Uploaded by Anthony Smith

Critical Analysis - Hamlet

Anthony Smith, Rory Beals, Joey Vizmeg, Christina Leung
Mrs. Thompson
AP English Literature
January 30th, 2020
Critical Analysis - Hamlet
1. Title
2. Author and publication date
1603, by William Shakespeare
3. Major themes
a. Action and Inaction- Throughout the play in Hamlet by Shakespear, the character
Hamlet is left with the task of avenging his father after hearing about his death however
he hesitates and refrains from avenging his father for the majority of the play. At first,
when the ghost tells him that he has been killed and must be avenged Hamlet doesn’t feel
motivated enough to go immediately kill him; he begins to make excuses for why he
must wait. Hamlet devises a plan to expose Claudius through a play, “I’ll have these
players play something like the murder of my father… wherein I’ll catch the conscience
of the king”. During the time period, ghosts were thought to be linked with the devil;
Hamlet needs confirmation that it wasn’t the devil’s work but indeed his uncles. Also in
this soliloquy, Hamlet also states his jealousy of the actor’s ability to express such great
emotion and claims that he feels like a villain for not showing the same amount of
emotion. This plan acts as a distraction to make Hamlet feel like he’s progressing with
revenge. While Claudius is praying to atone for his sins, Hamlet has the perfect
opportunity to kill but doesn’t. He claims “to take him in the purging of his soul when he
is fit and seasoned for his passage? No”. Hamlet doesn’t kill him because he believes that
once his sins have been forgiven Claudius will be able to go straight to heaven without
suffering. In his mind, Hamlet feels like he wouldn’t truly be avenging his father.
b. Reality and Illusions- In Hamlet, many of the characters find themselves acting to
uphold their facades to eventually reveal other’s intentions. After King Hamlet dies,
Claudius attempts to become a father figure toward Hamlet in order to keep control and
power he stole. Claudius does this by telling Hamlet to accept him as his new father, “we
pray you, throw to earth this unprevailing woe, and think of us as of a father”. Claudius
creates this facade of a fatherly figure in an attempt to help Hamlet with his grief because
he feels threatened by Hamlet and worries that he might know the truth of his father’s
death. Claudius’ attempts just make Hamlet even more annoyed especially at his mother
for being able to move on so quickly. However, Hamlet's depression is the perfect excuse
for him to act mad and get closer to Claudius. After first encountering the ghost Hamlet
makes Horatio never tell of what happened and to not act upon his odd behavior “as [he]
perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on”. Hamlet uses his
madness to get closer to Claudius in an attempt to expose him for his crime and to avenge
his father.
4. Characters
a. Hamlet- Hamlet is the title character in the play Hamlet, so the entire book focuses on
the role he plays. He is not the only character in the book that adds to the theme and plot.
Hamlet’s father, the previous king comes to Hamlet as a ghost and tells him that
Claudius, the current king, killed him in his sleep. This is the thing that drives Hamlet to
act. The death of his father is also the thing that puts Hamlet into a state of excessive
melancholy, which lowers his action and motivation. Hamlet also struggles with his
internal ideologies which affect how he reacts to Cladius. He does not want to do the
wrong thing so he goes to excessive lengths in order to maintain his purity. His
depression is so bad that he wants to die, but killing himself is a sin so he does not want
to do it. Hamlet’s lack of action in what he wants makes him a foil to both Fortinbras and
Laertes. All three of their dad’s died, but Hamlet was the only one to not try to act. The
other two instantly spring into action to avenge their father and prove themselves. Hamlet
creates the story, but he does not act which brings up the theme that action is more
powerful than inaction. The root of all the problems come from Hamlet’s tendency to
postpone his vengeance.
b. Horatio- Horatio acts as Hamlet’s guide and helper during the play. He helps Hamlet
come up with ideas and keeps him on track when he starts to wander and stay away. The
thing he struggles with most is that when Hamlet starts to break down, he does not know
what to do because he is so invested in Hamlet that his own self is invested in him. His
role in the play is as a supporting character to Hamlet and a way for Hamlet to express his
inner thoughts in an external way. Because he is a side character, he does not really have
a direct foil, but he adds to the idea that death is the great equalizer when he talks to
Hamlet in the graveyard.
