Hamlet: Themes

Hamlet’s themes are crucial to see through if you wish to understand what the author tried to say. Famous works of William Shakespeare are staged even today, centuries after being written. They remain relatable and influential, regardless of period. The themes in Hamlet are one of the primary reasons why, so it’s critical to examine them.

Hamlet's themes.

Death Theme

Death in Hamlet is a central theme in the play. It starts with Barnardo’s question, “Who’s there?” which has two meanings. The first one is immediate. The second one has a broader meaning regarding the theme of mortality in Hamlet. This question wonders about life after death, the condition of the dead ones, and many more.

Throughout the play, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of death. He examines it from multiple perspectives. The protagonist thinks about spiritual death when he encounters the Ghost. In Act 5 Scene 1, he considers a physical death when he finds the skull of poor Yorick. He reflects on suicide as an option to escape his problems and revenge.

The protagonist, in the play, becomes not only an agent of vengeance but death. In Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy, he refuses life because he wants to serve justice for his dead father. As a result of his choices and procrastination, everyone around Hamlet is dying: Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Hamlet himself.

In the play, death becomes the cause and the consequence of revenge. Therefore, it is closely connected with the theme of revenge in Hamlet.

Quotes about Death

  1. “To be or not to be—that is the question”
    This is the most famous Hamlet’s phrase about death in the entire play. It happens in Act 3, Scene 1, in one of Hamlet’s soliloquies, when he is asking questions about life and death. This specific phrase addresses the question of whether a man should exist or not.
  2. “To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d”
    In this quote in Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet compares death to sleep. He is seriously considering suicide because death can end all the sufferings and pain.
  3. “Death, the undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn no traveler returns”
    This phrase from Act 3, Scene 1, means that there is no way to undone death. No one ever had a chance to come back and tell about the condition of the dead ones. So, Hamlet is saying that if you die, there is no way to live again.
  4. “Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen?”
    In this quote, Hamlet talks about Yorick. He examines his skull and cries out. This speech is crucial for understanding Hamlet’s fears and hesitation. Hamlet is preoccupied with the universality of death and examines it from the physical perspective. There is nothing left from poor Yorick besides the memory of him and the skull. This happens in Act 5, Scene 1.

Revenge Theme

Hamlet is often called a revenge tragedy. Indeed, it is centered around contemplating vengeance. Hamlet spends most of the play thinking about murdering Claudius. The hero’s inability to do so leads to the death of other characters in the story.

The protagonist is suffering because of this inability to act. When he finally kills Claudius, it is too late. Hamlet himself is deadly wounded.

However, Hamlet is not the only character who contemplated revenge in the play. Fortinbras travels miles to take his revenge; Laertes wants to find justice for Polonius. Unlike these two characters, Hamlet cannot take action. He waits till the end of the play to kill Claudius.

His delay has three reasons: first, he wants to make sure Claudius is guilty. He investigates, staging the murder of Old Hamlet and finding the uncle’s reaction. Second, Hamlet wants to make sure Claudius is not going to heaven after death. This is why he refuses to kill his uncle while he is praying. Third, Hamlet’s trip to England after he murders Polonius also delays the revenge.

Even in the end, when Hamlet finally kills Claudius, it is a reaction to Claudius’s plan. He plotted to kill Hamlet, which was successful as his nephew was deadly injured. The inevitability of death may have been the reason why Hamlet was ready to avenge.

Quotes about Revenge

  1. “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”
    In this Hamlet’s revenge quote, the ghost asks Hamlet to revenge for his murder. In Act 1, Scene 5, Hamlet is about to learn that Claudius is responsible for the death of his dear father. He already hates Claudius, his uncle, and will be willing to believe what the ghost says.
  2. “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
    And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
    And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
    A villain kills my father; and for that,
    I, his sole son, do this same villain send
    To heaven”

    This quote is from Act 3, Scene 3 of Hamlet. The young prince has an opportunity to kill Claudius. However, he finds him praying. It prevents Hamlet from acting. Hamlet is afraid that if he kills him at that moment, Claudius will go to heaven.
  3. “Revenge should have no bounds”
    In this quote from Act 4, Scene 7, Claudius states that revenge should happen no matter what. He tries to convince Laertes to kill Hamlet. This quote is ironic because Claudius is the one expressing it.
  4. “O, from this time forth,
    My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”

    Hamlet contemplates an idea of revenge in Act 4, Scene 4. He thinks that planning revenge made his mind and thoughts bloody as well. He also expresses that it is impossible to find justice without shedding blood. If his views are not murderous, then they are worthless.

Corruption Theme

A theme of “illness” of the state and corruption in Hamlet in some way overlaps with the theme of death. Once again, the opening scene is used as a foreshadowing. The soldiers fear an outside threat. However, when the ghost appears, they realize that the danger is much closer than all of them thought.

