Study Guide and Summary
The Renaissance in Shakespeare’s Time
Broadly speaking, the renaissance movement is used to describe how Europeans moved away from the restrictive ideas of the Middle Ages. The ideology that dominated the Middle Ages was heavily focused on the absolute power of God and was enforced by the formidable Catholic Church.
From the Fourteenth Century onwards, people started to break away from this idea. The renaissance movement did not necessarily reject the idea of God, but rather questioned humankind’s relationship to God – an idea that caused an unprecedented upheaval in the accepted social hierarchy. In fact, Shakespeare himself may have been Catholic.
This focus on humanity created a new-found freedom for artists, writers and philosophers to be inquisitive about the world around them.
Shakespeare: the Renaissance Man
Shakespeare was born towards the end of the renaissance period and was one of the first to bring the renaissance’s core values to the theater.
Shakespeare Embraced the Renaissance in the Following Ways:
- Shakespeare updated the simplistic, two-dimensional writing style of pre-renaissance drama. He focused on creating “human” characters with psychologically complexity. Hamlet is perhaps the most famous example of this.
- The upheaval in the accepted social hierarchy allowed Shakespeare to explore the humanity of every character regardless of their social position. Even monarchs are given human emotions and are capable of making mistakes.
- Shakespeare utilized his knowledge of Greek and Roman classics when writing his plays. Before the renaissance, these texts had been suppressed by the Catholic Church.
Hamlet is the melancholy Prince of Denmark and grieving son to the recently deceased King. Thanks to Shakespeare’s skilful and psychologically-astute characterization, Hamlet is now considered to be the greatest dramatic character ever created.
From our very first encounter with Hamlet, he is consumed by grief and obsessed by death. Although he is dressed in black to signify his mourning, his emotions run deeper than his appearance or words can convey. In Act 1, Scene 2, he says to his mother:
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good-mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black …
Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed ‘seem’,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show –
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
The depth of Hamlet’s emotional turmoil can be measured against the high spirits displayed by the rest of the court. Hamlet is pained to think that everyone has managed to forget his father so quickly – especially his mother, Gertrude. Within a month of her husband’s death, Gertrude has married her brother-in-law. Hamlet cannot comprehend his mother’s actions and considers them to be an act of treachery.
Hamlet and Claudius
Hamlet idealizes his father in death and describes him as “so excellent a king” in his “O that this too too solid flesh would melt” speech in Act 1, Scene 2. It is therefore impossible for the new king, Claudius, to live up to Hamlet’s expectations. In the same scene, he pleads with Hamlet to think upon him as a father – an idea that furthers Hamlet’s contempt:
We pray you to throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father
When the ghost reveals that Claudius killed the king to take the throne, Hamlet vows to avenge his father’s murder. However, Hamlet is emotionally disorientated and finds it difficult to take action. He cannot balance his overwhelming hatred for Claudius, his all-encompassing grief and the evil required to carry out his revenge. Hamlet’s desperate philosophizing leads him into a moral paradox: that he must commit murder to avenge murder. Hamlet’s act of revenge is inevitably delayed amid his emotional turmoil.
Hamlet After Exile
We see a different Hamlet return from exile in Act 5: his emotional turmoil has been replaced by perspective, and his anxiety replaced by cool rationality. By the final scene, Hamlet has come to the realization that killing Claudius is his destiny:
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
Perhaps Hamlet’s new-found confidence in fate is little more than a form of self-justification; a way to rationally and morally distance himself from the murder he is about to commit.
It is the complexity of Hamlet’s characterization that has made him so enduring. Today, it is difficult to appreciate how revolutionary Shakespeare’s approach to Hamlet was because his contemporaries were still penning two-dimensional characters. Hamlet’s psychological subtlety emerged in a time before the concept of psychology had been invented – a truly remarkable feat.
Hamlet Summary (Short)
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is visited by a mysterious ghost resembling his recently deceased father, the King of Denmark. The ghost tells Hamlet that his father was murdered by Claudius, the King’s brother, who then took the throne and married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. The ghost encourages Hamlet to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius.
The task before Hamlet weighs heavily upon him. Hamlet’s uncertainty is what makes the character so believable – he is arguably one of literature’s most psychologically complex characters. He is slow to take action, but when he does it is rash and violent. We can see this in the famous “curtain scene” when Hamlet kills Polonius.
Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia, is in love with Hamlet, but their relationship has broken down since Hamlet learned of his father’s death. Ophelia is instructed by Polonius and Laertes to spurn Hamlet’s advances. Ultimately, Ophelia commits suicide as a result of Hamlet’s confusing behavior towards her.
In Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet organizes for players to re-enact his father’s murder at the hands of Claudius in order to gauge Claudius’ reaction. He confronts his mother about his father’s murder and hears someone behind the arras – believing it to be Claudius, Hamlet stabs the man with his sword. It transpires that he has actually killed Polonius.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Claudius realizes that Hamlet is out to get him and professes that Hamlet is mad. Claudius arranges for Hamlet to be shipped to England with his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who have been informing the king about Hamlet’s state of mind.
Claudius has secretly sent orders for Hamlet to be killed on arrival in England, but Hamlet escapes from the ship and swaps his death order for a letter ordering the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
“To Be or Not To be …”
Hamlet arrives back in Denmark just as Ophelia is being buried which prompts him to contemplate life, death and the frailty of the human condition.
Laertes returns from France to avenge the death of Polonius, his father. Claudius plots with him to make Hamlet’s death appear accidental and encourages him to anoint his sword with poison – putting a cup of poison aside in case the sword is unsuccessful.
In the action, the swords are swapped and Laertes is mortally wounded with the poisoned sword. He forgives Hamlet before he dies.
Gertrude dies by accidentally drinking the cup of poison. Hamlet stabs Claudius but is himself fatally wounded. Hamlet’s revenge is finally complete. In his dying moments, he bequeaths the throne to Fortinbras.
Hamlet Summary (Scene By Scene)
Hamlet Act 1, Scene 1
Francisco, Barnardo, Horatio and Marcellus are guarding the castle. A ghost appears dressed in armor resembling Hamlet the King (Hamlet’s father), who recently died. They try to encourage the ghost to speak its purpose, but it does not. They decide to inform Prince Hamlet about the strange event.
Hamlet Act 1, Scene 2
Claudius is the new King of Denmark – he explains that after the death of his brother, he has taken over the throne and married King Hamlet’s recently widowed wife, Gertrude. Claudius speaks of young Fortinbras who has written to him demanding the land that King Hamlet won from Fortinbras’ father.
It is evident that Hamlet disapproves of Claudius. Hamlet explains that mourning for his father is normal, implying that everyone else has got over his death too quickly. This is a pointed remark to his mother who has married her dead husband’s brother only a month after his death. In a soliloquy, Hamlet explains his disgust for his mother’s actions but understands that he must hold his tongue. Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo tell Hamlet about the apparition.
Hamlet Act 1, Scene 3
Laertes is leaving for France. He warns Ophelia that Hamlet’s love for her may be fleeting and inconstant. Polonius enters to bid farewell to his son and wants to know what they were discussing. Polonius also suggests that Hamlet’s professed love for her may not be genuine.
Hamlet Act 1, Scene 4
Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are looking for the ghost. As midnight comes, the ghost appears to them. Horatio and Marcellus cannot discourage Hamlet from following the ghost and consider the specter to be a bad omen for Denmark. This scene kick-starts the main story that drives ‘Hamlet’.
Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5
The ghost explains to Hamlet that he is the spirit of his father who cannot rest until revenge is taken upon his murderer. It is revealed that Claudius poured poison into the King’s ear while he was sleeping. Horatio and Marcellus enter and Hamlet explains that Claudius is a villain.
Hamlet Act 2, Scene 1
Ophelia claims that Hamlet came to her bedchamber, took hold of her, stared into her eyes and then left. She confirms to Polonius that she has sent back Hamlet’s love letters and refused to meet with him. Polonius believes that this may has angered Hamlet.
Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are instructed by King Claudius and Queen Gertrude to draw Hamlet out of his melancholy. Polonius suggests that Hamlet is upset because he has been rejected by Ophelia.
Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1
Polonius and Claudius arrange to secretly watch a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. When they meet, Hamlet denies any affection for her which further confuses Polonius and Claudius. They decide that either Gertrude can get to the root of Hamlet’s “madness” or he will be sent to England.
Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2
Hamlet directs the actors in a play to depict his father’s murder – he hopes to study Claudius’ reaction to this. Claudius and Gertrude leave during the performance. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inform Hamlet that Gertrude wants to speak to him.