c. Claudius- In this play, Claudius plays the role of the antagonist. He has lots of stage time
and because of this, his clear strive for power is evident to audiences. Although his need
for power and his desire to stay benevolent in the face of his people ultimately leads to
conflict within his life. Specifically, Claudius strives for power by murdering the father
of Hamlet, Denmark’s ex-king, to become king. Eventually, Claudius is forced to look
within and see what he cannot continue with the imbalance his life possesses. Claudius’s
foil would have to be Hamlet because Claudius tries to hide everything from Hamlet, and
Hamlet tries to deceive and trick Claudius throughout the play.
d. Gertrude- Throughout the play, Gertrude generally plays a secondary role to Claudius
and Hamlet. Despite this, she does have clear motivations. She desires to stay loyal and
honest to the people in her life. This creates a large amount of conflict for her,
considering Hamlet and Claudius are enemies. On the one hand, she wants to stay queen
and maintain her relationship with Claudius. On the other hand, she wishes, like any
mother would, the best for her son. Even though she doesn’t always agree with him, or
may question how sad he “seems,” she still just wants for him to be happy. This is shown
later in the play when Hamlet kills Polonius and tells his mother the honest truth of the
whole situation. While doing so, he tells her to stay quiet about the things that he tells
her, which she does. And, during the final scene of the play, she seems genuinely happy
for Hamlet’s return.
e. Fortinbras- Although he gets a small amount of time on stage, Fortinbras plays a key
role in developing the ideas of Hamlet. He is in a similar situation as Hamlet, having had
his father killed, and his kingdom’s land taken. So, his motivation is simply to avenge his
father and gain back that land. The main thing that he struggles with throughout the play
is being able to do so in a manner that his uncle approves of. Initially, he wants to exact
revenge by waging war upon Denmark. His uncle finds out, however, and orders him not
to. So, although he has suffered this setback, he continues to try and find a way to avenge
his father and proceeds to attack Poland. He is significant primarily for his being a foil to
Hamlet. Fortinbras, unlike Hamlet, is able to act upon his feelings of grief and anger for
his father’s death. He goes forward with his plan to avenge his father, even though in the
end it is only over a small amount of worthless land. This effect can be seen after Hamlet
runs into Fortinbras and his army as they are marching to Poland. It sparks a soliloquy
where Hamlet reflects on all of his reflection, and with the background of Fortinbras’s
action, finally understands that all of his ponderings make him weak and that he should
f. Laertes- Laertes spends most of the time throughout the play in college only to return
after his father’s murder. His main motivation is his love for his father and sister because
of this he wants to get revenge for his father’s death. His main struggle is to get revenge
for his father. He is a foil to Hamlet because he is reckless and takes action immediately.
After hearing about his father’s death he rushes back from his studies and storms the
castle with a group of armed men demanding what happened to his father. His actions are
completely opposite to Hamlet’s because while Hamlet takes his time asking questions
and confirming his suspicions, Laertes acts and then asks the questions later. He says in
confidence that he must avenge his father or else he should be named a bastard because
he didn’t act upon his father’s death. This is different from Hamlet because he allows
himself to feel the guilt from the lack of action and calls himself a villain because he
knows what had happened but hasn’t done anything. Although he is a foil to Hamlet, both
characters die by the same sword.
g. Ophelia- Ophelia is Hamlet’s love interest. Her main motivation in the play is Hamlet’s
love and also to be a good daughter. When Polonius finds out about Hamlet’s interest in
Ophelia he tells her to reject any of Hamlet’s advances, which she does obediently
showing her loyalty towards her father. Ophelia is a very innocent feminine character
which causes her to harassed by Hamlet because he is a misogynist. Because of this, he is
able to further the illusion of his madness when he tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery. This
causes Ophelia to struggle because she actually cares for him and worries about his
mental state; she wants to save Hamlet. She also struggles with her father’s death. After
Polonius dies it is very evident that she has been heavily affected and it shows when she
passes out the flowers to people. She isn’t able to handle the news of her father dying so
she eventually commits suicide.
h. Polonius- As the father of Laertes and Ophelia, Polonius provides protection to his
children often throughout the first part of the play. He advises Laertes not to leave the
country and Ophelia not to be with Hamlet. Polonius, despite bringing a humorous flair to
his scenes, overcompensates in many cases and tries to say too much on top of what is
necessary. His uncertainty goes hand in hand with his foil, Hamlet, but in a much more
humorous way than Hamlet’s. Eventually, his and Hamlet’s uncertainty leads to
Polonius’s demise at the end of the play.
