Christian Guides to the Classics: Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Discover Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Curated by Leland Ryken

The Nature and Function of Literature

We need to approach any piece of writing with the right expectations, based on the kind of writing that it is. The expectations that we should bring to any work of literature are the following:

The subject of literature

The subject of literature is human experience, rendered as concretely as possible. Literature should thus be contrasted to expository writing of the type we use to conduct the ordinary business of life. Literature does not aim to impart facts and information. It exists to make us share a series of experiences. Literature appeals to our image-making and image-perceiving capacity. A famous novelist said that his purpose was to make his readers see, by which he meant to see life.

The universality of literature

To take that one step further, the subject of literature is universal human experience—what is true for all people at all times in all places. This does not contradict the fact that literature is first of all filled with concrete particulars. The particulars of literature are a net whereby the author captures and expresses the universal. History and the daily news tell us what happened; literature tells us what happens. The task that this imposes on us is to recognize and name the familiar experiences that we vicariously live as we read a work of literature. The truth that literature imparts is truthfulness to life—knowledge in the form of seeing things accurately. As readers we not only look at the world of the text but through it to everyday life.

An interpretation of life

In addition to portraying human experiences, authors give us their interpretation of those experiences. There is a persuasive aspect to literature, as authors attempt to get us to share their views of life. These interpretations of life can be phrased as ideas or themes. An important part of assimilating imaginative literature is thus determining and evaluating an author’s angle of vision and belief system.

The importance of literary form

A further aspect of literature arises from the fact that authors are artists. They write in distinctly literary genres such as narrative and poetry. Additionally, literary authors want us to share their love of technique and beauty, all the way from skill with words to an ability to structure a work carefully and artistically.


A work of imaginative literature aims to make us see life accurately, to get us to think about important ideas, and to enjoy an artistic performance.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Why the Classics Matter

This book belongs to a series of guides to the literary classics of Western literature. We live at a time when the concept of a literary classic is often misunderstood and when the classics themselves are often undervalued or even attacked. The very concept of a classic will rise in our estimation if we simply understand what it is.

What is a classic?

To begin, the term classic implies the best in its class. The first hurdle that a classic needs to pass is excellence. Excellent according to whom? This brings us to a second part of our definition: classics have stood the test of time through the centuries. The human race itself determines what works rise to the status of classics. That needs to be qualified slightly: the classics are especially known and valued by people who have received a formal education, alerting us that the classics form an important part of the education that takes place within a culture.

This leads us to yet another aspect of classics: classics are known to us not only in themselves but also in terms of their interpretation and reinterpretation through the ages. We know a classic partly in terms of the attitudes and interpretations that have become attached to it through the centuries.

Why read the classics?

The first good reason to read the classics is that they represent the best. The fact that they are difficult to read is a mark in their favor; within certain limits, of course, works of literature that demand a lot from us will always yield more than works that demand little of us. If we have a taste for what is excellent, we will automatically want some contact with classics. They offer more enjoyment, more understanding about human experience, and more richness of ideas and thought than lesser works (which we can also legitimately read). We finish reading or rereading a classic with a sense of having risen higher than we would otherwise have risen.

Additionally, to know the classics is to know the past, and with that knowledge comes a type of power and mastery. If we know the past, we are in some measure protected from the limitations that come when all we know is the contemporary. Finally, to know the classics is to be an educated person. Not to know them is, intellectually and culturally speaking, like walking around without an arm or leg.


Here are four definitions of a literary classic from literary experts; each one provides an angle on why the classics matter. (1) The best that has been thought and said (Matthew Arnold). (2) “A literary classic ranks with the best of its kind that have been produced” (Harper Handbook to Literature). (3) A classic “lays its images permanently on the mind [and] is entirely irreplaceable in the sense that no other book whatever comes anywhere near reminding you of it or being even a momentary substitute for it” (C. S. Lewis). (4) Classics are works to which “we return time and again in our minds, even if we do not reread them frequently, as touchstones by which we interpret the world around us” (Nina Baym).

How to Read a Story

Hamlet, like the other classics discussed in this series, is a narrative or story. To read it with enjoyment and understanding, we need to know how stories work and why people write and read them.

Why do people tell and read stories?

To tell a story is to (a) entertain and (b) make a statement. As for the entertainment value of stories, it is a fact that one of the most universal human impulses can be summed up in the four words tell me a story. The appeal of stories is universal, and all of us are incessant storytellers during the course of a typical day. As for making a statement, a novelist hit the nail on the head when he said that in order for storytellers to tell a story they must have some picture of the world and of what is right and wrong in that world.

The things that make up a story

All stories are comprised of three things that claim our attention—setting, character, and plot. A good story is a balance among these three. In one sense, storytellers tell us about these things, but in another sense, as fiction writer Flannery O’Connor put it, storytellers don’t speak about plot, setting, and character but with them. About what does the storyteller tell us by means of these things? About life, human experience, and the ideas that the storyteller believes to be true.

World making as part of storytelling

To read a story is to enter a whole world of the imagination. Storytellers construct their narrative world carefully. World making is a central part of the storyteller’s enterprise. On the one hand, this is part of what makes stories entertaining. We love to be transported from mundane reality to faraway places with strange-sounding names. But storytellers also intend their imagined worlds as accurate pictures of reality. In other words, world making is an important part of the truth claims that they intend to make. Accordingly, we need to pay attention to the details of the world that a storyteller creates, viewing that world as a picture of what the author believes to exist.

The need to be discerning

The first demand that a story makes on us is surrender—surrender to the delights of being transported, of encountering experiences, characters, and settings, of considering the truth claims that an author makes by means of his or her story. But we must not be morally and intellectually passive in the face of what an author puts before us. We need to be true to our own convictions as we weigh the morality and truth claims of a story. A story’s greatness does not guarantee that it tells the truth in every way.

Hamlet: The Play at a Glance


William Shakespeare (1564–1616)



Date of Composition


Approximate number of pages

140 in a paperback edition (Hamlet is a very long play—over four hours in performance)

Available editions

Numerous, including Pelican, Arden, Ignatius, Dover Thrift, Signet, Norton, Oxford University Press. The 2001 Pelican edition has been used in this guide.


Drama; tragedy; melodrama; revenge play

Setting for the story

Elsinore Castle, Denmark, in the late Middle Ages; however, the court practices and some religious references in the play belong to Shakespeare’s own Renaissance/Reformation time frame.

Main characters

Hamlet, prince of Denmark, who struggles to cope with the murder of his father and hasty remarriage of his mother; Claudius, current king of Denmark, murderer of his brother King Hamlet; Gertrude, mother of Hamlet, who married her former husband’s brother, Claudius, soon after Claudius had murdered Hamlet the king; the ghost of Hamlet’s father; Horatio, confidant of Hamlet; Polonius, adviser to Claudius; Ophelia, daughter of Polonius and girlfriend of Hamlet until he rejects her; Laertes, son of Polonius

Plot summary

As the play opens, Prince Hamlet, who has returned from college in Wittenberg to attend his father’s funeral, is paralyzed with grief. The cause of his grief is double—his father’s untimely death and his mother’s hasty remarriage to Claudius. Early in the action, the ghost of King Hamlet appears to his son, informing him that Claudius murdered him and asking Hamlet to avenge his murder. Contrary to many interpreters, Hamlet does not procrastinate in carrying out this mission. Instead he delays because he first needs to ascertain whether the ghost’s allegation is true or false. Its truthfulness is determined midway through the play. A second goal also emerges for Hamlet, namely, bringing his mother to repentance. During a fencing match late in the play, Hamlet finally exacts revenge by killing Claudius, but the circumstances are something that only divine providence could have orchestrated. Hamlet dies of poison during the fencing match.


(1) A three-part structure based on Hamlet’s career as an avenger: Hamlet accepts his mission (act 1); Hamlet’s career as a madman and detective (acts 2–4); Hamlet’s career as avenger (act 5). (2) A design known as the well-made plot: exposition (background information, showing Hamlet’s paralysis of grief and Claudius’s taking control as the new king); inciting moment (appearance of the ghost, who entrusts Hamlet with the mission of revenge); rising action (Hamlet’s efforts to determine the truthfulness of the ghost’s allegation that Claudius murdered King Hamlet); turning point (Hamlet’s determination of the guilt of Claudius); further complication (Hamlet gradually masters his difficult situation, though in a frequently destructive way); climax (Hamlet exacts justice by executing Claudius, dying at the same time); denouement (tying up of loose ends).

Cultural context

Shakespeare is a Renaissance writer, and as such, he is indebted to two great intellectual and cultural movements from the past. One is the classical tradition, to which it is common to attach the term humanism. Humanism is the attempt to perfect all human possibilities in this life. Hamlet is such a pessimistic play that it calls into question rather than endorses humanism. The Reformation went hand in hand with the Renaissance, and the doctrinal tenets of Protestantism are the assumed frame of reference throughout the entire play, including such manifestations as the following: the existence of God and the Christian supernatural; heaven or hell as the destination of every human; the reality of sin and guilt; and the Christian moral scheme of virtues and vices.

Place in Shakespeare's canon

Hamlet is the first of Shakespeare’s “great tragedies”; it was followed several years later by Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth (in that order).

The Christian world of the play

Christian doctrines and the church as an institution are the frame of reference throughout the play. For the first four acts, these Christian references are like stage props and do not strike us as something that the play is strongly endorsing. In act 5, however, Hamlet emerges as an example of Christian faith and courage, and the story takes on the quality of a surprise ending by affirming Christianity.

Mingling of Catholic and Protestant elements

This play has been the battleground of the debate over whether Shakespeare was Catholic or Protestant. The play has even been extravagantly allegorized to make it fit one of those two. We need to resist this approach. As noted above, the play mingles medieval and Renaissance elements and does not stick with the medieval time frame within which the action took place. The references to Catholic and Protestant practices are simply part of the world of the play. The play does not endorse one over the other but makes use of them for purposes of the plot. In Shakespeare’s culture, moreover, Catholic and Protestant elements did exist side by side.

Tips for Reading or Viewing Hamlet

The following tips for reading or viewing Hamlet are based partly on the fact that it is an extremely long play. It runs close to four thousand lines—30 percent longer than the average Shakespearean tragedy. The playing time is over four hours. The uncut version of the play has been dubbed “the eternity Hamlet.”

(1) The excessive length of the play poses difficulties, but it also liberates us from the need to keep the exact sequence of events in mind. No one can hold all the details of the play in mind in their precise order. So instead of reading for plot, we should view ourselves as living in the many-sided world of the play, which resembles a mosaic or collage more than a linear plot.

(2) The play is much given to digressions and sudden shifts. We should simply accept this as a feature of the play and refuse to be frustrated by it.

(3) We should take up this play (no matter how many times we read or view it) with a sense of the momentousness of what we are doing. More than any other Shakespearean play, Hamlet has the status of a cultural icon. C. S. Lewis wrote that “we have here something of inestimable importance.” The Friendly Shakespeare claims that Hamlet has been performed more than any other play in the world, is the most written-about work of literature, is Shakespeare’s most translated play, and has been performed as a movie in approximately fifty different films.

(4) The character of Hamlet is the central focus of the play, and three things in particular make up that interest—Hamlet’s mission, Hamlet’s madness (both real and pretended), and Hamlet’s personality. If we keep our attention on these three things, we will do a good job of understanding the play.

(5) No other Shakespearean play contains as many famous expressions, aphorisms, and one-liners. We should relish these famous quotations by themselves as part of the beauty and meaning of the play.

(6) We need to resist automatically accepting as true certain interpretations that we are likely to have absorbed by way of “cultural osmosis.” Foremost among these is that Hamlet procrastinates (the view taken in this guide is that he delays but does not procrastinate). It is important not to accept interpretive options simply because they are well known.

(7) A further concern is the myth of the secular Shakespeare. If this play has a surprise ending that affirms Christianity (the view taken in this guide), it is important that we not reject the data that Shakespeare puts before us in act 5. Once we accept the Christian premises of the play, we will find Christian and biblical references throughout the play.

(8) Hamlet is a work of sophisticated art and “high culture.” We must respect it as such. But we must also relish the way Shakespeare chose common literary forms as the foundation on which he built his edifice. We must summon a childlike fear of ghosts, a common person’s love of melodrama and sword play, and the universal taste for “murder mysteries” and detective stories.

The Author and His Faith

The myth of the secular Shakespeare is a fallacy foisted on us by an unbelieving age. Before we look at the play, we need to consider the cultural milieu in which Shakespeare lived. Shakespeare’s England was a thoroughly Christian and Protestant society. The Bible was the best-selling book. Regular church attendance was mandatory (and there are no parish or civil records that suggest that Shakespeare was found guilty of nonattendance). Shakespeare was baptized in the local Anglican church. Upon his retirement he became a lay rector (also called lay reader) in that same church. When he died he was buried inside the church (not in the surrounding cemetery). All of this should predispose us to expect Christian elements in Shakespeare’s plays.

One evidence of this pervasive Christianity in Shakespeare’s plays is the abundance of biblical allusions and echoes. At least two thousand biblical references exist, and additional biblical parallels and subtexts keep surfacing. Additionally, the plays assume the same kind of reality that the Bible does with such Christian beliefs as the existence of God and Satan, heaven and hell, good and evil, and punishment for sin and reward for virtue. There is nothing in Shakespeare’s plays that shows skepticism about the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Storytellers show their intellectual allegiance by means of the world that they create within their stories; the world of Shakespeare’s plays is a thoroughly Christian world (as well as classical).

The particular form that Christianity takes in Shakespeare’s plays is specific to the genres (with comedy and tragedy giving voice to quite different aspects of the Christian faith) and to the individual plays. Here is a list of leading ideas in Hamlet, and the list is entirely congruent with Christianity: (1) the power of evil in the individual soul and in human institutions like the family and the state; (2) the reality of guilt and damnation, with repentance viewed as necessary to achieve relief from damnation (as seen in the characterization of Claudius, who refuses repentance); (3) the certainty of justice, with evil ultimately punished and good rewarded; (4) God’s providential direction of events in people’s lives (the story of Hamlet in act 5); (5) the existence of an unseen spiritual world (including heaven and hell) in addition to the physical world in which we live.

It is easy to find biblical stories, poems, proverbs, and didactic (teaching) passages in the Bible that assert these same things. The fact that some of the ideas also belong to other religious systems does not make them any less Christian. Christianity was the only active belief system in England in Shakespeare’s day, and the version of these ideas that Shakespeare embraced was the Christian version.

The Two Main Genres of Hamlet


Drama belongs to the broader category of narrative or story, so everything that is said about “How to Read a Story” earlier in this guide applies to Hamlet. But drama has its own way of telling a story:

  • The action is not stated directly by a storyteller or narrator; instead, we need to piece together the action by listening to the dialogue of characters. The portrayal is objective in the sense that our only basis for interpreting action, scene, and character is what we hear characters in the play say. We have to come to the right interpretations without the help of a narrator who directs our responses.
  • Instead of being divided into chapters the way novels are, plays are divided into acts and scenes. The movement from one scene or episode to the next is much more abrupt than the smooth flow found in a novel or short story.
  • The strong point of drama is not plot but the presentation of characters and clashes between them.
  • Because Hamlet falls into the further category of poetic drama, we need to pay even more attention to the words that we read or hear than we usually do when reading a story.
Revenge Play

The genre of the revenge play (also called revenge tragedy) had been popular among Roman dramatists and was an absolute rave on the London stage in Shakespeare’s day. The revenge play was a specific type of melodrama, characterized by sensational external action.

A revenge play begins with a murder. This murder places the duty of revenge on the next of kin (usually a son). Many obstacles lie in the path of the avenger, beginning with the need to ascertain the guilt of the murderer. In his role as detective, the avenger plays what seems to be a waiting game. He may lacerate himself for inaction. Vengeance is finally exacted in the last act. Ghosts are common in revenge plays. Although revenge was denounced by preachers in Shakespeare’s day, the situation in a revenge play is more akin to enforcing justice than it is to carrying out personal revenge.

