Things to do before 30: read these 33 books

An eclectic selection that focuses on topics like understanding your identity, shaping your worldview, and laying the foundation for a fulfilling career

It’s an eclectic selection that focuses on topics like understanding your identity, shaping your worldview, and laying the foundation for a fulfilling career.

Here’s what we think you should read before you turn 30.

‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius


As you become an adult, you realize that there will never be a time in your life where everything is just as you hoped it would be.

“Meditations” is a collection of personal writings on maintaining mental toughness from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161 to 180 and became remembered as one of the great “philosopher kings.”

As Gregory Hays notes in the introduction to his translation, Aurelius wrote his musings on resilience and leadership in a “dark and stressful period” in the last decade of his life.

The emperor’s version of Stoic philosophy has remained relevant for 1,800 years because it offers timeless advice for gaining control of one’s emotions and progressing past all obstacles in one’s path.

““The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” 

Find it here

‘The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays’ by Albert Camus


We all have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and we start to question that reason after entering the real world.

As “The Stranger” author Albert Camus sees it, all people find themselves in an irrational world struggling to find meaning for their lives where there is none.

His main message, however, is that just as the legend of Sisyphus tells of a god who was eternally punished by having to push a rock up a hill, only to have it fall down each time he reached the peak, we should embrace the drive for meaning and lead happy, fulfilling lives with a clear-eyed view of the world.

“There is scarcely any passion without struggle.”

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‘Crime and Punishment’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Regardless of your personal philosophy, there will be times when the world pushes against you and you wonder why it’s worth trying to better yourself and help others.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel is not only a gripping story, but it’s an argument against the nihilism that was popular among Russian intellectual circles in his time.

“Crime and Punishment” is the tale of a 23-year-old man named Raskolnikov who, acting on a nagging urge, murders two old women and then struggles with processing the act.

Dostoyevsky argues that rationalism taken to its extreme ignores the powerful bonds that connect humanity and give us responsibility over each other.

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.” 

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‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy


American novelist William Faulkner, as well as Time magazine, called this Leo Tolstoy novel “the best ever written.”

As the main plotline of a doomed affair between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky unfolds, Tolstoy explores the strife present in nearly every aspect of human existence, like love, family, social class, and happiness.

We recommend the excellent English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

“He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” 

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‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


As many a psychologist would tell you, being a mentally healthy person requires integrating your childhood into your adulthood.

There is probably no greater expression of childhood wonder and sorrow than “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Drawing on the author’s experiences as an aviator in Africa, the book follows a young prince as he visits increasingly surreal planets.

“Of all the books written in French over the past century, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Le Petit Prince’ is surely the best loved in the most tongues,” writes New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik.

“All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.” 

Find it here 

‘The Power of Myth’ by Joseph Campbell


An American student of the psychologist Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell spent his life revealing the connections between the world’s faith and folk traditions. He developed the idea of the “monomyth,” which states that all myths have the same basic structure, from Moses and Odysseus to Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.

“The Power of Myth” is a wide-ranging conversation between Campbell and broadcast journalist Bill Moyers. Conducted at the end of a decades-long career, the interview format serves as an introduction to Campbell’s eye-opening perspective — that, purposefully or not, we are living out myths in our lives.

“We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about.” 

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‘The Bhagavad Gita’ — author unknown



Whatever you determine your calling to be, you’ll find there are times when it’s scary to answer it.

This ancient Hindu text tells the story of the prince Arjuna riding to battle and being overcome with doubt, since his enemies include friends and members of his family. He turns to his guide, the supreme deity Krishna, for help. Krishna explains why it is his duty to rush into battle and emerge victorious.

Though the tale is focused around warfare, Mahatma Gandhi said that it was the “Bhagavad Gita” that most inspired him in his peaceful quest for a free India.

The full depth of the text has been interpreted in countless ways over the past two millennia, but in simple terms, it serves as an inspiration to find one’s purpose in life and fearlessly push forward.

“It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.” 

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‘Siddhartha’ by Hermann Hesse


Published in its original German in 1922, Herman Hesse’s “Siddartha” wouldn’t find an English translation until 1951.

Set in the ancient India of the historical Buddha, the book tells the spiritual coming-of-age story of a man named Siddartha.

Written in spare and elegant sentences, the novella provides a model for the journey into adulthood.

“What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.” 

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‘The Essential Rumi’ by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi


Alive in 13th-century Persia, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote poetry that reveals the most profound of human emotions: awe, grief, longing.

With a new translation from American poet Coleman Barks, “The Essential Rumi” is a vital introduction to the philosopher-saint.

“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” 

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‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion


Living inevitably means dying.

And when people die — or lose jobs, go through breakups, or move to different cities — we need to grieve.

But there are few instructions on how to grieve.

In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” journalist Joan Didion unpacks the story of the death of her husband, author John Dunne. But to take it as simply therapy on the page would be reductive: The book is also a portrait of a remarkable marriage.

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. ”

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‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy


Published in 1997, “The God of Small Things” became one of the most-read books by an Indian author and turned Roy into a literary celebrity.

Partway through, Roy defines a great story in an aside:

… the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.

That is their mystery and their magic.

It’s a description the book fits — a novel that reflects the complex interactions between adults, children, and children who become adults.

“And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.” 

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‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel


Another part of growing into yourself is finding the meaning in the various emotional episodes that define our childhoods.

In “Fun Home,” graphic novelist Alison Bechdel investigates the complex relationship she had growing up with her father — his closeted homosexuality, her coming out as gay, and their isolation in rural Pennsylvania.

Bechdel received the MacArthur Genius grant last year, partially due to this landmark work.

“It was a vicious cycle, though. The more gratification we found in our own geniuses, the more isolated we grew.” 

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‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith


Growing up also means coming to terms with the aspects of our identity that we were born with.

English author Zadie Smith’s debut novel is about overlapping family histories in London in 1975. Smith’s narrative is a meditation on coming to grips with being an immigrant or the child of immigrants, and how religion, race, and sexuality factor into one’s personal and public identity.

“Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.” 

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‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ by Junot Díaz


As you come to understand who you are, you will need to determine how this fits or doesn’t fit within the culture that raised you.

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” won Junot Díaz the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Through his colorful combination of English, Spanish, and slang, Díaz tells the story of Oscar Wao, the “cursed,” geeky son of Dominican immigrants growing up in New Jersey.

The characters’ struggles deal with what it means to inherit culture that doesn’t necessarily fit your worldview, as well as finding ways to process all of the baggage that comes with familial and cultural history.

“If you didn’t grow up like I did then you don’t know, and if you don’t know it’s probably better you don’t judge.” 

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‘The Beggar Maid’ by Alice Munro


It can be difficult adjusting the way you see your parents and upbringing from the perspective of an independent adult.

Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, published the short-story collection “The Beggar Maid” in 1978. It’s a collection of vignettes that follows the growth of the protagonist Rose from childhood to adulthood.

What is perhaps most memorable about Rose’s story is the way she comes to terms with her unpolished, lower-class upbringing as a sophisticated young woman.

“Love removes the world for you, and just as surely when it’s going well as when it’s going badly.” 

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‘The World According to Garp’ by John Irving


Psychology research indicates that reading literary fiction improves your ability to sympathize with other people’s points of view, since a novel is mental simulation of another person’s life.

Therein lies part of the value of “The World According to Garp,” John Irving’s masterwork of New England social realism.

You spend an entire life with the narrator and his family, and learn something about yours in the process.

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‘The Complete Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi


“Persepolis” is an immersive and beautifully illustrated graphic-novel memoir about growing up as a girl in Iran during and after the revolution of 1978-79.