5. Setting
The play takes place in a castle in Elsinore, Denmark. In this play, Hamlet has lots of
trouble dealing with his mother’s new relationship with his uncle and mentions his
mother’s bedroom multiple times in the play. This setting causes lots of turmoil for
Hamlet as he believes his mother’s new relationship is incest and harasses Gertrude for
her quick marriage and disloyalty towards Old Hamlet. This place is a turning point in the
novel because it focuses on the theme of action and inaction. Hamlet finally makes an
attempt to take revenge on his father but accidentally kills Polonius and his death
eventually causes Ophelia to go crazy and commit suicide. Another setting of importance
is the graveyard. The graveyard represents the finality of death and shows how death is
the ultimate equalizer.
6. Symbols
a. Poison- The poison that Claudius uses to kill Hamlet’s father at the beginning of the play
is not only a physical presence but an imaginary presence as well that travels with
Claudius throughout the play. Symbolizing corruption, the poison sticks to Claudius after
his murder having an effect on the state of Denmark and Claudius himself later. After
killing his father, Claudius orders the death of Hamlet at the hand of Rosencrantz,
Guildenstern, and Polonius. Ultimately, this idea of corruption leads to the demise of
Claudius and his helpers.
b. Yorick’s skull- Yorick’s skull represents death and how death is the ultimate equalizer.
Looking at his skull he realizes that having power is just an illusion and that nothing
really matters in death. While looking at the jester’s skull he remembers the former jester
and acknowledges the finalization of death. He even compares figures such as Alexander
the Great and Caesar, which had lots of power, to dust and says that when they decay
they will be nothing more than dirt and will cycle through the soil. This symbol shows
how Hamlet’s idea of death has matured. In his soliloquy “To be or not to be”, he
contemplates whether living or dying would be better and if he should die. However, he
knows that eventually everyone will die and it wouldn’t matter if he had killed himself or
if he let time and age kill him.
c. Ophelia’s flowers- The flowers that Ophelia brings to everyone near the end of her life
symbolize the truth about each and every person who receives one. In Ophelia’s crazed
state, she can not say what she truly thinks about each one. Instead, to show what she
wants, she gives people flowers that they deserve. They provide meaning to each person
without the need for words. The flower crown that Ophelia wears herself, shows her
balance before her end. She the flowers show a beautiful side of balance and unity when
she goes crazy. They also symbolize how the crown worn by the king is the origin of all
the chaos and disruption in the great chain of being.
7. Allusions
a. Cain and Abel- Cain and Abel is a biblical allusion, which both of which are brothers
and sons of Adam and Eve. Both brothers made sacrifices to God but he favored Abel’s
sacrifice more. Cain grew jealous and eventually killed Abel. This allusion refers to
Claudius and Old Hamlet, where Claudius, who is hungry for power, murders his brother
in order to take his throne. Claudius mentions this biblical allusion in his soliloquy
because he understands that killing your own blood may be too great of sin to be forgiven
by God. He fears what may come to him after death, which is why he prays for
b. Hecuba - Hecuba arises in the play while Hamlet and others are watching a Greek
tragedy being performed by a group of actors. The point of this allusion was twofold.
Firstly, she is brought up as a foil for Gertrude, in a way. In the play that Hamlet views
regarding Hecuba, her husband is killed, similarly to the situation that occurred with
Gertrude and her husband. However, in Hecuba’s case, she remained loyal to her
deceased husband and did not remarry, which the play depicts as the proper thing to do,
in contrast to what Gertrude has done. Hecuba is also alluded to in the story to showcase
the skills of the player, who creates great emotion for someone who has been dead for
thousands of years. This creates a contrast between the player and Hamlet, who still has
yet to act on his father’s ghost’s requests. It sets up the “rogue and peasant slave”
soliloquy that gives greater detail to the inner workings of Hamlet’s mind, as well.
c. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar- In the gravedigging scene, Hamlet comes to
realize the true power of death. Referencing two ancient heroes, Alexander the Great, and
Julius Caesar, Hamlet comes to realize that death is inevitable and is the true equalizer.
