Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Context

  1. Shakespeare’s Theatre

In Shakespeare’s time, a stage wasn’t just one type of space; plays had to be versatile. The same play might be produced in an outdoor playhouse, an indoor theater, a royal palace—or, for a company on tour, the courtyard of an inn.

In any of these settings, men and boys played all the characters, male and female; acting in Renaissance England was an exclusively male profession. Audiences had their favorite performers, looked forward to hearing music with the productions, and relished the luxurious costumes of the leading characters. The stage itself was relatively bare. For the most part, playwrights used vivid words instead of scenery to picture the scene onstage.

Playhouses and the Globe

In 1576, when Shakespeare was still a 12-year-old in Stratford, James Burbage built the Theatre just outside London. The Theatre was among the first playhouses in England since Roman times. Like the many other playhouses that followed, it was a multi-sided structure with a central, uncovered “yard” surrounded by three tiers of covered seating and a bare, raised stage at one end of the yard. Spectators could pay for seating at multiple price levels; those with the cheapest tickets simply stood for the length of the plays.

Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was one of several to perform at the Theatre, appearing there by about 1594. A few years later, the Burbages lost their lease on the Theatre site and began construction of a new, larger playhouse, the Globe, just south of the Thames. To pay for it, they shared the lease with the five partners (called actor-sharers) in the Lord Chamberlain’s company, including Shakespeare.

The Globe, which opened in 1599, became the playhouse where audiences first saw some of Shakespeare’s best-known plays. In 1613, it burned to the ground when the roof caught fire during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. A new, second Globe was quickly built on the same site, opening in 1614.

Theaters and palaces

Large open playhouses like the Globe are marvelous in the right weather, but indoor theaters can operate year-round, out of the sun, wind, and rain. They also offer a more intimate setting with the use of artificial light. Shakespeare’s company planned for years to operate its own indoor theater, a goal that was finally achieved in 1609 when the Burbages took over London’s Blackfriars theater.

Still more indoor productions often came during the period between Christmas and New Year, and at Shrovetide (the period before Lent) at one of the royal palaces, where Shakespeare’s company and other leading companies gave command performances—a high honor that was also well-paid.

Audience experiences

Playgoers in Shakespeare’s day paid a penny to stand in the uncovered yard of a playhouse, or two pennies for a balcony seat. (It’s hard to find exact comparisons to what a penny then is worth now, but a day’s worth of food and drink for a grown man would have cost about fourpence.) Indoor theaters like the Blackfriars accommodated fewer people and cost more, with basic tickets starting at sixpence. Fashionable men about town could get a seat on the side of the stage for two shillings (24 pence).

Spectators liked to drink wine or ale and snack on a variety of foods as they watched the plays—modern-day excavations at the playhouses have turned up bottles, spoons, oyster shells, and the remnants of many fruits and nuts.

Actors, costumes, and staging

While most women’s roles were played by boys or young men in the all-male casts, comic female parts such as Juliet’s Nurse might be reserved for a popular adult comic actor, or clown. In addition to their dramatic talents, actors in Shakespeare’s time had to fence onstage with great skill, sing songs or play instruments included in the plays, and perform the vigorously athletic dances of their day.

Actors usually did not aim for historically accurate costumes, although an occasional toga may have appeared for a Roman play. Instead, they typically wore gorgeous modern dress, especially for the leading parts. Costumes, a major investment for an acting company, provided the essential “spectacle” of the plays and were often second-hand clothes once owned and worn by real-life nobles.

The bare stages of Shakespeare’s day had little or no scenery except for objects required by the plot, like a throne, a grave, or a bed. Exits and entrances were in plain view of the audience, but they included some vertical options: actors could descend from the “heavens” above the stage or enter and exit from the “hell” below through a trapdoor. Characters described as talking from “above” might appear in galleries midway between the stage and the heavens.

Stage and screen after Shakespeare

In 1642, the English playhouses and theaters were closed down (and often dismantled for building materials) as the English Civil War began. With the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, theater returned—as did Shakespeare’s plays, now with both male and female performers.  The first recorded performance of an actress occurred in December 1660, although we’re not sure of her name; she appeared as Desdemona in Othello.