As an émigré living in Paris and writing her story in the late 1990s, Satrapi is able to analyze her first 25 years of life from an outsider’s perspective.

Her story is intimately personal and within a specific historical and cultural context, but its chronicle of a child becoming an adult is universally relatable.

“I had learned that you should always shout louder than your aggressor.” 

Find it here

‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Ta-Nehisi Coates is the recipient of a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship — commonly referred to as a “genius grant” — for being arguably the most important and influential writer on race in America today.

His 2015 essay/memoir “Between the World and Me” is written in the form of a letter to his son. It explores how his childhood in Baltimore, his time at Howard University, and his early years as a journalist formed his worldview and simultaneously turns that worldview onto some of the most heated contemporary issues surrounding race’s relationship to identity and equality in the US.

It’s powerful enough that US President Barack Obama made a point of reading it this summer.

“The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.” 

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‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung


In this powerful memoir, Loung Ung recounts her experience in Cambodia of having her family destroyed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. The way she has dealt with it serves as an extreme example of how to deal with whatever random event shakes us to the core.

Ung narrates the horrors of being forced to train as a child soldier and witnessing the worst of what mankind is capable of.

The book’s true power comes through Ung’s expression of how love can allow someone to survive even the greatest tragedies and find the strength to contribute to society after emerging on the other side.

“I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it. ” 

Find it here

‘The Truth’ by Neil Strauss


Whether you’re in a long-term relationship or have been turned off from them completely, it’s worth checking out this book.

In “The Truth,” you follow Strauss’ first-person journey through sex-addiction therapy and “love communes” in his quest for determining if he can commit to a monogamous relationship with the love of his life.

Hilarious, poignant, and at times absurd, it’s a transformational read.

“Lying is about controlling someone else’s reality, hoping that what they don’t know won’t hurt you.” 

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‘Iron John’ by Robert Bly


“Iron John” is less a book about men than it is a historic, mythic, and poetic inquiry into the nature of mature masculinity — the kind that nurtures, protects, and explores.

Basically, if you think that being “like a guy” means to be cut off from emotion, aloof in relationships, and unable to express your interior world to the people around you, read this book.

It’s a treasure trove of wisdom regardless of your gender or existing views, and also serves as a gorgeous introduction to the insights of Jungian psychology.

“Most American men today do not have enough awakened or living warriors inside to defend their soul houses. And most people, men or women, do not know what genuine outward or inward warriors would look like, or feel like.” 

Find it here

‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell


Twenty-somethings today have grown up with social media, but they’re tapping into a timeless form of communication.

Malcolm Gladwell is a master of using data and reporting to illustrate an explanation of a certain aspect of society’s mechanics.

His debut work, “The Tipping Point,” came out 15 years ago, but its insights into how and why people distribute ideas and information until they become an “epidemic” is just as relevant and interesting today, especially since the idea of going viral has long been part of the zeitgeist.

“The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” 

Find it here 

‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Taleb


People love the illusion of certainty provided by predictions.

In “The Black Swan,” investor-philosopher Taleb diagnoses the way people misguidedly lean on predictions as a way of moving through the world, and reveals how the most structured of systems are the most vulnerable to collapse — like the financial system in 2007.

It’s rare to find a book that can literally change the way you think about the world and your knowledge about it. This is one such book.

“Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.” 

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‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’ by Thich Nhat Hanh


Cognitive-science research confirms that the ancient practice of mindfulness mediation has many benefits,from stress reduction to increased cognitive flexibility to a boost in working memory.

The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Miracle of Mindfulness” is probably the best introduction to the practice.

Originally a set of letters written to a friend, the book can be read in a single afternoon.

“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” 

Find it here

‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ by Cal Newport


Some of the most common advice you’ll hear when you’re starting out is that if you pursue your passion, the money will follow.

But there’s a big caveat to that, argues Cal Newport, an author and a professor. For most people, he says that mastery of a certain skill can lead to finding your passion, since the mastery of this skill can open new doors and allow you to progress in your career.

He’s not suggesting you give up on your dreams, but ensure that you pair them with a dose of reality and make yourself valuable in the marketplace.

“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.” 

Find it here

‘The Intelligent Investor’ by Benjamin Graham


Billionaire investor Bill Ackman is just one of countless Wall Street power players who cite “The Intelligent Investor” as a book that was life-changing.

First published by Warren Buffett’s mentor Benjamin Graham in 1949, it’s an in-depth introduction to value investing.

Even if the industry you work in is far removed from finance, Graham’s advice will help you make the most of your money in the long term.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

Find it here

‘Give and Take’ by Adam Grant


Something in our culture tells us that we need to be barbaric and backstabbing in order to grow professionally.

But in “Give and Take,” Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant shows how that grumpy outlook is quite wrong. The research indicates that people who create the most value for others are the ones who end up at the top of their fields.

And Grant shows you how.

“Highly successful people have three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity.” 

Find it here

‘The Power Broker’ by Robert Caro


Not understanding how powerful people work makes you vulnerable to their will.

This is why “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s immense biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, is so essential.

In it, Caro, the master journalist, chronicles the way Moses remade New York in his own vision — without being elected.

If you want to see Machiavellian principles in action, read this.

“Hospitality has always been a potent political weapon. Moses used it like a master. Coupled with his overpowering personality, a buffet often did as much for a proposal as a bribe.” 

Find it here

‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


After growing up hearing so much about the pursuit of happiness, one of the weird aspects of adulthood is the discovery that so little empirical research has gone into uncovering its mechanics.

Thus the necessity of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is the distillation of decades of research into how happiness actually works.

For Csikszentmihalyi, happiness is a product of a life lived at its frontiers, where one is constantly expanding and exploring the sense of self.

“A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.”

Find it here

‘Zero to One’ by Peter Thiel


Twenty-somethings today live in a world where startups turn young entrepreneurs into billionaires and tech founders have replaced Wall Street hotshots as what Tom Wolfe called “masters of the universe.”

Billionaire investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s book pulls back the curtain on this world. It’s an enjoyable and concise guide to how game-changing businesses are built and managed.

“Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.”

Find it here

‘Crossing the Unknown Sea’ by David Whyte


There’s relatively little quality writing about the place of work in our lives.

That’s why “Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity” by David Whyte is like an oasis in a desert.

In it, Whyte, a British poet now living in America, frames a career not as a quarry to be captured, but an ongoing conversation one has with the world and one’s self.

“A life’s work is not a series of stepping-stones onto which we calmly place our feet, but more like an ocean crossing where there is no path, only a heading, a direction, which, of itself, is in conversation with the elements.” 

Find it here

‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ by Cheryl Strayed


Sometimes you just need some advice.

And there’s no greater advice columnist than Cheryl Strayed, who wrote essayistic replies to readers of the Rumpus literary magazine under the name “Sugar.”

They’re collected in “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and they hit hard.

“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”

Find it here

‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’ by Clayton Christensen


“How Will You Measure Your Life?” is a philosophical meditation disguised as a business book.

There’s a mystery at the center: When Christensen graduated from Harvard Business School in 1979, he and his classmates were on top of the world. But by their 25-year reunion, many of his peers were in crisis — whether it be private in the case of estranged children, or public in the case of Jeffrey Skilling, the head of Enron.

The book investigates why some of those incredibly privileged people leave their lives in ruins, while others flourish.

“It’s easier to hold your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time.”

Nietzsche’s Concept of Superman Explained

Friedrich Nietzsche first introduced the concept of the Übermensch — often translated in English as “The Superman” — in his influential philosophical work, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), writing:

I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?

All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?…

Lo, I teach you the Superman!

The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman SHALL BE the meaning of the earth!

I conjure you, my brethren, REMAIN TRUE TO THE EARTH, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.

Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them!

Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!

Approaching questions on Hamlet

“Hamlet is a play in which action speak louder than words.” How far and in what ways do you agree with this view?


Formalist Perspective…

Shakespeare presents us with a play where action happen off stage, and words dominate; ha also presents us with a protagonist who repeatedly refuses to act, but whose words, especially his soliloquies, most deeply affect the audience. If it is Shakespeare’s intention to present the inability to act in the tragic flaw of his protagonist, he also presents the audience with the most fully realised character, whose words cause the tragedy as much as his refusal to act let it happen. Across the play contrasts between the different parts of the acts portray characters impressions of the lack of trust in the relationships and their suspicions laced between them. The family of Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes show constant distrust as they consistently advise one another, mostly for personal gain rather than protecting the ones they love. This is shown when Laertes advises Ophelia about her “chaste treasure” as in Shakespeare’s time women were only desirable as pure. However, the ulterior motive behind this is to make sure his self-image is protected – ultimately Laertes knows Ophelia’s sensitivity and understands his words will affect her more than his actions.


Historical Perspective…

Shakespeare presents us with a play where actions happen off stage and words dominate; he also presents us with a protagonist who repeatedly refuses to act, but who’s words, especially his soliloquies, most deeply affect the audience. If it is Shakespeare’s intention to present the inability to act in the tragic flaw of the protagonist, he also presents the audience with the most full realised character whose words cause the tragedy as much as his refusal to act let it happen. However, in the early 17th century the audience directed the vast majority of their focus on the actions in the play and would have paid little attention to the depth of the words. Hamlet states “poison in jest” which is the first time poison is specifically mentioned and suggests that’s how he believes his father died. Later on the King speaks of “a brothers murder”. At the time of Shakespeare, the audience will have considered this as the most important parts of the play whereas in modern times, the audience focuses more on the meanings behind the words and soliloquies and values  Shakespeare’s writing for these features, showing a modern bias amongst views of the play.


Feminist Perspective…

Shakespeare presents us with a play where action happen off stage, and words dominate; ha also presents us with a protagonist who repeatedly refuses to act, but whose words, especially his soliloquies, most deeply affect the audience. If it is Shakespeare’s intention to present the inability to act in the tragic flaw of his protagonist, he also presents the audience with the most fully realised character, whose words cause the tragedy as much as his refusal to act let it happen. One way in which Shakespeare reflects the patriarchy in the 16th century is through the lack of a female voice in comparison to the dominant voice of men throughout the play. In particular, Hamlet’s attitude towards women is almost constantly voiced throughout the play, in “Frailty, thy name is Woman”, where he presents women as weak and inferior, with reference to Gertrude, almost as if she is controlled by her base instincts. In comparison, the views of women in the play are under-represented. For example, when Ophelia and Polonius discuss Hamlet, she answers in short, vague sentences that may make the audience wonder whether they truly reflect her views, such as “I do not know, my lord, what I should think”. Her apparent lack of opinion is a suggestion towards her inferior mind in the eyes of men.

Psychoanalytic Perspective…

Shakespeare presents us with a play where actions happen off stage, and words dominant; he also presents us with a protagonist who repeatedly refuses to act, but whose words, especially his soliloquies, most deeply affect the audience. If it is Shakespeare’s intention to present the inability to act in the tragic flaw of his protagonist, he also presents the audience with the most fully realised character, whose words cause the tragedy as much as his refusal to act let it happen. Shakespeare’s protagonist’s words seem particularly effective in gaging a reaction from many other characters, in addition to the audience, regarding Hamlet’s obsession with his mother’s sexual relations. Freudian critics steer towards the sexual implications of symbols and imagery, since Freud theorized that all human behavior derives from sexual energy. In Act One of Shakespeare’s play, the text states “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast” in support of both the Freudian approach, and the exploration that Hamlet’s words affect a great number of people in the play. It is possible that Hamlet’s reaction to the rapid re-marriage of his mother to his uncle is based on jealousy and spite, leading to his hurtful and offensive insults that he directs not only to his mother, but also to all women in the 16th century society, when this play was created, causing the audience of the time to understand Shakespeare’s negative views of the patriarchal society that he lived in. Women were often considered significantly weaker and inferior to men; it was often the case that they were only really recognised for their sexuality and virtue. This furthermore relates to the Oedipus complex, as Freud suggests that Hamlet is played by Shakespeare as scolding his mother for having sex with Claudius, while simultaneously unconsciously wishing that he could take Claudius’s place: “adultery” and “incest” is what he both loves and hates about his mother.

Oscar Wilde’s Play Salome Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley in a Striking Modern Aesthetic (1894)


In William Faulkner’s 1936 Absalom, Absalom!, one of the novel’s most erudite characters paints a picture of a Gothic scene by comparing it to an Aubrey Beardsleydrawing. References to Beardsley also appear in other Faulkner novels, and the English artist of the late nineteenth century also influenced the American novelist’s visual art. Like Faulkner, Beardsley was irresistibly drawn to “the grotesque and the erotic,” as The Paris Review writes, and his work was highly favored among French and British poets of his day. The modernist’s appreciation of Beardsley was about more than Faulkner’s own youthful romance with French Symbolist art and morbid romantic verse, however. Beardsley created a modern Gothic aesthetic that came to represent both Art Nouveau and decadent, transgressive literature for decades to come, presenting a seductive visual challenge to the repression of Victorian respectability.


Beardsley was a young aesthete with a literary imagination. In his short career—he died at the age of 25—he illustrated many of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, forefather of the American Gothic. Beardsley also famously illustrated Oscar Wilde’s scandalous drama, Salome in 1893, to the surprise of its author, who later inscribed an illustrated copy with the words, “For the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Seven Veils is, and can see that invisible dance.” Beardsley’s drawings first appeared in an art magazine called The Studio, then the following year in an English publication of the text.


Beardsley and Wilde’s joint creation embraced the macabre and flaunted Victorian sexual norms. After an abrupt cancellation of Salome‘s planned opening in England, the illustrated edition introduced British readers to the play’s unsettling themes. The British Library quotes critic Peter Raby, who argues, “Beardsley gave the text its first true public and modern performance, placing it firmly within the 1890s – a disturbing framework for the dark elements of cruelty and eroticism, and of the deliberate ambiguity and blurring of gender, which he released from Wilde’s play as though he were opening Pandora’s box.”


Wilde’s play was ostensibly banned for its portrayal of Biblical characters, prohibited on stage at the time. Furthermore, it “struck a nerve,” writes Yelena Primorac at Victorian Web, with its “portrayal of woman in extreme opposition to the traditional notion of virtuous, pure, clean and asexual womanhood the Victorians felt comfortable living with.” Wilde was at first concerned that the illustrations, with their suggestively posed figures and frankly sexual and violent images, would “reduce the text to the role of ‘illustrating Aubrey’s illustrations.’” (You can see some of the more suggestive images here.)


Published in full in 1894, in an English translation of Wilde’s original French text, the Beardsley-illustrated Salome contained 16 plates, some of them tamed or censored by the publishers. Read the full text, with drawings, here, and see a gallery of Beardsley’s original uncensored illustrations at the British Library.


