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As the term is used on this website, the Themes are the repeated, or continuing, concepts which are of greatest significance to the events of the play. The course of events is most driven by these. In other words, I use the word Theme for the concepts which are the major character motivators.

The Themes are identified, in large part, from express statements in the dialogue. Knowledge of the Themes (and the Motifs,) is very helpful in understanding the character speeches and the events, and in simply reading the play.

  • Putting on a Show -- is the major theme of Hamlet. This "show" category comprises instances of usage of the word "show," itself, and the word "play," also instances of false appearance (e.g. "painted face,") and also instances of misleading or deceptive speech and behavior, which are many. The most obvious instance is the actual "show" of the Gonzago/Mousetrap play-within-a-play, but in Hamlet all the characters, in one way or another, for one reason or another, and to a greater or lesser degree, "put on a show." Hamlet might even be thought of as Shakespeare's "show about shows."

The Themes, as I identify them, are:

Death Duty Fortune
Love Madness Putting on a Show
  • The Death Theme in Hamlet is traditional, and obvious in the play, and cannot reasonably be omitted from any consideration of the themes of the play. It's certainly there.
  • Then, the idea of Duty rises to the level of a Theme because, for one thing, "duty" is explicitly what motivates Horatio and the sentinels to tell Hamlet about the Ghost, an event which initiates all of the major story line that follows. The influence of Duty is seen elsewhere throughout the play.
  • We see the accidental events in the play, of which Hamlet's capture by pirates is only one example, so it's clear enough that Fortune is greatly significant to the events. It is also explicitly stated in the dialogue.
  • Who would argue against Love as a Theme in writing by Shakespeare? It is without doubt a motivator in Hamlet.
  • Madness is there, and if nothing else is too traditional to omit as a Theme. However, there is more to Madness as a Theme than the conventional wisdom addresses.
  • The thematic status of Revenge could hardly be denied, not only because it's traditional in discussing Hamlet, but because it's obvious and explicit in the dialogue.

Identification of the themes of Hamlet is a judgment call. Others may have other lists, and others might include as Themes some of what I call Motifs. I think the above are well justified, however, both by tradition and, primarily, by what's manifest in the play.

The individual Theme pages demonstrate the existence and significance of the Theme by listing lines from the play which provide instances of the Theme, with very brief commentary for each line.

© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan

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