In the centuries that followed, Shakespeare’s plays have been performed in England, North America, and around the world, in productions that mirror the state of theater in each place and time: from lavish scenes, to surrealism, to stark bare stages. They have been used as a medium for political commentary, and have been incorporated into theatrical traditions like Japanese Kabuki theater. Beginning in the late 1800s, Shakespeare’s plays inspired the creation of a wealth of replica Elizabethan theaters, more or less faithful to what was known of the theatrical past. Dozens of open-air Shakespeare festivals have also grown up across the United States and other countries.Shakespeare’s works have also been frequently interpreted on film. Brooklyn’s Vitagraph Company, for one, produced several silent, one-reel movies of the plays starting in 1908. Since then, literally hundreds of Shakespeare films—including works like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)—have appeared, opening a new, cinematic stage for Shakespeare’s words.


  1. Hamlet Performance History

Past Productions

To be or not to be

Talking Hamlet Collection

Shakespeare’s day to the Interregnum

Shakespeare almost certainly wrote the role of Hamlet for Richard Burbage. He was the chief tragedian of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with a capacious memory for lines and a wide emotional range.  Judging by the number of reprints, Hamlet appears to have been Shakespeare’s fourth most popular play during his lifetime—only Henry IV Part 1Richard III and Pericles eclipsed it. Shakespeare provides no clear indication of when his play is set; however, as Elizabethan actors performed at the Globe in contemporary dress on minimal sets, this would not have affected the staging.

Firm evidence for specific early performances of the play is scant. What is known is that the crew of the ship Red Dragon, anchored off Sierra Leone, performed Hamlet in September 1607;  that the play toured in Germany within five years of Shakespeare’s death; and that it was performed before James I in 1619 and Charles I in 1637. Oxford editor George Hibbard argues that, since the contemporary literature contains many allusions and references to Hamlet (only Falstaff is mentioned more, from Shakespeare), the play was surely performed with a frequency that the historical record misses.

All theatres were closed down by the Puritan government during the Interregnum. Even during this time, however, playlets known as drolls were often performed illegally, including one called The Grave-Makers based on Act 5, Scene 1 of Hamlet.

Restoration and 18th century

The play was revived early in the Restoration. When the existing stock of pre-civil war plays was divided between the two newly created patent theatre companiesHamlet was the only Shakespearean favourite that Sir William Davenant’s Duke’s Company secured. It became the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be presented with movable flats painted with generic scenery behind the proscenium arch of Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre.  This new stage convention highlighted the frequency with which Shakespeare shifts dramatic location, encouraging the recurrent criticisms of his violation of the neoclassical principle of maintaining a unity of place.  Davenant castThomas Betterton in the eponymous role, and he continued to play the Dane until he was 74. David Garrick at Drury Lane produced a version that adapted Shakespeare heavily; he declared: “I had sworn I would not leave the stage till I had rescued that noble play from all the rubbish of the fifth act. I have brought it forth without the grave-digger’s trick, Osrick, & the fencing match”. The first actor known to have played Hamlet in North America is Lewis Hallam. Jr., in the American Company‘s production in Philadelphia in 1759.

John Philip Kemble made his Drury Lane debut as Hamlet in 1783. His performance was said to be 20 minutes longer than anyone else’s, and his lengthy pauses provoked the suggestion that “music should be played between the words”. Sarah Siddons was the first actress known to play Hamlet; many women have since played him as a breeches role, to great acclaim. In 1748, Alexander Sumarokov wrote a Russian adaptation that focused on Prince Hamlet as the embodiment of an opposition to Claudius’s tyranny—a treatment that would recur in Eastern European versions into the 20th century. In the years following America’s independence, Thomas Apthorpe Cooper, the young nation’s leading tragedian, performed Hamlet among other plays at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, and at the Park Theatre in New York. Although chided for “acknowledging acquaintances in the audience” and “inadequate memorisation of his lines”, he became a national celebrity.

