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Hamlet — Theme

Hamlet — Theme

There is lively critical debate about the themes in the Shakespearean drama Hamlet and their proper ranking in importance. This paper hopes to discuss the some of the main themes and their significance in the play.

Is procrastination the main theme of the drama? D.G. James in his essay, “The New Doubt,” expresses his view:

But few of us will deny that Hamlet’s procrastination is the major fact in the play and that it was intended by Shakespeare to be so. But are we really to find his procrastination a mystery and to leave it a mystery? Is there really anything mysterious about a man who has come to no clear and practiced sense of life, and who in the face of a shocking situation which quite peculiarly involves him, shuffles, deceives himself, procrastinates, and in his exasperation cruelly persecutes the person he loves best in the world? (46)

Perhaps the most popular theme in the play is that of revenge. R.A. Foakes in “The Play’s Courtly Setting” explains the burden of revenge which the protagonist must carry for the duration of the play:

And where there is no legal punishment for his father’s death, he must stoop, driven by the universal wrong, and “being thus be-netted round with villainies”, to revenge. He must share the corruption of others in spite of his nobility, and recognize in himself the common features, “we are arrant knaves all.” (53)

In the essay “Hamlet: His Own Falstaff,” Harold Goddard makes a statement of the two main themes of the play, namely war and revenge, relating them to the final scene:

The dead Hamlet is borne out “like a soldier” and the last rites over his body are to be the rites of war. The final word of the …

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… and Production. No. 9. Ed. Allardyce Nicoll. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univ. P., 1956.

James, D.G. “The New Doubt.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Levin, Harry. General Introduction. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.

Neill, Michael. “None Can Escape Death, the ‘Undiscovered Country’.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. of “Hamlet: A Modern Perspective.” The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. N. P.: Folger Shakespeare Lib., 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. No line nos.

Hamlet – its Universality

Hamlet – its Universality

What secrets of dramatic genius underpin the universal acceptance of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet so long after its composition?

Harold Bloom in the Introduction to Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet explains one very solid basis for the universal appeal of this drama — the popular innovation in characterization made by the Bard:

Before Shakespeare, representations in literature may change as they speak, but they do not change because of what they say. Shakespearean representation turns upon his persons listening to themselves simultaneously with our listening, and learning and changing even as we learn and change. Falstaff delights himself as much as he delights us, and Hamlet modifies himself by studying his own modifications. Ever since, Falstaff has been the inescapable model for nearly all wit, and Hamlet the paradigm for all introspection. (3)

Another feature of the play is that the Bard presents characters which are lifelike and with whom the audience can identify. William Hazlitt comments in “Characters of Shakespear’s Plays” on Prince Hamlet:

It is we who are Hamlet.[. . .] he who has felt his mind sink within him, and sadness cling to his heart like a malady, who has had his hopes blighted and his youth staggered by the apparitions of strange things; who cannot well be at ease, while he sees evil hovering near him like a spectre; whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought, he to whom the universe seems infinite, and himself nothing; whose bitterness of soul makes him careless of consequences [. . .] — this is the true Hamlet. (74-75)

Brian Wilkie and James Hurt in Literature of the Western World conclude that the Bard’s “sharply etched characters,” representing universal types, are the secret of his amazingly broad appeal (2155-56). The “sharply etched characters” involve a heterogeneity. Harry Levin in the General Introduction to The Riverside Shakespeare explains:

Universal as his attraction has been, it is best understood through particulars.[. . .]

The book-learning that Shakespeare displays here and there is far less impressive, in the long run, than his fund of general information. His frame of reference is so far-ranging, and he is so concretely versed in the tricks of so many trades, that lawyers have written to prove he was trained in the law, sailors about his expert seamanship, naturalists upon his botanizing, and so on throughout the professions.

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