The revenge play was a low form of literature, catering to the taste for violence and being comparable to our modern action films. Yet C. S. Lewis is right in saying that Shakespeare “redeemed the popular revenge play.” Also helpful is the verdict of Virgil Whitaker that the revenge plot is simply the template on which Shakespeare built a profound picture of “the agonies of baffled humanity.”

Shakespeare’s Theater

While most dramatic performances of Shakespeare today are based on modern theatrical conventions (including realistic stage props), a few performances adhere to Renaissance practices. These Renaissance stage conventions are worth knowing about, partly for the interest of the matter, and partly to make us aware of what is non-Shakespearean in most of the performances that we view. Here is a thumbnail sketch of what play going was like in Shakespeare’s London.

  • All plays were held in the afternoons in outdoor theaters that had no lighting.
  • The theaters were round or octagonal amphitheaters. The circumference of this structure had three tiers of seats, all of which were under a roof.
  • In the middle was an unroofed area known as the pit, where people who paid a small entrance fee stood for the entire performance of two-to-three hours.
  • The entire physical experience thus resembled attendance at an athletic event in a stadium more than play attendance by night at an indoor theater.
  • Jutting out into the pit on one side was the stage, with a roofed area and rooms behind curtains at the back of the stage.
  • The entire physical arrangement noted above explains why it is called “theater in the round.”
  • All players were male actors; female roles were played by males.
  • Because changes of scenes in the plays were almost always accompanied by shifts in setting as well, very few stage props were used. Shakespeare often built descriptions into his lines to take the place of physical stage props.
  • Costumes were elaborate and costly.
  • Additionally, Shakespeare’s audiences loved noise and music, so there were frequent trumpet flourishes, banging of drums, and gunpowder blasts.
  • The whole cross section of the population attended plays, from aristocrats to uneducated “groundlings” who stood in the pit.

From all that has been said it is obvious that the biggest gap between Renaissance and modern theatrical conventions centers on realism (lifelikeness). The Renaissance did not expect realism in its plays. They expected tragedies to be in poetic form, for example. Modern realistic performances of Shakespeare’s plays are different from the plays as originally conceived. This does not make them illegitimate; Shakespeare’s plays are remarkably universal and adaptable. Some performances even place the action in different times and places than what Shakespeare conceived. These should be recognized as adaptations, part Shakespearean and part something else.

What Hamlet Is About

The sheer quantity of what happens in Hamlet is so large, and the world of the play is such a phantasmagoria of unlikely characters and events, that the play may seem unrelated to our lives. Yet literary critics make extravagant claims about the closeness of the play to our own experiences. A critic named Preston Roberts writes, “Every [person] has his [or her] Elsinore. . . . For this reason, Hamlet [the character] is likely to remind us of ourselves.” C. S. Lewis claims similarly that the castle “is part of our own world. . . . I believe that we read Hamlet’s speeches with interest chiefly because they describe so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed.” For the play to seem relevant to us, we need to list the experiences that the poem embodies and presents for our contemplation. Hamlet is about . . .

  • mystery (C. S. Lewis claims that Hamlet “is a mysterious play in the sense of being about mystery.”)
  • death
  • loneliness
  • grief
  • paralysis of will, mind, and emotions
  • suffering
  • cruelty
  • despair
  • insanity
  • loss of meaning in life
  • corruption of institutions, including state and family, and the impact of that corruption on individuals
  • abuse of young people
  •  breakdown of relationships
  •  disillusionment of youthful idealism
  • “the agonies of baffled humanity” (Virgil Whitaker)

This is an obviously depressing list, and that relates to another feature of the play. Hamlet is grouped with Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it is not a typical tragedy. Tragedy presupposes that the hero has the power of choice and that he makes a specific choice that leads inevitably to his downfall. Hamlet is so engulfed by the situation in which he finds himself that he lacks the power of choice that would lead us to think naturally of this play as a tragedy.

Overall, Hamlet justifies a comment that literary critic G. B. Harrison made about the play: “Hamlet is in every way the most interesting play ever written.” The mysteries surrounding the interpretation of the play are seemingly endless. The play has even given rise to the term Hamletology (“the study of all things Hamlet”).

Interpretations of Prince Hamlet

The character of Hamlet is one of the most written about aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. The following outline lists the leading theories. Not all of the theories can be correct, so the fact that they are listed in this guide should not be interpreted as an endorsement of all of them. Three interrelated topics merge in discussions of Hamlet: (1) the nature of Hamlet’s problem or mission, (2) the nature of Hamlet’s character and personality, and (3) the nature of Hamlet’s delay. In this context, delay should be construed neutrally as meaning that Hamlet does not immediately take action against Claudius; delay need not mean procrastination.

One theory can be summarized as “the two Hamlets theory.” This means that two very different characters exist side by side, perhaps constituting a multiple or bipolar personality. One Hamlet is the sensitive young intellectual and idealist who expresses himself in unforgettable poetry—the introspective brooder who listens to his own feelings in memorable soliloquies. The other Hamlet is an impulsive and sometimes violent activist—the sword-wielding Hamlet.

Theories of Hamlet can be placed into a framework of an external-versus-internal dichotomy, meaning that a given explanation focuses on circumstances external to Hamlet or on internal aspects of Hamlet himself. Three external theories are as follows:

  • The obstacle or lack of opportunity theory. Hamlet lacks a physical opportunity to move forward in exacting vengeance against the always-surrounded Claudius. It is as simple as that.
  • The quest for public justice theory. Hamlet’s real quest is not simply to carry out an act of personal vengeance but to bring Claudius to a punishment that the world at large will recognize as justice, perhaps even enabling Hamlet to inherit the throne. Hamlet has no alternative but to wait until public proof of guilt becomes evident.
  • The overwhelming circumstances theory. Hamlet’s problem is the corruptness of the world he inhabits. There is nothing deficient about Hamlet; the human spirit itself is crushed. This is the story of a moral person in an immoral society. The task of eradicating evil from the world is more than anyone can achieve.

The remaining theories stress Hamlet’s character rather than his circumstances. The leading theories are as follows:

  • The nineteenth-century Romantic theory of the gentle and irresolute Hamlet. Hamlet is irresolute because he is too gently disposed to perform the ugly deeds that life sometimes requires. Unable to meet the demand of killing the king, the studious Hamlet searches for excuses to explain his delay.
  • Hamlet the victim of the Oedipus complex. Of course Hamlet cannot bring himself to put an end to the man who did what every male subconsciously longs for—murder of his father and sexual union with his mother. This theory rests on an acceptance of Freudian psychology.
  • Hamlet the intellectual. The cause of Hamlet’s delay is an excess of thought or intellection. His excessive deliberation and analysis dissipate his resolve and paralyze his ability to act.
  • The conscience theory. There as on Hamlet delays is that his healthy conscience will not allow him to perform the immoral act to which the ghost tempts him. This is the story of a moral man tempted to do an immoral act, namely, exact revenge. This theory is on a collision course with all the other theories.
  •  Hamlet’s quest to act from a pure motive. Hamlet delays until he can execute Claudius from a pure motive, that is, a desire for public justice, not from hatred or personal desire for revenge.
  • Hamlet as skeptic or nihilist. As stated above, one theory is that Hamlet behaves as he does because the task of eradicating evil from the world is too great for any human to accomplish. Projected onto an inner stage, this view gives us a young man who has lost his way and given up on life. This “is a tragedy not of excessive thought but of defeated thought” (D. G. James). The play deals with the “fundamental doubt” about whether life is worth living (L. C. Knights).
  • The mysterious Hamlet. The very multiplicity of interpretations proves that Hamlet remains a mystery. “The tragic conflict centers on the protagonist, who is averse to the deed required of him, seeking the cause of aversion and failing to know it for what it is” (John Lawlor; italics added).
  • Hamlet the villain. Hamlet himself is the chief problem. He “becomes afflicted by the ruthless mores prevailing in Denmark, because he has a distasteful business to accomplish. . . . Sharing the weakness of those he reviles, Hamlet [rightly] turns his most unsparing criticisms upon himself” (David Bevington). Hamlet is “fascinated by what he condemns” (L. C. Knights). Hamlet “murders all the wrong people, exults in cruelty, grows more and more dangerous” (G. Wilson Knight).

It needs to be stated again that not all of these theories can be right. They are listed here for purposes of information about how the character of Hamlet has been interpreted throughout the history of criticism on this play.

Act 1, Scene 1

Plot Summary

The battlements of Elsinore Castle in the middle of the night. Almost every scene in this famous play goes by a familiar name; the opening scene is “the watch scene.” The play begins with a scene of terror—a ghost scene in which the spirit of the recently deceased King Hamlet appears on the wall of the castle. When the soldiers on watch speak to the ghost, it vanishes. The men then discuss among themselves what the ghost’s appearance might mean.


This scene is rightly praised for its evocation of mood and atmosphere. Everything adds to the spookiness of the scene: the winter cold, the nighttime darkness, the setting at the top of a castle wall that overlooks the ocean, and the appearance of a ghost. For all the profundity of the play, it is also a melodrama that asks us to respond with childlike awe to ghosts and scary settings such as a castle wall at midnight. In his famous essay on this play, C. S. Lewis claims that literary critics who show that they do not take the ghost in this play seriously immediately lose their credibility with him.

The view taken in this guide is that a leading intention of the play is to assert the quality of mystery that is part of life. The play repeatedly and deliberately mystifies us and leaves issues unresolved. The first instance of this mystification occurs in regard to the identity of the ghost. In Shakespeare’s day, five theories regarding ghosts were common. All five theories are asserted by a character in the play at one point or another.

Here are the five theories: (1) a ghost is a hallucination or illusion—a trick of the mind that occurs particularly to people suffering from melancholy (depression); (2) a ghost is a spirit returned from the dead to perform a deed left undone in life; (3) a ghost is a portent or prophecy of an impending dread event; (4) in Catholic belief, a ghost is a spirit from purgatory given divine permission to return to earth to seek help in getting out of purgatory; (5) in Protestant belief, a ghost is a demon disguised as a dead person who tempts people to do evil deeds. In addition to those five theories, ghosts were also a feature of revenge plays, where they got the story started and popped up from time to time to keep the revenge motif alive.

It is as though Shakespeare puts all five theories into the play and leaves interpretation about the ghost to the audience. The position taken in this guide is that the second theory needs to be understood as a premise in the play. In the formula of one scholar, the ghost in this play is a spirit who has been given divine permission to return to life in order to carry out some mission. That mission is multiple: to inform Hamlet that his father was murdered by Claudius; to prompt Hamlet to bring Claudius to justice for the murder; to convict Gertrude of her guilt and bring her to repentance; to inform and warn Hamlet about the corruptness of the court now in power (as captured in the famous one-liner that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” [1.4.90]).

Additional Notes

At lines 8–9, Francisco says, “’Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart.” This is an early signpost to an important feature of this play, namely, that it tells two stories at the same time. One is the story of corrupt things happening in the external world. The external happenings, in turn, produce a story of inner response to the calamity of the external world.

Lines 157–64 introduce a strongly Christian note into the play by alluding to a legend surrounding the birth of Christ. In effect these lines are a mood piece that celebrates the Christmas season. According to the legend, the time of Christ’s birth was so peaceful that “no spirit dare stir abroad” and all demonic influences were demobilized. Furthermore, in the history of religious symbolism that Shakespeare here ties into, the rooster’s crowing at dawn (a sacred time) became a symbol of divine light coming down to earth. The world of the play, writes Preston Roberts, “is saturated with concrete theological and moral meanings [and] symbolism.”

For Reflection or Discussion

What feelings are evoked for you by this atmospheric scene? This scene is our entry into the world of the play; what are the most important features of that world? In regard to the ghost, where do you find a character referring to the following theories of ghosts that were familiar to people in Shakespeare’s day: the fantasy/hallucination view; a portent of an impending danger; and a hint that the ghost is a figure of darkness in conflict with light and Christ?

Act 1, Scene 2

Plot Summary

The state room of Elsinore Castle. This long scene is known as “the council scene.” Part of the daily routine in a medieval and Renaissance court was to have a morning strategy session in which announcements were made, decisions reached, and the day’s agenda codified. All of that happens in this council scene, but an additional ingredient is that Claudius, the new king, in effect delivers an inauguration speech. The specific outline of events in the scene is as follows: (1) In a formal opening speech, Claudius announces that he and Gertrude have married and that on behalf of national interests he has intervened to prevent a threatened invasion by Prince Fortinbras of Norway. (2) Having thus dealt with official business, Claudius turns to domestic matters; first, he grants the request of Laertes (son of his court councilor Polonius) to return to college in Paris. (3) Then Claudius and Gertrude turn their attention to the problem posed by Hamlet’s “over the top” grief about recent events; Hamlet agrees to their request to stay home instead of returning to college in Wittenberg. (4) Left alone, Hamlet utters the first of his famous soliloquies; this one expresses utter despair about his situation. (5) Hamlet’s friends (including his college friend Horatio) inform him that his father’s ghost has made two nighttime appearances on the battlements. Hamlet determines to join their watch that night in hopes that he might speak to the ghost.


The best piece of commentary for this scene will come later in act 1: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90). For starters, a grand cover-up is going on at court (the power center of the nation, we need to remember). It is true that the public does not yet know that Claudius is a murderer, but there are plenty of other things that members of court should be protesting. Hamlet is the person who should have succeeded his father as king; this makes Claudius a usurper and an illegitimate ruler. Additionally, according to the church law of the time, it was against the rules for Claudius to have married his brother’s wife; in fact, within the play the marriage is considered incestuous. There is also the scandal of Gertrude having remarried within a month of her husband’s death. Yet no one at court raises any protest about these matters.

The second focus of attention (in addition to the cover-up) is the overwhelming grief of Hamlet. We might note in passing that the shallow and frivolous Laertes functions as a foil to Hamlet: he attends the Catholic University of Paris (a “party school”), while Hamlet attends the University of Wittenberg, a Protestant institution where students are serious about their studies. Is Hamlet’s overwhelming grief appropriate to the events of the play? T. S. Eliot’s famous verdict was that Hamlet’s grief “is in excess of the facts,” but that is surely wrong. Hamlet has lost everything that gave meaning to his life, and then at the end of the scene he receives another blow when he is told that his father’s ghost has appeared wearing full armor (which, incidentally, does not fit the notion that the ghost is a spirit imprisoned in purgatory). Literary critic John Dover Wilson correctly views Hamlet as “a great and noble spirit subjected to a moral shock so overwhelming that it shatters all zest for life and all belief in it.”

Additional Notes

Hamlet’s career of being the center of attention at the court begins in this scene. Claudius and Gertrude do not know quite how to handle Hamlet’s externalizing of his grief (such as Hamlet’s wearing black and his moodiness and prickliness). Adding to the mystery is why Hamlet’s mother and step-father request him to stay at court instead of returning to college.

As part of his cantankerousness, Hamlet is a sneaky punster who speaks with double meanings. To take a single instance, when Hamlet snarls “I am too much in the sun” (line 97), his statement might mean all of the following: (1) “I am unsheltered, having lost my parents”; (2) “I am too much in the presence of the king,” since the sun was a common metaphor for the monarch; (3) “I am too thoroughly in the role of your son,” on the strength of the sun-son pun.

Hamlet utters four major soliloquies in the play, and each has its distinctive quality. The one that appears in this scene, beginning, “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt” (line 129), is a speech of total despair. In it, Hamlet even expresses a suicide wish. The main cause of Hamlet’s distress is his mother’s hasty and (by the rules at work within the world of the play) incestuous remarriage.

For Reflection or Discussion

For readers with serious concerns and even more for Christian readers who want to extract the religious meanings from a literary work, it is easy to be impatient and want to start seeing religious implications right from the start of a story. But that is not how most stories work. First we need to abandon ourselves to the story, which eventually will begin to unfold its serious thematic and religious meanings. The relevant questions for this scene are therefore narrative questions. What story qualities grab your attention? How do you respond to the characters (and especially to Hamlet)? What ingredients make up the picture of a corrupt court and society? What universal human experiences (including ones from your own life) are placed in front of us in this scene?

