Hamlet is the character for whom the play is named. He is the son of the late King Hamlet, and the son of the play's Queen Gertrude. He is the natural nephew of the play's King Claudius, who has adopted Hamlet as his son.
(If you arrived at this page wanting information about the play, Hamlet, click the Main page link to the left. This particular page is about the title character.)
Hamlet is young, sixteen years old. (The Clown's remark in Scene 19, at the graveyard, has all too often been taken to mean Hamlet is 30. It superficially implies that, but the line is correctly interpreted othewise, and the remark is made in the course of the Clown trying to joke and be witty, and make a fool of Hamlet. Clowns are in a play for amusement, not to provide objective declarations of fact.)
Hamlet was named after his father, the late King Hamlet of Denmark. (His last name is not stated, but the characters in general lack last names. Having the same name as his father, like Fortinbrasse having the same name as his father, creates a bit of "mad" confusion, which is thematic. Hamlet is, after all, a "mad" play, and confusion here and there is part-and-parcel of that.)
To reiterate, Hamlet's mother is Gertrude, the widow of King Hamlet, and the current Queen of Denmark. By birth, Hamlet is the nephew of the current King, Claudius, King Hamlet's brother. Legally, Hamlet is also Claudius's adopted son, as the play proceeds. King Claudius adopts Hamlet, by King's proclamation, in Scene 2, at line 119. See the Scene 2 page for comment upon that point.
In Preplay Events, Hamlet was a university student at Wittenberg, Germany. At the university, he found a new best friend, Horatio. Hamlet attended the university for three years, a fact he states in Scene 19, the Graveyard Scene. He has not yet graduated from the university, to receive his degree, which we know from his desire to return, stated in Scene 2.
(Hamlet's length of attendance at the university is deduced from his remark to Horatio in Scene 19: "this three years I have took note of it..." Hamlet means, as he speaks to Horatio, 'this three years I have known you,' which can be taken as the same length of time he attended the university, where he met Horatio. The educational system was different in Shakespeare's day. The university combined high school plus college, in modern American terms. A student who was to be educated beyond grammar school would go to a university, in those days, at about the same age a modern student would go from elementary school to high school, in the U.S. system. This line from Hamlet implies he completed grammar school at 13, then went to the university where he spent three years - all of which would be normal, and is right in line with his age being 16, in the play.)
Hamlet returned to Denmark when informed of his father's death. He was present for the funeral of his father, his mother's marriage to Claudius, and for the election and coronation of Claudius as the King. In the natural order, by tradition, Hamlet should have been the King at the time of the play. Hamlet was shocked and disappointed when the Danish electors chose his uncle instead of himself. Shakespeare didn't bother to include an explicit statement on that; we're supposed to know from our own common sense how badly disappointed Hamlet was.
After losing the election to Claudius, Hamlet wants to return to the university at Wittenberg, but he remains at Elsinore Castle in obedience to his mother's request that he stay, as we see in the dialogue in Scene 2. He feels that he's been "imprisoned" at Elsinore Castle, a feeling he reveals to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Scene 7.
Hamlet is secretly engaged to Ophelia, at the beginning of the play, a fact she subtly reveals in Scene 3 during her dialogue with Polonius, and a fact to which Hamlet alludes later, in Scene 8, the Nunnery Scene. It's easy enough to explain why they would keep their engagement secret. Hamlet obviously detests Claudius, and he now distrusts his mother, so he does not want them involved in his important private affairs. Neither do Hamlet and Ophelia want Polonius involved, since he's such a manipulative busybody. Basically, they keep their engagement secret to keep the "old folks" out of it. Knowledge of their engagement is important for appreciation of the tragic irony when the elders do get involved, especially in the Nunnery Scene.
Hamlet is intelligent, well educated, and bookish. He's more a man of words than action. As mentioned, he is badly disappointed by the turn of events.
His mood is depressed, because of all that's happened. The term used in Shakespeare's day was "melancholy," and it was a condition ascribed at that time to an imbalance of the humors, a subject which gets some reference during the play.
Hamlet is idealistic, and passionate about his beliefs, at least in the intellectual way. He tends to express ideas in classical terms (Niobe, Hercules...) based on his education.
His education, and his idealism, have combined to make him philosophical in a self absorbed way, to the point he could even be seen as intellectually narcissistic. He spends a lot of time, not so much trying to make up his mind, but trying to figure out his own mind, as to what ideas, and ideals, mean to him.
He's too young to have gained wisdom yet. He's sensitive and takes things personally, and he thinks it's his own personal responsibility to set everything right. He explicitly states that last point during the dialogue, in Scene 5: "That ever I was born, to set things right." Such grandiosity is pathological, but that is just after he has encountered the Ghost.
He is a great fan of theater, and even fancies that he could be an actor.
Based on his mother marrying Claudius, he doubts the faithfulness of women, and he has a low opinion of women's judgment. His misjudgment of women leads him into tragic error.
Hamlet is unusually clever with words. He can say things in a way to mislead those who hear him, which does not always work to his advantage. He's mischievous, and he enjoys teasing people and fooling them with what he says. He uses words both as an assertion of his own skill, and also as a defense mechanism. He sometimes gets carried away with his words.
Hamlet is a loyal friend to those he sees as his true friends, but he has little use for those who are disloyal, or untrue. It's obvious he's quite philosophical - his asides and soliloquies show that feature of his personality beyond doubt - but his philosophical nature has not yet developed into being a forgiving nature, as it would tend to, as he got older. He shows a tendency to becoming genuinely "philosophical" in Scene 20.