Despite the lasting greatness and effect, these two men had in their times, death came
anyway. Here, audiences see the dynamics of Hamlet coming to realize the inevitability
of death which he could not see earlier while contemplating suicide.
8. Archetypes
a. The Villain- In Hamlet, the antagonist, or “villain” is Claudius. Murdering the ex-king of
Denmark, Hamlet’s father, Claudius claims the throne as king of the state. When prince
Hamlet attempts to avenge his dead father, Claudius orders spies to deceive Hamlet on
his quest. Ultimately, Claudius, the villain, meets his demise due to the disruption of the
“Great Chain of Beings” a central motif in Shakespeare’s tragedies making it clear that if
one kills someone of power, the entire structure of the kingdom collapses. In this case,
the murder, Claudius, meets his end along with others.
b. Tragic Hero- Hamlet is a tragedy, and all of Shakespeare's tragedies start with someone
in a high position who loses everything. Hamlet fits this archetype of the tragic hero
because where he was before the story, and where he ends after. The tragic end of Hamlet
happens with the death of the king, as well as other people, but in the end, Hamlet
achieves his goal. Similar to Odysseus, a man who experienced much loss and downfall,
Hamlet must crawl his way from the bottom of his emotion to finish his job.
Shakespeare’s use of Hamlet as a hero who does not act because of his depression builds
the idea that action is necessary to insight change even if it means self-sacrifice.
c. Sidekick- In “Hamlet,” the main hero is clearly the eponymous character, Hamlet
himself. However, he is not alone in his ventures throughout the novel. He is aided by
Horatio, who effectively acts as his sidekick. During the play, he aids Hamlet whenever
he can, perhaps by offering him advice, or potentially through simply listening to his
rants and agreeing with what he says. Regardless of what his assistance is, it is clear that
he wants the best for Hamlet. This archetype is significant because throughout the play
Hamlet can, at times, seem less than admirable. Unlike a classic hero, even in the scope
of a Shakespearean tragedy. So, having his sidekick tag along with him gives a sense of
trust to the audience, trust that he is, in fact, the hero, and the morals he fights for are the
correct ones.
9. Organization
a. Style- Shakespeare is well known for using Iambic Pentameter when people of
knowledge and status are speaking. When people do not have the education or high
mental functionality they revert to plain prose speech. This change helps readers
understand the state of mind that characters are in, for example when Ophelia starts to go
crazy, she starts singing and speaking in prose instead of iambic pentameter. Shakespeare
also shows the character's emotion through word choice and the way someone says
something. Polonius has a lot to say when he does not need to say it for as long as he
does. Gertrude calls him out on this when she says, “More matter less art.” This expresses
how he considers his time more important than all other people’s time.
b. Structure- Hamlet is a play with five acts each showing a different part of Hamlet’s
story. The introduction to the play is where the entire plot comes from because after
Hamlet finds how his father actually died, he spends the rest of the book finding what he
should do. The middle three acts are all the points that express the character’s internal
conflicts and conflicts with each other. At the end of the third act, there starts to be more
action, and the events pick up their pace. The accidental killing of Polonius catalyzes the
rest of the action in the play. It starts with Ophelia’s reaction to this followed by Laertes
springing into action, which eventually leads to the climax of the story where multiple
plot lines merge into the final scene which restores the great chain of being and the chaos
ends. Hamlet is a very linear play, but it has key details that change the flow.
10. Soliloquy- “rogue and peasant slave”
a. Context- Prior to speaking this soliloquy, Hamlet watches a short performance done by a
few players, who are acting out the scenes of a Greek tragedy, specifically, a play with
Hecuba, a queen during the time of the Trojan War. During this play, one of the players
gives a striking performance following the death of Hecuba, with believable emotion and
angst to spare. Following this performance, Hamlet is left alone and speaks the soliloquy,
where he talks a comparison between his own situation and that of the player.
b. Translation- O, what a horrible and disreputable man am I! Is it not terrible that this
actor here, in a work of fiction, in fake passion, could force his soul to feel the emotions
of the fiction, with tears and a broken voice, all for something fake? And all for nothing!
For Hecuba! How does Hecuba matter to him, or he matters to Hecuba, to warrant tears?