Act 1, Scene 3

Plot Summary

The apartment of Polonius within Elsinore Castle. This is a domestic scene in which we look in on a shallow family. We can also call it a scene of slander because Ophelia’s brother (Laertes) and father (Polonius) speak ill of her boyfriend Hamlet and attempt to coerce her to end the courtship. The occasion for this scene of advice-giving is Laertes’s leave-taking to go back to college. The scene unfolds in three phases, and in each a family member offers advice to another family member: (1) Laertes advises his sister not to take Hamlet’s overtures of love seriously, and Ophelia reminds Laertes to follow some of his own counsel as well; (2) Polonius, a walking encyclopedia of familiar proverbs, unloads a barrage of proverbs on Laertes regarding his conduct at college; (3) Polonius belittles Hamlet’s vows of love and indicates that he would be happy if Ophelia would end the romance.


There are numerous scenes in this play that leave us wondering how they fit into the superstructure, and this is the first of them. There is no adequate reason for Ophelia’s father and brother to oppose her romantic relationship with Hamlet, so we need to look elsewhere for the purpose of the scene. We can begin by noting that Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia will all play key roles in Hamlet’s life and in the plot of the play, so it is appropriate for us to receive some introduction to this strange family. We might also register our perplexity that Hamlet could have fallen in love with the daughter of such a shallow family, but perhaps we are to understand that Ophelia is better than her father and brother.

Another purpose of this scene is to advance the motif of conspiracy against Hamlet as he is the victim of extended slander. We learn before Hamlet does that he is about to lose his girlfriend. Additionally, Laertes paints a picture of Hamlet as an important national figure. If this is true, why was Hamlet dispossessed of his right to succeed his father to the throne? Literature is adept to being truthful to human experience, and in this play we are led to experience how the young can be victimized by the adult world, and additionally how persons of integrity can be ganged up on by unworthy people.

Additional Notes

There is a lot that “does not add up” in regard to the slandering of Hamlet in this scene. Laertes makes the claim that “the safety and health of this whole state” of Denmark depends on Hamlet’s choice of a wife (line 20). The implication is that a commoner like Ophelia is not in the running to marry Hamlet. Yet Queen Gertrude will later express the sentiment that Hamlet and Ophelia would make an ideal couple (3.1.38–42), and when Ophelia is buried, Gertrude says, “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife” (5.1.234).

Polonius is a bumbling fool—such a famous comic figure that he ranks as a triumph of character creation. One of his leading traits is that he is a walking encyclopedia of familiar sayings and proverbs. Whereas Polonius fancies himself a wise person, he actually represents a bumper-sticker level of thinking. Two famous sayings in his farewell speech to Laertes are “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “To thine own self be true” (lines 74, 77).

For Reflection or Discussion

Within the world of this play, as well as in the realm of literary commentary on the play, the central question is how to understand the protagonist Hamlet. At this early point in the play, the question of Hamlet (as literary critics call it) has not yet emerged as the central concern, but knowing that it will shortly do so, we can profitably view this scene as building a picture of what Hamlet is coping with. What are the keynotes of the situation in which young Hamlet finds himself? How is a young person in Hamlet’s situation likely to respond?

Act 1, Scene 4

Plot Summary

The battlements of Elsinore Castle at midnight. This brief ghost scene is a set-up for the more extended scene that follows it. First, we overhear Hamlet and his visiting friend from college, Horatio, exchange small talk about the coldness of the night and the fact that the king is off to his nightly drinking bout. This leads to Hamlet’s moralizing about how some people have a single weakness that taints their lives. Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and beckons Hamlet to follow. Hamlet does so despite the attempts of Horatio and Marcellus (the watchman) to stop him.


A brief scene like this is dear to the heart of any playwright. It enables the playwright to relax the tension and create a sense of anticipation for the big scene to follow. Since this is the Shakespearean play with the most “quotable quotes,” an added bonus is the presence of some memorable one-liners, as when Horatio claims regarding the weather that “it is a nipping and an eager air” (line 2), and when Hamlet says the king’s custom of a nightly drinking bout is “a custom more honored in the breach than the observance,” meaning “better broken than observed” (line 16).

Hamlet’s speech of moralizing about vice (lines 23–38) takes on a life of its own and is worth pondering. Hamlet gets somewhat carried away with the thought that some otherwise good people are afflicted by “one defect” or a “particular fault” from which their whole being takes “corruption.” This is a highly poetic rendition of Aristotle’s view of a tragic hero. A tragic hero, said Aristotle, is a basically good person whose tragic downfall stems from a single tragic flaw of character (called hamartia in the original Greek, meaning a missing of the mark in archery). Hamlet’s statement that this defect is something with which people are born and for which they “are not guilty” because they “cannot choose” to reject it is utterly foreign to the idea of literary tragedy, which presupposes the power of choice.

When the ghost arrives, Hamlet’s immediate response makes us consider anew the Renaissance theories regarding ghosts. The Protestant theory was that ghosts were demons who tempted people to do bad things. In keeping with this view, Hamlet’s first exclamation is a prayer for God to defend him: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us” (line 39). But a rival view was that ghosts were the spirits of dead people who were divinely sanctioned to return to earth to perform a deed that had been left undone. In the lines immediately following his prayer to be defended, Hamlet expresses bafflement as to whether the ghost is good or bad: “Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned, / Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, / Be thy intents wicked or charitable” (lines 40–42). These unanswered questions belong to the mystery that Hamlet is partly designed to illuminate as a reality in our own lives.

Additional Notes

Hamlet’s speech about how good people can bring their lives to ruin by a single defect of character is part of the moral wisdom of this play. We can see confirmation of the principle every time someone in the public eye is guilty of a career-ending, scandalous choice.

Commenting on the lengthiness of this play (30 percent longer than Shakespeare’s normal tragedy), a commentator rightly says that verbal elaboration is the norm in this play. An example is how Horatio goes on and on (lines 69–78) about how Elsinore Castle is located on top of a very high cliff that overlooks the ocean. As we read, a new element of terror enters our imagination in regard to Elsinore Castle (where virtually all of the action in this play occurs).

Some interpretations of the protagonist Hamlet regard him as someone too sensitive to perform the acts that his world demands of him (especially bringing Claudius to justice). But this view of Hamlet is countered throughout the play. In this scene, for example, Hamlet shows reckless courage in following the ghost. He even has to wrench himself free from the clutches of Marcellus and Horatio and threatens to kill them in order to follow the ghost.

As the scene ends, Marcellus and Horatio each utter an important one-liner. Marcellus says, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (line 90), which we can interpret as a reference to the corruption of the courtly society portrayed in the play. Horatio utters the sentiment, “Heaven will direct it.” The word heaven is a reference to God (a metonymy that remained current for centuries of Christian belief), and the idea that God will “direct it” is a reference to providence. Not only does this reinforce the Christian identity of the world of this play; it also foreshadows the key role that providence will play in the surprise ending of the play.

For Reflection or Discussion

Hamlet’s long speech about the flaw of character that afflicts some otherwise good people (lines 23– 38) is a mixture of truth and untruth; when judged by Christian understanding, what is morally true in Hamlet’s long speech, and what is morally objectionable? What does the scene as a whole reinforce about the ghost in this play (e.g., its terror and mystery)?

Act 1, Scene 5

Plot Summary

This is one of the crucial scenes in the play, in effect setting up the entire remainder of the play. It is called “the cellarage scene,” because at the end of the scene the ghost moves to the area under the stage, which was called the cellarage. The preceding scene had ended with Hamlet following the ghost away from Horatio and Marcellus, and this scene is devoted to the conversation between Hamlet and the ghost of his father, on the basis of which we can also call this “the commissioning scene.” The ghost claims to be a spirit in purgatory, doomed to walk abroad at night until his sins are purged. He further informs Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius while sleeping in his orchard. He asks Hamlet to revenge his murder. Hamlet is so upset by this news that when he rejoins his two friends he is out of control with his thoughts and feelings. The ghost then appears under the stage and three times commands Hamlet’s friends to “swear” to secrecy about the mission that he has entrusted to Hamlet. They swear, and Hamlet also tells Horatio and Marcellus that he plans “to put an antic disposition on,” that is, pretend to be insane (line 175).


The first thing that we need to consider is the identity of the ghost. At one level, the ghost is the “literary ghost” of the revenge play genre who pops up from time to time to spur the next-of-kin to revenge a murder. But Shakespeare goes well beyond that. The ghost’s claim to be a wandering resident of purgatory would fit the out-of-date Catholic theory of ghosts. On the other hand, no spirit in purgatory would have a reason to be wearing armor. If we are aware that the cellarage—the space under the stage—was understood to represent hell, there may be a hint of the Protestant view of ghosts as demonic when the ghost moves to the cellarage for the last part of this scene. Shakespeare seems deliberately to mystify us regarding the ghost, so probably we should simply accept the identity of the ghost as a mystery, in keeping with the view of C. S. Lewis that this play is “about mystery.”

We do need to credit the ghost with speaking the truth about the corrupt state of the court and the need for the wheels of justice to be set in motion. In that sense, the ghost seems to be divinely sanctioned to return to earth to perform a necessary function.

The second thing that needs to register with us is what a terrible shock the ghost’s revelations are to Hamlet, who is already burdened almost beyond his endurance. To learn that his father was murdered and that his mother has incestuously married the murderer drives Hamlet to the point of insanity, or perhaps actually into insanity.

Third, a lot has been written to the effect that the call for revenge is in conflict with Christian morality. This is not a helpful interpretation to impose on the play, for the following reasons. First, Shakespeare put absolutely nothing into the play to prompt the audience to think of the command for revenge as a bad thing. Our natural response as the play unfolds is to want Claudius murdered by whatever means are available. Second, although the ghost calls for revenge, it does not stipulate murder as the required means of that revenge. Other paths besides assassination were open to Hamlet for bringing Claudius to justice.

Additionally, what is called revenge is actually public justice, not private vengeance. Hamlet did not have the advantage of a court of justice into which to bring the king. To pursue justice as the next-of-kin would not, according to older cultures and according to the rules of the revenge play, be immoral. As one critic puts it, “In fighting his uncle, Hamlet is doing more than seeking personal revenge; he is fighting a source of evil, a rankness, a focus of corruption which will infect all Denmark and destroy it spiritually.” By the time Hamlet kills the king in the last scene of the play, the king’s guilt is publicly acknowledged, inasmuch as the king has just poisoned the queen and Hamlet.

In Shakespeare’s day, the ethical debate over revenge was talked about in Christian circles and from the pulpit, but Shakespeare chose not to bring that debate into the play in a direct way. If we simply go with the flow of the action, we find ourselves on the side of any attempt (including assassination) to bring Claudius to justice. We should qualify that slightly: at various points we can infer a conflict of motives within Hamlet through which he is tempted to act out of private revenge instead of public justice.

As important as the foregoing issues are (the identity of the ghost, the shock to Hamlet’s system in regard to the ghost’s allegations, and the nature of revenge in this play), two other things are of more immediate importance in this scene. The first is the nature of the mission that the ghost lays on Hamlet and to which Hamlet swears. The mission is stated in lines 84–91 and has three aspects to it, as follows:

    • The simplest command is to “remember me,” that is, avenge my murder by bringing Claudius to justice.
    • Hamlet is commanded to “not . . . contrive” anything against his mother but to “leave her to heaven [God]” and the thorns of conscience. It is true that Hamlet will speak harshly to his mother in an intense scene of encounter and accusation in act 3, but Hamlet obeys the spirit of the ghost’s command when he brings Gertrude to repentance by awakening her conscience, not by contriving physical harm.
    • Third, the ghost’s command to “taint not thy mind” is left for us to figure out. What kinds of tainting might be a danger for Hamlet in his situation? Multiple: to act out of personal hatred instead of a pure motive (the desire for justice); to become infected with the violence and falsity of the court; to become overwhelmed with despair and paralysis; and perhaps to go insane (if we put emphasis on the word mind).

This threefold mission that Hamlet accepts is the mainspring of the plot for the rest of the play.

Additionally, we need to reach a conclusion about Hamlet’s statement that he plans to assume “an antic disposition,” that is, pretend to be insane. Here are common interpretations of the matter: (1) Hamlet knows that he cannot control his emotions and therefore adopts a strategy that he thinks (perhaps incorrectly) will allow him to control his behavior; (2) Hamlet is attempting to divert attention from himself as posing a potential threat to the king (on the theory that an insane person will not conspire against the king); (3) Hamlet is genuinely insane after the ghost’s visit and stumbles onto the ploy of pretending to be mad. Perhaps we need to leave this question, too, in the realm of mystery. As the action unfolds, Hamlet moves back and forth between reasonable behavior and insanity (whether real or pretended), and in the process he becomes the center of attention at court.

Additional Notes

A ghost story needs to be relished as a ghost story. To enjoy Hamlet, we need to summon a primitive and childlike dread of ghosts. While Shakespeare’s age believed that ghosts were real, for us they are fictional constructs of the imagination. Additionally, Shakespeare was a master at evoking atmosphere, and he does so in this ghost scene.

The ghost of King Hamlet portrays his wife Gertrude as being an accomplice to his murder and as having been in love with Claudius before the murder. In the later encounter scene between Hamlet and his mother, though, our impression is that Gertrude has no clue that Claudius killed her husband. This is not the only point in the play where the ghost seems to be less than completely reliable. Gertrude’s hasty remarriage is perhaps best understood as her seduction by Claudius.

Hamlet tells Horatio that “it is an honest ghost” (line 138). The primary meaning of honest is “genuine,” as opposed to a mere hallucination (one of the Renaissance theories regarding ghosts). A secondary meaning may be “a trustworthy source of information.”

To increase the mystery of what happens when the ghost appears beneath the stage, Hamlet speaks to the ghost in a jocular manner, with seemingly inappropriate levity (as when Hamlet calls him “boy” and “old mole” [lines 153, 165]).

At the end of the scene, Hamlet utters a famous two-line speech: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” (lines 191–92). At one level, this is a noble sentiment, showing a willingness to take a stand against corruption in the world. But in view of the resignation to providence to which Hamlet comes in act 5, there may be an unhealthy self-importance in Hamlet’s thinking that he can eradicate evil in the world in his own strength.

For Reflection or Discussion

Again we need to resist feelings of impatience to extract Christian meanings or even serious thematic meanings from the play at this point. This scene exists for the sake of setting the plot into motion. In the well-made plot scheme, this is in the inciting moment, following an extended exposition. The relevant questions are ones related to the plot and characters, as suggested in the commentary above. How do you personally view the ghost? What is your understanding of the mission that has been placed on Hamlet? At what levels do you empathize with Hamlet? What are your tentative conclusions regarding his insanity?

Act 2, Scene 1

Plot Summary

The residence of Polonius in Elsinore Castle. This low-voltage scene is a domestic scene involving the family of Polonius. In the first segment, we overhear Polonius dispatching his servant Reynaldo to Paris to check up on the behavior of Polonius’s son Laertes. Polonius obviously suspects the worst of his son. In the second half of the scene, Ophelia reports to her father that Hamlet has shown up in her private living room with his clothes disheveled and behaving so oddly as to suggest insanity.


The relevance of the scene has been questioned, notably by T. S. Eliot. It is a fact that stories unfold on a predictable rhythm of intensity followed by relaxation followed by a return to intensity. The dispatching of the servant to check up on Laertes reinforces the shallowness of Polonius’s family and the motif of deception and spying that will figure prominently in the ensuing action. Additionally, the scene alerts us that a considerable amount of time has passed since the previous scenes took place.

