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Study Guide for Hamlet

General Introduction

Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark is considered by many to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest works. Written around 1599-1602 (the exact date is unknown), it is certainly one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays. The line “To be or not to be,” from the famous soliloquy, is now part of the common language in English. It is quoted in everyday speech and has found its way into almost every area of popular culture.

The play is a traditional five-act tragedy. With the first two acts offering expository material and rising action, the climax comes in Acts III and IV, with some kind of resolution in Act V. This is the traditional form dating all the back to Seneca in classical antiquity.

In many ways, Hamlet is a simple revenge tale. The crucial difference is Hamlet is that our hero is completely incapable of acting on his duty. Prince Hamlet is charged by the ghost of his late father, King Hamlet, with the duty to avenging his murder by Claudius, the King’s brother. Hamlet is paralyzed with his endless ruminations on life, guilt, the after-life, and self-doubt. He is a thinker rather than a man of action. In this way, many scholars have seen Hamlet as the “modern man.” No longer driven by medieval codes of revenge and loyalty, the modern man must deliberate on his own destiny and weigh the facts. We as moderns do not operate with the same strict codes of action as ancient times.

The play is also characterized by problems. Hamlet’s mother has re-married the brother of her late husband. Combine this fact with Hamlet’s obsessive attention with his mother and we can begin to see issues such as incest lurking around the seams of the play.

That Hamlet never willingly acts on his revenge but nevertheless is responsible for the deaths of many people render the morality of the play questionable. To what degree is Hamlet a real hero? Is he a villain? And if he is a villain, what do we make of a villain who is in the position of a hero?

The play is filled with philosophical questions and confusing issues. Perhaps this is why it has endured all these many centuries.