Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Professor Regina Buccola, Chair of Humanities at Roosevelt University, explains the historical and cultural context in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.

Hamlet | Context


Shakespeare's plays are timeless, with a universality to which anyone can relate. Hamlet, for example, has a modern militaristic feel to its set and costuming, while at the same time it maintains a very medieval sensibility. The same can be said of Shakespeare's other plays: the stories, characters, and conflicts all have 21st-century analogues.

Some of the timelessness of Shakespeare's work has to do with the source material for his plays. The tragedy in Hamlet may, in part, stem from the deaths of Shakespeare's son and father. In addition, however, the play is said to have come from ancient stories that developed from some common ideas: killing a brother for personal gain, committing adultery, and faking madness as a method for hiding in plain sight. Stories based on the idea of fratricide—the killing of one's brother—for personal gain easily bring to mind the biblical tale of Cain and Abel: these themes have been incorporated into tales for thousands of years. Shakespeare, however, masterfully captured these universal tales and put his unique spin on them.

Beyond the Cain and Abel story, the oldest-known source for Hamlet is historian Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum ("Deeds of the Danes"; translated into English as The Danish History; c. 1185–1202). In this tale, Grammaticus documents long-standing oral legends. And though this is most likely the earliest written source material, scholars speculate that Shakespeare may have relied on a more contemporary work, such as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, dating from the 1580s or early 1590s.

In addition to the universality of his plays, Shakespeare often draws audiences in and holds their attention through the use of dramatic and situational irony. Dramatic irony happens when audience members are aware of a situation that the play's characters know nothing about. Situational irony involves a situation whose outcome is different from what is expected.

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