John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi

1. Hamlet is an Elizabethan murder mystery. For a play that has picked up more than its share of clichés about inaction, hesitation, even cowardice in its hero, it is still an action melodrama, a bloody revenge play. Shakespeare had written one of these about ten years earlier with Titus Andronicus, one of his first plays. But in Hamlet he takes a crude formula and refines it into a tragedy of great psychological and philosophical sophistication. This does not mean, however, that action recedes entirely, or that his hero is not a man of action. When Shakespeare's audience went to see a revenge play, like a revival of Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, they expected to see a stage awash in blood and piled high with corpses. I think they expected something like this:


Besides the fact that no one so young should study Hamlet, another oddity in this clip from The Last Action Hero is that the teacher is played by Joan Plowright, widow of Laurence Olivier. Olivier's emotionally crippled Hamlet defined the character for decades after the 1948 film you see excerpted here. Shakespeare's audience would not have recognized such a figure in a revenge play, although they would not have known what to make of Arnold either.

2. On a more serious note, Elizabethan tragedy did have an air of the unexpected, unlike Greek tragedy. The Greek stories were known to the audience, like Shakespeare's tragicall histories. Oedipus could not avoid his fate any more than Richard III could triumph at Bosworth Field. And although we expect the tragic protagonist to perish on Shakespeare's stage (or to live to suffer in ancient Athens), surprises are possible in Hamlet or Othello. In this play, the audience knows no more than Hamlet about the guilt of Claudius until just before the "To be" speech in 3.1. And so our doubts may echo Hamlet's.

3. Here's a sketch of the main features of Greek and Elizabethan tragedy. Both engage our sympathies with a protagonist (literally "first actor') who is not corrupt, or evil, because we only rejoice in the tragic downfall, as with Richard III. The center of the tragedy is the cause of the downfall, and here most of the confusion lies. We should not be brainwashed by a fixation on the "tragic flaw," as if tragedy were a lesson in morality. James Hammersmith proposes a good antidote to such a simplistic view:

"Shakespeare and the Tragic Virtue"

In a classic tragedy, Sophocles' Antigone, there is an arrogant figure (Creon) who destroys a more sympathetic figure (Antigone), and between them they contain two opposed paradigms of the tragic protagonist: the agent and the victim. As we shall see, Hamlet more resembles Antigone. He inherits a corrupt world, "an unweeded garden," ruled by his murderous uncle, and the burden of cleansing Denmark falls to him: "The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right!" (1.5.188-189).

Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. My argument for Hamlet as a character begins with the unstinting praise he receives from the other characters. Ophelia's praise is the most famous:

O what a noble mind...
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword,
Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mold of form,
Th' observed of all observers... (3.1.153-157)

What I've left out of her speech, of course, is her belief that Hamlet has run mad. (More on that in a moment.) Compare this praise with that heaped on Prince Hal, with whom Hamlet shares both personal qualities and unhappy circumstances:

Hear him but reason in divinity,
And, all-admiring, with an inward wish
You would desire the king were made a prelate;
Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,
You would say it hath been all in all his study;
List his discourse of war, and you shall hear
A fearful battle rend'red you in music;
Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter; that when he speaks,
The air, a chartered libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears
To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences; (Henry V 1.1.38-50)

Both young princes are idealized by all around them. The only negative remarks we hear about Hamlet are his own self-accusations under pressure.

5. The presence of a Ghost is a convention of the revenge play, as is the guilty king, the innocent victim related to the revenger, and the moral duty to revenge. There are moments in the play where the Ghost might be an hallucination, like the bloody air-drawn dagger in Macbeth, or Banquo's Ghost. Shakespeare gives it more plausibility by placing multiple observers in Act 1, although only Hamlet hears it speak. The others are terrified in the opening scene by "this thing." Shakespeare's age was divided between belief and skepticism about spirits; Horatio is an example, a "scholar" who might believe such a thing "in part" until convinced by "the sensible and true avouch/ Of mine own eyes" (1.1.57-58). Here Shakespeare identifies the audience with the characters, each according to his own belief in spirits, left to interpret the moment and the nature of the apparition as "honest" or diabolical.

6. The private terror of the first scene gives way to the public ceremony of the second, reminding us that a kingdom is at stake and that all Hamlet's actions have public reverberations:


This scene shows the intersection of the public and the personal, and Claudius is the master of the ceremonial occasion. While Hamlet is driven into private grief, Claudius tries to keep him inward with words of comfort that have a sting of criticism at the same time:

But to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness. 'Tis unmanly grief.
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschooled.
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie, 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
"This must be so." We pray you throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father... (1.2.92-108)

Claudius may not be an obvious, melodramatic villain like Richard III, but he is a formidable opponent. For the moment Hamlet can only retreat into his own frustration and anguish, crystallized in his disgust at his mother's sudden remarriage. And an apparent subplot emerges in the story of Fortinbras, a hot-headed Norwegian prince whose father had been killed by Hamlet's father in combat. Claudius will find it easy to deflect Fortinbras' revenge against Denmark, but Hamlet will prove another prince entirely.

