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Themes

Professor Regina Buccola, Chair of Humanities at Roosevelt University, explains themes in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.

Hamlet | Themes

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Mortality

For a play that is often depicted by the image of Hamlet contemplating Yorick's skull in the graveyard scene, it is not surprising that Shakespeare uses mortality as a central theme. It comes across in a number of ways: the ghost of Hamlet's father; Hamlet's contemplation of suicide and Ophelia's suicide; Hamlet's tendency for black dress (at least in the early scenes); the players' performance of The Murder of Gonzago; the gravediggers, the grave, and the funeral as well as the skull in the graveyard scene; and the numerous deaths in the play's final scene.

But what does Shakespeare say about mortality in his presentation? Primarily, he explores the concept as part of the cycle of life, looking at it from both religious and secular perspectives.

Truth versus Deception

The idea of truth versus deception, which at times is expressed more as reality versus appearance, is prevalent in Hamlet. This theme plays out in major ways; the deceitful way by which Claudius came to power underpins the entire play. And it is also developed in smaller ways; the fact that Polonius is willing to spread rumors about Laertes to investigate his behavior in France tells us something about the nature of Polonius's relationships with his children.

The play presents many characters who thrive on deceit (Polonius, Claudius), and many situations that evolve out of deceit (Polonius's death when he tries to eavesdrop on Gertrude and Hamlet).

Every scene and act contain examples, such as:

  • The presence of the ghost—as a witness to the truth, or as a figment of Hamlet's imagination
  • The presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—and their true mission—in Elsinore
  • Claudius's motivation in bringing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore
  • Claudius's very existence
  • The company of players
  • Hamlet putting on an "antic disposition"

Thought versus Action

A life of thought versus a life of action is a theme woven throughout the play. Although Hamlet seems like a man of thought through much of the play, by the end he finds balance between the two. This suggests that Shakespeare's final idea on the topic is that the best approach to life strikes a balance between thought and action.

From the outset, both Laertes and Fortinbras are foils for Hamlet. Whereas Hamlet initially thinks deeply before any action, Fortinbras seems prone to action before thought. Laertes, like Fortinbras, wants to take immediate steps to avenge his father's death and has none of the doubt that causes Hamlet to delay his revenge against Claudius.

Madness

Madness is a theme explored in Hamlet, particularly as it relates to Hamlet, Ophelia, and maybe even Claudius (if one considers egomania a form of madness). Interestingly, too, madness goes hand-in-hand with truth versus deception because whether Hamlet's madness is real or feigned remains an open question throughout the play.

Revenge

Revenge is a prominent theme in Hamlet and a catalyst to many events in the plot. Several characters seek revenge:

  • The ghost of Hamlet's father wants Hamlet to avenge his death.
  • Laertes wants to avenge both Polonius's and Ophelia's deaths.
  • Fortinbras wants revenge for his father's death and for military losses.

Of the characters prominently involved in vengeful action, Fortinbras is the only one who does not die as a direct result. It might be said that Hamlet's death was less a result of his own action (or attempted action) and unavoidable because Claudius and his need to protect his position was the force behind that string of events. It could be argued that Claudius's actions might have resulted in Hamlet's demise regardless of whatever Hamlet decided to do about the ghost's entreaty.

Both Hamlet and Fortinbras grow in spite of—or perhaps because of—the vengeful actions they undertake or attempt to undertake. The same might not be said about Laertes, however, unless the last-minute wisdom by which he asks for and extends forgiveness counts. And, ultimately, with the carnage of the final scene so poignant, Shakespeare could be making a case for the uselessness of revenge, but that could also be a 21st-century viewpoint overlaid on a 17th-century drama.

Questions for Themes

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