An Introduction to Hamlet

Hamlet is one of the most widely known pieces of literature ever written. It is not known when William Shakespeare wrote this play, but scholars agree that it must have been sometime between 1599 and 1601. One of the earliest written editions of Hamlet (which has been dated as printed in 1603) is currently kept at the British Library.

Hamlet is unique both in its structure and in the type of linguistic resources used. Having more than 4,000 lines, this play is the longest written by Shakespeare, who chose a rather complex way of structuring the text with constant interruptions and irregularities. Throughout the play, readers can expect to find multiple metaphors, rethorical speech, and dramatic devices, in addition to several examples of courtly language. However, the excellent portrait that Shakespeare made of the characters and the importance of the topics that the play deals with make Hamlet a favourite among spectators around the world.

Throughout the years, Hamlet has been performed by some of the stage most renowned actors, such as Laurence Olivier, Peter O'Toole, Ian Charleson, and Richard Burton.

Main Characters

This tragical play is centered around the story of Prince Hamlet of Denmark. Other important characters are:

- Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, who is married to Claudius
- King Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and King of Denmark
- Horatio, Hamlet's friend
- Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway
- Osric, Cornelius, Voltimand, Guildenstern, and Rosencrantz, a group of courtiers
- Polonius, a counsellor to King Claudius
- Ophelia, Polonius' daughter

The ghost of Hamlet's father also appears several times during the play.

A Summary of Hamlet's Plot

Hamlet is divided into five acts and twenty scenes. The play opens with a night scene at Elsinore castle, where Hamlet lives. Hamlet's friend Horatio is informed by the guards that there is a ghost in the vicinity, and he in turn tells Hamlet about it. The news pique his curiosity, and later that night he goes in search of the ghost, which eventually reveals himself as Hamlet's father. The ghost tells Hamlet that he was poisoned by his brother Claudius (Hamlet's uncle), and asks for his soul to be avenged. After the ghost's appearance, Hamlet's behaviour becomes worrying, although initially it is thought that his strange actions are due to him being in love with Ophelia.

Hamlet's gloominess worsens until he comes up with the idea of producing a play that depicts his father's murder in order to see if Claudius' reactions betray him. Claudius leaves the room after the murder scene and Hamlet sets out to kill him, but after a heated argument with his mother he stabs Polonius instead, thinking that he is his uncle. After escaping a murder attempt from Claudius, Hamlet accepts a fencing duel against Laertes, Ophelia's brother, as she has killed herself following the murder of her father by Hamlet. The duel turns into tragedy as the swords are poisoned, and eventually Hamlet's mother, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet himself die. Hamlet's friend Horatio is the only survivor.

Main Themes in Hamlet

Death is a recurrent theme in this tragedy. From Hamlet's attempted suicide to the final scenes of the play, Shakespeare poses several questions that philosophers have been dealing with for centuries. Is there life after death? Should the murder of a loved one be avenged? And can suicide ever be considered a legitimate action from a moral point of view?

Family loyalty is also a prominent theme in Hamlet, as initially the main character hesitates to avenge his father given that the murderer is his own uncle. Similarly, Ophelia's love and devotion for her father cause her to become insane and kill herself.

The third theme that underlies this famous tragedy is uncertainty, from the uncertainty that affects one's own existence to the hesitation about the possibility of an afterlife.

Famous Quotes Taken from Hamlet

Some of the most memorable quotes in English literature have been taken from this play. Famous quotes include:

"To be or not to be; that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles"
"Though this be madness, yet there is method in it"
"There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so"
"When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions"
"All that live must die, passing through nature to eternity"
"Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks"
"My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts never to heaven go"