Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, the act divisions of later editions of Hamlet have little relation to the play’s structure, and there is no break between some scenes.  In terms of production, Hamlet has three major movements:

Movement One (I.i-I.v).

This section sets the action in motion in three main rhythms:

1. the Ghost (I.i.) and the revelation of Claudius’ villainy (I.iv-I.v);

2. the Court, the main characters and their interaction (I.ii);

3. the family of Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia (I.iii).

Movement Two (II.i-IV.iii).

This section is one great sweep of action balanced between Hamlet’s growing attack upon Claudius and Claudius (with others) spying on Hamlet.  It reaches a climax in the play-within-a-play, Claudius’ prayer, and the closet scene with Gertrude where Hamlet kills Polonius (III.ii-iv).  Then Claudius sends Hamlet to England.  The main action has within it many other rhythms:

1. the breakdown of the Hamlet-Ophelia love story;

2. the “hustle and bustle” when the travelling players arrive;

3. the differences between Hamlet’s friends: Horatio vs. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern;

4. many other secondary rhythms.

Movement Three (IV.iv-V.ii).

This section runs until the end of the play. The King’s “counteraction” is the main motive force; Hamlet, until the last scene, is almost (but not quite) a passive figure.

On the stage, the eight days of the play are represented as follows:

Day 1: I.i-I.iii.

Day 2: I.iv-I.v.

Brief Interval.

Day 3: II.i-II.ii.

Day 4: III.i-IV.iii.

Day 5: IV.iv.

Brief Interval.

Day 6: IV.v-IV.vii.

Day 7: V.i.

Day 8: V.ii.

A. IMAGERY:  it is important to understand the effectiveness of the dominant disease/corruption imagery that recurs throughout the play:

Hamlet says his wit is diseased (III.ii.308), Gertrude speaks of her sick soul (IV.v.17), Laertes discusses the sickness in his heart, Ophelia’s madness is said to be the poison of some deep grief, etc. Consider all of the characters’ “tainted” states of mind and sources of inward and outward pollution. It is not simply the task of having to be the avenger and the brooding on death that destroys Hamlet.

Before he has even been assigned the task of revenge, the tainted state of his mind is already apparent in his first soliloquy, because it is inherent in Denmark; Hamlet seems to take all of this into his mind and internalizes it. He sees himself as having to bear the curse of his entire country, that he is carrying and transmitting the disease that surrounds him, as well as having the responsibility of trying to cure it once and for all.

Consider the extent to which Hamlet is successful in this “curing” at the end of the play. Is Hamlet, in death, the agent of his own redemption, as well as that of his country’s? This will depend entirely upon how one reads his state of mind at the end of the last Act and interprets the final scene. Ultimately, how transformed is Hamlet? 

Keep in mind that Hamlet has no soliloquies in Act V, so the audience is completely cut off from Hamlet’s inner feelings.  Perhaps that is why he is considered to be changed. There is evidence in the text that Hamlet simply decides “not to be,” that he decides to abandon the struggle since Shakespeare does not let the audience see into his mind. Perhaps Hamlet willingly escapes the “burden of consciousness;” his brilliant final line is, after all, “the rest is silence.”

B. THE FUNCTION OF THE GHOST:  This works on various levels: as one of the central sources of ambiguity, there is continual reference to the ghost as both Hamlet’s dead father and as a devil. However, the ghost is much more than a simple dichotomy of good and evil. Right from the opening scene, there is considerable doubt as to the nature and significance of the ghost: it is referred to as “the indeterminate thing,” and Horatio feels that it is only “borrowing” King Hamlet’s robes, (I.i. 46-9), even though it certainly evokes a sense of reverence for the dead King (“it has the majesty of buried Denmark”).

Horatio interprets the appearance of the ghost correctly in that he thinks it is an indication that something is very wrong, (read I.i.120-3), and emphasises what this omen may signify for the future: a catastrophe approaching Denmark. (He refers to the memory of “fear’d events” and suggests the war to come with Norway.)