Hamlet Literary Criticism

Feminist Literary Criticism of Hamlet

Psychoanalytic Approach

Marxist Literary Criticism of Hamlet

Hamlet Literary Critics:

  1. Paul Cantor – “Hamlet”
  2. Maynard Mack – “Everybody’s Shakespeare” – “The Readiness is All”,
  3. Martin Evans
  4. Eleanor Prosser
  5. David Bevington
  6. Robert Hapgood
  7. Réné Girard
  8. Oscar James Campbell
  9. Richard D. Altick
  10. Kenneth Muir
  11. George Detmold
  12. Ernest Jones
  13. Bertram Joseph
  14. Baldwin Maxwell
  15. Theodore Lidz
  16. LC Knights
  17. Arthur Kirsch
  18. Edgar Johnson
  19. J Dover Wilson

Sigmund Freud – “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1900)
Elaine Showalter – defends Ophelia
Carolyn Heilbrun – “Hamlet’s Mother” 1957 (defends Gertrude – popular w/ feminists)

“Hamlet’s world,” Maynard Mack says, “is pre-eminently in the interrogative mood.” Harry Levin quotes this, going on to say: “… the word ‘question’ occurs in Hamlet no less than seventeen times, much more frequently than in any of Shakespeare’s other plays. Recalling that it comes as the final word in Hamlet’s most famous line,” [“To be, or not to be, that is the question,” (III, i, 56)] “we may well regard it as the key-word of the play … Furthermore, besides direct inquiry, there are other modes of questioning, notably doubt and irony….”

L. C. Knights says: “If this ghost turns out to be one who clamours for revenge, then we have every reason to suppose that Shakespeare entertained some grave doubts about him.” This is, moreover, a “Ghost whose command had been for a sterile concentration on death and evil.”

A.C Bradley
‘…while Hamlet certainly cannot be called in the specific sense a ‘religious drama,’ there is in it nevertheless both a freer use of popular religious ideas, and a more decided, though always imaginative, intimation of a supreme power concerned in human evil and good, than can be found in any other of Shakespeare’s tragedies.’

‘It was not that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy or most perfect work of art; it was that Hamlet most brings home to us…the sense of the soul’s infinity…’

He calls Hamlet a ‘tragedy of thought’ and says Hamlet’s downfall ‘is connected rather with [his] intellectual nature and reflective habit than with any yielding to passion’.

Jan Kott

‘Hamlet is a great scenario, in which every character has a more or less tragic and cruel part to play, and has magnificent things to say. Every character has an irrevocable task to fulfill, a task imposed by the author. The scenario is independent of the characters; it has been devised earlier. It defines the situations, as well as the mutual relations of the characters. But it does not say who the characters are. It is something external in relation to them. And that is why the scenario of Hamlet can by played by different sorts of characters. ‘

Hamlet might so easily have been manufactured into an enigma, or a puzzle, and then the puzzle if sufficient pains were bestowed, could be completely taken to pieces and explained. But Shakespeare created it a mystery, and therefore it is forever suggestive; for ever suggestive and never wholly explicable
Edward Dowden

The single characteristic of Hamlet’s innermost nature is by no means irresolution or hesitation or any form of weakness, but rather the strong conflux of contending forces
A.C. Swinburne

He sees it pictorially, not as the problem of an individual at all, but as something greater and even more mysterious, as a condition for which the individual himself is apparently not responsible, any more than the sick man is to blame for the cancer which strikes and devours him, but which, nevertheless, as its course and development impartially and relentlessly annihilates him and others, innocent and guilty alike. That is the tragedy of Hamlet, as it is, perhaps, the chief tragic mystery of life.
Caroline Spurgeon

Hamlet […] cannot be comprehended except as a study of emotion.
L.L Schüking

The concentration at Ellsinore of all that happens enhances the impression of inactivity, which is enhanced again by the sense given us of the constant coming and going around Hamlet of the busier world without
Harley Granville-Barker

Critical approaches to Hamlet

Renaissance period

Interpretations of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s day were very concerned with the play’s portrayal of madness. The play was also often portrayed more violently than in later times. The play’s contemporary popularity is suggested both by the five quartos that appeared in Shakespeare’s lifetime and by frequent contemporary references (though at least some of these could be to the so-called ur-Hamlet). These allusions suggest that by the early Jacobean period the play was famous for the ghost and for its dramatization of melancholy and insanity. The procession of mad courtiers and ladies in Jacobean and Caroline drama frequently appears indebted to Hamlet. Other aspects of the play were also remembered. Looking back on Renaissance drama in 1655, Abraham Wright lauds the humour of the gravedigger’s scene, although he suggests that Shakespeare was outdone by Thomas Randolph, whose farcical comedy The Jealous Lovers features both a travesty of Ophelia and a graveyard scene. There is some scholarly speculation that Hamlet may have been censored during this period. Theatres were closed under the Puritan Commonwealth, which ran from 1640–1660.


When the monarchy was restored in 1660, theatres re-opened. Early interpretations of the play, from the late 17th to early 18th century, typically showed Prince Hamlet as a heroic figure. Critics responded to Hamlet in terms of the same dichotomy that shaped all responses to Shakespeare during the period. On the one hand, Shakespeare was seen as primitive and untutored, both in comparison to later English dramatists such as Fletcher and especially when measured against the neoclassical ideals of art brought back from France with the Restoration. On the other, Shakespeare remained popular not just with mass audiences but even with the very critics made uncomfortable by his ignorance of Aristotle’s unities and decorum.

Thus, critics considered Hamlet in a milieu which abundantly demonstrated the play’s dramatic viability. John Evelyn saw the play in 1661, and in his Diary he deplored the play’s violation of the unities of time and place.[6] Yet by the end of the period, John Downes noted that Hamlet was staged more frequently and profitably than any other play in Betterton‘s repertory.[7]

In addition to Hamlet’s worth as a tragic hero, Restoration critics focused on the qualities of Shakespeare’s language and, above all, on the question of tragic decorum. Critics disparaged the indecorous range of Shakespeare’s language, with Polonius’s fondness for puns and Hamlet’s use of “mean” (i.e., low) expressions such as “there’s the rub” receiving particular attention. Even more important was the question of decorum, which in the case of Hamlet focused on the play’s violation of tragic unity of time and place, and on the characters. Jeremy Collier attacked the play on both counts in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, published in 1698. Comparing Ophelia to Electra, he condemns Shakespeare for allowing his heroine to become “immodest” in her insanity, particularly in the “Flower Scene”.

Collier’s attack occasioned a widespread, often vituperative controversy. Hamlet in general and Ophelia in particular were defended by Thomas D’urfey and George Drake almost immediately. Drake defends the play’s justice on the grounds that the murderers are “caught in their own toils” (that is, traps). He also defends Ophelia by describing her actions in the context of her desperate situation; D’urfey, by contrast, simply claims that Dennis has discerned immorality in places to which no one else objected. In the next decade, Rowe and Dennis agreed with Collier that the play violated justice; Shaftesbury and others defended the play as ultimately moral.

Early eighteenth century

Criticism of the play in the first decades of the 18th century continued to be dominated by the neoclassical conception of plot and character. Even the many critics who defended Hamlet took for granted the necessity of the classical canon in principle. Voltaire‘s attack on the play is perhaps the most famous neoclassical treatment of the play; it inspired numerous defenses in England, but these defenses did not at first weaken the neoclassical orthodoxy. Thus Lewis Theobald explained the seeming absurdity of Hamlet’s calling death an “undiscovered country” not long after he has encountered the Ghost by hypothesizing that the Ghost describes Purgatory, not death. Thus William Popple (in 1735) praises the verisimilitude of Polonius’s character, deploring the actors’ tradition of playing him only as a fool. Both Joseph Addison and Richard Steele praised particular scenes: Steele the psychological insight of the first soliloquy, and Addison the ghost scene.

The ghost scenes, indeed, were particular favourites of an age on the verge of the Gothic revival. Early in the century, George Stubbes noted Shakespeare’s use of Horatio’s incredulity to make the Ghost credible. At midcentury, Arthur Murphy described the play as a sort of poetic representation of the mind of a “weak and melancholy person.” Slightly later, George Colman the Elder singled out the play in a general discussion of Shakespeare’s skill with supernatural elements in drama.