19th century

From around 1810 to 1840, the best-known Shakespearean performances in the United States were tours by leading London actors—including George Frederick CookeJunius Brutus BoothEdmund KeanWilliam Charles Macready, and Charles Kemble. Of these, Booth remained to make his career in the States, fathering the nation’s most notorious actor, John Wilkes Booth(who later assassinated Abraham Lincoln), and its most famous Hamlet, Edwin Booth. Edwin Booth’s Hamlet was described as “like the dark, mad, dreamy, mysterious hero of a poem … [acted] in an ideal manner, as far removed as possible from the plane of actual life”. Booth played Hamlet for 100 nights in the 1864/5 season at The Winter Garden Theatre, inaugurating the era of long-run Shakespeare in America.

In the United Kingdom, the actor-managers of the Victorian era (including Kean, Samuel Phelps, Macready, and Henry Irving) staged Shakespeare in a grand manner, with elaborate scenery and costumes. The tendency of actor-managers to emphasise the importance of their own central character did not always meet with the critics’ approval. George Bernard Shaw‘s praise forJohnston Forbes-Robertson‘s performance contains a sideswipe at Irving: “The story of the play was perfectly intelligible, and quite took the attention of the audience off the principal actor at moments. What is the Lyceum coming to?”

In London, Edmund Kean was the first Hamlet to abandon the regal finery usually associated with the role in favour of a plain costume, and he is said to have surprised his audience by playing Hamlet as serious and introspective. In stark contrast to earlier opulence, William Poel‘s 1881 production of the Q1 text was an early attempt at reconstructing the Elizabethan theatre’s austerity; his only backdrop was a set of red curtains.  Sarah Bernhardt played the prince in her popular 1899 London production. In contrast to the “effeminate” view of the central character that usually accompanied a female casting, she described her character as “manly and resolute, but nonetheless thoughtful … [he] thinks before he acts, a trait indicative of great strength and great spiritual power”.

In France, Charles Kemble initiated an enthusiasm for Shakespeare; and leading members of the Romantic movement such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas saw his 1827 Paris performance of Hamlet, particularly admiring the madness of Harriet Smithson‘s Ophelia. In Germany, Hamlet had become so assimilated by the mid-19th century that Ferdinand Freiligrath declared that “Germany is Hamlet”. From the 1850s, the Parsi theatre tradition in India transformed Hamlet into folk performances, with dozens of songs added.

20th century

Apart from some western troupes’ 19th-century visits, the first professional performance of Hamlet in Japan was Otojirō Kawakami‘s 1903 Shimpa (“new school theatre”) adaptation. Shoyo Tsubouchi translated Hamlet and produced a performance in 1911 that blended Shingeki (“new drama”) and Kabuki styles. This hybrid-genre reached its peak in Fukuda Tsuneari‘s 1955 Hamlet. In 1998, Yukio Ninagawa produced an acclaimed version of Hamlet in the style of  theatre, which he took to London.

Constantin Stanislavski and Edward Gordon Craig—two of the 20th century’s most influential theatre practitioners—collaborated on the Moscow Art Theatre‘s seminal production of 1911–12.  While Craig favoured stylised abstraction, Stanislavski, armed with his ‘system,’ explored psychological motivation. Craig conceived of the play as a symbolist monodrama, offering a dream-like vision as seen through Hamlet’s eyes alone. This was most evident in the staging of the first court scene. The most famous aspect of the production is Craig’s use of large, abstract screens that altered the size and shape of the acting area for each scene, representing the character’s state of mind spatially or visualising a dramaturgical progression. The production attracted enthusiastic and unprecedented world-wide attention for the theatre and placed it “on the cultural map for Western Europe”.

