Hamlet - About


The first clear reference to what we know as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet appears in the Stationers’ Register, 26 July 1602, as a play called The Revenge of Hamlet Prince [of] Denmark. In that article, the author says the play was “lately acted by the Lord Chamberlain his servants” . In his list of London plays published in 1598, Francis Meres makes no mention of any play called Hamlet, but a note in Gabriel Harvey’s edition of Speght’s Chaucer (published in 1598) does mention the play Hamlet. Since scholars question the date of the actual writing of that note, most of them agree that Shakespeare published Hamlet after 1601 and before 1603. The First Folio, in 1623, categorized Shakespeare’s plays as Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. Shakespeare wrote the great tragedies — excluding Romeo and Juliet, which is not, strictly speaking, a true tragedy — between 1601 and 1606, and apparently Hamlet was written first. Shakespeare closely followed Hamlet with Othello (1604), King Lear(1605/6), and Macbeth (1606), but a number of experts in Bardology (the study of Shakespeare, who is known as The Bard of Avon) believe that Hamlet represents the best of Shakespeare’s work. It is the perfect play.

The Texts

Scholars base modern editions of Hamlet on the three versions of the play published by 1623. Two of the versions appeared while the author was alive; the third surfaced seven years after his death.

The First Quarto (so named because the play was printed on paper that was folded in four parts) is difficult to read. It contains 240 more lines than in the next version (the First Folio), but it has merit because it represents the first publication of the actual stage version of the play.

In some cases, the writing in the First Quarto is so amateurishly unpolished as to make the experts believe that the First Quarto edition is poorly done and fraught with mistakes, designed essentially as an acting script marked over and edited by an actor.

The Second Quarto edition of Hamlet, published in 1604, used a more finely tuned edition as its basis. John Heminge and Henry Condell, members of Shakespeare’s company, compiled the First Folio by combining the Second Quarto text with updated stage manager’s notes. Thus, scholars base modern texts largely — if indirectly — on the text of the Second Quarto.

The Source

Theater has always been a collaborative art. In Shakespeare’s time, a repertory company could not expect a playwright to write in a vacuum. The nature of the schedule, in which a new play could be commissioned weekly, required playwrights to collaborate. English playwrights in the late 16th and early 17th centuries freely borrowed material from one another and shared criticisms and edits. Hamlet,like the other great works attributed to Shakespeare, definitely presents Shakespeare’s work, but also showcases many contributions by actors, managers, prompters, and so forth, who all knew what parts of a play to leave in or take out.

Like the Greeks, Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences attended the theater to watch plays they had seen often or which were based on stories as familiar to them as their own family histories. Accordingly, Shakespeare based his Hamlet on a popular Scandivian saga that had existed for at least a hundred years in one form or another, and which actors all over Europe had performed in earlier manifestations as early as the 1550’s.

Newington Butts featured the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in Hamlet, an earlier revenge play, directed by Henslowe, on June 9, 1594. Scholars commonly call this Hamlet the Ur-Hamlet and believe the author to be Shakespeare’s brilliant contemporary Thomas Kyd. Neither a copy of the Ur-Hamlet nor concrete evidence that Kyd actually wrote the play exist, but the story of Hamlet does bear a strong resemblance to Kyd’s masterpiece The Spanish Tragedy, which many scholars believe to be a perfected version of the Ur-Hamlet.

Both Kyd and Shakespeare would have read Saxo Grammaticus’ Historia Danica, an anthology of legends and myths from the Norselands, translated and popularized in French by Belleforest in 1570. Thomas Pavier issued an English translation of Belleforest’s version of the story of Hamlet in 1608 under the title The Hystorie of Hamblet.

In Belleforest’s retelling of the old story, which takes place in the days before Christianity found its way to either Denmark or England, the public knows of King Hamlet’s murder, and the new king claims he killed King Hamlet while acting in defense of the queen. Hamlet is a youngster who can only pretend to take care of himself. Although he admires truth, he cannot see beyond his vindictive spirit and exhibits exceeding cruelty. In this version, Hamlet goes to Britain where he marries and stays with his wife, the daughter of the English king, for a full year. News of Hamlet’s death reaches the King of Denmark, and he throws a party to celebrate, but Hamlet appears as the party gets under way. This early Hamlet takes immediate action: he gets the court drunk and sets fire to the palace, immediately killing the King

The play on which Shakespeare based Hamlet was a bloody tale full of sound and fury with crude and savage overtones. Though the bloodshed remains in Shakespeare’s version, he refined the play, making it poetic and full of thought-provoking ruminations on the meaning of life, death, eternity, relationships, hypocrisy, truth, the existence of God and almost anything else that concerns mankind. However, the fact that the Shakespearean character of Hamlet is more refined creates a problem for those who would interpret the play.

Shakespeare wrote the standard revenge play, but in an entirely new form. Revenge tragedy was hugely popular in Shakespeare’s day. The revenge play revolved around a hero who was bound to avenge a wrong. Like their models in the Roman tragedy of Seneca, the heroes and villains were dramatically mad, melancholy, violent. The plays were graphic, bloody. Shakespeare, being an original thinker, placed refinements in his work, creating new tensions and increasing some of the old questions.

Were the play a true revenge play, Hamlet would act sooner. He would dispatch the King at the start, with the rest of the play elaborating upon what transpires after Claudius’ death. By not acting more promptly, Hamlet leaves us pondering his true motivation. Hamlet has every opportunity to kill the unguarded king, yet Claudius lives. Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s obstacles are not physical, and within this fact lies the first rub for critics and interpreters. Hamlet’s actual obstacles depend largely on the culture from which the interpreter comes; obstacles that seem obvious to modern readers/audiences never occurred to readers/audiences of the 16th century.

The fact that people need CliffsNotes to understand Shakespeare’s work would undoubtedly appall him. Shakespeare wrote for a popular, vibrant theater that attracted people because of its energy and its raw entertainment value. The same audience who attended bearbaiting or public executions went to see Shakespeare’s plays. They were not a highbrow crowd; they just wanted to hear a protagonist agonize with pretty words and sexual innuendo over the human dilemma, and they went to see blood and destruction manifest on stage.

The English crowd loved gore. Though they seem to have enjoyed the sight of dogs mauling bears to death and executioners drawing and quartering traitors, they especially enjoyed staged mayhem. They loved the techniques Shakespeare’s technical experts used to simulate blood gushing from stabbed characters; they loved the way a good showman could make battles or love scenes or illnesses seem absolutely real even though the audience could leave assured that what they had just seen was fiction. Shakespeare’s theatrical offerings were as popular in his day as television is today; Shakespeare’s theater was the television of its day.


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.)

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