7. Before Hamlet can confront the Ghost, Shakespeare takes us on an excursion into another family: Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes. Ophelia will prove the ultimate victim in the play, dominated by her father and brother, manipulated by Claudius, abandoned by Hamlet after she pushes him away according to her father's dictates. Hamlet's accidental killing of Polonius will trigger both her madness and Laertes' identity as the third revenger in Hamlet. Shakespeare clearly wants us to compare Hamlet's path to the revenges of Fortinbras and Laertes, both fueled by uncontrolled rage untempered by consideration and strategy. Hamlet's measured steps despite his own emotional distress do not reflect delay, or cowardice, but a series of moral and tactical choices suited to the occasions he faces.

8. Mel Gibson's performance in Franco Zeffirelli's film reveals the critical emotional edge Hamlet is balanced on:


Especially set against the deeply mournful Ghost of Paul Schofield, Gibson's Hamlet shows us the fiery, physical nature of the character. By contrast, let's consider the modern benchmark production of Laurence Olivier. You saw an excerpt earlier, at the very moment when Hamlet could have plunged his sword into Claudius in Act 3. Olivier's film was informed by an extreme Freudian reading of Hamlet's paralysis, caused by a seductive and dominating mother. It slants the question from the opening credits:


We need to see how Olivier manipulates the text to appreciate the slanted interpretation. The bold type marks omitted words:

So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth, wherein they are not guilty,
(Since nature cannot choose his origin)

By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o'erleavens
The form of plausive manners,
that (these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery, or fortune's star)

Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo,
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. (1.4.23-36)

Olivier's voiceover narrative sidesteps any possibility of reading the character as a healthy personality trapped by circumstance. It even concludes, "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."

9. Ken Branagh's film, by contrast, lets us see a wide range of emotion in Hamlet, from anger to manic excitement to sadness. Most importantly, it reveals clearly Hamlet's plight:

The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite
That ever I was born to set it right! (1.5.188-189)

This Hamlet is quite capable of any action called for in his moral universe, like pursuing the Ghost despite his friends trying to hold him back. What those actions might be are already forming in his brain:

How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself
(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on),
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall
With arms encumb'red thus, or this headshake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As "Well, well, we know," or "We could, an if we would,"
Or "If we list to speak," or "There be, an if they might,"
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me—this do swear...(1.5.170-179)


His "antic disposition," or pretended madness, is hatched over the interval between Act 1 and Act 2, a period of weeks. Consider this time chart. We have just studied the first of three periods of concentrated action lasting lass than 48 hours each. It's important to see that time elapses before Act 2, time when Hamlet plans his strategy. In one of the saddest events of the play, he begins his plan with Ophelia because he feels betrayed by her rebuffing him, as Polonius ordered her to do:


10. In an earlier part of the scene we just saw, Shakespeare prompts us to interpret Hamlet's odd appearance in Ophelia's room by letting us overhear Polonius' commission to Reynaldo: to spy on Laertes in Paris. Polonius thinks himself the king of policy, but he is not in Hamlet's league. He can tell Reynaldo how to ferret out the truth by lying, but he cannot see through Hamlet's strategem:

See you now—
Your bait of falsehood take this carp of truth,
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out. (2.1.62-66)

Outfoxed by Hamlet, Polonius runs to tell Claudius of his discovery, and hurries into a scene of great variety and complexity. In 2.2 there are a number of pulses, or beats: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive in Denmark, summoned by Claudius to spy on Hamlet; the ambassadors return from Norway, with Fortinbras under control for the moment; Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude of Hamlet's odd behavior; Hamlet baits Polonius; Hamlet uncovers the secret mission of his old school friends; the actors arrive in Denmark; Hamlet plans the play-within-the-play; and finally, Hamlet levels a severe rebuke to himself in a major soliloquy.