Hamlet is often played with contemporary political overtones. Leopold Jessner‘s 1926 production at the Berlin Staatstheater portrayed Claudius’s court as a parody of the corrupt and fawning court of Kaiser Wilhelm.  InPoland, the number of productions of Hamlet has tended to increase at times of political unrest, since its political themes (suspected crimes, coups, surveillance) can be used to comment on a contemporary situation. Similarly, Czech directors have used the play at times of occupation: a 1941 Vinohrady Theatre production “emphasised, with due caution, the helpless situation of an intellectual attempting to endure in a ruthless environment”. In China, performances of Hamlet often have political significance: Gu Wuwei’s 1916 The Usurper of State Power, an amalgam of Hamlet and Macbeth, was an attack on Yuan Shikai‘s attempt to overthrow the republic. In 1942, Jiao Juyin directed the play in a Confucian temple in Sichuan Province, to which the government had retreated from the advancing Japanese. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the protests at Tiananmen Square, Lin Zhaohua staged a 1990 Hamlet in which the prince was an ordinary individual tortured by a loss of meaning. In this production, the actors playing Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius exchanged roles at crucial moments in the performance, including the moment of Claudius’s death, at which point the actor mainly associated with Hamlet fell to the ground.

Notable stagings in London and New York include Barrymore’s 1925 production at the Haymarket; it influenced subsequent performances by John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Gielgud played the central role many times: his 1936 New York production ran for 132 performances, leading to the accolade that he was “the finest interpreter of the role since Barrymore”.Although “posterity has treated Maurice Evans less kindly”, throughout the 1930s and 1940s he was regarded by many as the leading interpreter of Shakespeare in the United States and in the 1938/9 season he presented Broadway’s first uncut Hamlet, running four and a half hours.[  Evans later performed a highly truncated version of the play that he played for South Pacific war zones during World War II which made the prince a more decisive character. The staging, known as the “G.I. Hamlet,” was produced on Broadway for 131 performances in 1945/46. Olivier’s 1937 performance at The Old Vic was popular with audiences but not with critics, with James Agate writing in a famous review in The Sunday Times, “Mr. Olivier does not speak poetry badly. He does not speak it at all.” In 1937 Tyrone Guthrie directed the play at Elsinore, Denmark with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet and Vivien Leigh as Ophelia.

In 1963, Olivier directed Peter O’Toole as Hamlet in the inaugural performance of the newly formed National Theatre; critics found resonance between O’Toole’s Hamlet and John Osborne‘s hero, Jimmy Porter, from Look Back in Anger.

Richard Burton received his third Tony Award nomination when he played his second Hamlet, his first under John Gielgud’s direction, in 1964 in a production that holds the record for the longest run of the play in Broadway history (137 performances). The performance was set on a bare stage, conceived to appear like a dress rehearsal, with Burton in a black v-neck sweater, and Gielgud himself tape-recorded the voice for the Ghost (which appeared as a looming shadow). It was immortalised both on record and on a film that played in US theatres for a week in 1964 as well as being the subject of books written by cast members William Redfield and Richard L. Sterne. Other New York portrayals of Hamlet of note include that of Ralph Fiennes‘s in 1995 (for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor) – which ran, from first preview to closing night, a total of one hundred performances. About the Fiennes Hamlet Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times that it was “…not one for literary sleuths and Shakespeare scholars. It respects the play, but it doesn’t provide any new material for arcane debates on what it all means. Instead it’s an intelligent, beautifully read…”  Stacy Keach played the role with an all-star cast at Joseph Papp‘s Delacorte Theatre in the early 70s, with Colleen Dewhurst‘s Gertrude, James Earl Jones‘s King, Barnard Hughes‘s Polonius, Sam Waterston‘s Laertes and Raúl Juliá‘s Osric. Sam Waterston later played the role himself at the Delacorte for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and the show transferred to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1975 (Stephen Lang played Bernardo and other roles). Stephen Lang‘s Hamlet for the Roundabout Theatre Company in 1992 received positive reviews, and ran for sixty-one performances. David Warner played the role with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1965. William Hurt (at Circle Rep Off-Broadway, memorably performing “To Be Or Not to Be” while lying on the floor), Jon Voight at Rutgers, and Christopher Walken (fiercely) at Stratford CT have all played the role, as has Diane Venora at the Public Theatre. Off Broadway, the Riverside Shakespeare Company mounted an uncut first folio Hamlet in 1978 at Columbia University, with a playing time of under three hours. In fact, Hamlet is the most produced Shakespeare play in New York theatre history, with sixty-four recorded productions on Broadway, and an untold number Off Broadway.