In 1735, Aaron Hill sounded an unusual but prescient note when he praised the seeming contradictions in Hamlet’s temperament (rather than condemning them as violations of decorum). After midcentury, such psychological readings had begun to gain more currency. Tobias Smollett criticized what he saw as the illogic of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, which was belied, he said, by Hamlet’s actions. More commonly, the play’s disparate elements were defended as part of a grander design. Horace Walpole, for instance, defends the mixture of comedy and tragedy as ultimately more realistic and effective than rigid separation would be. Samuel Johnson echoed Popple in defending the character of Polonius; Johnson also doubted the necessity of Hamlet’s vicious treatment of Ophelia, and he also viewed sceptically the necessity and probability of the climax. Hamlet’s character was also attacked by other critics near the end of the century, among them George Steevens. However, even before the Romantic period, Hamlet was (with Falstaff), the first Shakespearean character to be understood as a personality separate from the play in which he appears.

Not until the late 18th century did critics and performers begin to view the play as confusing or inconsistent, with Hamlet falling from such high status. Goethe had one of his characters say, in his 1795 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, “Shakespeare meant…to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it…A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear, and must not cast away.” This change in the view of Hamlet’s character is sometimes seen as a shift in the critical emphasis on plot (characteristic of the period before 1750) to an emphasis on the theatrical portrayal of the character (after 1750).

Romantic criticism

Already before the Romantic period proper, critics had begun to stress the elements of the play that would cause Hamlet to be seen, in the next century, as the epitome of the tragedy of character. In 1774, William Richardson sounded the key notes of this analysis: Hamlet was a sensitive and accomplished prince with an unusually refined moral sense; he is nearly incapacitated by the horror of the truth about his mother and uncle, and he struggles against that horror to fulfill his task. Richardson, who thought the play should have ended shortly after the closet scene, thus saw the play as dramatizing the conflict between a sensitive individual and a calloused, seamy world.

Henry Mackenzie notes the tradition of seeing Hamlet as the most varied of Shakespeare’s creations: “With the strongest purposes of revenge he is irresolute and inactive; amidst the gloom of the deepest melancholy he is gay and jocular; and while he is described as a passionate lover he seems indifferent about the object of his affections.” Like Richardson, Mackenzie concludes that the tragedy in the play arises from Hamlet’s nature: even the best qualities of his character merely reinforce his inability to cope with the world in which he is placed. To this analysis Thomas Robertson adds in particular the devastating impact of the death of Hamlet’s father.

By the end of the 18th century, psychological and textual criticism had outrun strictly rhetorical criticism; one still sees occasional critiques of metaphors viewed as inappropriate or barbarous, but by and large the neoclassical critique of Shakespeare’s language had become moribund. The most extended critique of the play’s language from the end of the century is perhaps that of Hugh Blair.

Another change occurred right around the Romantic literary period (19th century), known for its emphasis on the individual and internal motive. The Romantic period viewed Hamlet as more of a rebel against politics, and as an intellectual, rather than an overly-sensitive, being. This is also the period when the question of Hamlet’s delay is brought up, as previously it could be seen as plot device, while romantics focused largely on character. Samuel Coleridge, for example, penned a criticism of Hamlet during this period that raises views which continue to this day, saying basically that he is an intellectual who thinks too much, and can’t make up his mind. He extended this to say that Shakespeare’s ultimate message was that we should act, and not delay. Coleridge and other writers praised the play for its philosophical questions, which guided the audience to ponder and grow intellectually.

Late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries

At around the turn of the 20th century, two writers, A. C. Bradley and Sigmund Freud, developed ideas which built on the past and greatly affected the future of Hamlet criticism. Bradley held the view that Hamlet should be studied as one would study a real person: piecing together his consciousness from the clues given in the play. His explanation of Hamlet’s delay was one of a deep “melancholy” which grew from a growing disappointment in his mother. Freud also viewed Hamlet as a real person: one whose psyche could be analysed through the text. He took the view that Hamlet’s madness merely disguised the truth in the same way dreams disguise unconscious realities. He also famously saw Hamlet’s struggles as a representation of the Oedipus complex. In Freud’s view, Hamlet is torn largely because he has repressed sexual desire for his mother, which is being acted out by and challenged by Claudius.

Mid- and late-twentieth century

Later critics of the century, such as T. S. Eliot in his noted essay “Hamlet and His Problems“, downplayed such psychological emphasis of the play, and instead used other methods to read characters in the play, focusing on minor characters such as Gertrude, and seeing what they reveal about Hamlet’s decisions. Eliot famously called Hamlet “an artistic failure”, and criticized the play as analogous to the Mona Lisa, in that both were overly enigmatic. Eliot targeted Hamlet’s disgust with his mother as lacking an “objective correlative”; viz., his feelings were excessive in the context of the play.

Questions about Gertrude and other minor characters were later taken underwing by the feminist criticism movement, as criticism focused more and more on questions of gender and political import. Current, New Historicist theories now attempt to remove the romanticism surrounding the play and show its context in the world of Elizabethan England.

Dramatic structure

In creating Hamlet, Shakespeare broke several rules, one of the largest being the rule of action over character. In his day, plays were usually expected to follow the advice of Aristotle in his Poetics, which declared that a drama should not focus on character so much as action. The highlights of Hamlet, however, are not the action scenes, but the soliloquies, wherein Hamlet reveals his motives and thoughts to the audience. Also, unlike Shakespeare’s other plays, there is no strong subplot; all plot forks are directly connected to the main vein of Hamlet struggling to gain revenge. The play is full of seeming discontinuities and irregularities of action. At one point, Hamlet is resolved to kill Claudius: in the next scene, he is suddenly tame. Scholars still debate whether these odd plot turns are mistakes or intentional additions to add to the play’s theme of confusion and duality.


Much of the play’s language is in the elaborate, witty language expected of a royal court. This is in line with Baldassare Castiglione‘s work, The Courtier (published in 1528), which outlines several courtly rules, specifically advising servants of royals to amuse their rulers with their inventive language. Osric and Polonius seem to especially respect this suggestion. Claudius’ speech is full of rhetorical figures, as is Hamlet’s and, at times, Ophelia’s, while Horatio, the guards, and the gravediggers use simpler methods of speech. Claudius demonstrates an authoritative control over the language of a King, referring to himself in the first person plural, and using anaphora mixed with metaphor that hearkens back to Greek political speeches. Hamlet seems the most educated in rhetoric of all the characters, using anaphora, as the king does, but also asyndeton and highly developed metaphors, while at the same time managing to be precise and unflowery (as when he explains his inward emotion to his mother, saying “But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”). His language is very self-conscious, and relies heavily on puns. Especially when pretending to be mad, Hamlet uses puns to reveal his true thoughts, while at the same time hiding them. Psychologists have since associated a heavy use of puns with schizophrenia.

Hendiadys (a figure of speech used for emphasis: the substitution of a conjunction for a subordination. The basic idea is to use two words linked by the conjunction “and” instead of the one modifying the other. E.g. in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 1, line 54: “with chains and prison” but the phrase means “with prison chains” or Exodus 15:4 “the chariots of Pharaoh and his army for “the chariots of Pharaoh’s army, or In The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, it occurs at 4.1.36, when Shylock says, “to have the due and forfeit of my bond”.) is one rhetorical type found in several places in the play, as in Ophelia’s speech after the nunnery scene (“Th’expectancy and rose of the fair state” and “I, of all ladies, most deject and wretched” are two examples). Many scholars have found it odd that Shakespeare would, seemingly arbitrarily, use this rhetorical form throughout the play. Hamlet was written later in his life, when he was better at matching rhetorical figures with the characters and the plot than early in his career. Wright, however, has proposed that hendiadys is used to heighten the sense of duality in the play.

