Free essay: the secret of Shakespeare's Hamlet

Published: 2022-10-27
Free essay: the secret of Shakespeare's Hamlet
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories: Writing Shakespeare Hamlet
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1897 words
16 min read

When the German philosopher Georg Lichtenberg visited London in the 1770s and saw Hamlet starring David Garrick, he described his impressions of the great monologue "To Be, or Not to Be" in his memoirs saying that a large part of the audience not only knew it by heart as well as the Lord's Prayer but also listened to it with such a feeling of jubilation and godliness that would not be understood by those who did not know England (Lichtenberg, 1997, p. 26). Since then this reverent and admiring attitude to Hamlet has spread all over the world. Despite the fact that Hamlet has long become a source of aphorisms, and its plot is more than just well-known, Shakespeare's great tragedy still occupies a prominent place in the repertoire of almost every theater - over the years its popularity among the theater goers does not diminish. From 1879 to 2004, only the Royal Shakespeare Company and its predecessor, Shakespeare Memorial Theater, staged Hamlet eighty-two times. Moreover, there are more than seventy-five screen versions of tragedy (Hunt, 2007, p. 2). The secret of Hamlet's success lies within the intricate and ingenious combination of an intriguing, dramatic revenge plot, enigmatic, charming charisma of the protagonist and a very profound, insightful investigation of such a universal problem as what it means to be human.

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Shakespeare is a unique author. Lichtenberg wrote in his memoirs that in England aphorisms from his works can be heard everywhere, even at the parliamentary session, people sing about Shakespeare and borrow songs from his works, and as a result, many English children learn about him before they learn the alphabet (Lichtenberg, 1997, p.26). But Shakespeare's works are not only the core of the English culture, they speak a universal language that is understood by people of all ages from all over the world. But even though his plays and poems seem to us to be as contemporary and relevant as hip-hop music or street art, they are in fact flesh of the flesh of the English Renaissance which brought them to life. In his seminal tragedy, Hamlet, Shakespeare managed to grasp and convey the turbulent spirit of the Late Renaissance in England with its skepticism, social mobility, and ambivalent worldview of a man torn between faith, and freedom of choice, social optimism, and profound disappointment with the epoch, doubt, and hope. This complex and painful shift from the Middle Ages to the modern worldview and the difficulty of coping with it lie at the very heart of the play.

Hamlet is a seemingly simple story about a son avenging the death of his father, yet it has become one of the most popular, haunting and memorable works in the history of world literature. Hamlet, a young Danish prince, returns to Elsinore to attend the funeral of his father, King Hamlet. His mother, Queen Gertrude, hastily marries Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, which aggravates the young man's melancholy. A ghost bearing likeness to the old King reveals to Hamlet that his brother murdered him and asks the prince to avenge his death. Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius at once and feigns madness to conceal his plans. He uses a theatrical performance to expose Claudius. Finally, he is ready to kill his uncle, but as the two mighty forces clash, Polonius, the King's counselor, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's former friends, Ophelia, Hamlet's beloved, Laertes, her brother, and Gertrude fall victims to the strife. The only survivor at the end of the play is Hamlet's friend Horatio, whom the Prince has entrusted to tell the truth of the tragic events. At first sight, it might seem to be a mere revenge play, though with a plot intriguing and dramatic enough to keep the audience wide awake. But after a closer look, a whole number of mysteries are revealed used to introduce complex psychological dilemmas.

So, obviously, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, but not a usual one. Shakespeare used the cliches of the traditional genre of a revenge tragedy and transformed them in such a way that his tragedy became not a simple action-packed drama full of blood and deaths, but rather a drama of a thinking individual in the world of narrow-minded puppets. At the age of the Renaissance, the way tragedies of revenge were written and staged was dictated by the instructions of the church and the state. The plays were often censored because there was always a chance they could carry a negative, unwanted message to the community. A revenge tragedy was considered morally acceptable only in the case when the protagonist died at the end: by his death, he had to redeem the immoral and unlawful deed - an act of revenge (Mategrano, 2000, p. 37). However, Shakespeare's Hamlet leaves too many doubts and open questions. There is also the paradox that Hamlet was doomed to death even before Claudius, the murderer - it was Hamlet, whom the poisoned blade touched first. So, obviously, Shakespeare paid much more attention to what was happening in the mind of Hamlet, than to his revenge mission. In the words of Marvin Hunt, "the fact that it [the play] relocates reality from outside the human mind to within it, taking us from a medieval mindset that held reality to be objective, anterior, and superior to human experience, to a modern, or more precisely, an early modern view that holds reality to be in large part, if not entirely a function of subjective experience" (Hunt, 2008, p. 8-9). Shakespeare shows that there, in fact, no good or bad things, but our thinking makes them look either good or bad. No wonder that modern writers developed Shakespeare's brilliant idea and took it to extreme: for example, Cavafy portrayed Claudius as a wise and skilled politician, a good king (Cavafy, 1992), and Stoppard showed Hamlet to be cruel and selfish (Stoppard, 1971). All of these interpretations are there, in Shakespeare's text, it is up to the audience to choose one over another. Thus, it is possible to say that the key conflict that is mesmerizing the viewer is not happening on the stage, but rather in the mind of Hamlet and the audience. Consequently, the key themes of the play are not those of revenge and betrayal, but rather a much more complex problem - the essence of being human.