Ian Charleson performed Hamlet from 9 October to 13 November 1989, in Richard Eyre‘s production at the Olivier Theatre, replacing Daniel Day-Lewis, who had abandoned the production. Seriously ill from AIDS at the time, Charleson died eight weeks after his last performance. Fellow actor and friend, Sir Ian McKellen, said that Charleson played Hamlet so well it was as if he had rehearsed the role all his life; McKellen called it “the perfect Hamlet”.The performance garnered other major accolades as well, some critics echoing McKellen in calling it the definitive Hamlet performance.

21st century

Hamlet continues to be staged regularly, with actors such as Simon Russell BealeDavid TennantAngela WinklerSamuel WestChristopher EcclestonMaxine Peake, and Christian Camargo, performing the lead role.

In May 2009, Hamlet opened with Jude Law in the title role at the Donmar Warehouse West End season at Wyndham’s Theatre. The production officially opened on 3 June and ran through 22 August 2009. A further production of the play ran at Elsinore Castle in Denmark from 25–30 August 2009. The Jude Law Hamlet then moved to Broadway, and ran for 12 weeks at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York.

In 2013, American actor Paul Giamatti won critical acclaim for his performance on stage in the title role of Hamlet, performed in modern dress, at the Yale Repertory Theater, at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

The Globe Theatre of London initiated a project in 2014 to perform Hamlet in every country in the world in the space of two years. Titled Globe to Globe Hamlet, it began its tour on 23 April 2014, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. As of 21 June 2014, the project had performed in 21 different countries.

Benedict Cumberbatch began an exclusive 12-week run at the 1,156-seat Barbican Theatre on August 25, 2015. The play is produced by Sonia Friedman, and directed by Lyndsey Turner, with set design by Es Devlin. It has been called the “Most In-Demand Theatre Production of All Time”, after selling out in seven hours when tickets went on sale to the public on August 11, 2014, more than a year before the play opened.

Film and TV performances

The earliest screen success for Hamlet was Sarah Bernhardt‘s five-minute film of the fencing scene, produced in 1900. The film was an early attempt at combining sound and film, music and words were recorded on phonograph records, to be played along with the film.[  Silent versions were released in 1907, 1908, 1910, 1913, 1917, and 1920.[  In the 1920 version, Asta Nielsen played Hamlet as a woman who spends her life disguised as a man.

Laurence Olivier‘s 1948 moody black-and-white Hamlet won best picture and best actor Oscars, and is still, as of 2015, the only Shakespeare film to have done so. His interpretation stressed the Oedipal overtones of the play, and cast 28-year-old Eileen Herlie as Hamlet’s mother, opposite himself, at 41, as Hamlet. In 1953, actor Jack Manning performed the play in 15-minute segments over two weeks in the short-lived late night DuMont series Monodrama TheaterNew York Times TV critic Jack Gould praised Manning’s performance as Hamlet.

Shakespeare experts Sir John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh consider the definitive rendition of the Bard’s tragic tale[182] to be the 1964 Russian film Gamlet (RussianГамлет) based on a translation by Boris Pasternak and directed by Grigori Kozintsev, with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich. Innokenty Smoktunovsky was cast in the role of Hamlet; he was particularly praised by Sir Laurence Olivier.

John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in a Broadway production at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1964–5, the longest-running Hamlet in the U.S. to date. A live film of the production was produced using “Electronovision”, a method of recording a live performance with multiple video cameras and converting the image to film. Eileen Herlie repeated her role from Olivier’s film version as the Queen, and the voice of Gielgud was heard as the Ghost. The Gielgud/Burton production was also recorded complete and released on LP by Columbia Masterworks.

