Want to know more about the Hamlet theme? This page discusses a number of the major Hamlet themes that are evident in the play.
The background to the Hamlet theme structure
When Shakespeare arrived in London and began his acting career he made many friends among the theatre community. Before long he tried his hand at working on plays with the play writers who welcomed anyone who could help them fulfill the voracious hunger for plays. His talent was soon recognised and he became a regular member of their fraternity.
One of the writers he worked with was Thomas Kyd, who was responsible for scores of plays, although only one has survived to be regularly performed in the 21st century – The Spanish Tragedy. Kyd and Shakespeare became friends, and it is thought that working with Kyd, first on an earlier play, Ur-Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s earliest forays into playwriting, and then The Spanish Tragedy, formed a very significant part of Shakespeare’s apprenticeship.
The Spanish Tragedy was very popular. It caught the late Elizabethan taste for violence informed by revenge, a model that became full-blown in the Jacobean theatre, subsequently known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy.’
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a revenge tragedy but, being by the mature Shakespeare, it is very much more than that. Nevertheless, the play hangs on the skeleton of the then fashionable revenge story – in this case, a young man told by his late father’s ghost that he has been murdered by his brother and so, according to convention, the young man has the obligation to seek and achieve revenge. There is no doubt that in that sense, Hamlet is the simple story of a man avenging his father’s death. It is in the telling of that story, though, that Shakespeare made this play what is so often described as the most famous play ever written.
Hamlet is a play about so many things that they can’t be reckoned. Those things that the play is about are the themes. One can name them as themes but it should be remembered that all each Hamlet theme interacts and resounds with all the others.
Here are brief accounts of a selection of the major Hamlet themes of revenge, corruption; religion, politics, appearance and reality, and women.
6 Major Themes in Hamlet
The theme of revenge in Hamlet
There are two young men bent on avenging their father’s death in this play. Hamlet and Laertes are both on the same mission, and while Hamlet is pondering his approach to the problem Laertes is hot on his heels, determined to kill him as Hamlet has killed his father, Polonius. This is, therefore, a double revenge story. Shakespeare examines the practice of revenge by having two entirely different approaches to it – the hot-headed abandon of Laertes and the philosophical, cautious approach by Hamlet. The two strands run parallel – invoking comparisons, each one throwing light on the other – until the young men’s duel and both their deaths. The revenge theme feeds into the religious element of the play as Hamlet is conflicted by his Christian aversion to killing someone and his duty to avenge his father’s death, whereas it is not a consideration for Laertes, whose duty is clear to him, and he acts on it immediately.
The theme of corruption
Corruption is a major concern in this play. The text is saturated with images of corruption, in several forms – decay, death, poison. From the very first moments of the play the images start and set the atmosphere of corruption which is going to grow as Shakespeare explores this theme. The tone is set when Marcellus says, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ after seeing the ghost of Hamlet’s father. What Shakespeare is doing here, and in using the image structure of corruption, is addressing the broadly held view that a nation’s health is connected to the legitimacy of its king. Here we have the ghost of a murdered king, and his murderer – a decidedly illegitimate king – is sitting on his throne. All through the play, Hamlet is preoccupied with rot and corruption – both of the body and the soul, reflecting the way in which society is destroyed by the corruption of its inner institutions – in this case, the court, which is the government.
Decay, rot and mould are always in Hamlet’s mind, and his language is full of those images – ‘an unweeded garden that grows to seed – things rank and gross possess it,’ and countless images of death and disease. He hides Polonius’ body in a place where it will decay rapidly and stink out the castle. It’s an image of the corruption in secret places that is going to contaminate the whole country.
The theme of religion
Religion has an impact on the actions of the characters in this play. Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy outlines his religious thinking on the subject of suicide. He declines to kill Claudius while he is praying for fear of sending him to heaven when he should be going to hell. Hamlet believes, too, that ‘there is a destiny that shapes our ends.’
One of the most important things of all in this play is the Christian idea of making a sacrifice to achieve healing. Hamlet is Christ-like in his handling of the crisis. The court is rotten with corruption and the people in it are almost all involved in plotting and scheming against others. Hamlet’s way of dealing with it is to wait and watch as all the perpetrators fall into their own traps –‘hauled by their own petards,’ as he puts it. All he has to do is be ready – like Christ. ‘The readiness is all,’ he says. And then, all around him, the corruption collapses in on itself and the court is purified. Like Christ, though, he has to be sacrificed to achieve that, and he is, leaving a scene of renewal and hope.
The Hamlet theme of politics
Hamlet is a political drama. Hamlet’s uncle has murdered his father, the king. He has subsequently done Hamlet out of his right of succession and become king. Hamlet’s mother has married the king while the rest of the palace is engaged in palatial intrigues, leading to wider conspiracies and murders. The king, Claudius, determined to safeguard his position in the face of the threat Hamlet presents, plots in several ways to kill Hamlet. Polonius plots against Hamlet to ingratiate himself with Claudius. Characters, including Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, spy on each other. This is all to do with power and the quest to achieve and hold it.
The theme of appearance and reality
This is a major theme in every one of Shakespeare’s plays. The text of Hamlet is saturated with references to the gap that exists between how things seem to be and how they really are. Very little in this play is really as it seems. That is bound to be so in a play in which there are so many murderous plots and schemes by those who, on the surface, strive to appear innocent, like Claudius, who, behind his charismatic smile, is a damned villain. He is, as Hamlet puts it, a ‘smiling villain.’ Although Ophelia loves Hamlet she pretends to spurn his affections. Hamlet pretends to be mad so that he can explore the ghost’s assertion that Claudius killed him. All the characters, in one way or another, are hiding their true intentions.
What makes this theme particularly interesting and different in this play is that as the play develops the gap between appearance and reality narrows by the characters becoming more like the masks they are using than any reality that may lie behind that so the identities they have assumed eventually become their realities.
The theme of women
For much of the play, Hamlet is in a state of agitation. It is when he is talking to either of the two female characters that he is most agitated – so much so that he is driven to violence against them. He cares about both but does not trust either. He feels his mother, Gertrude, has let him down by her ‘o’er hasty marriage’ to Claudius. To him, it means that she didn’t really love his father. In the case of Ophelia, he is suspicious that she is part of the palace plot against him.
Both women die in this play. Ophelia is driven mad by the treatment she receives from the three men – Claudius, Polonius and Hamlet – and takes her own life. Gertrude’s death is more complex because it raises the question: how far is she responsible for the corruption that Hamlet has to deal with?
Whilst the play features the meeting and falling in love of the two main protagonists, to say that love is a theme of Romeo and Juliet is an oversimplification. Rather, Shakespeare structures Romeo and Juliet around several contrasting ideas, with a number of themes expressed as opposites. To say that the tension between love and hate is a major theme in Romeo and Juliet gets us closer to what the play is about. These – and other – opposing ideas reverberate with each other and are intertwined through the text.
What do you think of these Hamlet themes – any that you don’t agree with, or would add? Let us know in the comments section below!