Hamlet’s soliloquies have captured the attention of scholars as well. Early critics viewed such speeches as To be, or not to be as Shakespeare’s expressions of his own personal beliefs. Later scholars, such as Charney, have rejected this theory saying the soliloquies are expressions of Hamlet’s thought process. During his speeches, Hamlet interrupts himself, expressing disgust in agreement with himself, and embellishing his own words. He has difficulty expressing himself directly, and instead skirts around the basic idea of his thought. Not until late in the play, after his experience with the pirates, is Hamlet really able to be direct and sure in his speech.

Revenge and Hamlet’s delay

Within Hamlet, the stories of five murdered father’s sons are told: Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras, Pyrrhus, and Brutus. Each of them faces the question of revenge in a different way. For example, Laertes moves quickly to be “avenged most throughly of [his] father”, while Fortinbras attacks Poland, rather than the guilty Denmark. Pyrrhus only stays his hand momentarily before avenging his father, Achilles, but Brutus never takes any action in his situation. Hamlet is a perfect balance in the midst of these stories, neither acting quickly nor being completely inactive.

Hamlet struggles to turn his desire for revenge into action, and spends a large portion of the play waiting rather than doing. Scholars have proposed numerous theories as to why he waits so long to kill Claudius. Some say that Hamlet feels for his victim, fearing to strike because he believes that if he kills Claudius he will be no better than him. The story of Pyrrhus, told by one of the acting troupe, for example, shows Hamlet the darker side of revenge, something he does not wish for. Hamlet frequently admires those who are swift to act, such as Laertes, who comes to avenge his father’s death, but at the same time fears them for their passion, intensity, and lack of logical thought.

Hamlet’s speech in act three, where he chooses not to kill Claudius in the midst of prayer, has taken a central spot in this debate. Scholars have wondered whether Hamlet is being totally honest in this scene, or whether he is rationalizing his inaction to himself. Critics of the Romantic era decided that Hamlet was merely a procrastinator, in order to avoid the belief that he truly desired Claudius’ spiritual demise. Later scholars suggested that he refused to kill an unarmed man, or that he felt guilt in this moment, seeing himself as a mirror of the man he wanted to destroy. Indeed it seems Hamlet’s renaissance-driven principles serve to procrastinate his thoughts. The physical image of Hamlet stabbing to death an unarmed man at prayer, from behind, would have been shocking to any theatre audience. Similarly, the question of “delay” must be seen in the context of a stage play – Hamlet’s “delay” between learning of the murder and avenging it would be about three hours at most – hardly a delay at all.

The play is also full of constraint imagery. Hamlet describes Denmark as a prison, and himself as being caught in birdlime. He mocks the ability of man to bring about his own ends, and points out that some divine force moulds men’s aims into something other than what they intend. Other characters also speak of constraint, such as Polonius, who orders his daughter to lock herself from Hamlet’s pursuit, and describes her as being tethered. This adds to the play’s description of Hamlet’s inability to act out his revenge.

Feminist Interpretation

Feminist critics have focused on the gender system of Early Modern England. For example, they point to the common classification of women as maid, wife or widow, with only whores outside this trilogy. Using this analysis, the problem of Hamlet becomes the central character’s identification of his mother as a whore due to her failure to remain faithful to Old Hamlet, in consequence of which he loses his faith in all women, treating Ophelia as if she were a whore also.

In the 20th century, feminist critics opened up new approaches to Gertrude and Ophelia. New Historicist and cultural materialist critics examined the play in its historical context, attempting to piece together its original cultural environment.[95] They focused on the gender system of early modern England, pointing to the common trinity of maid, wife, or widow, with whores outside of that stereotype. In this analysis, the essence of Hamlet is the central character’s changed perception of his mother as a whore because of her failure to remain faithful to Old Hamlet. In consequence, Hamlet loses his faith in all women, treating Ophelia as if she too were a whore and dishonest with Hamlet. Ophelia, by some critics, can be seen as honest and fair; however, it is virtually impossible to link these two traits, since ‘fairness’ is an outward trait, while ‘honesty’ is an inward trait.[96]

Carolyn Heilbrun‘s 1957 essay “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother” defends Gertrude, arguing that the text never hints that Gertrude knew of Claudius poisoning King Hamlet. This analysis has been praised by many feminist critics, combating what is, by Heilbrun’s argument, centuries’ worth of misinterpretation. By this account, Gertrude’s worst crime is of pragmatically marrying her brother-in-law in order to avoid a power vacuum. This is borne out by the fact that King Hamlet’s ghost tells Hamlet to leave Gertrude out of Hamlet’s revenge, to leave her to heaven, an arbitrary mercy to grant to a conspirator to murder. This view has not been without objection from some critics.

Ophelia has also been defended by feminist critics, most notably Elaine Showalter. Ophelia is surrounded by powerful men: her father, brother, and Hamlet. All three disappear: Laertes leaves, Hamlet abandons her, and Polonius dies. Conventional theories had argued that without these three powerful men making decisions for her, Ophelia is driven into madness. Feminist theorists argue that she goes mad with guilt because, when Hamlet kills her father, he has fulfilled her sexual desire to have Hamlet kill her father so they can be together. Showalter points out that Ophelia has become the symbol of the distraught and hysterical woman in modern culture.

Psychoanalytic Interpretation

Key figures in psychoanalysisSigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan—have offered interpretations of Hamlet. In his The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud proceeds from his recognition of what he perceives to be a fundamental contradiction in the text: “the play is built up on Hamlet’s hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations“. He considers Goethe’s ‘paralysis from over-intellectualization’ explanation as well as the idea that Hamlet is a “pathologically irresolute character”. He rejects both, citing the evidence that the play presents of Hamlet’s ability to take action: his impulsive murder of Polonius and his Machiavellian murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Instead, Freud argues, Hamlet’s inhibition against taking vengeance on Claudius has an unconscious origin.

In an anticipation of his later theories of the Oedipus complex, Freud suggests that Claudius has shown Hamlet “the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized” (his desire to kill his father and take his father’s place with his mother). Confronted with this image of his own repressed desires, Hamlet responds with “self-reproaches” and “scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.” Freud goes on to suggest that Hamlet’s apparent “distaste for sexuality”, as expressed in his conversation with Ophelia (presumably in the ‘nunnery scene’ rather than during the play-within-a-play), “fits in well” with this interpretation.

Since this theory, the ‘closet scene’ in which Hamlet confronts his mother in her private quarters has been portrayed in a sexual light in several performances. Hamlet is played as scolding his mother for having sex with Claudius while simultaneously wishing (unconsciously) that he could take Claudius’ place; adultery and incest is what he simultaneously loves and hates about his mother. Ophelia’s madness after her father’s death may be read through the Freudian lens as a reaction to the death of her hoped-for lover, her father. Her unrequited love for him suddenly slain is too much for her and she drifts into insanity.

In addition to the brief psychoanalysis of Hamlet, Freud offers a correlation with Shakespeare’s own life: Hamlet was written in the wake of the death of his father (in 1601), which revived his own repressed childhood wishes; Freud also points to the identity of Shakespeare’s dead son Hamnet and the name ‘Hamlet’. “Just as Hamlet deals with the relation of a son to his parents”, Freud concludes, “so Macbeth (written at approximately the same period) is concerned with the subject of childlessness.” Having made these suggestions, however, Freud offers a caveat: he has unpacked only one of the many motives and impulses operating in the author’s mind, albeit, Freud claims, one that operates from “the deepest layer”.