In 1990 Franco Zeffirelli, whose Shakespeare films have been described as “sensual rather than cerebral”, cast Mel Gibson—then famous for the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon movies—in the title role of his 1990 version, andGlenn Close—then famous as the psychotic “other woman” in Fatal Attraction—as Gertrude.  In contrast to Zeffirelli, whose Hamlet was heavily cut, Kenneth Branagh adapted, directed, and starred in a 1996 version containing every word of Shakespeare’s play, combining the material from the F1 and Q2 texts. Branagh’s Hamlet runs for around four hours. Branagh set the film with late 19th-century costuming and furnishings;[  and Blenheim Palace, built in the early 18th century, became Elsinore Castle in the external scenes. The film is structured as an epic and makes frequent use of flashbacks to highlight elements not made explicit in the play: Hamlet’s sexual relationship withKate Winslet‘s Ophelia, for example, or his childhood affection for Yorick (played by Ken Dodd).

In 2000, Michael Almereyda‘s Hamlet set the story in contemporary Manhattan, with Ethan Hawke playing Hamlet as a film student. Claudius (played by Kyle MacLachlan) became the CEO of “Denmark Corporation”, having taken over the company by killing his brother.

Stage pastiches

There have been various “derivative works” of Hamlet which recast the story from the point of view of other characters, or transpose the story into a new setting or act as sequels or prequels to Hamlet. This section is limited to those written for the stage.

The best-known is Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which retells many of the events of the story from the point of view of the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and gives them a backstory of their own. The play was nominated for eight Tony Awards, and won four: Best Play, Scenic and Costume Design, and Producer; the director and the three leading actors were nominated but did not win. It also won Best Play from the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1968, and Outstanding Production from the Outer Critics Circle in 1969. Several times since 1995, the American Shakespeare Center has mounted repertories that included both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with the same actors performing the same roles in each; in their 2001 and 2009 seasons the two plays were “directed, designed, and rehearsed together to make the most out of the shared scenes and situations”.[192]

W.S. Gilbert wrote a comic play titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in which Guildenstern helps Rosencrantz vie with Hamlet to make Ophelia his bride.

Lee Blessing‘s Fortinbras is a comical sequel to Hamlet in which all the deceased characters come back as ghosts. The New York Times reviewed the play, saying it is “scarcely more than an extended comedy sketch, lacking the portent and linguistic complexity of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Fortinbras operates on a far less ambitious plane, but it is a ripping yarn and offers Keith Reddin a role in which he can commit comic mayhem.”

Heiner Müller‘s postmodern drama The Hamletmachine was first produced in Paris by director Jean Jourdheuil in 1979. This play in turn inspired Giannina Braschi‘s dramatic novel United States of Banana, which takes place at the Statue of Liberty in post-9/11 New York City. In it, Hamlet, Zarathustra, and Giannina are on a quest to free the Puerto Rican prisoner Segismundo from the dungeon of Liberty, where Segismundo’s father, Basilio, the King of the United States of Banana, imprisoned him for the crime of having been born. The work intertwines the plots and characters of Pedro Calderón de la Barca‘s Life Is a Dream with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Caridad Svich‘s 12 Ophelias (a play with broken songs) includes elements of the story of Hamlet but focuses on Ophelia. In Svich’s play, Ophelia is resurrected and rises from a pool of water, after her death in Hamlet. The play is a series of scenes and songs, and was first staged at public swimming pool in Brooklyn. Heidi Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times said of the play, “Far more surreal and twisted than Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, 12 Ophelias is a reminder of just how morphable and mysterious Shakespeare’s original remains.” Other characters are renamed: Hamlet is Rude Boy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are androgynous helpers known simply as R and G, Gertrude is the madam of a brothel, Horatio becomes H and continues to be Hamlet’s best friend/confidante, and a chorus of Ophelias serves as guide. A new character, Mina, is introduced, and she is a whore in Gertrude’s brothel.David Davalos‘ Wittenberg is a “tragical-comical-historical” prequel to Hamlet that depicts the Danish prince as a student at Wittenberg University (now known as the University of Halle-Wittenberg), where he is torn between the conflicting teachings of his mentorsJohn Faustus and Martin Luther. The New York Times reviewed the play, saying, “Mr. Davalos has molded a daft campus comedy out of this unlikely convergence,” and nytheatre’s review said the playwright “has imagined a fascinating alternate reality, and quite possibly, given the fictional Hamlet a back story that will inform the role for the future.”

