"To be, or not to be, that is the question:- Whether 'tis nobler in the mind, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?" (Shakespeare III. i. 61, 69-71). We have all heard this famous quote at least once in our lifetimes, and will probably hear it quoted again. But what does it mean? And why is it important? That famous question is the beginning of the famous soliloquy in William Shakespeare's, Hamlet, in which Hamlet, the son of the late king of Denmark, debates with himself about his course of actions, and what awaits him after death. Hamlet presents the audience with an intricate world that revolves around three major ideas; the sorting out of mysterious truths, the understanding of reality's very troublesome nature, and the realization of mortality. Even today, these three themes are ever-present within our lives; life still holds mysteries, what seems to be is still not always what is, and humankind is still very much mortal. These three ideas are the very core of the play, and they are still (and always shall be) applicable to human life. Hamlet's world is one of interrogation, of questions without answers; the questions resonate throughout the play, adding to the confusion. To truly understand this bizarre Denmark that Shakespeare has created, we have to recognize that the roles that the characters in Hamlet have are not only designed to confuse us, but to do so in a way that we can still connect with them.
The entire play opens on two guards, Francisco and Bernardo, the keepers of the watch. Francisco asks: “Who’s there?” (Shakespeare I. i. 1). And thus the play opens, with a simple question. But Francisco’s question sets the tone for the entire play; it immediately defines the mysteriousness that permeates Hamlet’s entirety. "We feel its [mysteriousness’] presence in the numberless explanations that have been brought forward for Hamlet's delay, his madness, his Ghost, his treatment of Polonius, or Ophelia, or his mother...." (Mack, "The World of Hamlet."). When the Ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears in Act I, the audience is left wondering why the spirit of the late king of Denmark is wandering the battlements. Even though Horatio explains the story of Hamlet’s father, the Ghost’s reason for returning from the beyond isn’t revealed until scene ii. Even though Horatio cries “Stay! speak: speak, I charge thee, speak!” (Shakespeare I. i. 3), the Ghost stalks off without responding, and the audience is left in suspense. Furthermore, even Hamlet’s feigned madness is mysterious; for although his ramblings seem to be true madness, more often than not they are also full and true. How much of it is really feigned, and how much of it is real? “Sane or mad, Hamlet's mind plays restlessly about his world, turning up one riddle upon another. The riddle of character, for example, and how it is that in a man whose virtues else are ‘pure as grace,’ some vicious mole of nature, some ‘dram of Bale,’ can ‘all the noble substance oft adulter.’” (Mack, “The World of Hamlet”). And similarly, the first scene of the play shows the mysteriousness extremely well; anyone who has read or watched it probably remembers just how mysterious that first scene really is. The cold midnight, the questions lashing out at the darkness, searching for answers, searching for identities…These feelings never leave for an instant. Even when Horatio explains the life and death of the late King Hamlet, he remarks that “At least, the whisper goes so…” (Shakespeare I. i. 4, 93), indicating that he can only tell rumors and legends about the previous King of Denmark.
Another layer of mystery occurs when we consider a few key words that Hamlet speaks; words which, in the Elizabethan era, would have had double-meanings. For example, Hamlet tells Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (Shakespeare III. i. 63). An Elizabethan audience would have both laughed and felt pity for the poor Ophelia, because the word “nunnery” could mean either a convent of nuns, or it could be Elizabethan slang for a brothel. So his question “why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (Shakespeare III. i. 63) becomes rather ironic, since whores would have been sinners to begin with. Illegitimate children were often shunned and cast out, as they were the product of an act that was generally considered to be immoral (and, if the man was already married, sinful.). The question remains, though; which way does Hamlet mean it? Is he being sarcastic and ironic? The audience never really finds out; we are left guessing and making conjectures. Of course, the idea parallels real life. Sometimes, we as humans come out of a situation with many questions, and we might not get a complete answer to all of them; nor, indeed, will we always get an answer. But the answer is not nearly as important as the question: “There are questions that in this play, to an extent I think unparalleled in any other, mark the phases and even the nuances of the action, helping to establish its peculiar baffled tone. There are other questions whose interrogations, innocent at first glance, are subsequently seen to have reached beyond their contexts and to point towards some pervasive inscrutability in Hamlet's world as a whole.” (Mack “The World of Hamlet.”).
A theme even more important than the mysteriousness is the struggle to determine what is real from what only seems real; that battle drives the plot of the play like a bus driver drives a bus. “Things are not always as they seem” is the core idea, and probably the first thing that any audience, Elizabethan or modern, will pick up on. Shakespeare even took the liberty of having Hamlet address this particular theme: “Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems. ’T is not alone my inky cloak, good mother, nor customary suits of solemn black, nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath, no, nor the fruitful river in the eye, nor the dejected behavior of the visage, together with all forms, modes, shows of grief, that can denote me truly: these, indeed, seem, for they are actions that a man might play…” (Shakespeare, I. ii. 10). Note the use of the word “seems.” It goes hand in hand with the idea of hidden truths, and is accompanied by two other important words: “play,” and “act.” Each of these, similar to “nunnery,” have more than one meaning. An act might be an act in a play, or it might be a façade. A player could be one who performs or one who tricks others. “The full extension of this theme is best evidenced in the play within the play itself. Here…we have suddenly a situation that tends to dissolve the normal barriers between the fictive and the real. For here on the stage before us is a play of false appearances in which an actor called the player-king is playing. But there is also on the stage, Claudius, another player-king, who is a spectator of this player. And there is on the stage, besides, a prince who is a spectator of both these player-kings and who plays with great intensity a player's role himself…And lastly there are ourselves, an audience watching all these audiences who are also players. Where, it may suddenly occur to us to ask, does the playing end?...” (Mack, “The World of Hamlet.”). Hamlet is an intricate web of truth and lies, each interwoven with each other so closely that sorting out truth from lie becomes difficult.
