Hamlet must be one of the most discussed works of literature with many different interpetations by critics and actors. In the overview and Act-by-Act analysis I will take one definite line and leave it my readers to make up their minds as to whether or not they agree with me. This is why the Overview is longer in this case.
Much has been made of Hamlet’s delay in carrying out the instructions of the Ghost but, if the four main soliloquies were to be omitted, there is good reason for procrastination. It is then the straightforward story of a reverger who waits for proof and the right opportunity, acts and is then, ironically, killed himself. Yet within the play as it stands, the soliloquies are prominent and, in them, Hamlet keeps reproaching himself, asking himself why he is not acting and so the problem is pressed on us by the writing. The objective facts are that he needs proof that the Ghost is genuine and he does not have many opportunities for revenge except when Claudius is praying and that is unacceptable. He exceeds his instructions here as he was not told to send his uncle to Hell, merely to dispose of him, and he also exceeds his orders concerning his mother whom he is expressly told to leave to Heaven. On the level of plot alone, he fails in his duty because he allows other matters to intrude and the contrast with Laertes is striking and central. Yet there would be no major problem if Hamlet did not draw attention to the fact of his delay. If the soliloquies were cut, the causes of procrastination are purely external: once the King has seen the Mouse-trap and Hamlet has his proof, Claudius has his Swiss Guards around him and Hamlet is sent away. We have a mysterious sense of Hamlet’s own guilt about inertia being emphasised to us: it is not a survival of an old plot which Shakepeare hopes we will not notice; it is an integral and stressed part of this drama.
The play is a tragedy of character, possibly the first in European literature. A central theme is that murder will out and that Heaven punishes crime: the idea is given a strongly religious colour. In Act I Shakespeare suggests a situation very like Argos after the murder of Agamemnon (except that here the killing is private). There has been a great crime and the King is the main criminal although Gertrude is guilty of adultery and incest: she married in haste and Hamlet is shocked by the shamelessness of it. The story is similar to the skeleton of that related by Aeschylus: there is a sickness in the body politic which must be cleansed at whatever expense but what makes the difficulty in Hamlet is that the hero is psychologically ill-equipped to be the instrument of cure: in modern terms he has a psychological complex. The tragedy lies in this flaw of inadequacy and the sickness with which he is infected stemming from the crime committed by Claudius. His mind is poisoned and we see his nausea and disgust with life in the first soliloquy: his mother’s frailty is only part of the problem. He is a diseased soul. Skakespeare drew on contemporary ideas of neurotic melancholy man but gives us something more: a study in fixation. Hamlet cannot move thoughts of his mother’s guilt out of his mind: the command was to leave her alone but the Ghost has to re-appear to rebuke him for blunting the edge of his wrath on his mother. Hamlet is not normal for the first four Acts; he is no longer the ideal Elizabethan and his assumed role of sickness is not wholly a mask – it is genuine. In Act V he is sane and his thoughts on death are objective and rational.
It is a religious tragedy in that the sense that evil must be destroyed before the state can be purged and recovery is seen in spiritual terms (though not explicitly and formally religious) and good is destroyed along with evil. In that way it resembles Greek tragedy and is ultimately mysterious: crime is punished and health and justice restored but at the expense of good. The unique element in Hamlet is the extension of the idea of poisoning to the mind of the hero, underlined by the obsessive disease imagery throughout.
Hamlet’s malady is not explicitly analysed nor is a rational account given – his psychic energy is drained away by some means but it is connected with his mother’s guilt. His depression, disillusionment and rage are due to the collapse of everything his life was based on. Man had seemed so wonderful to him and his famous eulogy is a tonic passage of the Renaissance. He realises he is ill but does not excuse himself – as he might – on the grounds that the situation is dire and lurid and that he has to keep it secret. We may feel that his emotion at the beginning is extreme and this is to show us that it is an already unfit Hamlet who has to cope with the Ghost’s message and that he cannot deal with the implications and instructions.
What he says about doubting the Ghost is possible and it is rational to check up. Yet when the test has worked and Claudius is clearly guilty, Hamlet’s lack of balance is revealed: his hatred of Claudius has disqualified him from taking a proper view and he is led by his emotions and consumed more by hatred and jealousy than by a disinterested sense of duty.
It is a leisurely, spacious play with textured details of ordinary life, full of ambiguities and contrasts, one of the main being the life of the indoor court and the supernatural events on the battlements. (It does not have the ritualistic simplicity of Greek drama). This is stressed and thematic: there is an everyday world depicted – though interrupted by the intrusion of the unusual – and there is the archaic-sounding Ghost from the prison-house with its weird and legendary connotations. Hamlet is a Renaissance man and contrasts with the strange figure of his father, producing a striking mix of spectres and modern civilisation. There is no attempt to make the Ghost a convention and it is possible that Shakespeare, playing the part himself, wrote it expansively and with relish. Its appearance is heralded to encourage suspension of disbelief (the Elizabethans had mixed views in the subject) and it dominates Act I and the background of the play until after Act III. It is the instrument of cleansing by means of the exposure of Claudius and there is an added sense of Providence: an unseen power ensures that Hamlet finally does his duty.
It is not simply a Revenge Tragedy with a complicated modern man inserted as protagonist; Hamlet’s sickness is connected with the original crime through the disease imagery – but he becomes unjust when he loathes others such as Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Ophelia who know nothing about the murder. The overarching idea is that, when the King is evil, everything is rotten in the state and everyone suffers. Claudius is not an inefficient king but a murderer and so nothing can be right until he is punished but the avenger may perish. It is not the problem of killing the anointed king as Claudius has become a repugnant object not a monarch, outside the pale, for whom Hamlet has no sympathy. All themes and actions lead back to the central crime which, ironically, interferes with Hamlet’s course of action and soul. When he is enabled to act by Providence, it is, tragically, at his own expense.
Other considerations worthy of further investigation and themes are: garden imagery; disease imagery; women; heaven and earth; spying; revenge and the revenge hero; hypocrisy; fate; Hamlet’s talents; melancholy; acting in the dual sense of deeds and playing a role; madness; soliloquies; the question of what is Man; theatrical imagery and plays; conflict; contrasts between Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras; fathers and sons; use of language; the rich texturing of detailed everyday life and the enormous difference between this and the supernatural or divine world.