3. Sources & Influences

Hamlet-like legends are so widely found (for example in Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Byzantium, and Arabia) that the core “hero-as-fool” theme is possibly Indo-European in origin. Several ancient written precursors to Hamlet can be identified. The first is the anonymous Scandinavian Saga of Hrolf Kraki. In this, the murdered king has two sons—Hroar and Helgi—who spend most of the story in disguise, under false names, rather than feigning madness, in a sequence of events that differs from Shakespeare’s. The second is the Roman legend of Brutus, recorded in two separate Latin works. Its hero, Lucius (“shining, light”), changes his name and persona to Brutus (“dull, stupid”), playing the role of a fool to avoid the fate of his father and brothers, and eventually slaying his family’s killer, King Tarquinius. A 17th-century Nordic scholar, Torfaeus, compared the Icelandic hero Amlodi and the Spanish hero Prince Ambales (from the Ambales Saga) to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Similarities include the prince’s feigned madness, his accidental killing of the king’s counsellor in his mother’s bedroom, and the eventual slaying of his uncle.

Many of the earlier legendary elements are interwoven in the 13th-century Vita Amlethi (“The Life of Amleth”) by Saxo Grammaticus, part of Gesta Danorum. Written in Latin, it reflects classical Roman concepts of virtue and heroism, and was widely available in Shakespeare’s day. Significant parallels include the prince feigning madness, his mother’s hasty marriage to the usurper, the prince killing a hidden spy, and the prince substituting the execution of two retainers for his own. A reasonably faithful version of Saxo’s story was translated into French in 1570 by François de Belleforest, in his Histoires tragiques. Belleforest embellished Saxo’s text substantially, almost doubling its length, and introduced the hero’s melancholy.

According to a popular theory, Shakespeare’s main source is believed to be an earlier play—now lost—known today as the Ur-Hamlet. Possibly written by Thomas Kyd or even William Shakespeare himself, the Ur-Hamlet would have been in performance by 1589 and the first version of the story known to incorporate a ghost. Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, may have purchased that play and performed a version for some time, which Shakespeare reworked. Since no copy of the Ur-Hamlet has survived, however, it is impossible to compare its language and style with the known works of any of its putative authors. Consequently, there is no direct evidence that Kyd wrote it, nor any evidence that the play was not an early version of Hamlet by Shakespeare himself. This latter idea—placing Hamlet far earlier than the generally accepted date, with a much longer period of development—has attracted some support, though others dismiss it as speculation.

The upshot is that scholars cannot assert with any confidence how much material Shakespeare took from the Ur-Hamlet (if it even existed), how much from Belleforest or Saxo, and how much from other contemporary sources (such as Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy). No clear evidence exists that Shakespeare made any direct references to Saxo’s version. However, elements of Belleforest’s version which are not in Saxo’s story do appear in Shakespeare’s play. Whether Shakespeare took these from Belleforest directly or through the Ur-Hamlet remains unclear.

Most scholars reject the idea that Hamlet is in any way connected with Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet Shakespeare, who died in 1596 at age eleven. Conventional wisdom holds that Hamlet is too obviously connected to legend, and the name Hamnet was quite popular at the time. However, Stephen Greenblatt has argued that the coincidence of the names and Shakespeare’s grief for the loss of his son may lie at the heart of the tragedy. He notes that the name of Hamnet Sadler, the Stratford neighbour after whom Hamnet was named, was often written as Hamlet Sadler and that, in the loose orthography of the time, the names were virtually interchangeable. Sadler’s first name is spelled “Hamlett” in Shakespeare’s will.


Hamlet has been compared to the Earl of Essex, who was executed for leading a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. Essex’s situation has been analysed by scholars for its revelations into Elizabethan ideas of madness in connection with treason as they connect with Hamlet. Essex was largely seen as out of his mind by Elizabethans, and admitted to insanity on the scaffold before his death. Seen in the same context, Hamlet is quite possibly as mad as he is pretending to be, at least in an Elizabethan sense.


