Scholars universally recognize Hamlet as the one character in the Shakespeare canon that best exemplifies Shakespeare's ability to express the universal awareness of human existence. He personifies Shakespeare's genius and, by the very nature of his enigmatic presence, captures the human imagination better than any other literary character before or since.
Hamlet's dual nature, so recognizable to anyone who has ever been a teenager, ignites immediate empathy. Hamlet is sensitive, poetic, artistic, and loving; he is also a criminal who stabs his friends in the back, treats his young girlfriend callously, and shows no remorse for deliberately murdering an "unseen good old man." Other artists — from intellectual writers to pop culture songsters — allude to no other play more often. They also quote, mimic, and emulate no character more than Hamlet.
The most enduring thing about Hamlet, which keeps the play vibrant for every age, is that no key to understanding the play exists. Viewers can validate all interpretations, justify every answer, and substantiate all possibilities. Fierce debate over Hamlet's meaning, the title character's mystery, his mystique, how his life relates to modern man, what his relationships can teach us about human interaction, and more, will forever attend any examination of the play. So long as unanswerable questions persist, the play will captivate us. However, some points of reference to which most critics, actors, directors, and academic interpreters agree do exist.
One given is that, from the start, Hamlet has a clear imperative to act on his medieval blood feud: to avenge his father's death by killing King Claudius. His emotions tear him in two. On the one hand, he possesses the basic male need to assert his manhood and to right grave wrongs. On the other, his Christian, moral knowledge tells him that murder constitutes a sin no matter what the cause.
Hamlet represents the polar opposite of his uncle/father King Claudius. Claudius personifies the Machiavellian villain: he justifies his wrongdoing by aggrandizing the ends his evil produces. He recognizes his own evil and acknowledges his doomed status. Knowing that he will assuredly descend into Hell makes Claudius no less eager to commit crime after crime in order to keep his ill-won spoils. The desire to resist hating him moves the audience, and the fact that he is so conversant with his inability to seek absolution keeps him from being one-dimensional. Rather than hate him, we root for his conversion, hoping that he will confess and show contrition. He does not, and we become less and less forgiving. Hamlet is Claudius' antithesis. The Prince knows he owes a debt to his father's commands and to the old order which dictates that he must commit a sinful act. But his fear that the action is wrong paralyzes him. Though the end would justify Hamlet's very existence, it would not justify his defiance of the commandment against murder.
Critics argue that Hamlet's inability to make up his mind makes him a tragic figure. Truthfully, however, Hamlet's "wild and whirling words" are the culprits that imprison him. Like other great Shakespearean tragic heroes, Hamlet must find a way to turn his ideas — the persevering words that never allow him silence — to into action. In Macbeth, the hero reverses roles with his wife; she, quick to act, becomes the talker, the thinker, while he becomes the rash one, the man of action. In King Lear, madness robs Lear of his words, forcing him to listen, to recognize reality in order to experience his recognition and reversal. But in Hamlet, the words control the hero to the end — until he knows that he is dead and can end the discussion and finally act. Like a composer who hears music playing incessantly in his head, Hamlet struggles to swim through a constant stream of words to his death, where he sighs that "The rest is silence."
One difficulty in interpreting Hamlet arises out the intimate nature of the obstacles that confront the hero. Most of the conflict Hamlet must overcome results from his internal struggle, not from external obstacles. In addition to all the difficulties that hinder Hamlet from within, however, a fair share of outside impediments also stand in the way of his taking decisive action.
The fact that Claudius holds all the cards and exposes Hamlet "naked" to all Denmark presents an entirely external conflict. The Ghost orders Hamlet to avenge the old king's death, yet no witnesses attest to the fact that King Hamlet did not die of natural causes. King Claudius is the Divine Right monarch and, by killing him, Hamlet will commit high treason and dispatch an emissary from God at the same time. To the world around him, Hamlet seems to be playing out of tune. He is popular and admired by Claudius' Danish subjects, but they have no reason to believe that Claudius is anything but what he says he is, a noble king. If Hamlet knows that his world is "out of joint," that things are not what they appear to be, that "there is something rotten in the State of Denmark," he has no proof and no allies. The King even manipulates Hamlet's own mother and Hamlet's courtship of the fair Ophelia. Except for Horatio, Hamlet is alone.
This CliffsNote is a companion to the play. It cannot serve as a substitute for reading the entire play, watching a live theatrical performance, or viewing the many film versions in theatrical release and on video. Additionally, plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; I Hate Hamlet; Words, Words; The Hamlet Machine; Ten Minute Hamlet; and others offer new insights into Hamlet as they present completely new situations using the familiar plot and characters. Even Walt Disney's The Lion King takes its basis from Hamlet and illuminates Shakespeare's work even as the original illuminates it in return.
(All references to the text are taken from the Cambridge School edition of Hamlet, published by Cambridge University Press, 1994.)