"Are the commentators on Hamlet really mad, or only pretending to be?"

--Oscar Wilde


Sources of Hamlet

Shakespeare's immediate source for Hamlet (which was first performed in 1601) was an earlier play called Hamlet which was being performed on the stage in London in the late 1580s and early 1590s. That play (often referred to by critics as the Ur-Hamlet) has been lost, so it is impossible to know how much like Shakespeare's Hamlet it was. It was assumed for years that the play was written by Thomas Kyd, who authored The Spanish Tragedy. Recently, though, a number of reputable scholars have put forth the theory that Shakespeare himself wrote the earlier play. If that is true, it would have been among his first dramatic efforts. Some of Shakespeare's contemporaries, particularly one of his enemies, appear to have thought he wrote it, as well. But unless the play is found (and hundreds of plays from this period are lost), we will probably never know for sure.

There are two earlier versions of the story; one of these is certainly the source for at least the Ur-Hamlet. The first known version of the story was written by Saxo Grammaticus in his history of Denmark, Gesta Danorum, around 1200 A.D. This story was translated by Francois de Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques and printed on the Continent in 1570; it was published in London in 1608. Shakespeare's Hamlet had already been written and performed by this time. It is not known which source Shakespeare used, and his Hamlet is certainly much different from the original character, Amleth. If you are so inclined, you can read both of the earlier versions; below are links to each:

Link to "Amleth"

Link to Belleforest's Hamblet

When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he would have had access to the Ur-Hamlet (especially if he wrote it!), because it had been acted by his colleagues in Burbage's Theatre. In addition, his fellow actors Will Kempe, George Bryan, and Thomas Pope had acted in 1585 and 1586 at Elsinore (or, in Danish, Helsingor, which is the name of the town, not the castle). The medieval castle there had been transformed from a damp, partially ruined fortress into a Renaissance palace and renamed Kronborg by Danish King Frederik II, who had led Denmark from the Middle Ages into a cultural and economic enlightenment. Frederik's daughter Anna had married King James VI of Scotland. James would inherit the England's throne from Queen Elizabeth a few years later, and Anna would become Queen of England.

Note: When Shakespeare's Hamlet was performed in 1601, Richard Burbage played Hamlet. Shakespeare himself played the Ghost.

Themes and Ideas

Critics have puzzled and argued over Hamlet since it first appeared on the stage. They have either admired or complained about the wandering plot, Hamlet's delays in killing the king, the contradictory nature of the play, and the ambiguity of Hamlet's character.

John Dennis, writing in London in 1712, says that there is no clear moral lesson in the play, since both good and bad characters die: "The good and the bad then perishing promiscuously in the best of Shakespeare's tragedies, there can be either none or very weak instruction in them: for such promiscuous events call the government of providence into question, and by skeptics and libertines are resolved into chance."

Samuel Johnson, in his 1765 book, The Plays of William Shakespeare, generally praises Hamlet for its entertaining variety and balance. But he dislikes its resolution:

Hamlet is, through the whole play, an instrument rather than an agent. After he has, by the stratagem of the play, convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish him, and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet has no part in producing.
The catastrophe is not very happily produced; the exchange of instruments is rather an expedient of necessity, than a stroke of art. A scheme might easily have been formed, to kill Hamlet with the dagger, and Laertes with the bowl.
The poet is accused of having shown little regard to poetical justice, and may be charged with equal neglect of poetical probability. The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he demands is not obtained but by the death of him that was required to take it; and the gratification which would arise from the destruction of a usurper and a murderer, is abated by the untimely death of Ophelia, the young, the beautiful, the harmless, and the pious.

Henry Mackenzie, writing for The Mirror in 1770, acknowledges the contradictions in Hamlet's character: "With the strongest purposes of revenge, he is irresolute and inactive; amidst the gloom of deepest melancholy, he is gay and jocular; and while he is described as a passionate lover, he seems indifferent about the object of his affections." But it is these very contradictions, he argues, that make the play so compelling:

Had Shakespeare made Hamlet pursue his vengeance with a steadily determined purpose, had he led him through difficulties arising from accidental causes, and not from the doubts and hesitation of his own mind, the anxiety of the spectator might have been highly raised; but it would have been anxiety for the event, not for the person. As it is, we feel not only the virtues, but the weaknesses of Hamlet, as our own; we see a man who, in other circumstances, would have exercised all the moral and social virtues, one whom nature had formed to be
Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state
The glass of fashion, and the mould of form,
Th' observed of all observers,
placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress, and to perplex his conduct. Our compassion for the first, and our anxiety for the latter, are excited in the strongest manner; and hence arises that indescribable charm in Hamlet, which attracts every reader and every spectator, which the more perfect characters of other tragedies never dispose us to feel.

