There are several themes explored within the play including many death related notions, teen angst and class issues. The major symbolism that appears will also be examined here.
Death appears in the play as a main theme, and takes on many different forms. Closer exploration reveals various forms of this, the most significant of which will be discussed here.
The notion of avenging the wrongful killing of another was one commonly recognised in Elizabethan times and Hamlet takes this concept to extremes. Hamlet must seek vengeance for his father's murder. This becomes his sole purpose and he seems to forget all other aspects of his life, even his love for Ophelia. His actions become inconsequential to him, even though they mean the ruining of his own life. During his quest for revenge, he accidentally murders his lover's father, Polonius, sparking Polonius' son Laertes to seek vengeance against him. A circle of retribution with Laertes begins, as he teams-up with Claudius to avenge Polonius and Ophelia while Claudius is also anxious to be rid of the melancholy Prince. In essence, where do the killings end? If for every murder there must be a retaliatory killing, the vicious circle would never end. This is a notion that Shakespeare may have been commenting upon in the writing of Hamlet.
Shakespeare's Hamlet addresses the idea of revenge killings. If for every murder, there must be retaliation, the killings would never end. Think about this in terms of today's society. Discuss any situations in which this notion arises, such as in international relations and domestic life.
Undertake a research project looking at the intertwining of honour and revenge. Compare this to today's society. Has the nature of revenge changed or have the ways in which we seek revenge merely adapted to life today?
Hamlet's quest sees him become very interested in death. He ponders the fact that every living being dies, even great Kings.
King: "Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?"
Hamlet: "At supper."
King: "At supper, where?"
Hamlet: "Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your Worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else fat to 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."
King: "Alas, alas!"
Hamlet: "A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm." (IV.iii.17-29).
This section of text is interesting in that it clearly reveals Hamlet's thoughts regarding death, which is essentially a ‘circle of life' theory. This also indicates the popular Elizabethan belief that death was a great leveller and all shall be judged alike in their own time.
When viewing the play, it is interesting to note that every death that takes place is of unnatural origin (except for that perhaps of the jester, Yorik, many years previous). We see deaths of poisoning, murder, injury, execution and suicide. This coincides with the view of righting the natural order. As the Kingdom of Denmark is being ruled by this government that was not truly appointed, chaos ensues and each one of the ‘unnatural' or ‘morally corrupt' players are killed. By this, the ‘diseased nation' will once again return to health.
One of the reasons that Shakespeare remains so popular, even in today's modern world, is that it holds universal themes. Teen angst is as recognised now, if not more so, as it was in Elizabethan times. Two main issues that are dealt with in regard to what teens undergo in everyday life are questioning of death, and love.
Questioning of Death
The pondering of death usually comes during the teen years, as teens become less certain of their own mortality and that of the people that they love. Hamlet faces both of these when he loses his father. He realises that life does not last forever, prompting questions of his own death. As do most teens, Hamlet thinks about suicide, contemplating whether it could be justified as legitimate in such a miserable world. He is however, afraid of what lies beyond life, as are many who are in the same situation. A most famous soliloquy voices these thoughts:
Hamlet: "To be or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘t is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
…"To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the Rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause."(III.i.56-)
Here Hamlet shows his dilemma, and gives audiences a confronting view of what goes through the mind of a teen in anguish.
For as long as human kind have existed so too have the troubles of love, for love can so easily turn to hate which can be just as passionate. This is especially intensified around the teenage years, as youth begin to search for their love and encounter difficulties of the heart. Hamlet is seen to go through these same trials as his love for Ophelia is put to the test. Unfortunately their feelings for each other are dulled by Hamlet's disillusionment with women-kind, as a result of his mother's indiscretions. Ophelia is destroyed by her loss of Hamlet and essentially the future throne, driven by madness to suicide. Hamlet must now deal with another loss, that of his love. A classic story of unrequited love, Hamlet realises what everyday teenagers go through, though perhaps in a slightly more dramatic way!
Find in the play words of love between Hamlet and Ophelia and then find words of hatred or indifference expressed to each other. Compare the passion of the statements and try to decipher the motivation the characters must have to clearly communicate them to the audience.
Love is a very powerful emotion. Go through the play text and source words or moments that encapsulate the intense nature of love. Place these on separate pieces of paper, place in a hat, then draw one out and embody/physicalise what is written by creating a movement, freeze frame etc.
Hamlet gives a portrayal of ‘life at court', the elite of society at that time in history. William Shakespeare portrayed these people as he was well acquainted with them and could thus, comment upon such behaviours (ever-so-carefully!). Hamlet sees the downfall of characters Hamlet and Ophelia, partially as a result of the expectations of their social class. Polonius is present in the Queen's room discussing Hamlet's indecorous behaviour (seen to be mad, according to their social group) when Hamlet accidentally slays him. In turn this sees Laertes come after Hamlet, in a bid to avenge his father's death. This was essentially brought about by his original mission – to discuss Hamlet's failure to meet social standards.
Ophelia becomes victim to her class in several ways, firstly being forced by her father Polonius into love for Hamlet as a means of gaining the throne. Her failure to achieve this partially leads her to the riverbank, where she will commit suicide. The second influence of her social class is more symbolic, but does in essence kill her. Women of the times were expected to wear layer-upon-layer of heavily weighted fabric to cover themselves in a bid for aesthetic beauty. As Ophelia hurls herself into the river below, it is the heavy weight of her garments (expectations of her class) that drag her down and drowns her. In this way, she too becomes a victim to the social class standards of her time.