The odd behavior of Hamlet as reported by Ophelia is harder to understand. It is so extreme as to suggest that Hamlet is throwing a mad act, but in turn, it is hard to know why he would inflict that on Ophelia. It is true that Ophelia has put the brakes on her courtship with Hamlet, and this is sufficient to lead Polonius to conclude that Hamlet is in the throes of love (since the Petrarchan love conventions of the time prescribed such behavior as symptoms of a spurned lover).

Additional Notes

The exchange between Polonius and his servant is a comic scene in which much of the humor resides in Polonius’s longwindedness, as he speaks at much greater length than the instruction to Reynaldo requires. The technical term might be “a comically loquacious character.”

We are not given enough information to determine if Hamlet’s odd behavior (as narrated by Ophelia) is pretended madness or actual insanity. In either case, this is a foreshadowing of even more extreme conduct from Hamlet.

For Reflection or Discussion

The foregoing commentary offers a few theories about the data of the scene, but additional options exist. Do any occur to you?

Act 2, Scene 2

Plot Summary

Elsinore Castle. This is one of the longest scenes in Shakespeare; so much happens that any strict sense of sequence vanishes. The scene opens with intrigue as two more of Hamlet’s college mates arrive at the castle, having been summoned by the king and told that he has “need . . . to use” them to help discover what has made Hamlet mad (line 3). The ambassadors to Norway return and report to Claudius that Fortinbras’s invasion has been averted successfully. Claudius, Polonius, and the queen (Gertrude) all talk about what is now openly called “Hamlet’s lunacy.” As we listen to the conversations, we sense the degree to which Hamlet’s odd behavior has become the center of life at the castle. When Hamlet then enters the room, he speaks like a madman and yet speaks enough truth that Polonius can accurately say, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (line 203–4). Then a major new development enters, as a traveling dramatic troupe arrives to perform at the castle. Hamlet’s spirit revives, as he welcomes the players warmly and interacts with them. But when everyone else leaves and Hamlet has the stage to himself, he utters the second of his famous soliloquies. In it, he lacerates himself for not having yet done something to bring Claudius to justice.


The effects of this scene are twofold: the scene enlarges our picture of the deceptiveness at work in the court, and it greatly expands our understanding of Hamlet’s mindset of the moment. The negative picture of life at the court consists chiefly of the manipulations of Claudius as he uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet in an attempt to ascertain what “afflicts [Hamlet] thus” (line 17). Additionally, building upon the opinion of Polonius that the cause of Hamlet’s madness is Ophelia’s ending her courtship with Hamlet, the king and Polonius plan to put Ophelia in his way to see how Hamlet interacts with her while the king and Polonius observe the encounter from behind the curtains (lines 162–67); this bit of intrigue occurs in the next scene.

The very fact that the king has brought two college students from Wittenberg to Denmark shows how worried he is about “Hamlet’s transformation” (as he calls it in line 5). Half of the scene is devoted to the perplexity that everyone at court feels about Hamlet’s behavior. We should note in this regard that Hamlet is so confined by the circumstances in which he finds himself that he seems to lack the power of choice required of a tragic hero; but by means of his eccentric behavior he actually controls life at Elsinore Castle.

In addition to the motif of courtly intrigue, this scene fills out the characterization of Hamlet. In the scene as a whole, we can discern three main threads in regard to Hamlet’s state of mind.

In the first half of the scene (before the players arrive), Hamlet’s behavior is governed by his madness. Almost certainly it is a combination of real and pretended insanity. The spectacle of someone who sometimes “walks four hours together / Here in the lobby” (lines 160-1) is not likely the behavior of someone who is merely pretending to be insane. But Hamlet’s irrational and fantastic statements to the people around him have an air of being intentional and therefore part of a pretended madness.

Whenever Hamlet pretends to be mad, he is actually participating in the deceptiveness that hovers over the court of Denmark.

Second, we are given further insight into the depth of Hamlet’s depression and despair. He confides to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises” (lines 265–67). Again, “Man delights not me—nor woman neither” (lines 278–79). The climax of this despair is the soliloquy that ends the scene, where Hamlet accuses himself at length of being worthless because he has not taken action against the king.

Third, and running counter to what has just been delineated, when Hamlet meets the traveling troupe he comes alive and shows quick thinking. Hamlet is obviously an enthusiast for drama, and in his interaction with the players he has returned to his normal state. In keeping with the motif of intrigue that rises to prominence in this scene, Hamlet arranges with one of the players to add a brief drama to the court performance scheduled for the next night. Hamlet explains the purpose of this snippet from a longer play in his concluding soliloquy: “guilty creatures sitting at a play” (line 528) have been known to show their guilt when viewing a dramatic performance of something they have done in real life. This explains Hamlet’s parting shot at the end of his soliloquy (at the same time the end of this scene): “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (lines 543–44).

The question of Hamlet’s delay is perhaps the most famous crux of the play. In his soliloquy that ends the scene, Hamlet extensively accuses himself of being weak-willed because he has done nothing to bring Claudius to justice. We should not take Hamlet’s word for this. Literary critic Northrop Frye has astutely observed that one of the prevalent ways to misinterpret the play is to mistake Hamlets interpretation of the action for Shakespeare’s intention. Hamlet has not even validated the guilt of Claudius at this point, as he makes clear near the end of the speech when he observes that the ghost “may be a devil” (line 538) who has appeared to Hamlet to lead him to damnation. Hamlet there- fore resolves, “I’ll have grounds / More relative [conclusive] than this,” meaning the allegations of the ghost (lines 542–43). We can note in passing that Hamlet’s intended entrapment of the king is yet another example of the deceptiveness that has infiltrated life at the court.

Additional Notes

Part of the truth that literature conveys is truthfulness to human experience. In the sufferings of Hamlet, even to the point of insanity, we see something of the sufferings that everyone experiences. One of the purposes of literature is to convey knowledge in the form of right seeing— seeing life clearly.

This is a play about mystery. As the king, the queen, and Polonius share their theories about what has caused Hamlet’s insanity, we experience the quality of mystery—of not knowing—that is part of life. Added to the theories of the onlookers in the play is our own mystification regarding when Hamlet is genuinely insane and when he is pretending to be so.

The court is so corrupt that it is easy to see it as all bad. But as various characters speak about Hamlet, we catch a sense of genuine grief on their part. Gertrude is regretful about her role in Hamlet’s distress when she ascribes it to “his father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage” (line 57). Polonius calls Hamlet a “noble son” (line 92) and later speaks of Hamlet’s decline as something “all we mourn for” (line 151).

This play is so pessimistic that it undermines a leading tenet of the Renaissance—humanistic optimism about human greatness. Hamlet’s famous speech that begins, “What piece of work is a man” (lines 273–80) sums up the Renaissance spirit in this regard. But Hamlet voices the vision of humanism only to add, “And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights me not.”

Three additional reasons not to credit Hamlet’s self-accusation about his delay are these. (1) In revenge plays, the revenger always plays a waiting game as he determines the guilt of the murderer and waits for the right opportunity to execute him; it is simply a convention of the genre. (2) There is realistic psychology in Hamlet’s self-laceration: it is natural to be impatient with oneself while waiting for the right time to do something momentous. (3) If we ignore Hamlet’s soliloquies of self-accusation, there is little in the play to make us think that Hamlet is delaying at all.

For Reflection or Discussion

The main interpretive question for the play as a whole—and a question that has produced a small library of commentaries—is “the problem of Hamlet,” as critics call it. What are we to make of Hamlet in this scene? When is he insane, and when is he putting on an act? When he is throwing an act, why does he do so?

Act 3, Scene 1

Plot Summary

A central room in Elsinore Castle. This is “the rejection scene” in which Hamlet breaks off his relationship with Ophelia in a manner far more cruel than any circumstance can adequately explain. As the scene opens, the king and the rest of the inner core of characters hold a strategy session on how to extract from Hamlet “why he puts on this confusion, / Grating so harshly all his days of quiet / With turbulent and dangerous lunacy” (lines 2–4). A game plan evolves for Hamlet to “affront Ophelia” (that is, have a one-on-one encounter with her) while the others observe from a hidden vantage point. It is obvious that the working premise of the “inner core” is that Hamlet’s behavior is caused by his thwarted love of Ophelia (a view especially championed by Polonius).

The staged encounter unfolds as planned. When Hamlet enters, he utters his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He then tells Ophelia that he never loved her and further rejects her with a total lack of feeling. After Hamlet exits, the others take stock of what they have seen. The king’s parting shot sets up the action that follows: “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go” (line 189).


Two main items of narrative business occur in this scene. One is to present still more data on the falsity, corruptness, and chaos that have become the daily reality of the court. In this scene we see spying, manipulation of characters, and cruelty. It is the young, especially, who are victimized in this process, as both Ophelia and Hamlet have their lives destroyed by their circumstances.

The second center of attention is the further characterization of Hamlet. The most obvious advance is the cruelty that we see in him. When the ghost had imparted his mission to Hamlet, one of three commands was to “taint not thy mind” (1.5.85). It is obvious that Hamlet has, indeed, become tainted with the violence and cruelty that are going on in the Danish court. He is so vicious to Ophelia that we find it hard to read or watch the scene. Perhaps one explanation stems from Hamlets grief-stricken statement, “Frailty, thy name is woman” as he ponders his mother’s hasty remarriage (1.2.146). Often when a person is victimized by a member of the opposite sex, the tendency is overwhelmingly to blame the entire opposite sex. Maybe Gertrude’s betrayal has skewed Hamlet’s view of the female sex so completely that he cannot trust any woman, not even Ophelia. We can also note in passing that in modern times the scene is staged in such a way that Hamlet overhears the strategy session at the beginning. On the logic of this, Hamlet is partly motivated by the betrayal of Ophelia, who sides with the court rather than Hamlet.

The second aspect of the characterization of Hamlet in this scene is (again) the question of his insanity. Everyone at court is preoccupied with what is assumed to be genuine insanity. But the audience is privy to Hamlet’s previously stated intention to pretend to be mad. Probably his behavior is a combination of the two. Just before Hamlet exits the scene, he says to Ophelia, “It hath made me mad” (lines 146–47). In some performances this is played as a moment of discovery, as Hamlet suddenly realizes that he is insane and not simply pretending to be: “It hath made me mad.”

The “To be or not to be” soliloquy (lines 56– 88) is the most famous speech in Shakespeare and needs to be analyzed by itself. The soliloquy can be interpreted in two very different ways, but before we note these, we need to begin at a descriptive level. What is not open to dispute is that the soliloquy expresses a longing for death as an escape from burdensome reality, crossed with a fear about what lies beyond death. Within that umbrella, Hamlet entertains the possibility of either (a) committing suicide or (b) undertaking a dangerous course of action (presumably the assassination of Claudius) that might lead to his death.

The key passage in this regard comes at the outset, as Hamlet poses the alternatives of (a) buckling under the “sea of troubles” that constitutes his life or (b) taking “arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them.” The latter statement seems more consonant with undertaking a risky course of action in regard to the king than with the act of suicide. In keeping with the “living dangerously” theory, we can note that when Hamlet later lacerates himself for inaction (lines 86–88), he speaks of “enterprises of great pitch and moment” that “lose the name of action”; committing suicide would not seem to warrant the title of “enterprise of great pitch and moment.” At least we can say that the speech does not require us to read it as a contemplation of suicide.

Additional Notes

The king utters an important “aside” (lines 49–54) that is so brief that we might easily overlook its importance. Just before Hamlet enters and utters his famous soliloquy, and just after Polonius has stated a proverb about how even the Devil can cloak his evil in seeming goodness, Claudius asserts the truth of the statement and applies it to himself. He acknowledges that the words of Polonius give his conscience “a lash,” and he calls it a “heavy burden.” Two things are important here: (1) the world of the play is a Christian world in which evil and conscience are presented as real; (2) even though Claudius is a villain, he is not completely devoid of promptings by what is good.

Quite apart from the question of whether Hamlet’s famous soliloquy deals with suicide or undertaking a risky venture, there is no doubt that the speech expresses in memorable terms the universal human experience of being burdened by the bad things of life (“The thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to” [lines 62–63]). Even though Shakespeare does not introduce a theological framework explicitly into this moment (other than the reference to an afterlife), it expresses in memorable form what it means to live in a fallen world.

At line 130 Hamlet asks Ophelia, “Where’s your father?” This is the basis for the modern practice of playing the scene in such a way as to make Hamlet overhear the plot to plant Ophelia in front of him while the others observe from a hidden place.

Ophelia’s lament about the sad decline of Hamlet is our clearest picture of what Hamlet was like before the tragic events of recent days have descended on him: “O, what a noble mind is here overthrown! / The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword” (lines 150–51).

For Reflection or Discussion

Multiple levels of truth are embodied in this scene for us to ponder. We see truthfulness to reality in the evil of the court and the range of responses that characters in the play display in regard to living in a corrupt environment. We can think about the ways in which Shakespeare “got it right” in his portrayal of fallen reality and human sinfulness. Second, literature gives us two kinds of examples to contemplate—positive ones to affirm and emu- late, and negative ones to avoid. Both can prompt us to correct action on our part. Hamlet’s behavior as he crumbles under the pressures of his situation is a negative example to avoid; what are the dimensions of this? In regard to all of the foregoing, what bridges can you build between this scene and your own life in the world?

Act 3, Scene 2

Plot Summary

The entertainment room at Elsinore Castle. This is the famous “mousetrap scene” in which Hamlet proves to himself that Claudius is guilty of the murder that the ghost alleged, and in which Claudius comes to perceive that Hamlet knows that he is a murderer. As the scene opens, we overhear Hamlet instructing three of the visiting players how to perform their roles. Gradually the court assembles for the evening’s performance. Hamlet is rude to Ophelia and makes indecent comments to her. Then the players perform a brief play that obviously reenacts Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet and the queen’s hasty remarriage. Claudius shows his guilt by rising and leaving the room. Hamlet and Horatio briefly compare notes regarding the king’s betrayal of his guilt, and then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reappear to tell Hamlet that his mother wishes to speak with him in her private sitting room. Polonius also arrives to announce this fact, and the scene ends with a brief soliloquy in which Hamlet states how he intends to approach his mother in the coming encounter.


This scene is the turning point in the well-made plot of Hamlet. We began the play with exposition, consisting of our getting a picture of a corrupt court and a totally overwhelmed young man. The inciting moment was the appearance of the ghost and Hamlet’s acceptance of the mission placed on him by the ghost. The rising action was Hamlet’s attempt to ascertain whether the ghost’s allegations were true. Now, at the turning point, Hamlet confirms the truthfulness of what the ghost claimed, and all of the subsequent action flows outward from this discovery. Additionally, Claudius has made a discovery that will determine how he treats Hamlet.

Hamlet has been called the first literary detective thriller, and while that is not strictly true, it is useful to see that the play does fall into the genre of the detective story. All of the ingredients are present: someone is murdered; a suspect is named by an informant; the suspect attempts to escape detection; gradually someone learns the truth about the murder and secures preliminary data to prove it; the murderer first fears that he will be discovered and then realizes that someone actually knows that he is a murderer; the murderer attempts to eliminate that person. We will not fully relish this play unless we can enjoy it as a murder mystery, with a ghost thrown in to make it even more gripping. The play is more than a murder mystery, but not less.

Hamlet’s behavior continues to be a main narrative motif. On the one side, we see his cleverness in carrying out his detective work. Intermingled with this mastery of a situation, we continue to see a dark side to Hamlet. He is a young man out of control, as when (for example) he insults people attending the play. He continues to hide behind pretended madness, and in the moments immediately following the king’s departure Hamlet is actually delirious. Until act 5, all of Hamlet’s attempts to set things right in the court are ineffective, as he becomes a general nuisance to the court and to himself.

Additional Notes

Hamlet’s instructions to the visiting players are often viewed as expressing Shakespeare’s own views on acting. The keynote is that acting should convey a sense of reality in which the performance holds “the mirror up to nature” (line 22), that is, imitates real life.


The audience or reader knows that Claudius is a murderer, but within the logic of the play, that has not yet been established at the outset of this scene. Even as late as this point we hear Hamlet express the view that the ghost who appeared to him may be “a damnéd ghost” tempting him to an evil deed (line 81).