11. Let's break the scene into two parts by looking at Branagh's film, beginning after the ambassadors' report:


Hamlet has decided on a manic persona that he uses to mock Polonius and confound his old friends. This strategy of disguise is a convention of the revenge play, since the revenger needs a safe space in which to develop public proof of murder by the head of state. He will, however, reveal something of himself to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after they admit they were "sent for." His disclosure shows us a man whose world has fallen from grace, numbing his sense of worth and connection:

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire: why, it appears nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (2.2.303-317)

He confesses this much, but no more. Then the actors arrive, and Hamlet is inspired by a memory of one of their plays, a tale of bloody revenge during the fall of Troy. The son of Achilles is hot for revenge for the murder of his father, and rages through the streets of the fallen city. Hamlet conceives of a play to further his own revenge, to smoke out Claudius' guilt through his reaction to a play that mirrors the murder of Hamlet's father:


12. This soliloquy ("O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!") is the source of much of the confusion about Hamlet. It's important not to take to heart his violent feelings that his revenge should already have been enacted. If we look closely at the speech, we notice that Hamlet himself reverses course emotionally, from a spasm of rage to a cooler determination to pursue a public revenge after Claudius' guilt becomes apparent through his reaction to the play:

Ha, 'swounds, I should take it, for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should ha' fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion! Fie upon't, foh! About, my brains.
I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play...
I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks,
I'll tent him to the quick. If he do blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King. (2.2.587-601,606-617)

Still lurking in the background is the question of the Ghost, who will appear once more in Gertrude's bedroom, seen only by Hamlet. Still we know no more than Hamlet does about Claudius' guilt, but that is about to change.

13. We'll shift our attention now to the BBC production starring Derek Jacobi. In Branagh's film he plays Claudius, but sixteen years earlier he was a fine Hamlet. I've chosen this version of the "To be" speech and the "nunnery" scene with Ophelia because it has a stunning emotional curve, In it, we see Patrick Stewart's Claudius utter his guilt for the first time, and now we are ahead of Hamlet. But Claudius and Polonius are not; Hamlet realizes that Ophelia is a plant, and that he is being spied on. It breaks his heart to see Ophelia betray him, and he ranges from sarcasm to rage to grief:


Adrien Lester is another powerful Hamlet in this scene directed by Peter Brook:


Claudius does not take the bait of a lover's madness, although Ophelia and Polonius do. He begins to make countermoves against Hamlet even as Hamlet closes in on him.

14. We have not yet accounted for the sentiments in the "To be" speech. To some it is a contemplation of suicide that defines the character, as Olivier would have it. The speech itself is complex, a train of associated thoughts that show Shakespeare's mastery of the soliloquy form. It begins, with an active idea: "Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And by opposing end them" (3.1.59-60). Then it moves to a contemplation of death, a philosophical musing on the nature and purpose of life itself. What is the meaning of suffering? Why should we bear it? Then appears an echo of the Ghost from Act 1, a vision of the afterlife that terrifies with uncertainty and the possibility of worse suffering. Finally, Hamlet once again berates himself for an unconsummated revenge. When we consider that this speech occurs after Hamlet has hatched an active plan to uncover the murder, we can see a tension between thought and action. Such a tension, however, does not inhibit Hamlet from pushing the play forward.

15. The metaphor of life as a play is brought forward by Hamlet's advice to the players in 3.2. He has shaped his own role, and tries to direct Claudius' response to The Murder of Gonzago:


Hamlet steadies himself with the presence of Horatio, his model of calm, not "passion's slave." Horatio is not "a pipe for Fortune's finger/ To sound what stop she please" (ll.72-72). Nor is Hamlet, who explodes in anger at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after the play when they act as royal messengers:

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me. (371-380)

Branagh delays the last speech of the scene ("Now could I drink hot blood") but I've spliced it in here. Hamlet appears more sympathetic if Claudius moves against him first, but that's not what Shakespeare wrote.

16. Now comes the moment seized on by those determined to present Hamlet as tragically flawed. As Claudius prays, Hamlet comes upon him. Only we hear the prayer, however, and understand the irony that Claudius is not in a state of grace: he will not relinquish the fruits of his crime. Hamlet spares him because he wants him to suffer as much as his father:

Now might I do it pat, now 'a is a-praying,
And now I'll do't. And so 'a goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd.
A villain kills my father, and for that
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?
Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent.
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed,
At game a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't—
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays.
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days. (3.3.73-96)

The crushing irony is that Claudius is more guilty than ever, rejecting repentence: "My words fly up, My thoughts remain below./ Words without thoughts never to heaven go"(97-98).