The theme most widely discussed in the age of the Renaissance and reflected in Hamlet is the aim and purpose of human life, the correlation of such concepts such as freedom of will and predestination. The famous couplet "The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!" (Shakespeare, n.d., 1.5.210-211) is one of the most revealing fragments in this respect. Its interpretation defines the whole vision of the image of Hamlet, his character, and role in the play. The reference to self-sacrifice is obvious: it alludes to the fate of Christ. At the same time, Hamlet does not see himself as a savior, rather as a judge, which becomes clear in the following lines: "... heaven hath pleased it so, / To punish me with this and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister" (Shakespeare, n.d., 3.4.194-196). Hamlet feels that God has sent him to help the people of Denmark, but he has not only to sacrifice himself, he also must punish the sinners. According to I. Ribner, most of the protagonists in Shakespeare's tragedies act as "scourges of God" or "messengers of God": their mission is to correct the mistakes of the mankind, but while the former lose their souls, the latter retain their moral touchstones eventually turning into victims (Ribner, 1969, p. 22-27, 67). Hamlet is a combination of both being cruel only to be kind. At the very end of the play, he embraces his destiny and his mission saying, "...there's a special / providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, / 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be / now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the / readiness is all" (Shakespeare, n.d., 5.2.233-237). According to J.R. Brown, these words resonate simultaneously with several sources that were extremely important for the age of Renaissance: the Sermon on the Mount, Seneca's philosophy of stoicism, and the skeptical sentiment of Montaigne Essais (Brown, 2006, p. 125-126). Hamlet's ambivalent worldview reflects the duality of the Renaissance consciousness, the way this epoch saw a man both as a pinnacle of creation and uintessence of dust, torn between good and evil, always in doubt as to what his mission was.

Another theme connected with the essence of being human is the melancholy and utter gloom of the human existence. Shakespeare's aestheticization of the macabre is very well reflected in the black-and-white gracefulness of John Austen's haunting illustrations of Shakespeare's Hamlet (1922) (Jones, 2016) with their intricate, mesmerizing patterns and subtle eroticism. His Black Prince is the Prince of F. Nietzche and G. Wilson Knight, an emblem of death. The artist seems to artistically exteriorize Wilson Knight's famous axiom "Hamlet is a living death in the midst of life" (Wilson Knight, 2005, p. 45). In his book "Looking for Hamlet," M. Hunt observes that Shakespeare's Hamlet - "from its staging to its complex moral, ethical and intellectual concerns" - is vertically structured as a tridimensional model "Heaven-Earth-Underground" (Hunt, 2009, p. 79). There seems to be no Heaven visible in Shakespeare's Hamlet. To put it in Wilson Knight's words, there is only "the horror of humanity doomed to death and decay" that has "disintegrated Hamlet's mind" (Wilson Knight, 2005, p. 31). It is this tangible hopelessness, black-and-white austerity and dense atmosphere of melancholy that come in sharp contrast with the sturdy humor and joviality of the clowns. In this way the great master managed to convey the famous juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy that Shakespeare's great plays are famous for and which reflects the complexity of being human.

The age of the Renaissance changed the way humankind had been developing and lay the foundations for the modern Western culture. In Hamlet, behind the seemingly simple facade of a revenge tragedy, Shakespeare brilliantly uses the image of the protagonist and his struggle to convey his understanding of this change of a worldview as a painful and yet necessary and productive process.


Brown, J. R. (2006). Hamlet (Shakespeare Handbooks). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cavafy, K. (1992). King Claudius. In Collected poems (pp. 183-186). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hunt, M. W. (2008). Looking for Hamlet. New York: Macmillan.

Jones, J. (2016, September 19). John Austen's Haunting Illustrations of Shakespeare's Hamlet: A Masterpiece of the Aesthetic Movement (1922). Retrieved December 15, 2018, from G.C. (1997). On David Garrick as Hamlet in his own adaptation at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. In Shakespeare in the theatre. An anthology of criticism . (pp. 24 - 28). Ed. by Wells S. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mategrano T. (2000) Cliffs Complete Shakespeare's Hamlet. N.Y.: Hungry Minds.

Ribner, I. (1969). Patterns in Shakespearian tragedy. London: Methuen & Co.

Shakespeare, William. (n.d.) The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Text. Folger Digital Texts,

Stoppard, T. (1971). Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead. N.Y.: Grove Press.

Wilson Knight, G. (2005). The Wheel of Fire (Routledge Classics). London: Routledge.

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