Later in the same book, having used psychoanalysis to explain Hamlet, Freud uses Hamlet to explain the nature of dreams: in disguising himself as a madman and adopting the license of the fool, Hamlet “was behaving just as dreams do in reality […] concealing the true circumstances under a cloak of wit and unintelligibility“. When we sleep, each of us adopts an “antic disposition”.

In the first half of the 20th century, when psychoanalysis was at the height of its influence, its concepts were applied to Hamlet, notably by Sigmund FreudErnest Jones, and Jacques Lacan, and these studies influenced theatrical productions. In his The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud’s analysis starts from the premise that “the play is built up on Hamlet’s hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations”. After reviewing various literary theories, Freud concludes that Hamlet has an “Oedipal desire for his mother and the subsequent guilt [is] preventing him from murdering the man [Claudius] who has done what he unconsciously wanted to do”.[82] Confronted with his repressed desires, Hamlet realises that “he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish”.[81] Freud suggests that Hamlet’s apparent “distaste for sexuality”—articulated in his “nunnery” conversation with Ophelia—accords with this interpretation.[83][84] This “distaste for sexuality” has sparked theories of Hamlet being what is now referred to as a homosexual or asexualJohn Barrymore‘s long-running 1922 performance in New York, directed by Thomas Hopkins, “broke new ground in its Freudian approach to character”, in keeping with the post-World War I rebellion against everything Victorian. He had a “blunter intention” than presenting the genteel, sweet prince of 19th-century tradition, imbuing his character with virility and lust.

Beginning in 1910, with the publication of “The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: Study in Motive, Ernest Jones—a psychoanalyst and Freud’s biographer—developed Freud’s ideas into a series of essays that culminated in his book Hamlet and Oedipus (1949). Influenced by Jones’s psychoanalytic approach, several productions have portrayed the “closet scene”, where Hamlet confronts his mother in her private quarters, in a sexual light. In this reading, Hamlet is disgusted by his mother’s “incestuous” relationship with Claudius while simultaneously fearful of killing him, as this would clear Hamlet’s path to his mother’s bed. Ophelia’s madness after her father’s death may also be read through the Freudian lens: as a reaction to the death of her hoped-for lover, her father. She is overwhelmed by having her unfulfilled love for him so abruptly terminated and drifts into the oblivion of insanity. In 1937, Tyrone Guthrie directed Laurence Olivier in a Jones-inspired Hamlet at The Old Vic. Olivier later used some of these same ideas in his 1948 film version of the play.

In the 1950s, Lacan’s structuralist theories about Hamlet were first presented in a series of seminars given in Paris and later published in “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet“. Lacan postulated that the human psyche is determined by structures of language and that the linguistic structures of Hamlet shed light on human desire. His point of departure is Freud’s Oedipal theories, and the central theme of mourning that runs through Hamlet.[82] In Lacan’s analysis, Hamlet unconsciously assumes the role of phallus—the cause of his inaction—and is increasingly distanced from reality “by mourning, fantasynarcissism and psychosis“, which create holes (or lack) in the real, imaginary, and symbolic aspects of his psyche. Lacan’s theories influenced literary criticism of Hamlet because of his alternative vision of the play and his use of semantics to explore the play’s psychological landscape.

In the Bloom’s Shakespeare Through the Ages volume on Hamlet, editors Bloom and Foster express a conviction that the intentions of Shakespeare in portraying the character of Hamlet in the play exceeded the capacity of the Freudian Oedipus complex to completely encompass the extent of characteristics depicted in Hamlet throughout the tragedy: “For once, Freud regressed in attempting to fasten the Oedipus Complex upon Hamlet: it will not stick, and merely showed that Freud did better than T.S. Eliot, who preferred Coriolanus to Hamlet, or so he said. Who can believe Eliot, when he exposes his own Hamlet Complex by declaring the play to be an aesthetic failure?”  The book also notes James Joyce’s interpretation, stating that he “did far better in the Library Scene of Ulysses, where Stephen marvelously credits Shakespeare, in this play, with universal fatherhood while accurately implying that Hamlet is fatherless, thus opening a pragmatic gap between Shakespeare and Hamlet.”

In the essay “Hamlet Made Simple”, David P. Gontar turns the tables on the psychoanalysts by suggesting that Claudius is not a symbolic father figure but actually Prince Hamlet’s biological father. The hesitation in killing Claudius results from an unwillingness on Hamlet’s part to slay his real father. If Hamlet is the biological son of Claudius, that explains many things. Hamlet doesn’t become King of Denmark on the occasion of the King’s death inasmuch as it is an open secret in court that he is Claudius’ biological son, and as such he is merely a court bastard not in the line of succession. He is angry with his mother because of her long standing affair with a man Hamlet hates, and Hamlet must face the fact that he has been sired by the man he loathes. That point overturns T.S. Eliot’s complaint that the play is a failure for not furnishing an “objective correlative” to account for Hamlet’s rage at his mother. Gontar suggests that if the reader assumes that Hamlet is not who he seems to be, the objective correlative becomes apparent. Hamlet is suicidal in the first soliloquy not because his mother quickly remarries but because of her adulterous affair with the despised Claudius which makes Hamlet his son. Finally, the Ghost’s confirmation of an alternative fatherhood for Hamlet is a fabrication that gives the Prince a motive for revenge.

Gothic Interpretation

Hamlet contains many elements that would later show up in Gothic Literature. From the growing madness of Prince Hamlet, to the violent ending to the constant reminders of death, to, even, more subtly, the notions of humankind and its structures and the viewpoints on women, Hamlet evokes many things that would recur in what is widely regarded as the first piece of Gothic literature, Horace Walpole‘s The Castle of Otranto, and in other Gothic works.[60] Walpole himself even wrote, in his second preference to Otranto:

“That great master of nature, Shakespeare, was the model I copied. Let me ask if his tragedies of Hamlet and Julius Cæsar would not lose a considerable share of their spirit and wonderful beauties, if the humour of the grave- diggers, the fooleries of Polonius, and the clumsy jests of the Roman citizens, were omitted, or vested in heroics?”

Heroic Interpretation

Paul Cantor, in his short text called simply Hamlet, formulates a compelling theory of the play that places the prince at the centre of the Renaissance conflict between Ancient and Christian notions of heroism. Cantor says that the Renaissance signified a “rebirth of classical antiquity within a Christian culture”. But such a rebirth brought with it a deep contradiction: Christ’s teachings of humility and meekness (“whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”) are in direct conflict with the ancient ethos that is best represented by Achilles’ violent action in the Iliad (“I wish only that my spirit and fury would drive me to hack your meat away and eat it raw for the things that you have done to me”).

For Cantor, the character of Hamlet exists exactly where these two worlds collide. He is in one sense drawn towards the active side of heroism by his father’s legacy (“He smote the sledded Polaks on the ice”) and the need for revenge (“now could I drink hot blood. And do such bitter business as the day/ Would quake to look on”). Simultaneously though, he is pulled towards a religious existence (“for in that sleep of death what dreams may come”) and in some sense sees his father’s return as a ghost as justification for just such a belief.

The conflict is perhaps most evident in 3.3 when Hamlet has the opportunity to kill the praying Claudius. He restrains himself though, justifying his further hesitation with the following lines: “Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying;/ And now I’ll do it- and so ‘a goes to heaven,/ And so am I reveng’d. That would be scann’d:/ A villain kills my father, and for that/ I, his sole son, do this same villain send/ To heaven.”. At this moment it is clear that the prince’s single mind and body are being torn apart by these two powerful ideologies.

