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Who is Hamlet?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hamlet is the main character of Shakespeare’s famous play of the same name. As the protagonist, he is charged with seeking justice after discovering his father's murder, but is left famously indecisive about what to do. Scholars have debated the motives, sanity, and importance of the character for over 400 years.

In the play, the character is the prince of Denmark, son of the newly-dead king and his queen, Gertrude. He is romantically involved with Ophelia, the daughter of the long-winded Polonius, but ends their relationship during the course of the play. It is mentioned that the prince was formerly educated in Wittenberg, Germany, the home of Martin Luther and birthplace of the Protestant reformation. Scholars often consider one of the prince's many issues to be the struggle of a Protestant mind in a Catholic world.

Before the play begins, the king has died under somewhat suspicious circumstances. Shortly afterward, Gertrude marries the dead king's brother, Claudius. This marriage is somewhat scandalous, particularly to the young prince, as he considers the wedding of in-laws to be incestuous. The prince is visited by the ghost of his father, who claims that Claudius murdered him in order to seize the throne and marry Gertrude. Hamlet is then left with the questions of whether the ghost was real, whether it was telling the truth, and what he should do about it.

The prince's sanity is a source of constant contention between Shakespearean scholars. In order to confuse the court as to his situation, Hamlet acts as if he has gone crazy. It is never made clear whether this is truly acting, however, or whether the character is actually delusional. Actors and directors have interpreted the character in various ways, choosing to portray him as sane and scheming or simply crazy as it suits the needs of the production.

Even if he is sane, the character is wracked with indecision bordering on psychosis, which renders him unable to take any decisive action throughout most of the play. After realizing the guilt of his uncle, he is presented with a perfect opportunity to kill him as he is praying. The prince chooses not to do anything, however, just in case the treacherous Claudius would go to heaven if killed while praying.

Claudius eventually catches on to the suspicions of his nephew, and puts him on board a ship to England with the intention of having him killed on arrival. In one of the most controversial sections of offstage action in all of Shakespeare, the ship is apparently attacked by pirates whom Hamlet bribes to return him to Denmark and his family castle of Elsinore. When the prince returns, some experts argue that his pirate adventure finally forces him to take action, and the character is freed to make the decisions he has been avoiding for three acts. Although he dies in the ending bloodbath, the prince of Denmark manages to slay his uncle and name an heir to the throne.

There are seemingly unending theories about the protagonist of Shakespeare's play. Some argue that he suffers from a Freudian obsession with his mother and is driven to murder by jealousy at his uncle's theft of both the throne and Gertrude. Others claim that the prince is a metaphorical symbol for the struggle between justice and revenge. In his famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy, Hamlet argues the problem of never being able to know whether death is better than life until one has died, leading some to call him dangerously suicidal and severely depressed.

The character is archetypal of a Shakespearean-era concept called Renaissance un-self-fashioning. While the Elizabethan era of England was philosophically concerned with defining oneself by the roles one played, the following Jacobean era asked the philosophic question of what remained when all roles had been stripped away. The unceasing scholastic arguments about his meaning and mind often seem to support the idea that Hamlet, considered Shakespeare’s first Jacobean hero, exemplifies the vision of the basic state of man being confusion and complexity.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon261751 — On Apr 17, 2012

To be, or not to be? This is the question. I really like this because it is very manly. --Albania

By JavaGhoul — On Jan 17, 2011

Hamlet's mother Gertrude seems to pay little or no attention to the effect her actions have on her son. She makes decisions based on emotion and is manipulated by the jealous Claudius. Hamlet is caught up in a family power struggle which he never asked for. Many family businesses struggle with similar multi-generational power and money issues.

By Renegade — On Jan 16, 2011

In this play there is good and evil, but the so-called "good" is represented by a vagary which Hamlet cannot understand fully, and so he is forced to figure things out on his own. This leads him to many dark places, and he is unable to make a solid decision, wallowing in static self-doubt. He recognizes that things are more nuanced in nature than people around him recognize, hence the idea that he may be the image of a "Protestant in a Catholic world." There are no rules set in stone for how he thinks.

By arod2b42 — On Jan 14, 2011

Hamlet presents the quandary of responsibility in revenge. He is faced with a charge to do something to restore honor to his deceased father and is unable to make up his mind. There is a moral conflict between the crime of killing his uncle and the crime of not avenging his father, and Hamlet is split. His deep moral sensitivity makes him a very relatable character.

By dbuckley212 — On Jan 12, 2011

Hamlet is certainly a common favorite among Shakespeare's plays, it balances the darkness of a tragedy with a very relatable protagonist and takes the reader deep into the quandaries of insanity. It has become a very powerful social meme which has survived to this day, especially in the English speaking world.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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