Hamlet is the most notoriously problematic of Shakespeare's plays, and questions about it still bedevil commentators after almost 400 years. Tremendous amounts of energy have gone into considering its possible interpretations, and the range of opinions on them is immense; as Oscar Wilde wittily put it, perhaps the greatest question raised by Hamlet is, 'Are the critics mad or only pretending to be so?'
Hamlet was classed with the Problem Plays when that term was first applied to Shakespeare's works of the early 17th century. Like those dark comedies, this Tragedy deals with death and sex and with the psychological and social tensions arising from these basic facts of life. And like the problem plays, Hamlet treats these issues without providing clear-cut resolutions, thereby leaving us with complicated, highly emotional responses that cause both satisfaction—at seeing basic elements of our own lives treated dramatically—and pain—at the nagging persistence of these difficulties, as in real life.
It is precisely through such ambiguity, however, that Hamlet offers a robust and vital assertion of human worth, for the play is essentially a moral drama whose theme is the existence of both good and evil in human nature, a central concern in Shakespeare's work as a whole. Although it anticipates modern psychological dramas in some respects. Hamlet is not itself such a work; the extraordinary presentation of Prince Hamlet's troubled mind is simply the vehicle—albeit a vivid one—for the development of his acceptance of humanity's flawed nature. Shakespeare's great accomplishment in Hamlet was to express the philosophy that underlies this realization. Some of the play's many puzzles are interesting but superficial, such as Horatio's status at the Danish court, the identification of Hamlet's inserted lines in The Murder of Gonzago, or the determination of the prince's age. These matters chiefly reflect the playwright's lack of concern for minor inconsistencies, a trait seen throughout the plays. Others are deeper matters of plotting and psychology: Is Hamlet's emotional disturbance real or feigned? What is the nature of his relationship to Ophelia? Is King Claudius an unalloyed villain? The 'problem of problems', as it has been called, is Hamlet's unnecessary delay in executing the revenge he plainly accepts as his duty.
The basic story—a young man grieves for his father while faced with the duty to avenge his death—came from Shakespeare's source, the UR-HAMLET, and its genre, the Revenge Play, but Shakespeare's attitude towards vengeance is not the traditionally approving one. Hamlet's regret when he says, 'The time is out of joint. 0 cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right' (1.5.196-197), testifies to this, as does the existence of a parallel revenge plot, that of Laertes' revenge of his father's murder by Hamlet. The hero of one plot. Hamlet is in effect the villain of the other, casting an inescapable doubt upon his heroic role. Hamlet recognizes the ambivalence of his position when he says of Polonius' death, '. . . heaven hath pleas'd it so, / To punish me with this and this with me' (3.4.175-176).
This paradox suggests the essential duality of human nature, which is both noble and wicked, and numerous comparisons throughout the drama stress this point. Several times Hamlet contrasts his murdered father and his uncle—the former an ideal ruler, just and magnanimous; the latter an unscrupulous killer and lustful adulterer. Similarly, Hamlet juxtaposes his father's virtues with his mother's sin in accepting her husband's murderer and having sex with him. Other polarities abound: the chaste Ophelia versus the incestuous Queen; the faithful Horatio versus the treacherous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the devious duelist Laertes versus the manly soldier Fortinbras. Each of these contrasts recalls and reinforces the play's basic opposition between good and evil.
Faced with the awareness of evil, Hamlet longs for death and is disgusted with life, especially as it is manifested in sex, which he not only sees as the drive behind his mother's sin but which he abhors as the force that inexorably produces more life and thus more evil. 'Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?' (3.1.121-122), he cries to Ophelia, and his rejection of her stems from his rejection of sex. Shakespeare did not intend their relationship as a love story; instead, it is an allegory of the condemnation of life, a point of view whose ultimate rejection is central to the play.
Hamlet's notorious procrastination of his revenge has a similar function. Though he accepts the Ghost's orders, he senses the evil in this duty, sent from 'heaven and hell' (2.2.580), and he resists its fulfillment. Though psychologically true to life. Hamlet's delay serves primarily to offer opportunities to stress the duality of human nature: as revenger. Hamlet is both opposed to and involved in evil. His repeated insistence on postponing his highly ambiguous duty emphasizes his ambivalence and stimulates our own. Emotionally, Hamlet's procrastination produces in him a growing rage that leads to his killing of Polonius in 3.4, an act that provokes the King and Laertes to set in motion the incidents that lead to the bloody climax and that hastens Hamlet's exile and his escape from the King's execution plot. This event, in turn, jars Hamlet from his absorption in his personal tragedy and prepares him to find the 'divinity that shapes our ends' (5.2.10).