Johann von Goethe (German author of Faust), writing in 1795, sees Hamlet, not as complicated, but as lacking in heroism. He quotes Hamlet's words:

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
In these, words, I imagine, will be found the key to Hamlet's whole procedure. To me it is clear that Shakespeare meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it...There is an oak tree planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only pleasant flowers in its bosom; the roots expand, the jar is shivered.
A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and which it must not cast away.

Augustus Schlegel, writing in 1808, disagrees with Goethe's assessment of Hamlet. Although he likes the play, the character of Hamlet is, he says, not as admirable:

With respect to Hamlet's character: I cannot, as I understand the poet's views, pronounce altogether so favorable a sentence upon it as Goethe does...in the resolutions which [Hamlet] so often embraces and always leaves unexecuted, his weakness is too apparent: he does himself only justice when he implies that there is no greater dissimilarity than between himself and Hercules. He is not solely impelled by necessity to artifice and dissimulation, he has a natural inclination for crooked ways; he is a hypocrite towards himself; his far-fetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his want of determination: thoughts, as he says on a different occasion, which have
...but one part wisdom
and ever three parts coward...

In 1874, W.S. Gilbert's skit on the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, appeared. It satirized all the critical disputes about the play. In one passage, Guildenstern exclaims of Hamlet, "Oh, he is surely mad!" Ophelia replies,

...Well, there again
Opinion is divided. Some men hold
That he's the sanest, far, of all sane men--
Some that he's really sane, but shamming mad--
Some that he's really mad, but shamming sane--
Some that he will be mad, some that he was--
Some that he couldn't be. But on the whole
(As far as I can make out what they mean)
The favourite theory's somewhat like this:
Hamlet is idiotically sane
With lucid intervals of lunacy.

Twentieth century critics have mostly given Hamlet good reviews. The most notable exception was T.S. Eliot, who felt that Hamlet was "certainly an artistic failure." But others disagree:

Many critics have analyzed Hamlet's meaning and done close readings of its various incidents and passages, and it would be impossible to include all of their ideas here. So I'll pass along a few of the more interesting ones.

Ernest Jones, for example, argues that Hamlet has a deeply repressed sexual desire for his mother and that, when she maries her husband's brother, Hamlet's anger to her is motivated by sexual jealousy. His outbursts against Ophelia, Jones argues, are misdirected expressions of his resentment against his mother. The words "Get thee to a nunnery" thus acquire a double meaning, since "nunnery" referred, in Elizabethan times, not only to a convent but a brothel.

Rebecca West argues that Ophelia is not the chaste virgin her father takes her to be: "That is shown by her tolerance of Hamlet's obscene conversations, which cannot be explained as consistent with the custom of the time." She is then used by her father to further his own purposes, just as women were used so often in royal courts as pawns in power struggles.

West further argues that Ophelia did not go mad for love and kill herself. "No line in the play suggests that she felt either passion or affection for Hamlet. She never mentions him in the mad scene, and Horatio says of her, 'She speaks much of her father.' Indeed she was in a situation which requires no sexual gloss. Her father had been murdered by a member of the royal house, and she found herself without protection...in the midst of a crisis such as might well send her out of her wits with fear." Ophelia was brought up in the royal court, and she knows what happens to those who are perceived as a threat to the leaders. Shakespeare's audience knew it well, too: the memory of Henry VIII's executed wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, was still fresh.

Stanley Wells points out the comic aspects of Hamlet. This play has an enormous amount of comedy in it. "Shakespeare's determination to sustain the possibility of a comic perspective on the tragic action is clear in that the most purely comic characters--the gravediggers and Osric--do not emerge until the last act." (Harold Bloom notes that the name Amleth, the original name of the character upon whom Hamlet is based, "derives from the Old Norse for an idiot, or for a tricky Fool who feigns idiocy.") Hamlet's witticisms, says Wells, balance his melancholy, making him likable rather than dreary. We get a hint of how charming he must have been before his father was murdered and his life fell apart. This heightens our sense of how terrible his burden is.

Harold Bloom, like many other critics, focuses on the question of Hamlet's character: "The question of Hamlet must always be Hamlet himself, for Shakespeare created him to be as ambivalent and divided a consciousness as a coherent drama could sustain."