Hamlet Act 3, Scene 3
Polonius arranges to secretly listen to the conversation between Hamlet and Gertrude. When alone, Claudius speaks of his conscience and guilt. Hamlet enters from behind and draws his sword to kill Claudius but decides that it would be wrong to kill a man while praying.
Hamlet Act 3, Scene 4
Hamlet is about reveal Claudius’ villainy to Gertrude when he hears someone behind the curtain. Hamlet thinks it is Claudius and thrusts his sword through the arras – he has killed Polonius. Hamlet reveals all and speaks to the ghost. Gertrude, who cannot see the apparition, is now convinced of Hamlet’s madness.
Hamlet Act 4, Scene 1
Claudius decides to send Hamlet to England when he hears of Polonius’ death.
Hamlet Act 4, Scene 2
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ask Hamlet what he has done with Polonius’ body because they want to take it to the chapel. Hamlet scorns them for their loyalty to Claudius.
Hamlet Act 4, Scene 3
Claudius demands that Hamlet reveals the location of Polonius’ body and informs him that he will soon be traveling to England. The King hopes that the English authorities will obey the orders he has sent with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Hamlet Act 4, Scene 4
Fortinbras sends a message to Claudius that he will be marching on his land. He encounters Hamlet who considers humanity’s capacity for violence. Hamlet decides to be more brutal in his revenge.
Hamlet Act 4, Scene 5
Ophelia is behaving strangely, singing a song about death. Claudius thinks that Ophelia is suffering from grief following the death of her father. Laertes also discovers that his father is dead.
Hamlet Act 4, Scene 6
A sailor gives Horatio a letter from Hamlet explaining that he has been captured by pirates reroute to England.
Hamlet Act 4, Scene 7
Laertes wants to avenge the death of his father and strikes a deal with Claudius. Laertes is to stab him with a poisoned rapier and Claudius is to have a standby cup of poison prepared. Gertrude reports that Ophelia has drowned herself.
Hamlet Act 5, Scene 1
At Ophelia’s freshly dug grave, Hamlet contemplates the lives belonging to the graveyard’s skulls and their dignity in life compared to their apparent treatment in death. Hamlet addresses the skull of Yorick, the King’s jester, who he once knew.
The funeral procession enters to bury Ophelia. Hamlet, observing, realizes who they are burying and confronts Laertes. As Hamlet professes his love for Ophelia, Claudius announces that Hamlet is mad.
Hamlet Act 5, Scene 2
Hamlet tells Horatio that Claudius had ordered his death in England. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unsuspectingly carried the orders in a letter; which he replaced with an order for their deaths.
A duel between Laertes and Hamlet is fought. Hamlet fights well, so Claudius offers him the poison cup – which he refuses. Unknowingly, Gertrude drinks from the cup. In the fight, Laertes and Hamlet swap rapiers and Laertes is injured with his own rapier. He dies from the poison. In his dying moments, Laertes informs Hamlet of Claudius’ plan and forgives him for killing his father.
A fatally wounded Hamlet kills Claudius before drinking the poison to take the agony out of his death. Fortinbras, whose army has invaded Denmark, enters just as Hamlet is dying. Hamlet bequeaths the throne to Fortinbras and is promised a soldier’s send off by the new King.
It is interesting that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy driven by a protagonist unable to commit to the act of revenge. In the story, it is Hamlet’s inability to avenge the murder of his father that drives the plot forwards and the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all result from Hamlet’s delay.
Action verses Inaction
To highlight Hamlet’s inability to take action, Shakespeare includes a number of other characters capable of taking resolute and headstrong revenge as required. Fortinbras travels many miles to take his revenge and ultimately succeeds in conquering Denmark; Laertes plots to kill Hamlet to revenge the death of his father, Polonius.
Compared to these characters, Hamlet’s revenge is ineffectual. Once he decides to take action, he delays any action until the end of the play. It should be noted that this is not uncommon in Elizabethan revenge tragedies. What makes Hamlet a unique piece of writing is the remarkable way in which Shakespeare uses the delay to build Hamlet’s emotional and psychological complexity.
Hamlet’s revenge is delayed in three significant ways:
- Hamlet must first establish Claudius’ guilt, which he does in Act 3, Scene 2 by presenting the murder of his father in a play. When Claudius storms out during the performance, Hamlet becomes convinced of his guilt.