Both Hamlet and the play undergo a sweeping change before the climax, and this change is well prepared for by the establishment of a dominant tone in the play's language that is later varied to quite dramatic effect. Through Acts 1-4, the pervasiveness of evil and its capacity to corrupt human life are conveyed by an extended use of the imagery of illness, evoking a strong sense of stress and unease. In the play's opening moments, Francisco declares himself 'sick at heart' (1.1.9), and Horatio, speaking of evil omens, refers to the moon being 'sick almost to doomsday with eclipse' (1.1.123). Hamlet equates evil with bodily disorder when he speaks of a birthmark, •nature's livery' (1.4.32), as the 'dram of evil' (1.4.36) that makes a virtuous man seem corrupt and ignoble. He is referring figuratively to the excessive drinking of Danish courtiers, rather than to the more serious evils soon to arise, but he strikes a note of disease, death, and physical corruption that recurs throughout the play.
For instance, Hamlet speaks of the King's prayer as 'physic [that] prolongs thy sickly days' (3.3.96) and of resolution as 'sicklied o'er' (3.1.85); the King refers to those who tell Laertes of his father's death as '. . . buzzers [who] infect his ear / With pestilent speeches .. .' (4.5.90-91). Strikingly, diseases of the skin, where an inner evil is presumed to be present, are often mentioned, as in Hamlet's reference to a 'flattering unction . . . [that] will but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whiles rank corruption . . . / Infects unseen' (3.4.146-151), or in his image for the outbreak of a pointless war: an abscess 'that inward breaks, and shows no cause without / Why the man dies' (4.4.27-29).
Planning to exile Hamlet, the King observes, 'Diseases desperate grown / By desperate appliance are reliev'd' (4.3.9-10). He refers not only to the danger he faces from an avengeing Hamlet, but he is also thinking of Hamlet's apparent insanity. Hamlet's lunacy seems at times to be real, at least in some respects, such as his hysterical rejection of sex and love, but he himself asserts that it is false on several occasions—e.g., in 3.4.142-146. The question remains one of the play's many enigmas. In any case, Hamlet's insanity, whether feigned or real, is itself a major instance of the imagery of sickness, a constant reminder that 'something is rotten in the state of Denmark' (1.5.90).
A particularly vivid example of disease imagery is the Ghost's clinical description of the action of the poison that first thinned his blood and then produced on his skin 'a vile and loathsome crust' (1.5.72) before killing him. The poisoning is enacted twice in 3.2, first in the Players' dumb show and then by the Player playing Lucianus. Further, a similar fate awaits the four major characters in 5.2.
An extension of the play's imagery of death is the repeated suggestion of suicide, although it is rejected. Hamlet's first soliloquy regrets the religious 'canon 'gainst self-slaughter' (1.2.132). Horatio worries that the Ghost may tempt Hamlet to the 'toys of desperation' (1.4.75) on a cliff overlooking the sea. In 5.1 the Grave-digger discusses the law on suicides, and Ophelia's death is declared 'doubtful' (5.1.220) by the Priest. In his last moment. Hamlet prevents Horatio from killing himself with the poisoned cup. The prince also discusses the possibility of suicide at length in the soliloquy beginning 'To be or not to be . . .' (3.1.56-88) before rejecting the idea. More important, near the crucial mid-point of the play, just before his dramatic rejection of Ophelia and love. Hamlet raises the question of the desirability of life and answers, in effect, that we have no choice but to accept our destiny and live. Thus, while suicide serves as part of the play's imagery of despair, its rejection foreshadows the ultimate acceptance of life and its evils.
Act 5 opens with Hamlet meditating on death in the graveyard, but now death, represented with ghoulish humor by the skulls dug up by the Grave-digger, is not a potential escape, nor is it the fearful introduction to a possibly malign afterlife; it is merely the destined end for all humans. The conversation with the Gravediggers offers comic relief as the climax draws closer, and Hamlet's recollections of Yorick offer a healthy appreciation of the pleasures of the past as well as a sardonic acceptance of death: 'Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her,... to this favor she must come' (5.1.186-188). The prince is no longer in the grip of his grief. Ophelia's funeral and Hamlet's encounter with Laertes bring a final catharsis, and he is able to assert the love for Ophelia that he once denied and to accept his role in life by taking the royal title 'the Dane' (5.1.251).
In the first episode of 5.2, we hear of the cause of this change as Hamlet tells of the plot he has foiled by sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in his place; in impulsively acting to save himself, he has learned, 'There's a divinity that shapes our ends, /Rough-hew them how we will...' (5.2.10-11). Hamlet finally comes to terms with his duty to exact vengeance, even though he cannot do so without committing the very crime he avenges, murder. In realizing that he must be evil in order to counter evil, Hamlet also accepts his own death; although he senses his end approaching as the King's plot takes form, he remains composed, saying, 'There is 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' (5.2.215-218).
The tragic paradox at the close of Hamlet is that the protagonist's psychological liberation comes only with his own death, a death that inspires Horatio's lovely farewell wish to Hamlet that 'flights of angels sing thee to thy rest' (5.2.365). The attitude towards death expressed in this elegiac prayer is unlike anything earlier in the play, and its emphatic placement after the climax clearly marks it as the drama's conclusive statement, a confirmation of the benevolence of fate despite the inevitability of evil and death.
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