Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has come home to the royal castle at Elsinore from the University in Wittenberg for the funeral of his father, the King. His grief over this loss is compounded when his uncle Claudius assumes the throne and marries Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, only two months after the old King's death. "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," and the ghost of Hamlet's father visits the castle to tell Hamlet that Claudius poisoned him and stole his crown and his wife. At the ghost's command, the Prince vows to avenge his beloved father. Hamlet's behavior causes the court to doubt his sanity. The Lord Chamberlain, Polonius, advances the theory that Hamlet is suffering from lovesickness for his daughter, Ophelia. However, the King suspects that Hamlet has become a danger to him, and engages two old friends of the Prince, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on him. Time passes, and Hamlet berates himself for failing to act. He begins to doubt the ghost's accusations against Claudius. A company of players arrives at Elsinore, and the Prince plans to use them "to catch the conscience of the King." They enact The Murder of Gonzago, in which a King is poisoned and the murderer takes both crown and wife. Claudius' reaction to the play convinces Hamlet that he must kill the King. Gertrude summons Hamlet to her chamber. They argue violently, and Hamlet impulsively kills Polonius, who is eavesdropping behind a curtain. Claudius banishes Hamlet to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are unaware that the sealed instructions they carry are orders for Hamlet's execution. Hamlet escapes on the sea journey, and replaces his death warrant with a forgery condemning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death. In Elsinore, Ophelia has gone mad and her brother Laertes confronts Claudius demanding revenge for the murder of their father, Polonius. When news arrives of Hamlet's escape and return to Denmark, Claudius and Laertes plot to have Laertes challenge Hamlet to a fencing match. Laertes will poison the tip of his sword and Claudius will ready a poison drink for the Prince. Upon his return to Denmark, Hamlet comes upon the funeral party of Ophelia, who has drowned. In the bloody final scene, Hamlet and Laertes are mortally wounded by the poisoned rapier while fencing, Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup and is killed, and Hamlet takes his revenge on Claudius. The Prince exhorts his friend Horatio to tell his story, then dies.
Shakespeare's best-known play and the first of his great tragedies. Perhaps the ultimate "revenge" drama, Hamlet chronicles the journey of the young Danish prince from the discovery of his father's murder to his will to act and final destruction. Hamlet is the world's most frequently produced drama.
The story of Hamlet originates in Scandinavian legend. The first extant account is found in Historica Danicus, written by Saxo Grammaticus in approximately 1200. Francois de Belleforest included the tale in his Histoires Tragiques in the 1570s. A stage version of the story, usually referred to as the Ur-Hamlet, is first mentioned in 1589, and is known to have been performed repeatedly throughout the 1590s, by Shakespeare's company and others. The Ur-Hamlet was probably written by Thomas Kyd, whose Spanish Tragedy was the most popular revenge play of its day. Unfortunately, while the stories of Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest are available to us, the Ur-Hamlet is lost. The evidence suggests that Shakespeare's Hamlet was written and produced about 1600, at roughly the midpoint of his playwriting career. Hamlet is not mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia, which lists Shakespeare's plays and was published in 1598. In July of 1602, Hamlet was entered in the Stationer's Register. References within the plays allow us to reasonably place Hamlet after Julius Caesar, which was playing in 1599, but before The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was registered in January of 1602. The reference in Hamlet to the boy players seems to place it in 1601, although some scholars believe that this reference was added subsequent to the original production. The earliest published version of Shakespeare's most famous play is the First Quarto of 1603. It is considered a "bad quarto," authorized neither by the author nor his company. It was probably penned from memory by a minor actor. The Second Quarto of 1604 is a "good quarto." In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, two actors from his company published the first complete collection of his plays. This First Folio version of Hamlet was the preferred one for most of the play's life. It does not differ greatly from the Second Quarto, which recently has become considered the more reliable text. The 1995 production of Hamlet at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival takes advantage of the openness of Shakespeare's text. Letting the greatness and profundity of Shakespeare's play speak for itself, this production emphasizes the narrative action of the play. Shakespeare wrote a popular and intense revenge tragedy. This great masterpiece of suspense is a thriller, albeit a thriller which resonates with such questions as: what motivates human behavior? What constitutes a noble life? Is there a God who cares about us? What meaning does our existence have, ending, as it inevitably does, in the grave? And, finally, why should one live at all? The production is set in Denmark in Shakespeare's time. The costumes and properties suggest renaissance court life in 16th-century Europe. The castle at Elsinore itself is a character in the play, a vast evil labyrinth that is a tangible and forceful presence. It is a dark island in the prison which is Denmark. The setting is very solid upstage but seems to disappear as it moves toward the audience. Elsinore is a place of mystery, at the boundary of the known world. Beyond is only darkness.