One of the most famous one-liners in this play—and a statement filled with psychological truth—is Gertrude’s comment that “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” (line 226). This means that the woman playing the role of queen in the preliminary play betrays that she will indeed remarry by her excessive claims that she will not remarry. In real life (as well as in murder stories), people who attempt cover-ups often talk too much when they claim to be innocent.

For Reflection or Discussion

What things make this scene a good detective story? To what extent do you find Hamlet a sympathetic character at this stage of action, and in what ways do you find his behavior obnoxious? Hamlet becomes an explicitly Christian play in act 5, where something emerges as a corrective to the abuses that are portrayed in the first four acts. Before good news enters the situation, we are led to feel at length how bad things are in a fallen world (as encapsulated by the world of Elsinore Castle). Exactly how bad are things in the Danish court and in the hearts of people who live there?

Act 3, Scene 3

Plot Summary

The king’s room and the hallway outside it. The scene opens with a conversation between the king and Hamlet’s visiting college mates. The chief point of new information is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been commissioned to accompany Hamlet on a coerced journey to England. In a later scene we learn that Claudius intends it as a journey to Hamlet’s execution. In a very brief insertion and a key bit of foreshadowing, Polonius tells the king that he will hide behind the curtains in Gertrude’s room to spy on Hamlet’s encounter with his mother.

Then the central action of this “prayer scene” unfolds. Claudius utters a theologically laden so- liloquy in which he voices the anguish of his soul over the guilt that he bears for murdering his brother. He is so smitten in his conscience that he kneels to pray. Hamlet passes the open door, sees the king at prayer, considers whether to assassinate him, and decides not to because at this moment Hamlet is so controlled by the motivation of personal revenge that he does not want to kill the king at a moment when the king’s soul would go to heaven instead of hell. The scene ends on a note of extreme irony, as the king acknowledges that he has repented in word only, not in his heart or in deed.


This is another scene that is so unpleasant to absorb that we find it painful to read or watch. Yet it is an important part of the human sinfulness that this play exists to expose.

The first piece of bad behavior is the intrigue by Claudius to do away with Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mere “toadies” to the king (lines 17–23)—his tentacles of evil in the world. The spy mission of Polonius might seem minor in comparison with the king’s plot against Hamlet, but it is nonetheless part of the deceitfulness of the court.

The king’s speech as he wrestles with his conscience is one of the key speeches in the play. The first thing we need to note about it is its contribution to the characterization of Claudius. Claudius is a villain, but Shakespeare adds humanizing touches that make him more than the stock villain of revenge plays. For all the evil that he does, Claudius has an accusing conscience. He feels guilty and can express his awareness of what has produced the guilt.

Even more importantly, the speech is theologically sophisticated. It turns out that Claudius knows all about the difference between conviction of sin and repentance—between knowing that something is wrong and being willing to give it up. Claudius knows that God sees what he has done (lines 60–62). He even hints at a doctrine known as reprobation, which holds that the non-elect are condemned souls (line 66, though the line does not need to be read that way). Because Claudius admits that he is not genuinely repentant, Roland M. Frye, in his book Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine, concludes that Claudius’s soliloquy meets all the traits of ineffectual prayer and refusal of repentance delineated by seventeenth-century theologians and preachers. Simply to understand the soliloquy requires that we place the speech into a theological context. For Christian readers, Claudius confirms Christian belief about prayer and repentance by negative example.

Hamlet’s behavior then adds something even more distasteful to the mix. Even though at other moments in the play Hamlet’s quest to call the king to account is treated as a legitimate desire for justice, in this scene, Hamlet is motivated by a desire for personal revenge. He is not out to eradicate evil from the court but to ensure the damnation of a personal enemy. The complexity of the scene is very high. For example, sparing the king’s life is not an act of mercy but the opposite— an act of hatred. Even though we do not want to see a man stabbed while at prayer, the reason for Hamlet sparing the king’s life is shocking. In turn, if Hamlet had killed the king at this point, all of the ensuing violent deaths would have been prevented, leading Christian critic Preston Roberts to call Hamlet’s decision his “big blunder.” Miriam Joseph agrees, claiming that instead of performing a morally justified act of public justice by killing the king, Hamlet instead resorts to personal hatred and bypasses the chance to execute justice.

Additional Notes

This scene is full of surprises. First, why are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, mere visitors at court, so extreme in their statements of loyalty to Claudius (lines 7–23)? We might ask something similar in regard to Polonius when he proposes to hide behind the arras and bring a report to the king about Hamlet’s encounter with his mother (lines 24–35). Why all this loyalty to Claudius, and why the lavish attempts to please him?

The king and Hamlet surprise us in this scene. Except for a brief earlier moment when Claudius had expressed pangs of guilt (3.1.49–54), we have had no reason to believe that the king is a religious and theologically informed person. As for Hamlet, the implication up to now has been that his approach to the king is governed by a quest to bring Claudius to public justice, and now suddenly Hamlet behaves like an impulsive revenger acting out of personal malice.

Roland M. Frye, in his book Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine, takes up the speech by Claudius twice—first in regard to prayer and then under the topic of repentance. With statements by contemporary theologians like Richard Hooker and John Calvin providing a context, Claudius in effect becomes a case study in how not to pray and attempt repentance.

The viewpoint advanced in this guide is that although Hamlet delays in taking decisive action against Claudius, there are good reasons for that delay, and Hamlet is therefore not guilty of inaction or procrastination. A good case can be made that Hamlet overreacts until act 5 of the play. For the record, though, critics in the alternate camp believe Hamlet’s professed reason for not killing the king shows yet again that he is procrastinating or is too weak to perform the unpleasant deed that is required of him.

For Reflection or Discussion

This is the kind of scene that makes our heads swim. Every major action that a character undertakes and every sentiment that the characters utter is evil. What examples does the scene hold before us to reject and avoid? How does this morass of evil fit into the play as a whole? What sense do you make of the theological understanding that Claudius expresses in his soliloquy? What difference does it make to our experience of the play to have a theologically explicit scene like this in it compared with what the play would be without it?

Act 3, Scene 4

Plot Summary

The sitting room of Hamlet’s mother in Elsinore Castle. Hamlet’s encounter with his mother is one of the most explosive scenes in the play and is commonly referred to as “the encounter scene” or “closet scene.” It occurs late in the evening, after the tumultuous mousetrap scene in which Claudius betrayed his guilt and called a halt to the evening’s dramatic performance. Hamlet is in a hostile and threatening mood right from the start. When Gertrude calls out in terror, Polonius, hiding behind the curtain, also shouts. Thinking the person to be the king, Hamlet takes his sword, thrusts it through the curtain, and stabs Polonius to death. Then Hamlet proceeds to inform and accuse his mother of complicity in the murder of her husband King Hamlet and an incestuous marriage to Claudius.

While Hamlet is ranting and his mother is overwhelmed by Hamlet’s onslaught, the ghost of Hamlet’s father suddenly appears to spur Hamlet on and instruct him to minister to his mother. Since only Hamlet sees the ghost, Gertrude is newly confirmed in her belief that Hamlet is insane. Hamlet expresses repentance for his rash actions and reaches a state of resolve. When his mother asks, “What shall I do?” (line 181), Hamlet instructs her not to tell Claudius that he is “not in madness,” that is, not actually insane, but rather “mad in craft,” that is, mad by cunning, or mad by design, or pretending to be mad, but in any case not genuinely insane (lines 187–88). Near the end of the scene Hamlet informs his mother (and the audience) that Claudius is sending him to England to receive “knavery” (his death, we learn in a later scene), with the further implication that Hamlet has a counterplot in mind. At the very end of the scene, Hamlet moves the corpse of Polonius into the next room and bids farewell to his mother.


Here is another scene that leaves us scratching our heads in wonderment about what is happening and why. Our best course is to accept the view that the twofold task that Hamlet has accepted for himself is to bring Claudius to judgment and also to bring his mother to conviction and repentance. In this scene, Hamlet achieves at least partial success in the second of these missions. We can profitably recall the initial assignment from the ghost in regard to Gertrude (1.5.84–88). The instruction was not to “contrive” anything “against thy mother”; this can be interpreted to mean, “Do not resort to physical violence against her.” That this is Hamlet’s intention in his encounter with his mother is evident when he says in an earlier scene that he will “speak daggers to her, but use none” (3.2.389). Within this scene, Gertrude complains that Hamlet’s “words like daggers enter in my ears” (line 95).

The ghost had further instructed Hamlet to leave his mother to the “thorns” of conscience “to prick and sting her” (1.5.87–88). In this encounter scene, Hamlet serves as the agent of spurring his mother’s conscience, thereby obeying the instruction of the ghost in the commissioning or cellarage scene.

While bringing a wayward soul to repentance is commendable in principle, Hamlet’s way of attempting to set things right in Denmark is (as always) the wrong way. Hamlet has himself become infected with the violence of the court. When Hamlet spared the king’s life in the prayer scene, he was acting out of personal malice. This becomes amplified when, acting as impulsive revenger, he kills the figure behind the curtain, thinking that it is the king. Hamlet’s behavior here is a foil to his eventual behavior in the final act, so we need to keep an open mind in regard to where all of this is heading.

One of the mysteries of the play is the degree to which Gertrude was an accomplice to the murder of King Hamlet. If we go with the flow in this scene, the most natural interpretation is that Gertrude learns for the first time that Claudius murdered King Hamlet. Judging from the vehemence of Hamlets speeches to his mother, Hamlet nonetheless assumes that his mother was an accomplice to the murder, though Hamlet is even more upset about his mother’s incestuous marriage. Alternatively, Hamlet uses a heavy-handed approach because he thinks that his mother will resist his accusations. In any case, Gertrude pleads with Hamlet to relent, and there can be no doubt that she comes to a moment of conviction when she says, “Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grainéd spots / As will leave there their tinct” (lines 89–91). And again, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain” (line 156).

The mystery surrounding Gertrude in this scene is small compared with the mystery regarding the ghost. Much does not add up. First of all, why would the ghost appear at this time? The ghost of the revenge play genre pops up from time to time to spur the revenger to his task, but Hamlet has just acted in a thoroughly decisive (and destructive) way. The ghost’s claim that he has come “to whet thy almost blunted purpose” does not fit the circumstances of Hamlet’s killing Polonius and relentlessly haranguing his mother. Alternatively, the ghost’s reference to Hamlet’s “blunted purpose” (line 111) refers to Hamlet’s sparing of the king’s life in the prayer scene.

The very next words of the ghost change the subject, as the ghost commands Hamlet to “step between [Gertrude] and her fighting soul” (line 113)—in other words, minister to her (reinforced by the ghost’s parting shot, “Speak to her, Hamlet” [line 115]). This is mysterious, too, because it is unclear what it means to step between Gertrude and her soul. It may mean to calm her pangs of conviction, but (a) that would not be in keeping with the general premise through the play that Gertrude must be called to account for misconduct, and (b) it also does not accord with what Hamlet continues to do in the rest of this scene. In any case, it seems ludicrous for the ghost to show up in his nightgown.

We also need to make sense of the distasteful topic of Hamlet’s preoccupation with his mother’s sex life. In modern times the play is often viewed as embodying the Oedipus complex in which a son desires the murder of his father and sexual union with his mother. This interpretation owes more to Freud than to Shakespeare. The Freudian interpretation often governs how the scene is played, with the private sitting room having become Gertrude’s bedroom, and with Hamlet’s gestures suggestive of sexual contact.

We therefore need to get the setting right: the action occurs in Gertrude’s “closet,” not her bedroom (3.2.325). According to one expert, a closet “was a private sitting room, sometimes a sewing room, but never a bedroom” (James Lower). We might recall an earlier reference to Ophelia’s “sewing in [her] closet” (2.1.76). Instead of Freudian obsessions, we should see in Hamlet’s response to his mother’s married behavior the revulsion of a young idealist when he sees the central institutions in his life (in this case the family) polluted. The keynote in Hamlet’s comments about his mother’s sexuality is revulsion, not attraction.

Rising up from Hamlet’s out-of-control behavior is a key speech that contains the seeds of Hamlet’s recovery. In fact, when we see the maturation of Hamlet in act 5, we can trace that process of maturation back to this speech in the closet scene. The speech occurs in response to Hamlet’s discovery that he has murdered Polonius (lines 172–84). Hamlet expresses six new attitudes, in the following order:

  • Repentance for the destructiveness with which he has acted as an impulsive revenger: “For this same lord, / I do repent.”
  • Acceptance of guilt for what he has done, in the surprising sentiment that God (“heaven”) has punished him “with [not “for”] this,” that is, with the murder of Polonius. Hamlet behaved as an impetuous revenger (not an agent of justice) in killing the figure behind the curtain, and now the corpse of a man wrongly murdered is what will make Hamlet a condemned man.
  • Defines two new roles for himself, those of scourge (agent of God’s justice in the world) and minister (one who ministers to others on behalf of God).
  •  A sense of self-vindication for what he has done:“I… will answer well/The death I gave him.”
  • A retrospective summing up of how Hamlet has handled his encounter with his mother: he has been “cruel only to be kind.”
  • A sense of tragic resignation to what now lies ahead: “Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind [ahead].”
Additional Notes

This is a chaotic scene, to be sure, but things will fall into place more readily if we grasp the underlying patterns. At the end of act 1, Hamlet expressed the sentiment, “The time is out of joint. O curséd spite / That ever I was born to set it right” (1.5.192–93). Hamlet’s sense of mission or calling is to set things right in his corrupt environment, and that is what he attempts in this scene.

The need to bring Claudius to justice is so obviously the central aspect of Hamlet’s mission that it is easy to overlook a secondary mission that gradually takes shape as the play unfolds. That mission is for Hamlet to bring his mother to conviction of sin and repentance. This is the underlying dynamic of the encounter or closet scene. Hamlet goes about his pastoral mission in a violent and destructive way, but by the end of the scene Gertrude implicitly sees that Claudius is a murderer and that she is a guilty soul in other ways.

As part of the mystery surrounding the ghost, we need to answer the question of why Shakespeare chose to make the ghost visible only to Hamlet. The theory that Hamlet is actually hallucinating does not square with the very palpable presence of the ghost on stage. Whatever Shakespeare’s intention might have been, the effect is to reinforce Gertrude’s conviction that her son is insane, as she reports to Claudius in the next scene.

The word scourge had a technical meaning in Shakespeare’s day. It referred to someone who had been set apart to carry out an act of justice against a guilty person. One interpretation (not favored in this guide) is that this role imposed guilt on the scourge, and even implied that the scourge is a wicked person. A more neutral definition of scourge is possible. The essence of the word scourge is punishment. Hamlet does not repent for being a scourge but for having acted as an impulsive revenger.

When Hamlet expresses the sentiment that “heaven” (a metonymy for God) has punished him “with” the death of Polonius, he acknowledges that violence (perhaps motivated by hatred of a personal enemy) is under God’s judgment. Further, given the ground rules of a revenge play, Hamlet immediately becomes the intended victim of revenge by Laertes, son of the slain Polonius.

We should not overshoot the mark in laying blame on Hamlet for his behavior in this scene. Critics make some very positive statements on the basis of Hamlet’s key speech in lines 172–80. Virgil Whitaker believes that “in the closet scene a totally different Hamlet emerges—a Hamlet who reappears at intervals throughout the remaining episodes of the play.” G. R. Elliott claims that “while converting his mother Hamlet is unconsciously converting himself.”

For Reflection or Discussion

The foregoing commentary has suggested certain lines of interpretation, but they are not the only possible ones. For you personally, what stands out most in this scene? How do you assess Hamlet’s behavior? We of course need to reach a satisfactory understanding of the details of the action (as the interpretation above does), but if we stand back from the details and bring the big picture into focus, what are the leading effects of the scene, and how does that fit into the overall flow of the play up to this point?