- Hamlet then intellectualizes his revenge, contrasting with the rash actions of Fortinbras and Laertes. For example, Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius in Act 3, Scene 3. He draws his sword, but is concerned that Claudius will go to heaven if killed while praying.
- After killing Polonius, Hamlet is sent to England making it impossible for him to gain access to Claudius and carry out his revenge. During his trip, he decides to become more headstrong in his desire for revenge.
Although he does ultimately kill Claudius in the final scene of the play, we cannot credit Hamlet with plotting the revenge – rather, it is Claudius’ plan to kill Hamlet that backfires.
Perhaps if Hamlet had acted earlier, lives could have been saved?
Death permeates Hamlet right from the opening scene of the play, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father introduces the idea of death and its consequences. The ghost represents a disruption to the accepted social order – a theme also reflected in the volatile socio-political state of Denmark and Hamlet’s own indecision.
This disorder has been triggered by the “unnatural death” of Denmark’s figurehead, soon followed by a raft of murder, suicide, revenge and accidental deaths.
Hamlet is fascinated by death throughout the story. Although this is deeply rooted in his character, it could be a product of his grief. Hamlet’s most potent consideration of death comes in Act 4, Scene 3. His almost morbid obsession with the idea is revealed when asked by Claudius where he has hidden Polonius’ body.
At supper … Not where he eats, but where a is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service – two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.
Hamlet is describing the life-cycle of human existence. In other words: we eat in life; we are eaten in death. The frailty of human existence haunts Hamlet throughout the play and it’s a theme he returns to in Act 5, Scene 1: the iconic graveyard scene. Holding Yorick’s skull, he explores the brevity and futility of the human condition and the inevitability of death:
HAMLETNo, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it, as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop at a beer-barrel?
This sets the scene for Ophelia’s funeral where she too will be returned to the ground.
The idea of suicide also emerges from Hamlet’s preoccupation with death. Although he seems to consider this is an option, he does not act. Similarly, he does not act when he has the opportunity to kill Claudius and avenge the murder of his father in Act 3, Scene 3. Ironically, it is this lack of action on Hamlet’s part that ultimately leads to his death at the end of the play.
Alongside Hamlet’s main themes, like death, revenge and Hamlet’s inability to act, a number of sub-themes emerge in the play:
The State of Denmark
The political and social condition of Denmark is referred to throughout the play and the ghost is an embodiment of Denmark’s growing social unrest. This is because the blood-line of the monarchy has been unnaturally disrupted by Claudius, an immoral and power-hungry king.
At the time this play was written, Queen Elizabeth was 60 and there was concern about who would inherit the throne. Mary Queen of Scots’ son was an heir, but had the potential to ignite the political tension between Britain and Scotland. Therefore, the state of Denmark in Hamlet could be a reflection of Britain’s own social unrest.
Sexuality and Incest
Gertrude’s incestuous relationship with her bother-in-law plagues Hamlet more that his father’s death. In Act 3, Scene 4, he accuses his mother of living “In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty.”
Gertrude has destroyed Hamlet’s faith in women, which is perhaps why his feelings towards Ophelia become ambivalent.
Yet, Hamlet is not so angered by his uncle’s incest – it is Gertrude, not Claudius that he blames. Perhaps the reason for this is a combination of women’s passive role in society and Hamlet’s overpowering (maybe even verging on incestuous) passion for his mother.
Ophelia’s sexuality is also controlled by the men in her life. Laertes and Polonius are overbearing guardians and insist that she rejects Hamlet’s advances, despite her love for him.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses uncertainty more like a dramatic device than a theme. The uncertainties of the unfolding plot are what drive the actions of each character.
From the very beginning of the play, the ghost poses a great deal of uncertainty for Hamlet. He (and we) are uncertain about the ghost’s purpose – is it a sign of Denmark’s socio-political instability, a manifestation of Hamlet’s own conscience, an evil spirit provoking him to murder, or his father’s spirit unable to rest?
Hamlet’s uncertainty delays him from taking action, ultimately causing the unnecessary deaths of Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Even at the end of the play, we are left with a feeling of uncertainty when Hamlet bequeaths the throne to the rash and violent Fortinbras. In the closing moments of the play, Denmark’s future looks less certain than it did at the beginning.