In this way, the ghost represents a dynamic process already at work in the play. Even before he knows of the ghost’s existence, Hamlet’s view of the world as an “unweeded garden” anticipates the images that the ghost creates: that something is “rotten in Denmark,” etc. The ghost is a source of mystery; all the characters can say about it is doubtful conjecture. The ominousness of the ghost cannot be pinned down as a supernatural sign with one single significance.

As Horatio says, it has a capacity to “shake down our disposition/With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls” (I.iii.12), which is very much in keeping with the metaphysical, philosophical questions that constitute part of Hamlet’s problem. In this way, then, the ghost embodies Hamlet’s complication in its ambiguous position as both the murdered King demanding revenge and an evil portent of the murder that must follow; it is a symbolic projection of a violent past (a murder) that will, inevitably, lead to more violence in the future, as Hamlet is expected to avenge the murder.

Also, the first scene gives the audience an image of the first King, and the second scene presents an image of Claudius, the reigning King. There is a considerable contrast between these different depictions: the two are described by Hamlet as “Hyperion to a satyr” and “No more like my father than I to Hercules.” The ghost describes Claudius as “a wretch whose national gifts are poor to those of mine.” Consider the contrast between the warrior-like King of the past and the peace-time court of the politician-like, diplomatic Claudius.

Regardless of what the ghost represents, its appearance cannot possibly be regarded as progress toward peace. Read over I.iv. 39-45, which crystallizes all that the ghost means to Hamlet. Still mourning his dead father, Hamlet is inclined to believe that this figure is actually the spirit of King Hamlet. As the figure of the remembered King, the ghost = a source of power, authority and heroic action, etc.

Finally, consider the inherent irony in the role of the ghost. Hamlet’s order to purge the country of its pollution comes from a figure which itself embodies the poisoning process. Hamlet’s saying that “The time is out of joint. O curséd spite/that ever I was born to set it right!” (I.v.189-90) illustrates how Hamlet recognizes the general malaise, the sickness that he is meant to cure by avenging his father’s murder, etc. Hamlet senses his own incapacity for the action the ghost wants him to commit and his entanglement in the corrupt world that he is meant to help redeem.

C. LITERARY DEVICES:  always be able to identify various basic literary devices and techniques, such as foreshadowing, metaphor, forms of irony (dramatic, situational, verbal), puns, oxymorons, etc.  It is expected that you will be well-familiar with many of the literary terms from the handout on the course site.


1. FATE/THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE:  always the dominant theme in tragedies, set in motion as a result of an “unbalanced” natural order and unnatural acts; acts or omissions which are the “fault” of the protagonist.

2. REVENGE:  the entire play is based upon this theme; it is Hamlet’s central problem. 400 or so years ago when the play was written, Shakespeare was well aware of the contradiction and ambiguity of contemporary attitudes towards revenge. In Elizabethan England, though the retaliation for murder was left up to the State, this law clashed with an irrational yet nonetheless powerful feeling that people could not really be blamed for taking revenge into their own hands; people generally believed that the punishment should fit the crime.

In revenge tragedy, the virtuous avenger tends to get the sympathy of the audience until he resolves his problem and actually kills; then the audience usually “turns” on him, believing that he’s been “contaminated” by the deed. Hamlet is unusual in that he is not a typical revenge hero. Readers feel sorry for him all the way through the play, because he is unable to act in a brutal, uncomplicated way, yet is unable to ignore the ghost’s commands. While he is able to accidentally kill Polonius, and he can destroy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by signing a paper, he cannot look into the eyes of another person and purposefully kill him.

Unlike Laertes, Hamlet is unable to deceive himself by thinking that revenge by itself is a real solution. In this way, Shakespeare extends, to the limit, the form of the revenge play, dealing with all sorts of self-questioning, as Hamlet considers,”To be or not to be,” etc.

3. APPEARANCE VS. REALITY:  throughout the play, there is a blurred distinction between how things appear, and how they actually are. As the ghost warns Hamlet, a man may “smile and smile, and be a villain” (I.v.108).