Christian commentary on Shakespeare’s plays is voluminous. In regard to the tragedies, claims that a given play is Christian are usually made to hinge on whether the play’s action can be viewed as making an optimistic statement about life. A helpful corrective is supplied by an essay entitled “Christian Pessimism in Shakespeare’s Tragedies.” Christianity has a negative message as well as a positive one—a pessimistic message of human sinfulness and the fallen nature of earthly life and institutions. How does the play up to this point, or this scene considered by itself, illustrate the pessimistic side of reality that Christianity affirms to be true? What stories or books of the Bible come to mind as delivering a parallel message about human fallenness?

The Bible is filled with memorable sayings or aphorisms that can be used as an interpretive framework that brings matters into focus as we read great works of literature. One that sums up a lot of Hamlet is the following: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9 rsv). Do other verses come to mind as a commentary on Hamlet?

Act 4, Scene 1

Plot Summary

Elsinore Castle. Stories always operate on a back- and-forth rhythm between intensity of action and relaxation of that intensity. The chief narrative business of this brief scene is that when Gertrude finds herself alone with Claudius, she informs him that Hamlet is “mad as the sea and wind” and that in “his lawless fit” he has killed Polonius. Claudius is horror-stricken at the thought that he will be held responsible for Hamlet’s behavior, and he announces his intention to “ship [Hamlet] hence,” that is, to England.


Two main questions call for an answer in this scene. One is the mystery of Gertrude’s behavior. Does she genuinely believe Hamlet to be insane? Or is she making good on her implied acceptance of Hamlet’s request that she conceal the fact that Hamlet is behaving “not in madness, / But mad in craft” (that is, by design, as opposed to genuine insanity [3.4.186])? Additionally, in view of what seemed to be Gertrude’s conviction of wrongdoing in the previous scene, we can hardly avoid being baffled by how Gertrude now interacts with Claudius as though everything is normal, in effect taking sides against Hamlet in her reportage of what happened in the closet scene.

No such ambiguity surrounds Claudius. He knows that he has a problem and resolves to take decisive action against it. From time to time it is helpful to look at the unfolding action from the king’s point of view. We tend to think of Hamlet as the person with a problem, but Claudius is equally a person with a problem. In his own way, he is a tragic protagonist in this play. He made a tragic choice and now has to live with its consequences. Like all tragic heroes, Claudius is increasingly besieged as the tragic consequences of his choice hem him in. We catch a hint of this in the very last line of the scene when Claudius says, “My soul is full of discord and dismay” (line 45).

Additional Notes

Three main topics make up the intertwined “problem of Hamlet” (as commentators call it)—Hamlet’s nature and personality (the question of what kind of person he is), Hamlet’s delay, and Hamlet’s madness. As implied by the commentary in this guide, Hamlet’s delay has been greatly exaggerated by the critics. What actually controls the action in scene after scene is Hamlet’s madness, whether real or pretended. Act 4, scene 1, is an example.

It is doubtful that Hamlet makes a tragic choice in this play. By contrast, the case can be made that Claudius is the conventional tragic hero. He makes a specific choice (to kill King Hamlet). Like Macbeth, he attempts an unsuccessful cover-up and becomes increasingly desperate with unanticipated consequences of his tragic choice. He suffers intermittently with a guilty conscience.

For Reflection or Discussion

This is mainly a “plot scene” designed to keep the action flowing. Nonetheless, how does it contribute to the characterization of Gertrude and Claudius? A major theme in this play is the self-destructiveness of evil—the certainty that people who do evil will suffer punishment for that evil quite apart from retribution from the outside world. How does this theme receive advancement in this scene? We might also reflect on why Shakespeare elevated Hamlet’s madness to such an important element in the play.

Act 4, Scenes 2 and 3

Plot Summary

Elsinore Castle. These two scenes are also plot scenes whose purpose is to advance the main plot lines. One of these is the seeming or actual insanity of Hamlet. A second is the increasing desperation of Claudius, who in a soliloquy informs us that he is sending Hamlet to England to be executed. At the beginning of scene 3, Claudius addresses a small group of courtiers to bring them up to speed on the need to do something about Hamlet’s dangerous behavior. In a pretended show of concern about national stability, Claudius tells the courtiers that he cannot punish (imprison?) Hamlet because Hamlet is “loved” by the populace, so sending Hamlet into exile must appear to be the product of careful deliberation.


A good plot depends on an abundance of conflict, and these scenes “deliver the goods” in this regard. Hamlet and Claudius are completely hostile to each other. Hamlet’s pretended madness allows him to tease Claudius regarding the whereabouts of Polonius’s corpse. Furthermore, Hamlet never fails to taunt Claudius about his incestuous marriage to Gertrude. The king, in turn, resorts to intrigue when he arranges to send Hamlet to his execution.

Hamlet is a melodrama—a play with such ingredients as sensational and violent external action, intrigue, plotting, and trickery. Shakespeare made this play much more than a melodrama, but unless we can relish it as a melodrama, we are unlikely to enjoy it. C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories are a parallel example: we will never reap the harvest of deeper meanings in those stories unless we can read them first as children’s stories with fairy tale features. Hamlet is more than a revenge play melodrama, but it is not less.

Additional Notes

The critical consensus is that Hamlet is a sympathetic character whom we just naturally admire. One critic calls Hamlet “Shakespeare’s best-loved character,” and another claims that we admire Lear “but we love Hamlet.” We need to be on our guard against uncritical acceptance of such sweeping statements. Through most of the play (but not in act 5), Hamlet becomes a general nuisance to both himself and those around him. He also becomes more and more violent.

Hamlet in his role as madman fits into an established convention of medieval and Renaissance courts. Such courts often had a fool or jester. The essential feature of this figure was that he was exempt from ordinary rules of decorum, and as part of that, he could utter unpleasant truths without fear of reprisal. Nearly everything that Hamlet says in these two scenes is a variation on the theme of Hamlet’s saying whatever he wishes, even to the king, including a meditation on the physical repulsiveness of a rotting corpse and the king’s incestuous marriage to Gertrude.

For Reflection or Discussion

One of the main tasks of literature is to “hold the mirror up to nature” (3.2.21–22), as Hamlet calls it—to present some aspect of human experience for our contemplation and understanding. What universal human experiences are embodied in the details that Shakespeare invented for these two scenes? At a further stage of contemplation, what Christian doctrines come to mind as you assimilate the presented experiences?

Act 4, Scene 4

Plot Summary

Somewhere in Denmark. This brief scene begins with a piece of action that is nearly irrelevant to the play: Norwegian Prince Fortinbras has assembled an army “to gain a little patch of ground / That hath no profit but the name” (lines 18–19). He asks Claudius’s permission to march across Danish land in order to carry out this mission. This is merely a setup for another famous soliloquy by Hamlet in which he castigates himself for having delayed in carrying out his mission against Claudius.


The scene is constructed on the principle known as foil—a contrast between it and a secondary action designed to set it off (the literal meaning of foil). The decisive action of Fortinbras in a matter of no importance stands as a contrast to Hamlet’s inaction in regard to Claudius. Hamlet characteristically launches into elaborate self-laceration because of what he calls his “dull revenge” (line 33). We need to read Hamlet’s soliloquy carefully and in light of certain things that the play does not directly put onto its agenda.

First, several leading commentators on this play observe that if we discount the soliloquies in which Hamlet accuses himself of delay, we have very nearly removed the issue of delay as an active concern within the play. One of these critics (Northrop Frye) further observes that a standard way to misread the play is to accept Hamlet’s interpretation of the action as Shakespeare’s interpretation.

Second, although the theory that Hamlet procrastinates is the dominant interpretation of the play, there is a sizable alternate school of thought that believes that Hamlet has no adequate opportunity to bring Claudius to justice. Not until the middle of the play, in the mousetrap scene, does Hamlet even know for certain that the ghost’s allegation of murder is true. After that point Claudius is on his defensive against Hamlet. We can assume that a fearful king has surrounded himself with bodyguards (confirmation comes in the very next scene [4.5.96–97]).

Even if there were physical opportunities to kill the king, certain other considerations would have mitigated against Hamlet’s sticking a knife into the king. If Hamlet were to assassinate the king without public proof of the king’s guilt, he would be signing his own death warrant. He would not ascend the throne but instead mount the gallows. Hamlet needs public proof of the king’s guilt, which will come in act 5. Hamlet’s problem is to find a way to expose the king publically and leave himself unscathed. Assassination would not achieve that purpose.

Additionally, contrary to the conventional view that Hamlet is guilty of inaction, a good case can be made that he is guilty of overreaction. For example, his soliloquies in which he lacerates himself for delay are themselves a case of overreaction—impatience magnified into overblown self-accusation. Again, under the cloak of insanity, Hamlet scurries around the court and rants like a man out of control. He is over-active, not under-active.

Additional Notes

The heart of this scene is Hamlet’s soliloquy of self-accusation. Even if we think that his comments about delay are not appropriately applied to Hamlet himself, the soliloquy is still a moving meditation on the ignominy of procrastination.

The view taken in this guide is that Hamlet’s soliloquy in this scene does not accurately portray Hamlet’s situation. Another aspect of the soliloquy that we should be critical of is Hamlet’s praise of Fortinbras’s military operation. Hamlet praises Fortinbras for undertaking a battle that will sacrifice twenty thousand lives for an inconsequential plot of land (lines 60–61). Hamlet is largely misguided in this soliloquy.

For Reflection or Discussion

It is important that you personally reach conclusions, however tentative, regarding the mystery of Hamlet’s personality. Do you think that he procrastinates or, contrariwise, that he overreacts? The soliloquy in this scene is worthy of close scrutiny; what truth and untruth do you see intertwined in Hamlet’s statements?

Act 4, Scene 5

Plot Summary

Elsinore Castle. After several short and relatively relaxed scenes, this one sprawls and returns to intensity. As the scene opens, Gertrude and Ophelia interact. Ophelia is insane, as shown by her incoherently singing snatches of songs and ballads dealing with death and unrequited love. As Ophelia exits, the king commands that she be watched. The king theorizes that Ophelia’s mind has snapped under the pressure of her father’s murder. Then, out of nowhere, there is commotion outside as Laertes has appeared with a riotous group of followers who want to crown Laertes king! The king interacts with Laertes in a way that calms him down. But then the mad Ophelia reenters, babbling about handing out flowers and singing a song that contains the line, “He never will come again” (line 188). When Ophelia leaves, Claudius assures Laertes that a way will be found to gain revenge, which is what Laertes wants to hear.


Insanity is a great deal more important to this play than is sometimes acknowledged. Additionally, we need to note that most of the insanity is part of the larger issue of the victimization of the young by the adult world. In fact, the play partly exists to present these universal human experiences for our contemplation and understanding. To this we need to add the pathos that this play exploits. In this scene, the pathos springs from the common literary motifs of female distress and the spurned woman archetype. The broader landscape into which this scene fits is the general corruption and chaos that have invaded the Danish court.

A Victorian Shakespeare scholar wrote a voluminous book entitled Shakespearean Tragedy on Shakespeare’s four major tragedies. One element in his definition of tragedy is that the destructive actions of the tragic hero reach out in a series of ripples that engulf innocent characters in the spreading calamity and woe, leaving us with a sense of regret at the unnecessary waste that has occurred. Ophelia is an arch example of such innocent suffering, drawn into the web of destructiveness caused by the tragic action.

Additional Notes

In Hamlet and King Lear, Shakespeare showed himself adept at portraying states of insanity. To provide content for these psychological portrayals, Shakespeare of course chose material that fits the action. The specific content of Ophelia’s songs and speeches therefore deserves analysis. The musings on death fit the recent death of her father and are perhaps a premonition of her own coming death, and the songs dealing with unrequited love grow out of her failed romance with Hamlet.

The hotheaded and decisive Laertes is an obvious foil to the deliberative Hamlet. What these two characters have in common is that each has lost a father and is keen to bring punishment to the murderer. But not too much should be made of the comparison. The death of Polonius at the hand of Hamlet is public knowledge, whereas Claudius’s murder of Hamlet’s father is still concealed from public view.

The flowers that Ophelia speaks of handing out (lines 170–80) had the following symbolic meanings: rosemary = remembrance (at weddings and funerals); fennel = flattery or deceit; columbines = ingratitude; rue = regret or sorrow; daisy = springtime and love; violets = faithfulness or sweetness.

For Reflection or Discussion

For you, what is the guiding force behind this scene? Why do you think Shakespeare invented the scene? What feelings are elicited? The destructiveness of evil in the lives of individuals and nations is an archetype of literature and life. What literary examples come to your mind from literature and the Bible? There are moments when we seem to be moving in the world of Old Testament history, where the corruption of an evil ruler can taint a whole society. Can you think of examples from biblical history?

Act 4, Scene 6

Plot Summary

Elsinore Castle. This brief scene exists to inform us of something important, namely, that as Hamlet was en route to England, he invaded a pirate ship and escaped his intended execution. In fact, Hamlet is back in Denmark, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still en route to England. All of this information is conveyed to us as Horatio reads a letter from Hamlet containing the news.


At every point in this play, the conventions of melodrama are capable of dominating the action. Pirate ships belong to the world of melodrama. But Shakespeare always adds depth to the substructure of sensational external action associated with melodrama.

What adds that depth to this scene is the picture of Hamlet that emerges. Starting with the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century, a dominant interpretation of Hamlet is that his personality is too sensitive and retiring to allow him to perform the unpleasant and courageous deeds that are required of him in this play. According to this theory, the reason that Hamlet procrastinates (an important ingredient in this interpretation) is that he lacks the qualities of character that would allow him to kill Claudius.

There are many details in the play that refute this picture of Hamlet, and this brief scene is one of them. Hamlet shows daring in boarding a pirate ship all by himself. Then he displays mastery in getting the pirates to become his allies and return him safely to Denmark.

Additional Notes

The manliness that Hamlet displays in boarding a pirate ship and getting the pirates to assist his plans is corroborated by other details in the play. Hamlet practices fencing and is sure that he can defeat Laertes in the fencing match that ends the play. He kills Polonius and speaks of lugging the guts into the next room. Ophelia laments the overthrow of the soldier’s sword (3.1.151). In Fortinbras’s eulogy at the end of the play, the word soldier appears three times.

For Reflection or Discussion

Hamlet’s growing mastery of his situation and ability to orchestrate events is the dominant pattern in the last quarter of the play. How does this scene fit into that pattern? A Shakespeare scholar famously said that Shakespeare’s “essential method” is “the humanization of melodrama.” How does that principle work itself out in this scene and elsewhere in Hamlet? How does Shakespeare’s skill at character creation balance the emphasis of melo- drama on sensational external action?

Act 4, Scene 7

Plot Summary

Elsinore Castle. This scene is primarily one of intrigue, ending with a brief scene of pathos as the drowning of Ophelia is announced. The intrigue centers on the planning of the king and Laertes to “rig” the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes. As the scene opens, Claudius answers Laertes’s question about why he has not taken action against Hamlet for his murder of Polonius by offering the twofold explanation that Gertrude dotes on her son and the general population loves Hamlet. A messenger suddenly arrives with a communiqué from Hamlet stating he will arrive at court shortly. As Claudius and Laertes continue to discuss Laertes’s desire for revenge against Hamlet, they hit upon the idea of a fencing match as the means of killing Hamlet. More specifically, Laertes will arrange the swords in such a way that he himself will choose a sword that (a) is sharp instead of blunted and (b) has a poisoned point. A mere scratch of Hamlet’s skin will bring death to him. Additionally, a poisoned chalice will be planted in the expectation that Hamlet will drink from it during an intermission in the fencing match. The scene ends with Gertrude’s arrival to announce that Ophelia has drowned in a stream.


Three avenues exist for unfolding the significance of this scene. First, intrigue is a forte of melodrama. It is all the better if the plotters are villains and the intended victim is a sympathetic character. In effect, we experience an act of villainy twice—once in the planning of it and then in the execution of it. The stakes are high as the story becomes a murder story. Of course we want to warn the innocent party, and the more helpless we feel to do so, the greater the play’s mastery over us.

