Themes: Madness, Manipulations vs. Direct Action, Appearance vs. Reality, Revenge, Politics and Succession, Love vs. Duty.
Madness: Hamlet determines to “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.172); in other words, that he will act mad. We know he is acting, because he is not always mad, and tells Rosencrantz et al that he “knows a hawk from a handsaw.” (2.2.387) Hamlet always appears mad before those characters from whom he has something to fear – Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and even Ophelia, after she has been reduced to the role of bait for Hamlet. He is buying time in order to avange his father. (That is not his only grievance: In a later letter to Horatio, he accuses Claudius of the murder of his father, the whoredom of his mother, and having “popped between the election and my hopes” (5.2.65)).
There is only one time when Hamlet’s actions suggest that he may be mad. He has just left the chapel, deciding against kiling Claudius as it would only send him directly to heaven. (We might excuse his hate given the information he has had from his father: The ghost cries that he was killed before he could repent of his own sins, “sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head” (1.5.70ish, meaning that he cannot go to heaven.) Hamlet berates his mother for her conduct, hears a noise, which he cannot imagine is Claudius (having just left him) and whom he must suspect if Polonius. He claims it is a rat, stabbing through the tapestry. That’s one tall rat, for his sword fatally injures Polonius. Hamlet had no real motive to kill Polonius, although Polonius did conspire against him to some extent. In this, Polonius was protecting his daughter whom he feared Hamlet was merely trifling with.
This act of Hamlets suggests that he is losing control. Hamlet describes his deed as “almost as bad, good Mother, as kill a king, and marry with his brother” (3.4.29-30). This points to complicity on the part of Gertrude, for between her and Claudius only she can marry the king’s brother. Hamlet couples the marrying with the killing, each action having the same implied subject. The fact that Gertrude cannot see the ghost could also be taken as evidence of Hamlet’s madness. Earlier apparitions were seen first by Hamlet’s men, then by him. Why is it that Gertrude cannot see her former husband? It is significant, that the characters that can see the ghost are the same characters that see Hamlet in control of his faculties. Gertrude, meanwhile, is one of the characters for whom Hamlet puts on his “antic disposition.” Perhaps the ghost appears only to those who would be sympathetic to his plea for revenge. On the other hand, Hamlet’s father expressly told Hamlet to leave his mother to God’s justice, as if her actions were less culpable. Even in this somewhat questionable instance, Hamlet tells his mother he is not mad, but mad in craft. (3.4.188-189).
Ophelia also goes mad, but her madness is both like and unlike Hamlet’s. Both are occasioned by the death of their fathers, but Ophelia’s is completely without deliberation or craft.
Manipulations vs. Direct Action: This theme is introduced in Polonius’s desire to “by indirections, find directions out” (2.1.66), regarding Laertes’s activities in France. Indirection is the method by which each of the principal characters pursues his end. Hamlet uses the play to “catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.617). (It is interesting that the word of his father is not enough for Hamlet. He wants confirmation before he acts, and he doesn’t trust himself to be objective about it. He instructs Horatio to watch the king closely. These precautions give us cause for saying Hamlet would have made a good king. In this most personal of grievances, Hamlet does employ prudence and seek justice.) Polonius uses Reynaldo to spy upon Laertes, and Ophelia to spy upon Hamlet, and Claudius uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet. Laertes, who initially seems inclined to direct action when he confronts Claudius over the death of his father, is eventually drawn into manipulations as well, when he agrees to conspire with Claudius in an attempt to murder Hamlet. The obvious contrast to the manipulations and back-stabbing of the Danish court is the behavior of Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince, who takes direct action by invading Denmark and taking the throne at the end of the play. Even Fortinbras, however, employs some indirection, since he uses the invasion of Poland as a pretext to get his forces in the field so that he may then invade Denmark.
Neither Hamlet nor the king can reasonably act openly. Hamlet finally does, but only after the king has been shown to be the treacherous scamp that he is.
Appearance vs. Reality: Hamlet realizes early on that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (1.5.108). He uses the appearance of madness to hide the reality of his desire for revenge. This theme ties in nicely with that of the supernatural since, with each case, what is real must be separated from what merely appears to be real. The ghost tells the story of his murder after decrying the manner in which “that adulterate beast won to his shameful lust the will of my most seeming virtuous queen” (1.5.45-46). “Seeming virtuous” is a key phrase, echoed by Hamlet: “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems'” (1.2.76). “Seeming” is a recurrent theme in this play: Claudius “seems” a reasonable man and turns out to be a murderer. Hamlet claims to “know not seems,” but puts on “an antic disposition” in order to buy time to set his own schemes in motion. Laertes seems honorable, but is easily manipulated into taking part in murder. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to be Hamlet’s friends, but are in reality spies. Gertrude’s role in the death of King Hamlet is not clear, though Hamlet suggests her involvement and King Hamlet supports this when he says, “Leave her to heaven and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her” (1.5.75 ish). The only characters in the play who consistently are what they seem to be are Fortinbras and Horatio: Fortinbras is the unabashed enemy of Denmark, and Horatio is Hamlet’s faithful friend. These two are the only main characters still alive at the end.
