Hamlet - an Introduction
Along with Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most famous, most played and most quoted tragedy. Like many of his plays, the original plot is borrowed from other sources; in this case a legend from Danish history, or, as later research has it, from an ancient Irish myth. In any case, Shakespeare has taken the story and turned it into a great drama of man’s struggle with his own imperfection and vulnerability. The drama has all the expected ingredients of a tense and thrilling tragedy: seven people dead either by stabbing, poison, or suicide, a ghost, revenge, mistaken identity, unfulfilled love, insanity, sword fights; and in the middle of all this a bewildered protagonist who is betrayed into a course of action with fatal consequences.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (which is the full title of the play) returns from studies abroad to find that his father, the King, is dead, and that his uncle, Claudius, has declared himself king and is going to be married to his mother. His father’s ghost appears to Hamlet and tells him that he was murdered by his brother. Hamlet is bewildered and thinks of different ways of avenging his father, he even contemplates suicide. By accident, he kills the King’s counsellor, Polonius, when he mistakes him for his uncle hidden behind the drapes of his mother’s cabinet. Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, is fond of Hamlet, and he of her, but as Hamlet puts on an act of insanity to cover up his quest for revenge he puts her off quite brutally and she commits suicide. Hamlet arranges a play that is an imitation of the murder of the king. Claudius interrupts the play, revealing his guilt, and that he knows that Hamlet knows. He then unsuccessfully tries to have Hamlet murdered. In the last, dramatic scene there is a mock sword fight where one of the swords has a poisoned blade, and this is meant for Hamlet. The Queen drinks from the cup of poison by mistake and dies. The conflict now takes a serious turn. Hamlet is hurt by Laertes' poisonous sword. In the ensuing scuffle, they switch weapons and Hamlet wounds Laertes with his own poisoned sword. Laertes dies. Then Hamlet stabs the king with the same sword and the King dies. Eventually the poison takes effect, and Hamlet dies in the arms of his friend Horatio.
Hamlet, a True Renaissance Man
Though the play may seem a bit overdramatized and melodramatic to us today, it gives a good impression of what Shakespeare and other poets and playwrights of the era were occupied with: Man’s complexity and his struggle to come to terms with his own universe. This is what the term humanism refers to, and Hamlet is a prominent example of this approach to understanding human nature. In his bewildered and confused state of mind Hamlet becomes the very image of man’s shortcomings, contradictions, beliefs and fears. He struggles with his own duality to have his revenge and find redemption. This is illustrated brilliantly in the famous quote, “To be or not to be, that is the question” when Hamlet is reflecting on suicide as a way out of his predicament. But more importantly, in his anguish he turns to himself to sort out his calamities rather than to God or to some spiritual advisor. He may have our sympathy for what he is up against, but he clearly has his faults and flaws. Consequently, although the drama may be a bit over the top, we can still believe in Hamlet, because he is not a hero, he is human.