Second, the dynamics of the revenge play are in full play. From start to finish, Laertes speaks the language of revenge. He has a double reason to want to get even with Hamlet—his father’s murder and his sister’s insanity. His governing motive at this point is that “revenge should have no bounds” (line 126). Since Claudius wants to see Hamlet dead, he fans the flames of Laertes’s passion for revenge.

Third, the scene reinforces the characterization of Claudius in the play. He is what literary critics call a degenerating character, meaning that he gets worse and worse as the action unfolds. We experience him as a villain right from the start, assuming that he cannot be much worse than he already is. But the play keeps springing surprises on us as Claudius reveals more and more levels of depravity.

Additional Notes

This scene, too, shows that Hamlet is not a weakling in physical combat. He is so “into” fencing that (as Claudius describes it to Laertes) when someone praised the fencing prowess of Laertes in Hamlet’s presence, Hamlet “could nothing do but wish and beg / Your sudden coming o’er to play with you” (lines 102–3). Hamlet is obviously a competitive athlete at heart.

The drowning of Ophelia is another of the mysteries in the play. The queen gives a full description of Ophelia’s death by drowning, and she describes it as an accident, not a suicide. In Ophelia’s burial in the next scene, the mystery and ambiguity of her death will be reinforced.

For Reflection or Discussion

What features make this scene a good episode in a melodrama? Although Claudius and Laertes are villains, it is Shakespeare’s method to provide a slight counterbalance to the stereotypes in his plays (without, however, overthrowing the stereotypes). What touches render Claudius and Laertes slightly sympathetic (and not completely villainous)? How does Laertes’s impetuous thirst for revenge by any means make us take a sympathetic view of Hamlet’s delay in carrying out his revenge?

Act 5, Scene 1

Plot Summary

A graveyard (British “churchyard”) within the Elsinore Castle environs. The scene is known as “the gravedigger’s scene” and is one of the most famous scenes in Hamlet. As the scene begins, a gravedigger is digging a grave for the deceased Ophelia. He converses with a fellow commoner about whether Ophelia should receive a Christian burial, inasmuch as some people believe that she committed suicide. This is the jumping off point for the gravedigger to offer comic sentiments about death as he uncovers the skulls of buried persons, the most famous of which is “poor Yorick” (line 174), the jester of a previous era of court history. Hamlet and Horatio arrive in the graveyard and overhear most of the conversation.

The second half of the scene is devoted to the burial of Ophelia. The queen strews flowers according to custom, but then the service takes a bizarre turn as Laertes and Hamlet wrestle madly with each other at the grave site in a love contest as to who loved Ophelia more. Hamlet is totally out of control, and various onlookers speak of him as mad. Hamlet himself says to Laertes, “I’ll rant as well as thou” (line 274).


This is another head-scratching scene that leaves us wondering what is happening and how it fits into the superstructure of the play. We need to remind ourselves yet again that this play is a melodrama. Melodramas are filled with far-fetched, attention-grabbing, and sensational events. The goal is first of all to keep the audience’s attention focused on the stage or the reader’s attention on the text. Having acknowledged the melodrama as a “given” of this chaotic and mysterious scene, we can proceed to explore several serious issues that require our best thinking.

The first is the mystery surrounding Ophelia’s death by drowning. The fact that the “clown” (common man) expresses surprise that Ophelia is being buried on consecrated ground shows that he believes she committed suicide (which would prevent a person from receiving a Christian burial). But this is not a confirmed verdict within the text of the play. In the previous scene, Gertrude described Ophelia’s drowning as an accident, and the circumstances that Gertrude describes seem more like the actions of a deranged young woman (which we know Ophelia to be) than a suicide.

Furthermore, the gravedigger lets us know that the coroner found it to be a “Christian burial,” that is, death by natural causes. The “doctor” (i.e., priest) believes that “her death was doubtful” (line 217), which leaves the question open. A death by drowning in real life is often accompanied by similar uncertainty. The priest’s follow-up comment that “great command o’ersways the order” (line 218) might mean only that, given the uncertainty surrounding Ophelia’s death, the king’s “great command” resolved the matter in the direction of accidental death. There can be no doubt that the funeral has irregular features, as confirmed by the priest’s reference to “maimed rites” (lack of ordinary ceremonies [line 209]), but a violent and unexpected death might account for the irregular funeral arrangements. Additionally, a full-fledged burial service would be completely beyond the time constraints of any play.

Once the opening conversation about Ophelia’s death is finished, the scene shifts to the antics of the gravedigger as he digs up skulls and handles them. He is a jokester at heart, and he cracks jokes about death, graves, and the specific people who were buried in the cemetery and were known to the gravedigger. What are we to make of the levity with which the gravedigger discusses these topics? The answer is probably that we are to interpret the scene as an acceptance of death as the universal human lot. Hamlet gets into the act by picking up the skull of Yorick and musing on it. Even though Hamlet is repelled by the skull, there is also an element of acceptance of death in Hamlet’s gestures and words. The primary pattern in Hamlet’s maturation in act 5 is an attitude of resignation to providence, and a similar resignation takes place as Hamlet confronts death in the graveyard. As he toys with the skull and discourses upon death as the inevitable end of all humans, Hamlet accepts the limits of being human.

The Christian nature of the world of the play is strongly reinforced in this scene. Modern secular readers do nothing with the Christian frame of reference, and it is important that Christian readers not be lulled into the myth of the secular Shakespeare. The phrase “Christian burial” appears three times in the first twenty-five lines. The opening speech refers to Ophelia as seeking “her own salvation” (line 2). The gravedigger speaks of “Adam’s profession,” an allusion to Adam’s task of tending the garden, as famously described in Genesis 2:15 (line 31). He speaks of gravediggers as building “stronger than the church” (lines 43–44), and he cracks a joke about gravediggers building the strongest because their houses last “till doomsday,” that is, until the final judgment day (line 55). When an author makes no reference to such Christian commonplaces, we rightfully make something of it, namely, that the author does not operate within a Christian frame of reference. Contrariwise, if the world of Hamlet is a world that assumes that the features of Christianity are a normal part of how people live and think, we also need to make something of it, namely, that the work accepts a Christian world view.

Another line of analysis concerns the development of Hamlet’s character. Progress is combined with an irrational lack of control. On the latter side of the ledger, when Hamlet leaps into the grave and wrestles with Laertes, he acts like a madman. He poses a bizarre love contest when he claims that he will match whatever gesture of love Laertes might show to his deceased sister (lines 264–74).

But there is a positive side as well. When Ophelia lived, Hamlet repudiated her. Now that she is dead, he regains his love for Ophelia: “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum” (lines 259–61). As Hamlet now accepts a relationship that in his distraught state he had cruelly destroyed, he rises in our estimation. Maynard Mack writes regarding act 5, “Hamlet accepts his world and we discover a different man. . . . [Shakespeare] leads us to expect an altered Hamlet, and then . . . provides him.” According to Mack, this change is “a matter of Hamlet’s whole deportment, in which . . . we may legitimately see the deportment of a man who has been ‘illuminated’ in the tragic sense.”

Additional Notes

Modern attitudes toward sex have invaded the interpretation and performance of this play (as well as other Shakespeare plays), and have gone a long way toward spoiling the play and its performance for Christians. One illustration is the assumption that Hamlet and Ophelia have had sexual relations and even that Ophelia is pregnant with Hamlet’s unborn child. Because in Shakespeare’s day some unwed, pregnant women drowned themselves, the death of Ophelia by drowning is offered as proof by some critics that she is pregnant. These interpretations tell us more about modern sexual aberrations than Shakespeare’s play. The play leaves the question of Ophelia’s drowning uncertain, and in the burial scene Ophelia is given “virgin” rites and “maiden strewments” (lines 222–23).

When Hamlet interacts with the gravedigger, he asks the gravedigger how long he has held his position. The gravedigger replies that he started on the day of Hamlet’s birth, thirty years ago. This introduces yet another insoluble mystery into the play: Exactly how old is Hamlet? The gravedigger says thirty years (lines 138–40 and 152–53). But near the end of the first scene Horatio refers to his college friend as “young Hamlet.” Furthermore, undergraduate students in Shakespeare’s day were usually under twenty. While in fact Hamlet cannot be both a teenager and thirty years old, his mood swings between adolescent behavior and adult mastery of language and thought are definitely part of his characterization.

Hamlet utters one of the famous quotations in this play when he says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest” (lines 174–75). Important literary and religious traditions underlie this moment in the play. The skull was a conventional Christian symbol of death in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Contemplating a skull (either an actual skull or a painting of one) was a traditional form of meditation known by the Latin phrase memento mori (“remember that you will die”).

This scene reintroduces Hamlet into the play after being absent for several scenes. Often in Shakespeare’s plays such absence foreshadows a new phase of development in a character. Furthermore, Hamlet has been to sea and returned, which is an archetypal death-and-rebirth symbol in literature. To this day we have a common saying about a “sea change” to name a distinct change in a person’s behavior or situation. Hamlet also appears wearing different clothing, and this, too, is a predictable signal of change in character in Shakespeare’s plays.

For Reflection or Discussion

Since the play puts the ambiguity of the nature of Ophelia’s drowning aggressively on the agenda of concerns, it is important that we comb the text for data that allows us personally to decide what we conclude about Ophelia’s death. Then we need to draw an inference about how this fits into the overall action. The second main interpretive question is how we perceive the character development (or reinforcement) of Hamlet in this scene. What stands out for you?

Act 5, Scene 2

Plot Summary

On the surface, the conventions of melodrama run away with the last scene of the play. The focus of the action is a fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet. The excitement can be arranged into a threefold pattern: lead-up to the duel, the unfolding of the fencing match, and the discovery and aftermath of the king’s treachery as various characters die violent deaths.

The lead-up has two main ingredients. One is a thread of conversation between Hamlet and Horatio in which Hamlet displays important developments as a character. The second is the posturing of the comic character Osric, representative of the king, as he self-importantly sets up the ground rules for the duel.

The fencing match is a highpoint of dramatic “stage business.” Sword play was an absolute favorite of audiences in Shakespeare’s day (and perhaps universally). Before we get to the sword play, we have trumpet sounds, the ceremonial entrance of the spectators, and such rituals as the choice of swords. The governing motif in the actual duel is that of treachery, and it consists of three main ingredients: one of the swords is both poisoned (“envenomed”) and “unbated” (that is, unblunted and left sharp enough to injure or kill an opponent), and a chalice of poisoned drink is placed on a table in expectation that Hamlet will drink it between phases of the match. As the violent scene unfolds, Hamlet is wounded with the poisoned sword, the swords get switched at a certain point and Laertes also receives a death wound, Gertrude catches the king off guard by drinking the poison, and Hamlet kills the king before he himself dies.

Two main events make up the aftermath. The dying Hamlet charges Horatio with the task of telling the world the story of the villainy of Claudius and the integrity of Hamlet. Then the Norwegian prince Fortinbras arrives with a small army. He is appalled by the spectacle of death that he sees and by Horatio’s recap of the “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” (line 364) that have occurred. Fortinbras assumes kingship of Denmark, and in his final speech he praises Hamlet and vows to reestablish order to the kingdom.


The melodramatic nature of the story might make it seem an unlikely candidate to become a good devotional “read,” but that is the view that this guide will propose. The key to this reading is the development of Hamlet into an example of Christian courage and resignation to divine providence. Subordinate themes are Hamlet’s acknowledgment of human weakness (a kind of self-abnegation, after a lengthy period of thinking that he could set the world right), and a spirit of reconciliation between himself and other characters. Much of this Christian coloring of the final scene is compressed into two key speeches that are so important that they need to be quoted.

The first occurs at the outset of the scene as Hamlet brings Horatio up to speed regarding what happened on the voyage to England. The important heart of the speech is as follows:

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well When our deep plots do pall [fail], and that should learn us

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will. (lines 8–11)

The underlying metaphor is that of God as sculptor (or alternatively a carpenter). The lines enshrine a twofold note of humility on Hamlet’s part. One is Hamlet’s confession of having mismanaged things, with references to his “indiscretion,” to the fact that his “plots” (plans and actions) “do pall” (that is, fail), and to the statue being “roughhew[n],” that is, not perfected. The second note of humility focuses on Hamlet’s attitude toward God’s providence, as encapsulated in the statement that “a divinity” (that is, God) “shapes our ends,” even though when left to themselves people do no better than perform some rough chippings on a would-be statue.

In effect Hamlet expresses a willingness to view the terrible events of recent days through a lens of God’s providential guidance. We can pause to note that the events in the second half of the play have a common thread of being things that happened without Hamlet’s orchestration. The traveling troupe of players happened to visit at a time when Hamlet could get them to perform the mousetrap scene. Hamlet happens to pass the door of Claudius at the moment he was kneeling in prayer. It happened that Polonius rather than Claudius was behind the curtain. The pirate ship happened to come alongside the ship headed for England, and Gertrude happened to grab the poisoned chalice. A story with these events could be turned by an author in one direction or another; Shakespeare (as always) shows his theological allegiance by turning the chain of events in the direction of Christian faith in God’s providence.

Armed with a sense of confidence in God’s ability to direct human efforts to an appointed providential end, Hamlet becomes decisive as God’s agent of judgment. He tells Horatio how he sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England, in reversal of what they intended to do to Hamlet. Hamlet ascribes his ability to do this to providence: “Why, even in that was heaven [God] ordinant [in control]” (line 48). After loads of self-accusation in the first four acts of the play, Hamlet expresses self-vindication in regard to his dealing with Rosencrantz and Guil- denstern: “They are not near my conscience; their defeat / Does by their own insinuation [meddling] grow” (lines 57–58).

This self-vindication reaches also to Hamlet’s attitude toward seeking justice against Claudius. In just three lines, Hamlet states a fourfold case against Claudius: “He that hath killed my king [i.e., his father] and whored my mother, / Popped in between th’ election and my hopes, / Thrown out his angle for my proper life” (lines 63–65).The third and fourth of these refer, respectively, to Claudius’s usurping the kingship that should have gone to Hamlet, and to Claudius’s plan to have Hamlet murdered in England. In the very next line Hamlet speaks of being in “perfect conscience” (line 66) in regard to his desire for justice against Claudius, an obvious foil to all the pangs of conscience that Hamlet has (without warrant) expressed throughout the play up to this point.

The providential theme reaches its finest moment later in the ongoing conversation between Hamlet and his friend Horatio. When Hamlet shares the information that he has a pain in the region of his heart, Horatio entreats him to back out of the duel. Hamlet’s reply is so laden with mea ings that it needs to be quoted:

Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it [death] be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. (lines 197–200)

The overall meaning is that since a person does not know when his or her moment of death will come, the important thing is to trust to providence and be ready for death when it comes. But there are nuances of meaning beyond the overall meaning.

Hamlet begins by rejecting pagan notions of augury, which means divination or occult fortune telling to predict what will happen. Having dismissed such paganism out of hand, Hamlet contrasts it to Christian belief in divine providence. Shakespeare clearly signals this by an allusion to one of Jesus’s famous sayings: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29–31).

Two critical traditions exist in regard to Hamlet’s development in the final scene of the play. The “pagan” reading asserts that Hamlet achieves a stoic acceptance of fate, and nothing more. But Hamlet explicitly rejects paganism when he says, “We defy augury.” This is a shorthand way of saying that Hamlet rejects the whole outlook of paganism and its attitude toward fate or destiny. Furthermore, near the beginning of this scene Shakespeare had placed a speech about “a divinity [God]” who shapes a person’s life, and here in the “augury” speech Hamlet brings in a famous statement by Jesus about God’s care over a person’s life with the reference to the fall of a sparrow.

In this context of belief in God’s providence, Hamlet utters his most famous one-liner of all: “The readiness is all.” That is, the important thing is to be ready for death (and presumably any other event as well) when it comes. Reducing the Christian concept of providence to mere stoicism is a failure to give due weight to what Shakespeare put into these lines. To be ready for action is far more positive than passively resigning oneself to fate. We should also note that there are no soliloquies in act 5; up to this point, Hamlet’s soliloquies have been a substitute for action.