Even in the famous 3.1 soliloquy, Hamlet gives voice to the conflict. When he asks if it is “nobler in the mind to suffer”, Cantor believes that Shakespeare is alluding to the Christian sense of suffering. When he presents the alternative, “to take arms against a sea of troubles”,  Cantor takes this as an ancient formulation of goodness.

Cantor points out that most interpretations of Hamlet (such as the Psychoanalytic or Existentialist) see “the problem of Hamlet as somehow rooted in his individual soul” whereas Cantor himself believes that his Heroic theory mirrors “a more fundamental tension in the Renaissance culture in which he lives“.


Maynard Mack, in a hugely influential chapter of Everybody’s Shakespeare entitled “The Readiness is All”, claims that the problematic aspects of Hamlet’s plot are not accidental (as critics such as T.S. Eliot might have it) but are in fact woven into the very fabric of the play. “It is not simply a matter of missing motivations,” he says, “to be expunged if only we could find the perfect clue. It is built in“. Mack states that “Hamlet’s world is pre-eminently in the interrogative mood. It reverberates with questions“. He highlights numerous examples: “What a piece of work is man!… and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?”; “To be, or not to be- that is the question”; “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”; “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?”. The action of the play, especially the scenes outside the castle, take place in a kind of logical fog. The opening scene is riddled with confusions and distortions: “Bernardo?”; “What, is Horatio there?”; “What, has it appeared again tonight?”; “Is not this something more than fantasy?”.

Hamlet himself realizes that “he is the greatest riddle of all” and at 3.2.345 he expresses his frustration with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “how unworthy a thing you make of me… call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me”. Mack says that the confusion of the drama points “beyond the context of the play, out of Hamlet’s predicaments into everyone’s”.

Other critics such as Martin Evans expand upon Mack’s notion of built in mystery, claiming that even the textual discrepancies between the three known versions may actually be deliberate (or at the very least they add to the effect). Evans also argues that Shakespeare’s impenetrable text and Hamlet’s ‘unplayable’ strings could be meant to reflect the deep anxieties that were felt in an era of philosophical, scientific and religious disorientation. The works (and actions) of Machiavelli, Copernicus and Luther had upset hierarchical notions of virtue, order and salvation that had persisted since the Middle Ages.

Hamlet is in a sense the inscrutable and enigmatic world within which human beings had to orient themselves for the first time. We are each characters in a play just like Gertrude, Polonius and the rest—where they are trying to grasp Hamlet, we are trying to grasp Hamlet. Whatever interpretation we walk away with though, whether it be existential, religious or feminist, it will necessarily be incomplete. For Mack, human beings will always remain in an “aspect of bafflement, moving in darkness on a rampart between two worlds”.

David P. Gontar in his book Hamlet Made Simple proposes that most of the puzzles in the play can be resolved by conceiving of Prince Hamlet as the son of Claudius, not Hamlet the Dane. Note that Hamlet is suicidal in the first soliloquy well before he meets the Ghost. Gontar reasons that his depression is a result of having been passed over for the Danish throne which is given inexplicably to the King’s brother. This tends to imply an impediment to succession, namely illegitimacy. On this reading some collateral issues are resolved: Hamlet is angry at his mother for an extramarital affair she had with Claudius, of which he, the Prince, is a by-product. Further, the reason Hamlet cannot kill the King is not because the King is a father figure but, more strongly, because he is Hamlet’s actual biological father. We can deduce, then, that the Ghost is in fact a liar, who shows no concern for Hamlet’s own personal welfare. He confirms the fatherhood of King Hamlet in order to give Hamlet an incentive for revenge.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

moby dickThis novel is, in the words of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, “the closest approach the United States has had to a national prose epic”. I would have said of this novel that it is a poorly constructed novel, a morass of tedious detail and irrelevant information, in which a good novella is swamped by enough verbiage to kill the bloody whale. Yes, there are quite a few moments of beautiful prose, but it’s a wade through mid-nineteenth century self-important and turgid writing to get to them, so that by the time you do land on something of merit, you’re pretty incredulous of what you’ve just put up with.

The following Amazon review might be a bit harsh: “Near the beginning of this book is an hilarious account of Ishmael meeting a “cannibal” and having to spend the night in the same bed as him in what would be seen by today’s ironic and cynical readers as a racist and latently homoerotic account. At the very end, the last 3 chapters or so, is the actual story. In between these two great pieces of writing is an extremely verbose, eye-drooping, eye-wateringly waffly literary writing experiment that can only really be understood if you have studied Shakespeare and Rabelais’s Gargantua and all of Melville’s other influences, and/or if you spent a lot of time on ocean-going ships in the nineteenth century. Yes, it is wonderful that the author could master different writing styles, but that talent doesn’t make the book any more of a good read. Avoid. Unless studying it. In which case, poor you.”

But not too harsh. It’s worth reading, but Jeez: what a slog!

moby dick 2Robert McCrum writes of this novel that it is “Wise, funny and gripping”, that “Melville’s epic work continues to cast a long shadow over American literature.” Yet, I wonder – how can this be so? Yet, I know, this is the general opinion of this novel: oft praised, seldom, I imagine, enjoyed.

McCrum goes on “Moby-Dick is, for me, the supreme American novel, the source and the inspiration of everything that follows in the American literary canon. I first read it, inspired by my sixth-form English teacher, Lionel Bruce, aged about 15, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Moby-Dick is a book you come back to, again and again, to find new treasures and delights, a storehouse of language, incident and strange wisdom.

“Moby-Dick is …the great American novel whose genius was only recognised long after its author was dead. From its celebrated opening line (“Call me Ishmael”) it plunges the reader into the narrator’s quest for meaning “in the damp, drizzly November of my soul”.

“Ishmael is an existential outsider. What follows is profoundly modern yet essentially Victorian, spanning 135 chapters. It is a literary performance that is exhilarating, extraordinary, sometimes exasperating and, towards its apocalyptic climax, unputdownable.

“When Ishmael ships aboard the Pequod, his own quotidian search becomes inexorably joined to the darker quest, in which the captain of the doomed whaler, “monomaniacal Ahab”, sets out to revenge himself on the great white whale that has bitten off his leg. This “grand, ungodly, godlike man”, one of fiction’s greatest characters – “crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale” – is not only pursuing his nemesis, a “hooded phantom”, across the ocean’s wastes, he is also fighting the God that lurks behind the “unreasoning mask” of the symbolic whale.

“Eventually, a whaling expedition from Nantucket – something experienced by the young Melville himself – becomes the story of an obsession, an investigation into the meaning of life.

“Next to Ahab and Ishmael, this massive novel is also rich in minor characters, from the tattooed harpooner Queequeg, the ship’s mate Starbuck, Daggoo and Fedallah the Parsee – all told, a typically American crew. And so a “romance” inspired by the true story of the Essex, a whaler that sank when it was attacked by a sperm whale in the Pacific in November 1820, becomes like a terrifying (at times, intolerable) sea voyage, culminating in a thrilling three-day chase in which Moby-Dick destroys the Pequod. Ishmael survives to tell his tale by clinging to Queequeg’s carved coffin.

moby dick 3

“Moby-Dick is usually described… as an elemental novel in which the outsider Ishmael is pitted against the fathomless infinity of the sea, grappling with the big questions of existence. That’s not inaccurate, but there’s also another Moby-Dick, full of rough humour, sharp comic moments, and witty asides. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal”, says Ishmael, when forced to share a bed with the tattooed harpooner Queequeg, “than a drunken Christian.” For those readers intimidated by the novel’s bleak majesty, I think the humour offers a good way in.”

…as far as I can recall, in the 800 or so pages, that is the only moment of humour.

Woe is me the reader.

Mr A