17. In the bedroom scene that follows, Hamlet hopes that it is Claudius behind the curtain: "Dead for a ducat, dead." But it's Polonius, on his last spy mission. Gertrude had cried out in fear at Hamlet's wildness, and his frustration at killing the wrong man seems to magnify his violent feelings of betrayal:


Peter Brook's recent production with Adrien Lester is another vivid presentation:


The Ghost interrupts Hamlet's rage, and we may think it either his fantasy or a spirit, for only Hamlet sees his father. His passion is deflected, however, moderated somewhat, so that mother and son can speak more directly. It's not clear, however, what Gertrude means by the "black and grainèd spots" she sees in herself. Did she know of the murder? Was she intimate with Claudius before her husband's death? Or is she responding to Hamlet's anguish at the hasty remarriage? She seems to accept Hamlet's protestations that he is not mad, but all is not clear. She fulfills his request to tell Claudius (in the next scene) that Hamlet is mad, and not plotting, but her words do not clarify her beliefs: she would say the same thing no matter what she thought, either the truth as she understood it or a lie to protect her son. Hamlet's obsession with her sexuality, which he seems to derive from the Ghosts speeches in 1.5, is still troubling. He himself feels betrayed by Ophelia, but even before that there is a tinge of misogyny in him, as there is in Othello and Lear:

Let me not think on't; frailty, thy name is woman—
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears, why, she—
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer—married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (1.2.146-157)

The Ghost then intensifies Hamlet's feelings in the next scene:

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts—
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there,
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine.
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage. (1.5 42-57)

18. Events overtake Hamlet before these charged emotions can be released further. The hunt is on for the killer of Polonius, and Claudius is full of steely determination. When Hamlet is brought in guarded, the final major theme of the play begins to emerge in Hamlet's words on the dead Polonius. We must be mindful of Hamlet's inability to come to grips with the death of his father even before he hears of the murder: "Ay, madam, it is common," he replies to Gertrude in 1.2.74. While she means a common experience, he means that death is unbearably vulgar, not to be endured. Now, with Polonius' blood on his hands, he has an ironic response:

a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that's the end. (4.3.19-25)


This is a prelude to the graveyard scene (5.1) where we hear more philosophical thoughts about mortality.

19. The last clip ended with an image of Ophelia, screaming, as her father is carried off. We'll look now at the Zeffirelli portrait of her madness in Act 4. Helena Bonham-Carter's portrayal is simply wrenching: we see Ophelia as the ultimate victim in the play, controlled by her father and brother, verbally abused by Hamlet, without any means to express her ruined life:


Hamlet has been victimized by the events of the play, but he has been able to act. Ophelia is utterly helpless.

20. We have now navigated the second major pulse of the play, less than 48 hours from Hamlet's appearance in Ophelia's room until he is shipped off to England. He has a soliloquy in 4.4 where he sees Fortinbras' army marching towards Poland, to fight a meaningless war there, "a little patch of ground/ That hath in it no profit but the name" (18-19). Stirred by the sight of military action, Hamlet again berates himself:

Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (4.4.53-66).

Indeed, he has been defeated by Claudius, and should shortly be dead in England, although he does not yet know that. The transition from this moment to Act 5, when he returns to Denmark, does take some time, during which Hamlet has his excursion with the pirate ship, and Fortinbras fights his battle and marches back. When Hamlet reappears, he is a changed man.

21. The third pulse of the play is again a short one. Hamlet appears in the graveyard with Horatio, and soon will fight the fatal duel with Laertes. We begin to learn of this new Hamlet through his exchanges with the gravedigger. He appears easier with the idea of death, at least until he realizes that the ceremony is for Ophelia:


Ethan Hawke's Hamlet 2000 has an interesting modern interpretation of Hamlet's grief and Laertes' anger:


This clip also tells the tale from 5.2 of how Hamlet survived the voyage to England, and sealed the fates of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What is not yet clear is what impact Hamlet's experience had on him.

22. Hamlet tells Horatio in 5.2 how his vision of experience has changed. If we consider that Hamlet has lost his match with Claudius, that only his impetuous action and a bizarre trick of fate has saved him, we can begin to understand how Hamlet has changed. Were it not for the pirates, he would not have survived in England. How to explain such a circumstance? It was, after all, a sudden circumstance that thrust him into his situation in the first place. Hamlet seems to have left off trying to control his world through deep policy:

(And praised be rashness for it) let us know,
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will. (5.2.6-11)


I've spliced together several sections of this last scene. In the second section, Hamlet's words stand out as defining his new sense of the world. He cannot shape reality to his own liking. What remains is to accept what the world deals him, and to respond in the most authentic way he can:

Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows,
what is't to leave betimes? Let be. (220-225)


Franco Zeffirelli directs Mel Gibson in the final sequence:




There is a good deal of room for interpretation in Hamlet, both the play and the character. He can be studied together with Ophelia, or with the other revengers. He is a member of a family, and his family is placed next to the family of Polonius. He goes through emotional stages, perhaps through an evolution. Ideas about death and revenge are constant in the play. Hamlet is a actor in several senses of the word, and others act as well.

There are provocative essays by Mack, Ornstein, Heilbrun, and Belsey in the Signet edition, as well as an Introduction by Sylvan Barnet. On our course page there are a number of excellent websites to visit.

Remember to quote your sources, and give the page number or web address. Here's a section from the bottom of my home page:

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