This article introduces us to the play of the greatest dramatist in literary history. He is William Shakespeare. He is well respected and his plays are widely read and referred to because of the wisdom they contain. Hamlet is one of his tragedies. In fact, it is acclaimed to be one of the best.
Summary of the Play
The King of Denmark was killed by his brother, Claudius, who married the late King’s wife within two months of assassinating him. The action of the queen, Gertrude, and her marriage to the brother of her slain husband within a short time is condemned by everyone. So this action of Claudius confirms the people’s opinion that he killed his brother so as to become the king of Denmark and marry his widow. The lawful heir to the throne, Hamlet, is therefore shut out of the throne, which he is entitled to as a matter of right.
The result is that the Hamlet is troubled by the ignominy of his mother’s marriage and the loss of his father whom he loves so much. His mind is troubled and he develops apathy towards his favorite pastimes like reading of books, sports and princely exercises .What is more worrisome is not even that his throne has been usurped, but that his mother has not treated the memory of his father with respect and has to remarry a murderer within two months of his brutal murder. It is this singular stupid maternal action, much more than ten kingdoms, that dispirited the prince.
He heard rumours that a ghost like the dead father had been sighted by the palace guards for two consecutive nights. And his apprehension increases when he learns that the ghost dresses in the attire worn by the late king and that the outward appearance of the ghost looks sorrowful but that it did not make any speech and disappears when the morning cock crowed. He decides to keep watch with the guards. The ghost appears and gives him sign to move to another location with him and Hamlet determines and moves with the spirit while his friends dissuade him to no avail.
At a quiet place, the spirit tells him that he is the ghost of the late king who was murdered in cold blood by Claudius. Indeed, Claudius murdered him to inherit his widow and his crown by creeping into his garden in the afternoon when he was asleep and poured a poisonous liquid into his ears, which killed him immediately; thus, he was cut off at once from his crown and his queen by a brother’s hand. He therefore urges Hamlet, the young prince, to avenge this cruel murder. Hamlet resolves in his privacy to do the bidding of the ghost.
He gave his friends the details of the conversation but asks them to keep it a secret. Hamlet, fearing that the new king may discover his intent and prompting of the ghost, decides to feign madness. He appears henceforth as a mad man in his speeches, dressing and behaviour. He feigns this madness so masterly and craftily that the king and the queen are deceived into thinking that it is love for Ophelia that is driving him so mad.
He writes many love letters to Ophelia, and sends rings to her to cover his pretence of insanity. He is poised to avenge his father’s death. In the process, he kills Polonius, who is sent by Claudius to eavesdrop during the meeting between Hamlet and his mother. Ophelia his girlfriend who is Polonius’ daughter runs mad. Leartes, his brother vows to avenge their father’s death.
But the mission is not an easy one because of high security presence around the king. Also, Hamlet is noble-hearted and the murder of a creature makes him sad. He wonders whether the ghost’s command is right or wrong. He wants further proof. So, he organizes a play that presents a story that is similar to the account of the ghost about the murder of his late father. This play is presented before the new king in the form of a play-within-the-play.
The king calls for light and develops a sudden sickness and quickly leaves the theatre, and that brings the play to an abrupt end. Hamlet is now convinced. He then tells Horatio that he believes everything the ghost said. Hamlet was later invited to a private meeting by his mother. In the meeting, the mother tells him that his behaviour has troubled them, herself, and his uncle. Meanwhile, Claudius sent Polonius to secretly watch and get the details of the meeting, because he is sure that the queen would not tell him everything that transpired.
But Hamlet confronts his mother and accuses her of living in sin. In the course of accusations and the argument that follows, his mother insists on calling Polonius and is prevented by the prince. She shouts for help and a voice is heard behind the curtain, “Help, the queen!” Hamlet draws his sword and strikes, thinking that it is the king but it is Polonius who dies.
Incidentally, Polinius is Ophelia’s father. The shock of his death at the hands of her beloved drives her mad and she dies later. Her brother Leartes, decides to avenge the two deaths. The king seizes the opportunity to use him to kill Hamlet. They agree to kill Hamlet with a poisoned foil during a fencing match to be organized for Leartes and Hamlet. Before the match, the king offers a cup of poisoned wine to Hamlet but he declines. His mother who is not aware of the poison drinks the wine and dies as the match is going on. During the match, the foils are exchanged and both of them are wounded. Hamlet stabs the king with the poisoned foil, and forces him to drink the remaining poisoned wine.