Revenge: Hamlet hopes to avenge the death of his father (among other things), Fortinbras hopes to avenge his father(who suffered defeat by Hamlet’s father), and Laertes hopes to avenge the death of his father at the hand of Hamlet. In each case, a son avenges the death of a father and in so doing, advances to his father’s former position. Hamlet would become king were he to succeed. Fortinbras would recover the lands lost by his father and would eventually succeed to a throne of his own. Laertes actually becomes the prime counselor to, and conspirator with, Claudius.
Politics and Succession: Horatio thinks the appearance of the ghost is a bad omen: “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” (1.1.69). Following this observation, an important dialogue between Marcellus and Horatio establishes the larger political and military context for the play. It appears that Denmark prepares for war. When Marcellus asks the meaning of “this same strict and most observant watch” (1.1.71) that he and his fellow soldiers must keep, it becomes clear that the primary reason for the tense encounter between the guards in the play’s first moments has nothing at all to do with ghosts. Denmark expects to be invaded by Norway. King Hamlet killed the king of Norway in battle, thereby winning control over all of Norway’s lands. Now that King Hamlet is himself dead, the son of the dead king of Norway, Fortinbras, is anxious to reclaim what his father had lost. Denmark is therefore readying itself for this attempt.
Claudius uses this concern to gain acceptance for himself over Hamlet. He acknowledges that Norway sees Denmark as weakened by the death of her king, becoming “disjoint and out of frame” (1.2.23-24). His “o’er hasty” marriage is another means employed by Claudius to gain the throne. He calculates that continuity through the Queen will cause the nobles to be disposed to accept his claim. The parallels between Denmark and Norway, and between Prince Hamlet and Prince Fortinbras, become clear in a speech by Claudius. In each kingdom, a king with an adult son and heir has died, only to be succeeded, not by the son, but by a brother.
Claudius is not a good king, seeking his own good over that of his kingdom. Perhaps this is due in part to a guilty conscience: his efforts are ordered towards averting any consequence of his evil choices and actions. At one point, Polonius enters to announce that the ambassadors from Norway have returned from their mission to ward off a military threat. At the same time, Polonius also tells Claudius that he has found the “cause of Hamlet’s lunacy”. Claudius responds “O, speak of that, that do I long to hear”. His concerns are for himself and the internal threat that Hamlet represents. Norway is a greater threat to the kingdom, but not necessarily to Claudius. Polonius replies “Give first admittance to th’ ambassadors” (2.2.50).The ambassadors report that the military threat has been averted, stating that Norway will never raise arms against Denmark. In the very next breadth, we hear that Fortinbras has been given additional funds and permission to use them against Poland, a venture that will require him to pass twice through Danish territory. Claudius responds, “It likes us well, and at our more considered time we’ll read, answer, and think upon this business”. To negotiate for peace with a country who sought to raise arms against you and have part of the agreement be that they may pass through your country twice with their army is the height of stupidity and naivety. Claudius is so focused on himself, he can’t even discern that Norway’s army poses a threat.
Love vs. Duty: Laertes is about to leave for France, but before he leaves, he advises Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet. Laertes assumes that the affection Hamlet has previously shown Ophelia is “the trifling of his favor,” and a “fashion and a toy in his blood” (1.3.5-6). Laertes tells Ophelia that when Hamlet marries, he must marry for political reasons: “on his choice depends the safety and health of this whole state and therefore must his choice be circumscrib’d unto the voice and yielding of that body whereof he is the head” (1.3.20-24). This is similar to what Claudius thinks about his marriage. Speaking before the nobles, he comments “Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone with this affair along” (1.2.15-16), suggesting that there was some cause for offense, but that the general good of the country superceded the sensibilities of those who grieved for the king.
Lastly, Polonius is referred to as a fishmonger, and I wondered if that was just throwing out a bawdy term here and there to get the audience where they live. Of course, Shakespeare is not so base. Polonius himself struggles to “contrive the means of meeting between him and my daughter” (2.2.200 ish), which is exactly the function of a pimp, so Hamlet can at least be said to be accurate.
Hamlet tells him not to let his daughter walk in the sun because “Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to’t” (2.2.180 ish).
Hamlet’s play on conception as both “understanding” and “becoming pregnant” is both an accusation and a warning. Ophelia may be permanently harmed by Polonius’s “indirections”. Hamlet compares Polonius to Jepthah, the Israelite warrior who offered his own daughter as a “burnt offering” to God in exchange for a military victory. Hamlet knows Polonius is using his daughter to gain information from Hamlet. Hamlet is, in effect, calling Polonius a murderer who would kill his own child for political advantage, just as Claudius later proves willing to kill his “son” Hamlet.
Hamlet’s tragic flaw:
Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his inability to act. This is contrasted by Fortinbras willingness to act, leading to his success.
In the opening scenes of the play, the ghost of old Hamlet reveals the truth about his death to his son, and tells Hamlet to avenge the murder. Hamlet’s first response is one that sounds like he will act, saying “Haste me to know’t that I with winds as swiftŠ May sweep to my revenge.”By the end of that scene, Hamlet is already recanting:”This time is out of joint, O cursed spite, that I was ever born to set it right.”
Hamlet procrastinates further, putting on a play to “catch the conscience of the king”. Having caught it, he does not act, though he says: “Now could I drink hot blood and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on.” He comes to find King Claudius alone, and recognizes it as an opportunity to act, but talks himself out of action reasoning that the King is praying, and will therefore go to heaven. He will delay until he can kill the King while he is in a vile condition, “When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage; or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed.”
His failure to act costs him his life, his mother’s life, and Denmark her king.