Consider the following: how the play begins with an illusion, the apparition of the ghost and characters wondering whether the appearance of the dead King is “real,” how Hamlet only pretends to be mad, to put on an “antic disposition,” (though he appears insane to others, the lucidity of his “aside” comments to the audience illustrate that his “madness” is only an illusion), the device of the play-within-the-play and how Hamlet tests out the dilemma of whether or not the ghost is telling the truth through this imitation of reality, how clothes reveal the surface world of illusion: as Polonius says, “the apparel oft proclaims the man” (I.iii.72), and how they reveal the discrepancy between inner and outer lives.  Part of Hamlet’s problem, as he sees it, is that his mother, recently in widow’s black dress, marries his uncle such a short time afterwards: her mourning clothes were just an appearance, Hamlet thinks, and not really how she was feeling.

In contrast, Hamlet’s own clothes, his “inky cloak,” function as a dramatic metaphor for his grief for his dead father, his melancholic character, and his literal and figurative presence as death, (as a reminder of a past death and an embodiment of a future death, since he must murder Claudius to get revenge), all of which reinforces the reality vs. appearance theme.

N.B. It is only at the very end of the play that Hamlet finally changes out of his black clothes. Is his new traveller’s outfit a metaphor for some sort of change in his character? Consider whether or not Hamlet is really at all transformed in the end.

4. ACTING: consider the word-play involved in the “antic disposition,” and how Hamlet is constantly aware of the possibilities of acting and action, both in himself and in others. He is imprisoned in Denmark where he cannot act because it is so much a world of “acting,” of appearance, etc.

Hamlet is haunted by other worlds, the heroic world of the past, the supernatural world of the ghost, and the play-within-the-play = a means by which Hamlet can discover the truth, based on the reaction of Claudius to it; however, it is also, on some level, a manifestation of Hamlet’s contempt for all of the “acting” that is going on around him, and perhaps the way he treats Ophelia is so overly-cruel because he feels that she too is part of the “acting,” that she is an actress taking part in the enemy’s charades.

There are “asides” to the audience in which Hamlet expresses pride in his own acting, in the success of his “antic disposition.” Therefore, in a way, “acting” takes the place of “action” for Hamlet. Consider the irony inherent in Hamlet’s having to “act” in order to penetrate the world of appearance, the world of masks and “acting.” He has to stage plays, which = even more acting, a re-enactment of the crime which is the source of Denmark’s disease.

5. MEMORY: how it functions throughout the play for all of the characters: Hamlet, who worries about the memory of his father’s reputation and how the ghost incites him to murder with “remember me” (I.v.91); how Gertrude’s sin is really her failure to remember her recently deceased husband; Ophelia, who longs to redeliver “remembrances” and later laments to have seen what she has seen; the actors, who must remember speeches of intense emotion.

Claudius, as a villain who is plagued by memories of what he has done; and Fortinbras, who takes over Denmark at the end with the “rights of memory.”  Also, consider how physical objects embody memory, such as the ghost’s armour and the central symbol of the skull, how memory is “weighty” in that it contributes to the burden of consciousness, etc.

6. SPYING/DECEPTION: deception is the norm in Denmark. Consider the extent to which every relationship in the play is false: Polonius tells Laertes that he trusts him, that he may return to France, yet he sends his servant to spy on him; Hamlet is spied on by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are supposedly his friends.

Hamlet feels betrayed by Ophelia, who allows herself to be used to spy against him; Laertes, who claims to accept Hamlet’s offer of friendship with an open heart, then conspires with Claudius to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword in the fencing match, etc. With the exception of Horatio’s friendship with Hamlet, every relationship in the play involves spying/deception to some degree.

7. INCEST“: there is no doubt as to how the audience is meant to feel about the nature of the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius; incest is one of the universal taboos, constituting a source of “national pollution” (I.v.82-3) for Denmark. Neither Gertrude nor Claudius ever face up to the charge of incest. She admits that their marriage may have been “overhasty,” not that it is actually sinful. (When she appears guilty in the closet scene later in the play, it is for lust, not for having committed incest).

