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Term Definition

Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s most popular, and most puzzling, play. It follows the form of a “revenge tragedy,” in which the hero, Hamlet (the main protagonist), seeks vengeance against his father’s murderer, his uncle Claudius, now the king of Denmark. Much of its fascination, however, lies in its uncertainties.

Introduction to Hamlet

Hamlet, short for The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a popular tragedy written by William Shakespeare at the turn of the seventeenth century. The play depicts the revenge that Prince Hamlet seeks to impose upon his uncle Claudius, who killed Hamlet’s father, seized the throne, and married his dead brother’s wife. 

The longest and one of the most influential tragedies in the history of English literature, the play is one of Shakespeare’s most popular works and is performed more often than any other of his plays. Hamlet has notably inspired Goethe, Dickens, Joyce, and Murdoch, among others. 

The story is a derivative of the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, which was preserved during the thirteenth century and gained popularity once more during the sixteenth century. When writing the play, Shakespeare wrote with leading actor of the times, Richard Burbage, an extremely popular tragedian. Click here to read a sample paper on Hamlet: A Youthful Interpretation.

Common themes within Hamlet

The story of Hamlet continuously returns to the uncertainty of life and struggle for power. Hamlet is always over-thinking everything and trying to gain more knowledge before he makes any decisions, thinking that if he only had enough information, he will make the correct choice. The play raised many more questions and was much deeper than other theatrical works of the time. Did Hamlet truly see his father’s ghost? Is it even possible for the ghost of the ones we love to visit us after they die, or was Hamlet simply mad? It also raised questions about how well we can know the people in our lives. Can Hamlet really trust what Claudius tells him? Can we accurately know someone judging by the things they tell us and their behavior? If we study someone long enough and ask all the right questions, can we come to truly know the state of someone’s soul? Hamlet is constantly questioning himself and the people around him, forcing the audience members to reflect on their own lives and question what they really can be certain of. THis constant questioning and his resulting actions are his fatal flaw.

Historical background

There have been discovered three very early editions of Hamlet, making it quite difficult to authenticate any of them as the true original text, as they all vary slightly from one another. The first, First Quarto, was published in 1603 by Nicholas Ling and John Trundell. This version, printed by Valentine Simmes, is referred to as the ‘bad’ first quarto, as it contains only a little more than half of the text found in the second version. Second Quarto was published in 1604 by Nicholas Ling and printed by James Roberts, is sometimes dated 1605 and indicates a second impression. This is the longest early edition, though it omits approximately seventy seven lines found in the third edition, as they were offensive to the Queen of Denmark. The final of these early editions is known as the First Folio. Published in 1623 by Edward Blount and William and Isaac Jaggard, this was the first edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. Though other versions were later published, it is agreed that these later editions are derivatives of the first three.

Hamlet has always been popular, even from the seventeenth century when the play was originally published. Popular for its insanity and melancholy, it was well-loved amongst mass audiences. Critics, however, called Hamlet primitive and found displeasure in its lack of decorum and unity. Later, in the eighteenth century, Hamlet was praised as a brilliant young hero who was unlucky enough to be thrust into unfortunate circumstances. As critics began to focus more on characters than plot, the complexity of the characters was appreciated in a whole new way. Today, Hamlet is valued for its examination of the internal struggle inside each of us and is often interpreted on stages and in various mediums all over the world.

Related reading: Read more about Shakespeare's other tragedies: Macbeth and King Lear.

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