What would he do in my situation? He would drown the stage in tears and burst the
audience’s ears with his words, drive the guilty spectators crazy, strike fear into the
innocent ones, confuse the ignorant ones, and astound everyone’s senses. Yet I, a dull and
weak rascal, cannot act, cannot say anything, no, not for a king whose property and life
was taken. Am I a coward? Is there anyone who calls me “villain,” who might hit me,
pluck my beard and throw it in my face, tweak my nose, call me a liar? Ha! I would take
it, for I am weak and don’t have the courage to fight back, otherwise, I would have fed
birds with this enemy’s guts: terrible, awful villain! O, revenge! Why, what an ass am I!
This is astute, I, the son of a murdered father, given direction from heaven and hell to get
revenge, must, like a whore, speak instead of act, damn it! Work, brain! I have heard that
guilty people sitting at plays of scenes of their guilt can be so struck so as to show their
guilt outwardly. For murder, although it cannot speak, can speak, it will proclaim itself.
I’ll have the actors perform something similar to the murder of my father by my uncle:
I’ll watch him, if he flinches, I’ll know he’s guilty. The spirit I have seen could be the
devil, which has the power to assume a figure I would trust; yes, and perhaps from my
weakness and sadness, he is attempting to make me sin. I will get more evidence: the play
will show me if the king is guilty.
c. Analysis- To start the soliloquy, Shakespeare immediately gives us a feeling of the tone
of the speech. Hamlet is angry, furious, even, with himself for his lack of action. By
coming out yelling about what a “rogue and peasant” slave he is, the audience
immediately understands what Hamlet is feeling in the moment. Another important part
of this speech is the sentence length. Very noticeable is the fact that most of the sentences
in the soliloquy are very long, adding to the exasperated and frustrated nature of Hamlet
during this time. He is ranting, essentially, going on and on about how wretched he is in
comparison to the player. Speaking of the player, the allusion to Hecuba adds depth to
this speech, giving the reader insight on how clearly minimal this player’s relationship to
the queen should be. Hecuba would have died more than a thousand years prior to the
performance of the play within the play. Thus, the actor should clearly have no relation to
the queen. This explains even further Hamlet’s astonishment to the player’s true and realseeming emotion. Another interesting part of the soliloquy is the continual questioning
that Hamlet includes. Every time he poses a question in his speech, he answers it himself.
This helps to illustrate that Hamlet is very sensible and capable of analyzing his situation.
He should be able to act because he knows what he has to do. And yet he cannot because
he is “pigeon-liver’d,” and would take any bullying that he was given. Also part of the
speech is a set of parallel sentences, where Hamlet explains what the player would do
should he have the potential for the emotion that Hamlet does. This continued use of
parallel sentence structure again sets up the idea that this speech is less of a profound
spiritual revelation and more of a rant. He thinks so much about what the player would
do, driving home the point that the player would do so much more than Hamlet has thus
far. Which brings up the next point, being the irony of the speech as a whole. Hamlet is
self-deprecating the whole time he is talking, bringing up how he is weak and should be
able to act more strongly. And yet, he is still standing in the same room, talking to
himself about how he should be acting. He is, by scolding himself for thinking too much,
ironically thinking even more. Following his repetition of questioning, Hamlet repeats
himself again, seemingly using every possible synonym for “awful” that he can think of
to describe the potential villain that he has brought up. Clearly, however, he has once
again returned to self-deprecation, saying that no matter who was to humiliate him, he
would still be unable to act. After that, Hamlet brings in a periodic sentence, where he
explains the crazy situation that he is in, as a son of a murdered father being unable to act.
This use of a periodic sentence emphasizes Hamlet’s point, that he is “like a whore.”
Returning to the beginning of the speech, the word choice of “monstrous” creates an
interesting element in the soliloquy. Monstrous is a very strong adjective, bringing with it
plenty of negative connotations. Thus, the word choice here shows that Hamlet
understands how terrible it is that he cannot act upon his emotions, while the player can.
One last thing that deserves analysis is the hyperbole during Hamlet’s descriptions of the
actor’s potential actions, given Hamlet’s situation. The fact that he would “drown” the
stage with tears, and “make mad” the guilty demonstrates the magnitude that Hamlet
believes his situation holds. Although the player already gave an incredible performance
over a fake event, Hamlet believes that giving that event an aspect of reality would cause
the actor to reach impossible standards of acting. To improve from the level of where he
is now, in regards to Hecuba, to the point where Hamlet should be, his response should
truly be legendary.