Similarly, Claudius begs forgiveness for his “rank offence” of committing fratricide, yet he never says anything about his marriage to the Queen. Hamlet and the ghost are obsessed by the idea of incest and both have an excessively harsh perception of Gertrude and Claudius, which highlights the disparity between Hamlet’s vision and that of the rest of the characters, since no one else ever mentions their relationship as incestuous. Also, consider the irony in Claudius’ role, and to what extent he is an inadequate representation of evil.

8. MADNESS: the genuine madness of Ophelia, the “antic disposition” of Hamlet, etc. Hamlet is obviously genuinely troubled; he has a “disturb’d mind” and in some sense is asserting an alienation he really feels. However, since it is alienation from a world Hamlet hates and scorns, it is an assertion of superiority and therefore a controlled madness. There are many interpretations of what precisely is wrong with Hamlet:

i)  Oedipus Complex– psychoanalytic interpretations use an “Oedipal model,” saying that Hamlet has an     Oedipus Complex, a preoccupation with his mother and her sexuality, while expressing a violent hatred directed towards Claudius, his “father-figure,” yet is unable to kill him.

ii) immaturity – perhaps Hamlet has overly-idealised his parents’  relationship, views it as “asexual,” etc. and cannot deal with the reality that his mother is just like everyone else.

iii) ruthlessness – Hamlet is somewhat ruthless and self-righteous. He even justifies his cruel treatment of Ophelia, as he does after murdering Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

iv) death-obsessed – Hamlet does spend all of the play lamenting his father’s death and thinking about how to kill Claudius, and even whether or not to commit suicide.

v)  egocentric – one might argue quite convincingly that Hamlet’s problem is that he cannot “get over himself,” that he is concentrating on his own problems, feeling sorry for himself, etc. (To provide a contemporary example, some critics have argued that all of modernist literature is actually about transcending the ego, and escaping/overcoming the limitations of the self, in all its imperfections).

Regardless of how one views Hamlet’s problems, consider how, as an audience, they become our problems in that we experience much of the play through him; it becomes increasingly difficult to detach ourselves from Hamlet and judge him accordingly. Hamlet’s vision, though inaccurate at times, imposes itself upon the audience; whether we like it or not, we are drawn into Hamlet’s inner life through his soliloquies.

9. ACTION/INACTION: this is basically Hamlet’s central problem, along with philosophizing, since Hamlet’s procrastination would not be such a big deal if he was not so meditative and always going on about it. Hamlet’s problem involves action because he must be the avenger and kill Claudius, the man who murdered his father, and this is presented in terms of a certain kind of world.

The ghost’s injunction for Hamlet to act becomes linked to the general character of the world in which such actions have and must take place: its corruption, the general “unknowability,” its deception, since things are rarely as they appear to be, the burden of being conscious of all this infection, weakness and loss, etc.

So even though the action of revenge (killing Claudius) is retributive justice, it is going to implicate Hamlet in all of the evil and guilt of the world, not just because he has to murder someone, but also because in order to penetrate the whole reality/illusion situation, he must do the same thing – act, pretend he is crazy, kill the wrong man, help drive Ophelia insane and to her death, and sentence two young men to death also.

Though Hamlet never really means to do any of these things, in terms of Fate, it is all inevitable from the beginning when the ghost challenges Hamlet to act. Just as Polonius says, “man becomes a little soiled in the working of the world” (II.i.40).

The famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy relates Hamlet’s immediate personal problems to the general question of what to do about the world the way it is: outrageous fortunes, an ocean of troubles, the passage of time, nameless oppressors, people who are too proud, unfaithful lovers, unresponsive heads of State, and basically all of the pessimistic things about the world in general.

Hamlet’s “question” is whether to face all of these evils stoically or to escape into oblivion, into death.  An ultimate nightmare for Hamlet that he expresses here is that the burden of having to exist in such a corrupt world would continue after death, into an eternal nightmare of consciousness.

1 Comment

  1. very insightful! any chance you could give some insights into the epistemological anxiety concerning hamlet – its sort of there in the appearence vs reality but related to the inaction maybe?

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