One of the biggest forms that this idea takes is that of the Ghost. Hamlet tries to decide whether the Ghost is actually the Ghost of his father, or some devil sent to lure him to his doom, and Hamlet recognizes this potential threat: “The spirit that I have seen may be the devil: and the devil hath the power to assume a pleasing shape...” (Shakespeare II. ii. 57). His uncertainty about the Ghost adds to Hamlet’s conflict raging inside of himself. Being a little religious, as all royalty of the Elizabethan era were, Hamlet was worried about the consequences of potentially murdering a man who had done nothing. “Hamlet's first response to the Ghost's command is not "Shall I help my father to heaven?" but "[S]hall I couple hell?" (1.5.93).” (Tiffany, “Hamlet, reconciliation…”). Already, Hamlet might be thinking about the Ghost’s true identity; since Hamlet is a Shakespearean tragedy, the audience knows from the start that Hamlet is going to die in the end. It could be argued, then, that the Ghost really is nothing more than a devil, telling a truth to trick Hamlet to destruction, just as Iago tricked Othello into killing his wife, Desdemona, and just as the witches convinced Macbeth to kill King Duncan. As Banquo wisely observed, “Oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths; win us with honest trifles, to betray ‘s in deepest consequence…” (Shakespeare, “Macbeth”. I. ii. 159). Hamlet puts off killing Claudius out of fear that, should he do it, he will be damned to Hell. “Throughout the play Hamlet shows concern that his actions be heaven-directed rather than hellish. His "To be or not to be" speech betrays a dread of the hell that may punish a sinful revenger who dies, as he will, in the act (3.1.55ff)…” (Tiffany, “Hamlet, reconciliation…”).
On the inside, Hamlet is introspective and irresolute, and his nature wars against his obligation to avenge his father’s death; however, there is more to the plot than just that simple fact. If the Ghost might only be trying to draw Hamlet to his doom, then is Claudius really the killer of the late king of Denmark? Even Hamlet doesn’t trust the Ghost completely; he sets up a plan to determine once and for all whether Claudius, who the audience catches on his knees in prayer at least once, is really the murderer. “I’ll have grounds more relative than this: - the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (Shakespeare II. ii. 57). Hamlet chooses not to trust what seems, but rather to use his own means to discover the truth behind the veil.
When, after being off of the stage for a while, Hamlet returns from his exile to England, he returns as a new person. Just like Macbeth, who leaves the stage a timid, frightful, and guilty murderer and returns a cold and ruthless killer, Hamlet’s change is also very drastic and noticeable. This new Hamlet returns aware of human mortality; the first scene of his return takes place in a graveyard, artfully designed by Shakespeare to make the point blatantly obvious. “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder! This might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’er-offices, one that would circumvent God, might it not?” (Shakespeare V. i. 121). Note the compassion that this changed Hamlet shows towards the skull of a person he doesn’t even know; after the pirate attack at sea, he is very much aware of the fact that everyone dies, more so than when he stabbed Polonius, who hid behind his mother’s arras. Maynard Mack puts it best: “The point is that he [Hamlet] has now learned, and accepted, the boundaries in which human action, human judgment, are enclosed.” (“The World of Hamlet.”). Hamlet is now completely certain of the king-like Claudius and of the hero-like Laertes. Most certainly, Ophelia’s suicide helped bring about this change of perspective, but something else also comes forward; Hamlet reveals that he, in fact, did love Ophelia. During her funereal, Laertes jumps into Ophelia’s grave upon hearing the priest pronounce that she will be denied entry into Heaven, and laments. In response, Hamlet jumps into the grave with him, and challenges Laertes’ emotions: “I lov’d Ophelia: forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum. – What wilt thou do for her?” (Shakespeare V. i. 127-8). But his proclamation reveals more than just his feelings for Ophelia; Hamlet has found himself, and is confident in the truth. He knows that Claudius and Laertes only resemble kingliness and heroics. Hamlet is no longer the introspective, irresolute prince that the audience saw shipped off to England; he is more outgoing, more firm in his convictions than ever before. As if to illustrate the new Hamlet, he returns not just on a ship, but on a pirate ship; I always imagined him dressed like a typical 18th century pirate, standing on the rigging of a ship outfitted for piracy.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s, Hamlet, presents the audience with three major and important themes: the sorting of mysteries, determining what is real from what only seems to be, and the realization of man’s mortality. These three themes are essential not only to the play, but to each other; one cannot be discussed without discussing the others. All in all, Hamlet is a very in-depth play; I would be willing to call it one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies, and an essential classic that will resonate throughout our lives for many years to come.
Johnson, Edgar. "The Dilemma of Hamlet (William Shakespeare: Hamlet)." EXPLORING Shakespeare. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Gale Student Resources In Context. Web. 1 Mar. 2012.
Mack, Maynard. "The World of Hamlet." EXPLORING Shakespeare. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Gale Student Resources In Context. Web. 27 Feb. 2012.
Massie, Allan. "Prince of self-pity." Spectator 15 July 2006. Gale Student Resources In Context. Web. 1 Mar. 2012.