Although he makes various comments about death, it is important to note that he is not suicidal.
There is no point in the play where Hamlet pretends to be mad. That is a fact, no matter what you've been told, or what you've read elsewhere. As mentioned, he is mischievous, and he does get carried away, on occasion, but that does not amount to being mad, or to pretending to be mad. (Hamlet's phrase, "anticke disposition" in the Scene 5 dialogue requires contextual interpretation to understand why he says it, meaning interpretation within the exact setting where he says it, and to whom - primarily Marcellus. That little phrase is not a blanket statement that can be applied to his behavior over the course of the entire play - but it's a handy crutch for those who do not, or cannot, deal with the play in depth. The entire play, in all its speeches and events, is correctly interpreted, in detail, without any resort to the notion of Hamlet ever pretending to be mad. As Shakespeare wrote the play, Hamlet does not do that - again, no matter how much you may have been propagandized that he does.)
As to the question of whether Hamlet is truly mad, it is a fact in the play that Hamlet is "touched in the head." When the play is correctly done, the theater audience even gets to see the exact point where that occurs - they get to see Hamlet "touched" (by the Ghost.) If to be "touched" is to be mad, the answer is, yes, he is mad, after a certain point in the play.
Hamlet's social rank is royalty, the Prince. He is correctly addressed as "lord." He can also correctly be addressed as "your honor" or "your grace." He is not correctly addressed as "sir." He is known to the public throughout Denmark, and to some extent beyond, across Europe, because of his royal status and his time in Germany.
In discussions of the Hamlet character, the idea of a "tragic flaw," or "fatal flaw" sometimes appears. The "tragic flaw" is a classical plot device that was used in ancient Greek plays. The modern idea of "tragic flaw' is essentially a pedantic theory, and with a lot of academic quibbling over what it meant to the ancient Greeks, and what it means today, whether it's something intrinsic to the character, or a matter of the character's circumstances, or whatever. Be all that as it may, Shakespeare did not draw his Hamlet character with a "tragic flaw" in the classical sense. Hamlet is a more complicated character, deeper and more realistically human than the "cardboard cutout characters" of ancient Greek tragedy. (Not to demean the ancient Greek dramas, but they aren't at the level of Shakespeare.) Hamlet has a number of strengths, and a number of weaknesses, just as you'd expect an actual person to have.
However, if one does insist on identifying a particular weakness in Hamlet, of the classic kind, it is Pride. Hamlet, himself, says so, in a speech to Ophelia in the Nunnery Scene, Scene 8: ...but yet I could accuse me of / such things, that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am / very proud... Pride is the first-mentioned deficiency he identifies within himself. We take his word for it, in this particular case. Pride is a perfectly understandable flaw in the Prince. By nature and nurture he has been destined, and raised, to be a proud man. It goes with the territory, for such royalty. Such a one could not be expected to escape being proud. It's an affirmation of Hamlet's quality that he isn't obnoxious about his status, the way a lesser man might so easily become.
However, Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The Bible says (Geneva wording) in Proverbs 16:18, Pride goeth before destruction. The common saying expression of that is the well-known, "pride goes before a fall." So, while Pride is not the single factor that compels Hamlet to destruction, as it might be in a simpler, crudely-drawn stereotype kind of character, Pride is indeed there in Hamlet, and it is one of the several factors that ultimately drag him down.
- Costume - Hamlet is dressed in black mourning clothes until he leaves for England in Scene 15. His black outfit includes a cloak, we know, because it's explicit in the dialogue, in Scene 2.
In Scene 15, when Hamlet is leaving for England, he is dressed in fancy ambassadorial clothing. That's Claudius's ruse, that Hamlet is a Danish ambassador to England, so Hamlet must look the part as he departs. (Hamlet doesn't find out about Claudius's scheme until after he's aboard the ship.)
When Hamlet appears next, in Scene 19, he is very poorly dressed, in old sailor clothing that is little more than "shreds and patches." The pirates stole Hamlet's expensive ambassadorial clothing, and gave him clothing that none of the pirates wanted to keep. In Scene 19 he is also poorly groomed and unwashed, since the pirate ship lacked decent facilities for him to wash and groom.
In Scene 20 he has had a chance to go to his quarters in the Castle to groom and change, so he is once again well groomed, and wearing his black outfit, in the Scene that concludes the play.
For purposes of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the title character originates in the story of "Amleth," which is found in a Medieval history of Denmark written by Saxo Grammaticus. Similar kinds of stories, and similar kinds of characters, go back further in history, but those are matters for the origin of "Amleth," not the origin of "Hamlet."
The name "Hamlet" comes from Amleth, simply by moving the last letter of "Amleth" to the front. The character name "Hamlet" apparently predates Shakespeare's play as we now have it, since a Hamlet play character is mentioned in a surviving writing from 1589.
There is nice wordplay, in that a hamlet can be viewed as a small, enclosed, inward-looking community, which is what Elsinore is, in the play. The play name, taken from the title character, identifies what Elsinore is: a hamlet. The Hamlet character, himself, is rather enclosed within himself, so to speak, and he is inward-looking, obviously, as appears in his famous speeches. Hamlet is sort of a one-man hamlet.
Hamlet's significant lines in the play are: too many to extract, it would amount to extracting a big chunk of the play.
Themes and Motifs
The Themes and Motifs which apply most directly to Hamlet are:
All the "big" ideas of the play apply to him, as do many of the lesser concepts as well.
© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan
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