Reformation: the series of events in which the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Also, much of Hamlet’s courtly language follows the recommendation of Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 etiquette guide, The Courtier. And as far as history goes, that is really all I got…

Next week, I will cover Pearl by the Gawain Poet as we are scheduled to discuss it in class. Hopefully, the discussion will be as helpful shedding light on Pearl as it was shedding light on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

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