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|BookRags Literature Study Guide|
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
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Hamlet is without question the most famous play in the English language. Probably written in 1601 or 1602, the tragedy is amilestone in Shakespeare's dramatic development; according to most critics, the playwright achieved artistic maturity in this work through his brilliant depiction of the hero's struggle with two opposing forces: moral integrity and the need to avenge his father's murder. Shakespeare's focus on this conflict was arevolutionary departure from contemporary revenge tragedies which tended to graphically dramatize violent acts on stage in that it emphasized the hero's dilemmarather than the depiction of bloody deeds. The dramatist's genius is also evident in his transformation of the play's literary sources-especially the contemporaneous Ur-Hamlet- into an exceptional tragedy. The Ur-Hamlet, or "original Hamlet, " is alost play that scholars believe was written mere decades before Shakespeare's Hamlet, providing much of the dramatic context for the later tragedy. Numerous sixteenth-century records attest to the existence of the Ur-Hamlet, with some references linking its composition to Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy. Other principal sources available to Shakespeare were Saxo Grammaticus's Historiae Danicae (circa1200), which features apopular legend with aplot similar to Hamlet, and Francois de Belleforest's Histoires
Tragiques, Extraicts des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (7 Vols.; 1559-80), which provides an expanded account of the story recorded in the Historiae Danicae. From these sources Shakespeare created Hamlet, asupremely rich and complex literary work that continues to delight both readers and audiences with its myriad meanings and interpretations.
For two nights, the Ghost of King Hamlet has haunted the soldiers guarding Elsinore castle. On the third night, Horatio joins the watch; when the Ghost appears, however, it does not speak. Horatio surmises that the spirit represents abad omen of Denmark's future. The next day, Claudius addresses the assembled aristocrats at court; he thanks them for helping him to succeed to the throne of Denmark and for permitting his hasty marriage to Gertrude. The king then directs two ambassadors to travel to Norway and resolve the conflict with Fortinbras, who threatens Denmark with war. Claudius next turns his attention to Hamlet, whom he and Gertrude chide for expressing excessive melancholy over his father's death. Once alone, Hamlet describes the depth of his grief and his disgust at Gertrude's marriage to Claudius so soon after her husband's death. After the prince's speech, Horatio enters and tells him about the Ghost; Hamlet decides to stand watch with the guards that night. Elsewhere, Laertes, who has secured the king's permission to return to his studies in Paris, warns Opheliato beware Hamlet's romantic advances. When Polonius enters, he gives Laertes some parting advice and upon learning of his daughter's budding relationship with Hamlet, forbids her to see him again. That night the Ghost appears to Hamlet, demanding revenge for his murder at the hands of Claudius. The prince promises to undertake the task, swearing that he will concentrate on nothing else until it is accomplished.
Though several weeks have passed since Hamlet's meeting with the Ghost, he cannot bring himself to act. He not only dislikes the bloody deed he must perform, but, in adeep depression, begins to suspect that the Ghost is an evil spirit trying to trick him. While the prince bides his time, he assumes an "antic disposition" and at one point frightens Opheliawith his madness. Because the girl has ended their relationship, Polonius concludes that Hamlet's insanity reflects lovesickness. He reports his observations to Claudius, and the two men plot ameeting between the prince and Opheliato further determine the nature of Hamlet's madness. Meanwhile, Claudius enlists Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to discern the cause of the prince's insanity. A troupe of actors arrives at Elsinore after Hamlet's school friends, and the prince resolves to have them perform before Claudius that evening areenactment of King Hamlet's murder. Hamlet concludes that any demonstration of guilt by his uncle during the performance will confirm the Ghost's story and justify his revenge.