As they all die, Fortinbras comes back from Poland, takes over Denmark and promises to restore peace while Horatio arranges for the burial.
The main theme of the play is the “natural streak of evil in nature” of the royal house of Denmark which threatens its existence. This evil in nature taints everything that is good in Denmark, disrupts its equilibrium and brings it to ruin. This sin against nature is manifested in the murder of the late king by his brother, young Hamlet’s feigned madness, his mother’s hasty marriage to Claudius and the eventual death of Hamlet, Leartes, Claudius and the Queen. Enclosed in this main theme are the themes of betrayal and revenge. Hamlet feels betrayed by his mother and uncle and that both betrayed
his late father. However, his mother’s betrayal hurts him more for his father loved his mother so much that even in death he (late king) intercedes for her. Olivia feels betrayed by Hamlet. The entire play revolves around Hamlet’s decision and move to revenge his father’s death.
The Shakespearean style used in this tragic play is unique as Hamlet tries to avenge the death of his father, the late king of Denmark who was murdered by his uncle, Claudius. The aftermath or consequences of this venture plunge the entire state into a state of cataclysm. The style and dramatic technique adopted therein are as follows.
The play has a linear and casual plot. It is presented in a five-act structure. The action follows a chronological, logical sequence from the beginning to the end except for the interruption for the “Mousetrap”. Each action leads to the other and they all contribute to the progress of the entire play. However, there are sub-plots but they are equally essential to the play. All of them depend casually upon each other with their climax coming together to re-inforce each other and their denouement (resolution) is interdependent.
The play is hinged on conflicts. These are the struggles or conflicts between Claudius and Hamlet, between Hamlet, Polonius and Leartes, and between Claudius’s regime and Fortinbras’. The interesting and unique thing is that they are tightly woven together casually and logically from the beginning to the end.
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s best constructed plays. It begins at the Castle of Elsinore in Denmark and its exposition carries one of the greatest suspense in dramatic history. It reveals the present, takes us back to the past (flashback) and also foreshadows the future. The suspense is steady till the end of the play. Hamlet knows that his father’s spirit is not happy, but feels that probably he died in sin. This fact leads to his indecision which sustains the suspense throughout the play and also to the anticlimax of the play when he dies eventually.
- Soliloquy and Aside
Soliloquy is employed to reveal the inner workings of the minds of characters in this play, Shakespeare uses it in its finest form especially in the character of Hamlet. The audience, through this technique, shares in Hamlet’s psychological disturbances and the innermost aspects of his character. It helps to reveal Hamlet’s character and also serves as a form of significant commentary on the events. The first soliloquy, for instance, reveals Hamlet’s predicament.- to be or not to be, to kill or not to kill the king- this is a weighty issue that burden him.
Soliloquy is a very important technique used in this play. Although Hamlet’s soliloquies do not represent the greater part of the play, but the main action which is the revenge plot, depends to a great extent on the working out of Hamlet’s private mental processes. Almost everything he does or does not do, is the result of one soliloquy or the cause of another. You will notice that when Hamlet stops soliloquizing, when he turns from private thought to definite public action, the play comes quickly to an end.
Aside is a dramatic convention that enables a character speak to himself or make a comment on the action or speech of another character. That other character is not expected to hear it but others could. Sometimes, an aside is directed to a particular character on another character’s speech or action. In the example below, Polonius, in an aside, calls the king’s attention to what Hamlet said:
Queen: Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me.
Ham: No, good mother, here’s metal more attractive.
Pol: [aside to the king] O ho! Do you mark that?
Ham: [lying at Ophelia’s feet] Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
( Act 111, Scene11)
The play-within-play is a short but complete play incorporated into the main play. A good example of this in Hamlet is the “Mousetrap” which presents a story that is similar to the way the late king was killed. This is another major device used by the playwright as a searchlight directed to Claudius, to examine his soul and mind. It serves as a point of recognition. Hamlet recognizes his uncle as the murderer of his father, Claudius on his part sees Hamlet as a big threat to him and his kingdom. Therefore, the king determines to eliminate him while Hamlet convinces himself that Claudius is responsible for his father’s death vows to kill him.