Hamlet’s final moments during the duel also elevate him in our estimation. When Hamlet kills Claudius, he fulfills his role as scourge—an agent in society set apart to punish a guilty person. Until now, Hamlet could provide no public proof that Claudius is a murderer and would-be murderer. But with the poisoning of Gertrude, as well as the information that Laertes supplies about the “unbated and envenomed” sword (line 300), the guilt of Claudius is legally established. Laertes summarizes the situation with the statements, “The king, the king’s to blame” (line 303), and “He is justly served” (line 310). Hamlet himself could not have arranged things to bring a public disclosure; it is another outworking of the providential theme of the play. One critic puts the situation into focus by saying that Hamlet “dies a martyr to justice and not . . . as an impenitent revenger.”

Hamlet is also reconciled to Laertes in a way that wins our admiration. Just before Laertes dies, he says, “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. / Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee” (lines 312–13). Hamlet replies, “Heaven [God] make thee free of it” (line 315). Earlier in the scene, Hamlet had asked Laertes for forgiveness: “Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong” (line 204). A critic correctly states that “Hamlet does not sink into passive resignation; he rises to affirmative reconciliation.”

The words spoken about Hamlet after his death add further notes of Christian nobility in regard to Hamlet. As Hamlet dies, Horatio says, “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (lines 342–43), making it clear that Shakespeare wishes us to understand that Hamlet has gone to heaven. And yet another note of praise is sounded for Hamlet by the closing speech of Fortinbras as he takes over the kingship of Denmark: “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, / For he was likely, had he been put on [that is, become king], / To have proved most royal” (lines 379–81).

One further thing needs to be said about the final speech of the play. It was a theatrical convention of Shakespeare’s day that tragedies ended with a closing speech uttered by the person of highest rank who had survived the tragedy. Such speeches were formal-sounding and functioned as an epilogue to the play. As king-to-be, Fortinbras naturally utters the concluding speech. But there is a twist: usually the future king outlines what he intends to do to reestablish order in a kingdom that has been engulfed by the evil of the tragic hero. It is noteworthy that Fortinbras instead delivers a eulogy for Hamlet, repeatedly highlighting the nobility and soldierly stature of the fallen hero. Since Hamlet’s behavior through most of the play was far from noble, we need to do justice to the final speech as highlighting Hamlet’s upward movement in the final scene of the play.

Additional Notes

The text does not explicitly state why Hamlet agrees to the fencing match that will resolve the plot. Laertes plans to use the fencing match as the occasion to exact revenge against Hamlet for killing his father and driving Ophelia insane, but why does Hamlet agree to it? Multiple suggestions have been forwarded, but they are all speculative. We need to accept it as a “given” that Hamlet agrees to the match, allowing the reason for it to remain another mystery in a play that is replete with them.

If Hamlet’s reasons for agreeing to the fencing match are left mysterious, important thematic implications nonetheless flow from it. We can see a symbolic overtone to the event: Hamlet accepts the world as a duel between good and evil, and he is willing to play his part as a combatant. Additionally, unbeknown to Hamlet, his agreement to the duel puts him in a position to exact justice on Claudius in a manner that only providence could have arranged.

Osric, the king’s emissary who arranges the details of the duel, is a comic figure. He is affected and takes himself too seriously. He uses overly formal language, and additionally, he speaks a virtual code language of technical jargon when discussing the ground rules for the match. Perhaps we can see in this yet another evidence of the artificiality that permeates life at the Danish court.

The “readiness is all” line is filled with latent meaning. The word “all” was a Renaissance idiom meaning “all that matters,” or “the most important thing.” After all of the delays in the story up to this point, the concept of being ready to take advantage of the decisive moment when it comes leaps out at us. For the interpretation that believes Hamlet procrastinates, this line stands as a contrast and new development in Hamlet’s characterization. But for the view that Hamlet has lacked the right moment to assert himself against Claudius, this line about readiness casts a retrospective look at how Hamlet has conducted himself all along.

For sheer stagecraft and dramatic “business,” it is hard to beat the concluding moments of Hamlet. In reading the scene, we are left to imagine what it might look like on stage. In watching the performance, everything comes alive visually, starting with the ceremonious entrance of the royal court. The sword play can be enlivened as much as a director wishes. The falling corpses keep the audience riveted.

For Reflection or Discussion

The foregoing commentary has introduced important interpretations of leading concerns of the play. Each of these assertions needs to be tested by individual readers of this guide. The most important of these interpretations is that the final scene of the play is a surprise ending in which the theme of providence lends a strongly Christian note to a play in which Christianity had mainly been a feature of the world of the play rather than a theme that is asserted. Is this how you experience the final scene of the play?

Critics Comment on the Providential Theme of Act 5

“The pain about Hamlet’s heart is actually a mysterious presentiment of disaster. Horatio is alarmed and prudently urges caution. Hamlet reminds him that Christians do not believe in pagan omens such as this but instead rely on God’s Providence, or His care for the world which is so far-reaching that not even a sparrow dies but He is aware (Matthew 10:29). . . . This incident of the omen . . . marks the reconciliation of Hamlet’s will to God’s after the rupture caused by his attempt to anticipate God’s will in the killing of Polonius. Hamlet now is in God’s hand; and he is ready to accept whatever is in store for him.”

—Fredson Bowers, Hamlet: An Outline-Guide to the Play

On “the readiness is all” statement: This line “encapsulates the dynamic thrust of Hamlet’s meditations in act 5. . . . Readiness in this context signifies a tense expectancy and also a readiness for action when the moment presents itself. . . . Readiness here is the stance recommended by the psalmist when he speaks of those who ‘wait for the Lord’ (Psalm 37:34). . . . Providence and its workings are very much in Hamlet’s mind during this final act of the play. . . . [Hamlet] is now acutely conscious of being guided, challenged, and admonished from moment to moment.”

—Harold Fisch, The Biblical Presence in Shakespeare, Milton, and Blake

On the fact that in act 5 Hamlet has a newfound confidence but no definite plan: “His lack of plan and thus his insistence on providence arises from his confidence in Heaven. This is not lip-service or religious commonplace, but the very heart of the matter.”

—Fredson Bowers, “Hamlet as Scourge and Minister”

In act 5, Hamlet “never speaks of revenge again, nor does he castigate himself again. . . . He seems no longer to be seeking revenge at all; in fact, he seems to be waiting for direction, not from his earthly father, who, indeed, does not appear again, but rather from Providence.”

—Max James, “Our House Is Hell”: Shakespeare’s Troubled Families

“The directing and shaping power of Providence is central and paramount in both [Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet]. . . . Hamlet becomes aware of it and accepts its direction.”

—Harold S. Wilson, On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy

“Hamlet, near the end of the play, declares his trust in the future. . . . Not filled with hopeless resignation or indifferent fatalism, Hamlet reminds Horatio of that divinely-ordained future over which no man can work his will in defiance of the purposes of Heaven. . . . Hamlet, therefore, is a profound example of faith.”

—Daniel L. Wright, “‘Special Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow’: The Rhetoric of Religious Hope in Hamlet”

“The events of the plot make sense of, and are made sense of by, Hamlet’s and Horatio’s references to providence. . . . Hamlet is a triumphant assertion of what its author sees as a consolation in life’s uncertainties. . . . The more we contemplate the events of the play, the more they make us aware of the ‘mere hand’ of providence destroying evil.”

—Bertram Joseph, “The Theme”

The Christian Aspects of Hamlet

Multiple avenues exist for seeing the Christian element in Hamlet. At a global level, the key principle is that “from a Christian standpoint, the important thing about Shakespeare’s great dramas is that they assume the same kind of reality that the Bible does” (Robert Bayliss, Pilgrims’ London; italics in original). Under that umbrella, a good point of departure is the statement of Virgil K. Whitaker that “the entire play moves against the whole universe of heaven and hell as a background.” What else does the play assume to exist (Bayliss’s formula), or alternatively what else comprises the background against which the play moves (Whitaker’s formula)? The list is as follows: God (often referred to by way of metonymy such as “heaven”); salvation and damnation of soul; good and evil as spiritual and moral realities; sin and consciousness of sin; guilt; God’s providence over human affairs; retribution for evil deeds; and forgiveness.

Often these are signaled by a mere word or phrase, and whenever these occur, it is important that we pause on them instead of reading right past them. For example, when Laertes, poisoned and on the verge of death, proposes to “exchange forgiveness” with Hamlet, Hamlet replies, “Heaven make thee free of it [i.e., divine punishment]” (5.2.315). This wish draws upon the central Christian doctrine of God’s forgiveness of sin. Someone has correctly written that “Hamlet is a play with a Christian atmosphere and Christian characters. . . . Almost every character in the play, whether good or evil, has a Christian mentality and uses Christian terms. The accumulation of Christian details is assuredly both deliberate and significant” (Miriam Joseph).

Shakespeare signals that he intends us to see his allegiance to Christian doctrines by incorporating a network of biblical references into the play. Naseeb Shaheen, in his book Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Tragedies, devotes twenty-two pages to tabulating and commenting on biblical references and echoes in Hamlet. Peter Milward, in Biblical Influences in Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies, believes that the biblical books of Job and Romans provide a subtext to the play’s emphasis on sin and the need for grace. In his tabulation and commentary, Milward lists nearly three hundred lines in the play where he finds biblical echoes or allusions (often with multiple biblical passages for a given line).

The Bible is the central book of the Christian faith. By evoking continuous links to the Bible, Shakespeare has made Christianity a pervasive presence in Hamlet. Harold S. Wilson, in his book On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy, claims that four of Shakespeare’s ten tragedies “invoke Christian assumptions [compare to the formula of Bayliss, above]; indeed, they can hardly be discussed without some reference to a specifically Christian way of thought.” Hamlet is one of the four, especially in its emphasis on divine providence.

Critics Comment on Hamlet

Hamlet “is a mysterious play in the sense of being a play about mystery. . . . This play is, above all else, interesting. . . . To interest is the first duty of art; no other excellences will even begin to compensate for failure in this. . . . Is not the fascinated interest of the critics most naturally explained by supposing that [mystery] is the precise effect the play was written to produce?”

—C. S. Lewis

Hamlet is in every way the most interesting play ever written. . . . Hamlet is usually considered a play of problems; and the problem which has chiefly exercised the critics is why did [Hamlet] delay? To which the answer is that in the play which Shakespeare wrote there was no delay.”

—G. B. Harrison

“The paralysis of Hamlet’s will is the most famous crux of criticism.”

—Sigurd Burckhardt

“It is a tragedy not of excessive thought but of defeated thought.”

—D. G. James

“Here is a tragedy of inaction.”

—Harley Granville-Barker

Hamlet is a story of moral man in an immoral society.”

—Roy Walker

“The problem of sin and evil in the world moved [Shakespeare] profoundly; so apparently did the problem of human integrity, if we may judge by the Christian overtones of the last half of the play.”

—Virgil K. Whitaker

“The tragedy of Hamlet . . . does not lie in ‘the unfitness of the hero for his task,’ or in some ‘fatal flaw.’ . . . The tragedy lies in the nature of the task, which only the noble will feel called on to undertake, or rather, in the nature of the world which is exposed to the hero’s contemplation and in his sense of responsibility to the world in which he finds himself. Hamlet towers above other plays of its kind through the heroism and nobility of its hero, his superior power of insight into, and reflection upon, his situation, and his capacity to suffer the moral anguish which moral responsibility brings.”

—Helen Gardner

“The world of Hamlet is a world where one has lost one’s way. . . . I believe that we read Hamlet’s speeches with interest chiefly because they describe so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed.”

—C. S. Lewis

“We can understand Hamlet’s unrivaled power to move emotions and stimulate thought only when we grant the basic Christian perspective from which it was written.”

—Eleanor Prosser

“Why is Hamlet so effective a play? . . . [Shakespeare’s] imagination worked . . . not upon the plot . . . but upon the agonies of baffled humanity. If Hamlet drifts, so do most of us in this tragic world.”

—Virgil K. Whitaker

“Hamlet is a triumphant assertion of what its author sees as a consolation in life’s uncertainties. The Prince is a servant of providence.”

—Bertram Joseph

“The fact that [critics] can never leave Hamlet alone, the continual groping, the sense, unextinguished by over a century of failures, that we have here something of inestimable importance, is surely the best evidence that the real and lasting mystery of our human situation has been greatly depicted.”

—C. S. Lewis

Further Resources

Hamlet is the most written-about Shakespearean play, and a complete bibliography of commentary on it would make up a book all by itself. The works of commentary listed below are ones that will particularly interest readers of this guide. The essays on the list (as distinct from books) have been reprinted from their original places of publication and are accessible in sources other than their first publication. Some of them are available on the Internet, and others in anthologies of essays.

Film Versions of Hamlet
  • Laurence Olivier. Hamlet. 1948. A classic from an earlier era.
  • Derek Jacobi and Claire Bloom. Hamlet. Directed by Rodney Bennett. BBC, 1987. The best film version; part of the BBC series that produced videos of all 37 Shakespeare plays.
  • Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. Hamlet. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Hollywood: Warner Bros., 1990. It is “Hollywood” but nonetheless a good production of the play that Shakespeare intended.
  • Kenneth Branaugh and Julie Christie. Hamlet. Hollywood: Warner Bros., 1996. An over-the-top, sensational version that is more an adaption than a version of the play that Shakespeare intended.
  • David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. Hamlet. Directed by Gregory Doran. BBC, 2010.
General Commentary on Hamlet
  • C. S. Lewis. “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” Originally published in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969). Lewis objects to the over-attention that criticism has lavished on Hamlet the character and proposes instead that we pay attention to the particulars of the story and the universal human experiences embodied in the play.
  • Maynard Mack. “The World of Hamlet.” Originally printed in The Yale Review and reprinted in numerous anthologies of essays. In addition to delineating general features of  the world of the play, Mack is excellent on the transformation that Hamlet undergoes in the final act.
Commentary on the Christian Dimension of Hamlet
  • Bertram Joseph. “The Theme.” Originally published in Joseph’s book Conscience and the King. London: Chatto and Windus, 1953. It later appeared in revised form in Bevington’s collection noted above. Explicates the providential theme of the play, partly by quoting from sixteenth-century sermons to show how the sentiments expressed by the preachers fit the action in Hamlet.
  • Miriam Joseph. “Hamlet, a Christian Tragedy.” Originally published in Studies in Philology 59 (1962): 119–40.

Glossary of Literary Terms Used in This Book

Allusion. A reference to past history or literature.

Archetype. A plot motif (such as the quest), character type (such as the villain), or image or setting (e.g., darkness) that recurs throughout literature and life.

Dramatic irony. A situation in which the reader knows something that one or more characters in the work of literature do not know.

Foil. Anything in a story (for example, a character, plot line, or setting) that sets off something in the main story by being either a parallel or a contrast.

Genre. Literary type or kind, such as story or poem.

Imagery. An image is any word that names an object or action. Imagery is the collection of images in a work. Often it is used to denote an image pattern— a string of occurrences of the same image, such as light imagery.

Melodrama. A story that features sensational external events.

Metonymy. A figure of speech in which a subject is identified by means of something closely related to it; naming with subsitution. For centuries of Christian belief, “heaven” was used as a metonymy referring to God.

Revenge play. A play that begins with a murder that requires the next-of-kin to bring the murderer to justice for the murder; assassination is the customary means of gaining this revenge.

Well-made plot. A framework that modern literary criticism devised to show the pattern and unity in a carefully constructed story. The well-made plot unfolds in the following order: exposition (explaining the ingredients that make the story possible); inciting moment or inciting force (the thing that begins the action or plot conflict); rising action; turning point (the point that signals how the plot conflict(s) will eventually be resolved); further complication; climax; denouement (tying up of loose ends).