The next day Polonius and Claudius eavesdrop on Hamlet and Opheliaas the prince abuses the girl with violent denunciations of women and marriage. After Hamlet storms away, Polonius recommends that they attempt asimilar interview between Hamlet and Gertrude; Claudius agrees, but concerned with the prince's increasingly dangerous behavior, decides to send him to England. Later, the players follow Hamlet's instructions and re-enact Claudius's crime before the royal court. After witnessing the performance, the king flees the hall in astate of distress. Alone in his chambers, Claudius tries to pray. Hamlet discovers his uncle knelt in prayer and, though the moment is ideal, restrains himself from taking revenge, reasoning that if the king is killed in an act of repentance his soul will immediately go to heaven. Instead, the prince proceeds to Gertrude's chamber, where he denounces her so violently that Polonius-who is concealed behind acurtain-becomes alarmed and cries for help. In arage, Hamlet thrusts his sword through the curtain and fatally stabs the counselor. The prince resumes berating his mother until the Ghost reappears to remind him of his mission; Hamlet implores her to repent of her sins before leaving with Polonius's body.
After Hamlet leaves his mother, Gertrude informs Claudius that the prince has killed Polonius. Following aface-to-face encounter, the king orders Hamlet to leave immediately for England and gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern asealed letter authorizing the prince's execution. As he prepares to board ship, Hamlet observes Fortinbras's army encamped nearby. In along soliloquy he compares his own dilemmato the impending slaughter that Fortinbras's forces will surely face over aworthless plot of land. He ultimately resolves that from now on he will show no mercy in his quest for revenge. Meanwhile, Laertes returns from France, furiously demanding an explanation for his father's murder. The youth's grief and anger mounts when he discovers that Opheliahas gone insane. While Claudius attempts to placate the incensed youth, sailors arrive at Elsinore bearing letters from Hamlet. Horatio receives the first note, which describes how the prince was taken prisoner by pirates who attacked his ship on the high seas and thereafter returned him to Denmark. Hamlet's note to Claudius announces his imminent return to Elsinore, prompting the king and Laertes to devise aplot to murder him during afencing match in which Laertes will fight with apoison-tipped foil. Gertrude then enters in adistraught state and informs the two men that Opheliahas drowned.
Hamlet and Horatio meet in agraveyard near Elsinore where the prince and agravedigger have acandid discussion about corpses. As Ophelia's funeral procession approaches, the two men conceal themselves to watch the ceremony. When Hamlet realizes that the funeral is Ophelia's. he reveals himself and protests that his love for the girl was greater than Laertes's, whereupon the two men scuffle over the grave. Later, Hamlet tells Horatio about Claudius's plot to have him killed in England and about switching the king's letter with one ordering the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. When acourtier enters with Laertes's invitation to afencing match, Horatio warns Hamlet of atrap. The prince accepts the challenge, however, maintaining that he must yield his fate to divine will. During the match. Claudius drops apoisoned pearl in acup of wine intended for the prince. When Hamlet refuses the proffered drink. Gertrude unwittingly drinks it herself. As they continue the match, Laertes cuts the prince with his tainted sword; Hamlet furiously retaliates, the two switch foils, and the prince in turn wounds Laertes with the poisoned weapon. When Gertrude collapses, Laertes realizes Claudius's treachery; he begs Hamlet's forgiveness and blames the king before he dies. Hamlet attacks Claudius, stabbing him first with his sword and then forcing him to drink from the venomous cup before he, too, succumbs to the effects of the poison. Distressed at the sight of his dying friend, Horatio tries to drink some tainted wine, but Hamlet prevents him, telling him that he must explain to the world how such acatastrophe happened. The prince then names Fortinbras king of Denmark. After Hamlet dies, the prince of Norway enters, having victoriously returned from the war with Poland, and orders some of his soldiers to bury Hamlet with full military honors.
Act 1, Scene 1 Summary
It is bitter cold. Outside a castle in Elsinore, Denmark, Bernardo, an officer in the King's service, reports promptly to Francisco, who is on watch, at his post. He tells Francisco to go to bed. Before he does, Marcellus and Horatio approach them. Marcellus asks Bernardo if the "thing" has appeared again during his watch. Bernardo says Marcellus has brought Horatio to confirm what they have seen. Just as they are about to relate their story to Horatio, the Ghost appears. Horatio confirms it looks like the recently deceased King when he, in full armor, battled Norway. But when questioned, the Ghost vanishes. When the Ghost returns, Horatio tries again, but it disappears with the cock's crow. Bernardo says it was about to speak. Horatio will now tell Prince Hamlet.