The Hamlet Question by Kevin T. Browne Shakespeare did not personally see to the publication of his plays. He wrote them to be staged by his own company, with a keen eye on the box-office. There is little doubt that this gripping and violent revenge tragedy was successful with the audiences of its own day. The author would no doubt be astonished to find that Hamlet is probably the most widely discussed single work of art ever produced by one person. The meaning of the play as a whole has been assayed, its relationship to the Elizabethan world has been discussed, and much has been written about the characters of Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet is in many ways an "open text," and in it Shakespeare has given us many fascinating puzzles. The bulk of the discussion focuses on the unusual character of the play's hero. The play raises key questions about the Prince of Denmark, but it provides no explicit answers to these questions. These include the verity of Hamlet's madness, the motivation for his cruelty toward Ophelia, his ruthless treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the central mystery of the play: why does Hamlet delay in carrying out his revenge? The simplest response is that the delay is necessary to make a play. If Hamlet acted decisively, not only would we be robbed of the play's suspense, but we would all go home from the theatre rather earlier than we would wish. Those who hold this view correctly maintain that the play was intended to be entertaining rather than profound. However, this opinion fails to account for the fact that its author pointedly has his hero excoriate himself for his lack of action in his famous soliloquys. Shakespeare's play, perhaps in spite of his intentions, is profound. If the Prince wants to avenge his father, what stands in his way? Are his chief obstacles external, or do they reside within his own character? Is Hamlet by nature indecisive, cowardly, or both? The romantic view is the most popular: the Prince of Denmark is a highly sensitive and delicate idealist who is not up to the rudeness of the world around him or the meanness of his task. His idealism is destroyed by the evil he faces. The loss of his ideals enables him to carry out his bloody task, but at the cost of his own life. Hamlet has been psychoanalyzed as though he were a real person. Some modern psychologists have determined that the Prince is a victim of the Oedipal conflict. Another view rests upon the Elizabethan notion of psychology which holds that a healthy person enjoys a balance between the four humours: blood, choler, phlegm, and melancholy. Hamlet is overcome by melancholy. His mental disease causes a disruptive struggle between his passion and his reason, which leads to his inertia. There are those who hold that Hamlet's obstacles are external, and that the chief obstacle is Claudius. In this view the play is an objective tragedy rather than a subjective tragedy. In other words, the Prince is at war with his uncle rather than with himself. The King proves a worthy adversary indeed, and gives Hamlet little opportunity to attack him. Others hold that Hamlet is a true hero precisely because his reason holds his passion in check. The arguments against violence, revenge, and especially regicide are powerful, and in Hamlet's mind are arrayed only against his passion (his hatred of his uncle and of his mother's incestuous marriage) and the doubtful word of a ghost. The apparition could indeed be the spirit of Hamlet's father on a righteous mission. On the other hand, an evil spirit can assume any disguise. The ghost could be the devil himself. Additionally, in this view, Hamlet understands that he is the true King of Denmark and that he must execute public justice. His mission is to right a great wrong done to his country, rather than to avenge a private hurt. He thus behaves rightly by deciding to act only after obtaining independent evidence against Claudius, evidence which is witnessed by the entire court. There is no single right answer to any of the challenges posed by Shakespeare's play. Over the 400 years of its life, theatre-goers, academics, philosophers, actors, and poets have all offered their own views of Hamlet, a text which is open to an enormous variety of interpretations. Part of our continuing fascination with this play resides in its possibilities.