Explore the different themes within William Shakespeare's tragic play, Hamlet. Themes are central to understanding Hamlet as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.
The weight of one's mortality and the complexities of life and death are introduced from the beginning of Hamlet. In the wake of his father's death, Hamlet can't stop pondering and considering the meaning of life — and its eventual ending. Many questions emerge as the text progresses. What happens when you die? If you're murdered, then will you go to heaven? Do kings truly have a free pass to heaven?
In Hamlet's mind the idea of dying isn't so bad. It's the uncertainty of the afterlife that frightens Hamlet away from suicide, even though he's obsessed with the notion.
A turning point for Hamlet occurs in the graveyard scene in Act V. Before, Hamlet has been appalled and revolted by the moral corruption of the living. Seeing Yorick's skull (someone Hamlet loved and respected) propels Hamlet's realization that death eliminates the differences between people.
The sheer number of bodies at the end of Hamlet can be misleading. Even though eight of the nine primary characters die, the question of mortality is not fully answered. The questions about death, suicide, and what comes after are left unanswered. What Hamlet presents in an exploration and discussion without a true resolution.
Hamlet's originally acts mad (crazy, not angry) to fool people into think he is harmless while probing his father's death and Claudius's involvement. Early on, the bumbling Polonius says "[t]hough this be madness, yet there is method in't" (Act II, Scene II). Polonius's assertion is ironic because he is right and wrong. Polonius falsely believes Hamlet's madness stems from Hamlet's love of Ophelia. To notice a method behind the crazy talk was impressive of Polonius.
But as the play progresses, Hamlet's behavior become more erratic. His acting mad seems to cause Hamlet to lose his grip on reality. The circumstances he has to manage emotionally are difficult, to say the least. Succumbing to physical violence when under extreme stress shows that Hamlet has deeper-set issues than merely acting mad. In reflection, Hamlet's choices and impulses beg the question, what gives him the right to act as such without consequences?
The presence of only two named female characters says something about the role of women within Hamlet. The death of both women also indicates a social commentary.
Hamlet is at his most agitated state when talking to either female character. Although he cares for both, he's suspicious, as well. In the case of his mother, Gertrude, Hamlet feels she remarried too quickly and that her remarriage means she didn't love her first husband all that much. The idea freaks Hamlet out.
Then there's Ophelia. From the way the characters talk, we know Hamlet has been wooing Ophelia for some time. But after Hamlet starts to act mad, it doesn't take long for him to assume that Ophelia is in cahoots with Gertrude, Claudius, and Polonius. In reality, Ophelia obeyed her father and her monarch.
In both cases, Hamlet feels as if each woman has let him down, respectively. He's critical and quick to point out flaws though puns and backhanded comments. Ophelia is usually viewed as a true victim, while Gertrude's role is interpreted with more flexibility. In either case, the role and treatment of women in Hamlet is essential to discuss with an open mind.
The state of the nation in Denmark is deteriorating. The death of a king throws any nation into political turmoil. With a new king on the throne and the deceased king's son acting erratically, something's clearly off.
When the guard Marcellus famously says "[s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark" (Act I, Scene IV), he's not being ironic about Hamlet's bathing habits. Marcellus's words refer to how something evil and vile is afoot. This moment could be interpreted as foreshadowing of the impending deaths of most of the principle characters. But it also refers to the political unrest Denmark is feeling as a nation. The political livelihood of Denmark can be directly linked back to the mental state of Hamlet at many points throughout the play.