Act 1, Scene 1 Analysis
This famous opening scene focuses on the strange appearance of a Ghost to several soldiers. The Ghost appears to be the recently deceased King of Denmark, Hamlet's father. It is confronted by Hamlet's friend, Horatio. The Ghost's appearance seems to indicate a need to communicate, yet a frustration or inability to present its case. This is a powerful way of setting up the story- with a mysterious apparition that seems to definitely invoke Prince Hamlet's participation.
Act 1, Scene 2 Summary
This scene takes place in a room of state in the Castle. Claudius, the present King of Denmark, who has replaced Hamlet's father, speaks with pain of his brother's death and his sad marriage to Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. Fortinbras, son of the King of Norway, who was killed in battle by the Danes, now seeks his lands returned. Claudius dispatches Cornelius and Voltimand to "Old Norway" to make the peace. Laertes, the son of Polonius, petitions Claudius, who he has visited for his coronation, to let him return to France. After Polonius' consent is clear, Claudius gives him permission. Claudius then turns to Hamlet, who is beside himself with grief and suspicious of Claudius. Hamlet's grief, as he tells his mother, Gertrude, is beyond mere signs and black capes which are only "the trappings and the suits of woe." Claudius takes him to task for this. Taken beyond a certain point, grief is "unmanly," an affront to Heaven. Claudius does not want him to go to school in Wittenberg but to stay in Court with Gertrude and himself. Hamlet accedes to Claudius and his mother's request. They all exit, leaving Hamlet alone. In his soliloquy, he mourns the death of his father. He is disconsolate with pain, wishing his "flesh would melt…and resolve itself into a dew." He resents most keenly his mother's quick marriage to Claudius, forgetting his father, who she had clung to, originally, with unabated appetite. Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo enter. Horatio, Hamlet's close friend, tells him how he has seen the apparition the night before, its pale countenance filled more with sorrow than anger. Hamlet swears he will speak to it though Hell itself should protest and open its jaws to consume him.
Act 1, Scene 2 Analysis
This is a complex scene. Claudius seems, in his opening speech, to try and justify his position and his marriage. Claudius allows Polonius' son, Laertes, to return to France. He sends two peacekeepers to Norway to try and mollify the Norwegian Prince, Fortinbras, now an enemy of Denmark. It is clear that Hamlet gravely distrusts Claudius and resents his quick marriage to Gertrude his mother. Hamlet's grief is enormous and fills his actions eventually with complex and murderous intent. In this scene, he is more mournful and confused at his mother's sudden marriage. He tells this with great bitterness to his visiting friend, Horatio, who has come to speak with him about the Ghost. Once hearing of his Father's Ghost, Hamlet is determined to speak with it. Hamlet, whose mourning is bigger than life, seems tragically imprisoned by his grief.
Act 1, Scene 3 Summary
This scene takes place in a room in Polonius' house. Polonius is the father of Laertes and Ophelia, who speak with each other in the beginning of the scene. Laertes warns his sister against Hamlet's profession of love. As Prince, he is "subject to his birth" and his love is entwined with matters of state. Their father, Polonius, then enters. He is happy to see them both, but then gives Laertes some words of wisdom before his departure. In this famous speech, he tells him neither "a borrower nor lender be;" to buy costly, but not ostentatious clothes; to listen to others, but to lend his voice carefully and to be true to himself. Laertes leaves. Polonius hears of Hamlet's entreaties of love, but, like Laertes, warns her against Hamlet and asks her to stay away from him.
Act 1, Scene 3 Analysis
Even those who are close to Hamlet are fearful of his intentions. To Laertes and to Polonius, Hamlet's profession of love to Ophelia is a dangerous and impermanent affiliation, despite his proximity to the throne. This scene shows how, despite his great grief, Hamlet is in the throes of love and adoration. Still, can his stability and intentions be trust in light of the political intrigues common to his high position and the ravaging passions of his grief? In this play, in respect of and in contrast to Polonius' memorable injunction to his son, Hamlet is not true to any man. Is it because Hamlet, in some sense, is not true to himself? In the classical description of tragedy by Aristotle, the protagonist must have, at his core, some fatal quality of hubris or pride. Is there such a flaw in Hamlet, who doubtless has been grievously betrayed by his parents?