In Hamlet, there is a connection between the ruler’s moral character and the health of the nation. Denmark is described as a physical body that is ill because of Gertrude and Claudius’ moral corruption. From Act 1, Scene 1, the reader views the unweeded gardens and various forms of decay. The ghost then is an indication that something is wrong in the country. As famously said, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

In other words, there is a lot of anxiety caused by the transfer of power. Denmark of the past with a strong and morally righteous king Hamlet is described as healthy. Claudius, the new ruler, does not care about anything but his interests. His corruptive and manipulative nature is destroying the country. Thus, the new king presents as a disease. The fact that he murdered his predecessor with poison only underlines it.

Quotes about Corruption

  1. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”
    This is one of the most famous Hamlet corruption quotes. This quote demonstrates that things in Denmark are going bad. Especially in the political hierarchy and in Gertrude’s new marriage. Marcellus, the guard of the fort, uses this phrase in Act 1, Scene 4.
  2. “For goodness, growing to a plurisy,
    Dies in his own too much”

    This quote belongs to Claudius. He uses it in Act 4, Scene 5, when he is talking to Laertes. He is saying that virtue, when it is too abundant, can cause more harm than good. This phrase can be seen as a foreshadowing.
  3. “I’ faith, if he be not rotten before he die–as we
    have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scarce
    hold the laying in–he will last you some eight year
    or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year”

    A gravedigger in Act 5, Scene 1, uses this phrase to talk about physical corruption and spiritual corruption. For a gravedigger, dealing with death is a part of his job. He approaches it with a casualty. He also says that some people are rotten before they die.
  4. “The Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape
    This quote is connected with Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost in Act 2, Scene 2. It means that the spirit can be the devil and not his father because it can assume any form it wants to deceive people. In this case, Denmark is even more rotten than anticipated.

Appearance vs. Reality

This is the most dominant issue in the entire play. Several other themes, such as madness and misogyny, can be explained. Thus, truth and deception in Hamlet is a multifaceted one and should be elaborated on in detail.

All characters appear as one thing on the outside, yet on the inside, they are different. For instance, Claudius seems to be a kind, generous, and caring man. He uses these qualities to cover up his personality and acts, which are far from noble.

The women in Hamlet also appear to be happy, but their inner satisfaction is unstable. Hamlet’s mother marries Claudius just days after her husband dies. The son thinks his mother betrayed the memory of Old Hamlet. It makes Hamlet reconsider his attitude towards women in general. He feels as if Gertrude quickly forgot Old Hamlet. Yet, this marriage may have been her only chance to save her status and comfort in life.

The role of women in Hamlet is nothing short of misogynistic. There are only two women in Hamlet – Gertrude and Ophelia. Men control both of them, and both of them die dramatically because of that. Gertrude has to inform Claudius about her son’s state of mind. Ophelia’s father uses her as bait for spying in Hamlet. The women have to perform daily to fulfill what is commanded by men.

It’s worth mentioning that Ophelia is a vital character not only in Shakespeare’s plot but also in Hamlet’s journey. Separation from her gives an excuse for Hamlet’s insanity.

The theme of madness in Hamlet is another crucial aspect of the play. It is also one of the main questions: whether Hamlet’s madness is real or pretending. Undoubtedly, he plans to convince everyone that he is insane. He is an excellent actor, so acting mad isn’t difficult. However, in the second half of the tragedy, Prince is not sure about his state of mind. Examples of Hamlet’s madness are not singularly his outbursts against Ophelia and Gertrude. His suicidal thoughts and depressive episodes reveal that he is far from being sane. So the issue of his sanity is for the reader to decide.

Appearance vs Reality Quotes

  1. “No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
    Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle,
    Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other”

    This quote about madness illustrates how Ophelia encounters Hamlet. His physical appearance serves as enough evidence to prove his unstable mental state. It also serves as proof that Hamlet was a terrific actor.
  2. “Though yet of Hamlet, our dear brother’s death
    The memory be green, and that it us befitted
    to bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom
    To be contracted in one brow of woe,
    Yet so far hath discresions fought with nature
    That we with wisest sorrow think on him
    Together with remembrance of ourselves.”

    In this verse in Act 1, Scene 2, Claudius appears to be a good ruler and a loyal brother who mourns the death of Old Hamlet. He also explains why he married Gertrude so quickly. The reason for that is to protect the kingdom from appearing weak.
  3. “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is
    southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw”

    In this insanity quote, Hamlet explains the nature of his madness. He says that he is faking it because he can switch it on and off like the wind that blows from time to time. This happens in Act 2, Scene 2, in Hamlet’s conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
  4. “White his shroud as the mountain snow—
    Larded all with sweet flowers,
    Which bewept to the ground did not go
    With true-love showers”

    This Hamlet madness quote belongs to Ophelia. These lines are a part of her song in Act 4, Scene 5. Hamlet is gone, Polonius is dead, and Ophelia goes mad. She goes around the castle and sings songs. These songs become a verbalization of her grief over her lost father and her lost love.
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