Bloom also speculates that perhaps the characters function as metaphors. "...Shakespeare chose not to follow his source by naming Hamlet's father Horwendil but gave father and son the same name...the Ghost is a warrior fit for an Icelandic saga, while the prince is a university intellectual, representative of a new age. Two Hamlets confront each other, with virtually nothing in common except their names. The Ghost expects Hamlet to be a version of himself, even as young Fortinbras is a reprint of Old Fortinbras...The Archaic Age faces the High Renaissance..." Ironically, Fortinbras inherits the throne at the end of the play, and his is the last word: "Shoot."

On a less metaphorical level, Bloom draws attention to Hamlet's contradictory qualities. He is both a hero and a villain, a mixture of transcendence and corruption: "It is very difficult to generalize about Hamlet, because every observation will have to admit its opposite. He is the paradigm of grief, yet...his continuous wit gives the pragmatic effect of making him seem endlessly high-spirited..."

Last but not least, there is A.C. Bradley, whose lectures on Shakespearean tragedy are brilliant. He concerns himself with dissecting Hamlet's character. Quoting Schlegel, he calls Hamlet a "tragedy of thought": the hero fails to deal effectively with critical circumstances, but "...the failure...is connected rather with [his] intellectual nature and reflective habit than with any yielding to passion." It is Hamlet's idealism, his open and generous nature, his desire to see good in others rather than evil--in short, his virtues--that kill him. The King says, in the scene in which he and Laertes are planning the fencing contest, that Hamlet is too "generous and free from all contriving" to "peruse the foils"--and, indeed, Hamlet did not examine the swords before the match began.

Bradley points out that, throughout the play, Hamlet procrastinates, passing up opportunity after opportunity to kill the King. He doesn't go to kill the King in hot blood immediately after the Ghost tells him about the murder. In fact, his blood cools remarkably quickly. He has the players act out the murder, telling himself he needs proof of what the Ghost told him. Then there is the scene in which he is finally given the perfect opportunity: the King is kneeling, praying, his back to Hamlet, his neck exposed, vulnerable. And Hamlet decides not to kill him, using the excuse that, if he is killed while in prayer, his soul will go to Heaven, while Hamlet's father's soul did not.

This seems logical, but on top of the other delays, it is clearly another excuse. And, Bradley says, "...his failure here is the cause of all the disasters that follow."

Hamlet himself is bewildered by the delays. In two separate soliloquys, one at the end of Act II, and one in Act IV, he puzzles over and is ashamed at his lack of action, and fears it is just cowardice.

By the last act, Hamlet seems determined to proceed, but with a certain weariness: "There's a divinity shapes our ends," he tells Horatio. Bradley sees this as resignation rather than faith, a "kind of sad or indifferent self-abandonment, as if he secretly despaired of forcing himself to action, and were ready to leave his duty to some other power than his own." He seems indifferent to his danger, both from Laertes and the King, and instead muses in the graveyard on the "nothingness of life and fame." He says to Laertes, "I loved you ever: but it is no matter," as if nothing matters.

Bradley believes Hamlet's nobility comes forth as he dies, and we are reminded of it by Horatio's words:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

There is so much to say about Hamlet; no matter how much you say, there is always more. Its layers seem endless. Countless other critics have addressed various aspects of Hamlet and still, after 400 years, there is no consensus about the play. Harold Bloom says such consensus is impossible, because of the nature of Hamlet:

There is no 'real' Hamlet, as there is no 'real' Shakespeare: the character, like the writer, is a reflecting pool, a spacious mirror in which we needs must see ourselves. Permit this dramatist a concourse of contraries, and he will show us everybody and nobody, all at once. We have no choice but to permit Shakespeare, and his Hamlet, everything, because neither has a rival.

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Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, by Stanley Wells
2. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
3. Shakespeare, by Anthony Burgess
4. Shakespeare: A Life, by Park Honan
5. Shakespeare: The Lost Years, by E.A.J. Honigman
6. "Hamlet: A Modern Perspective," by Michael Neill, in the New Folger Library edition of Hamlet
7. Shakespearean Tragedy, by A.C. Bradley
8. "An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare," by John Dennis, in the Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet
9. "The Praise of Variety," by Samuel Johnson, in the Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet
10. "Criticism on the Character and Tragedy of Hamlet," by Henry MacKenzie, in the Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet
11. "A Soul Unfit," by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in the Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet
12. "Criticisms on Shakespeare's Tragedies: Hamlet," by Augustus William Schlegel, in the Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet
13. "Hamlet and His Problems," by T. S. Eliot, in the Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet
14. "Tragedy and the Mind of the Infant," by Ernest Jones, in the Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet
15. "The Nature of Will," by Rebecca West, in the Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet

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