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Hamlet Intro & Overview

William Shakespeare
“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” (Albert Einstein)
◦ How important is it to obey the authorities in our lives? What if doing so goes
against one’s conscience?
“We are all born mad. Some remain so.” (Samuel Beckett)
◦ What is the definition of insane? Is there always a definite division between
‘normal’ and ‘crazy’, or can this sometimes be a blurry line?
“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” (Neal Peart, Rush)
◦ Is ‘doing nothing’ a valid way to solve a problem? We know that every
action has consequences, but what are the costs, if any, of inaction?
“Appearances can be deceiving.” (anonymous)
◦ How do you know who your true allies are in this life? Does pure altruism really
exist, or do all human relationships have an ulterior motive?
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (anonymous)
◦ Is it human to seek vengeance for wrongs done to us? Does the ‘principle of
retaliation’ still hold water in today’s world?
“I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.” (Woody Allen)
◦ How does the knowledge of our infinite mortality affect the way we live our lives?
And if it all ends in death anyway, what’s the point?
“The family that lays together, stays together.” (traditional redneck wisdom)
◦ How long should you wait before you marry your dead husband’s brother?
◦ betrayal & redemption
◦ vengeance & justice
◦ action vs. inaction
◦ mental health & insanity
◦ perception vs. reality
◦ misogyny & sexual politics
◦ suicide, death & the ‘afterlife’
◦ the fragility of life and existence
Quotes from Hamlet that have entered common English usage:
◦ “In my mind’s eye,” (Act I, Scene II)
◦ I shall not look upon his like again. (Act I, Scene II)
◦ “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” (Act I, Scene III)
◦ “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” (Act I, Scene IV)
◦ "Brevity is the soul of wit,“ (Act II, Scene II)
◦ "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." (Act II, Scene II)
◦ “What a piece of work is man!” (Act II, Scene II)
◦ “To be or not to be: that is the question” (Act III, Scene I)
◦ “…ay, there's the rub;” (Act III, Scene I)
◦ “Good night, sweet prince,” (Act V, Scene II)
◦ Hamlet was likely written in 1600 or 1601, although this isn’t known for
certain. It was likely first performed in 1602.
◦ Hamlet was by no means an original tale—Shakespeare borrowed the
story from an earlier Danish legend called Amleth. However, he did
shift the focus of the story to the protagonist.
◦ Some believe the 1596 death from an unknown illness of Shakespeare's
11-year-old son (Hamnet) may have served as inspiration. Other
scholars think that the death of Shakespeare's father in 1601 inspired his
exploration of a grieving son.
◦ Considered one of Shakespeare’s most prolific works, it is an actionpacked tale of mystery, intrigue, human relationships and search for
self. Many feel Hamlet is his true masterpiece.
◦ At the beginning of the 17th century when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Queen
Elizabeth I had ruled England for over 40 years. For most of his career, she had
been Shakespeare’s patron.
◦ However, it was clear that her time as ruler was coming to an end (she would die
in 1603) and the uncertain future direction of the country was on the minds of
◦ As she had no children and thus no direct heir, the line of succession meant that
the next monarch would be James VI of Scotland. Several years before, Elizabeth
had executed his mother (and her cousin) Mary Queen of Scots.
◦ James was a Catholic, while Elizabeth had been Protestant. This was also cause
for concern for many (including Shakespeare) who feared ‘persecution’ under the
new regime.
◦ Thus, Hamlet is also about political instability and an uncertain future, as reflected
in the England of Shakespeare’s time.
◦ Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, a man of about 30 years.
◦ As the play opens he has recently returned to Denmark from
Wittenburg (Germany), where he is a university student.
◦ During his absence from Denmark, his father (Old Hamlet) has died and
his uncle, Claudius, has both married Hamlet’s mother (Gertrude) and
become king.
◦ There is also trouble with Norway—young Prince Fortinbras, whose
father was killed by King Hamlet, wants vengeance. Thus, Denmark is
also preparing for war.
◦ Hamlet is greatly disappointed that this has all taken place. He is
concerned over the moral appropriateness of his mother’s marriage, his
uncle’s ascension to the throne, and his own destiny.
◦ HAMLET: A melancholy, yet thoughtful and reflective youth not at all happy with the current
situation. Despite a propensity for inaction, he can also be impulsive and rash.
◦ HORATIO: Hamlet’s classmate, best buddy and loyal confidant. He spends the play as a
‘sounding board’ (and foil) for Hamlet and his plots, schemes and philosophical sermons.
◦ CLAUDIUS: Hamlet’s uncle (and step-father) and the new king of Denmark. A shrewd,
power-hungry politician and the play’s antagonist.
◦ GERTRUDE: Hamlet’s mother, who married Claudius shortly after her husband’s death.
Although she loves Hamlet dearly, in many ways she is shallow and weak.
◦ POLONIUS: Claudius’s bagman. Pompous and conniving, he is a constant thorn in Hamlet’s
◦ OPHELIA: Polonius’s daughter and Hamlet’s ‘girlfriend.’ Throughout the play she generally
allows herself to be used and manipulated by the men in her life.
◦ LAERTES: Polonius’s son and Ophelia’s brother. Passionate and quick to action, he is also
clearly a foil for the reflective Hamlet.
◦ ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN: Two of Hamlet’s childhood buddies, who are recruited by
Claudius to help figure out what the hell Hamlet is up to. It doesn’t end well.
A ‘tragic hero’ who is questionably worth that title, an overbearing ghost,
a couple of weak-willed, double-talking women, incest (both real and
imagined), some really long speeches, a lot of people spying on each
other, pirates, a wrestling match in a grave, a skull, some very cool sword
fighting, war and a whollotta of corpses at the end of it all.
Excited? Me too!
So let’s get started.