Hamlet is one of the most quoted works in the English language, and is often included on lists of the world’s greatest literature. As such, it reverberates through the writing of later centuries. Academic Laurie Osborne identifies the direct influence of Hamlet in numerous modern narratives, and divides them into four main categories: fictional accounts of the play’s composition, simplifications of the story for young readers, stories expanding the role of one or more characters, and narratives featuring performances of the play

Henry Fielding‘s Tom Jones, published about 1749, describes a visit to Hamlet by Tom Jones and Mr Partridge, with similarities to the “play within a play”. In contrast, Goethe’sBildungsroman Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, written between 1776 and 1796, not only has a production of Hamlet at its core but also creates parallels between the Ghost and Wilhelm Meister’s dead father. In the early 1850s, in PierreHerman Melville focuses on a Hamlet-like character’s long development as a writer. Ten years later, Dickens’sGreat Expectations contains many Hamlet-like plot elements: it is driven by revenge-motivated actions, contains ghost-like characters (Abel Magwitch and Miss Havisham), and focuses on the hero’s guilt. Academic Alexander Welsh notes that Great Expectations is an “autobiographical novel” and “anticipates psychoanalytic readings of Hamlet itself”. About the same time, George Eliot‘s The Mill on the Floss was published, introducing Maggie Tulliver “who is explicitly compared with Hamlet” though “with a reputation for sanity”.

  1. Frank Baum‘s first published short story was “They Played a New Hamlet” (1895). When Baum had been touring New York State in the title role, the actor playing the ghost fell through the floorboards, and the rural audience thought it was part of the show and demanded that the actor repeat the fall, because they thought it was funny. Baum would later recount the actual story in an article, but the short story is told from the point of view of the actor playing the Ghost.

4. Historical Context

The England of Shakespeare’s time was far more turbulent than the England of today. The period in which Shakespeare lived is traditionally called the Renaissance, a period of time sandwiched between two sets of civil wars, the so-called Wars of the Roses (ending about 1500) and the English Civil Wars (beginning in the late 1630s). This period was also the time of the Reformation, the change from an England still a part of the “universal,” or “catholic,” church under the Pope of Rome and the England of multiple religions (and even of the outspokenly non-religious) that was in place by the late 17th century. While these years included the lives of many people still famous today—King Henry VIII, Queen Mary (Bloody Mary), Queen Elizabeth I, King James I (who had the Bible translated once more into English), and King Charles I (who was publicly beheaded for treason); and a host of famous writers such as Saint Thomas More (the author of Utopia), Christopher Marlowe, Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, John Donne, George Herbert, and John Milton—the one person to emerge with almost mythic status was, paradoxically, a commoner of modest birth, little wealth, and (at least at the start) a marginal profession—the playwright and actor William Shakespeare. By the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century and even up to today, Shakespeare has often been treated as some sort of transcendent genius, beyond the ability of mere mortals to fully understand. It has often seemed as if Shakespeare had become a poetic Holy Ghost, the mysterious source of that sacred book, The Complete Works. If ever a merely mortal poet came close to having nearly religious stature in England and the United States, it has been Shakespeare.

Since the early 20th century, there has been an on-going effort to get behind the bardolatry, the tendency to place Shakespeare above the merely human, and to find the real man behind the ghostly myth and to find and analyse the true text of his works behind the extravagant praise that had frequently passed for “literary criticism” in the case of Shakespeare. What these efforts have given us is a much more rational and thoughtful idea of what might be called a “demythologized” Shakespeare.

Who was the historical Shakespeare and what trends most marked the world he occupied?

A preeminent fact about Shakespeare’s historical period (in addition to the turbulence referred to above) was something Platonists have usually ignored: inflation and job loss. From about 1500 to the period of the English Civil Wars, England saw a growing population that brought about a progressive loss of employment opportunities and a progressive rise in the costs of daily living. These circumstances put a lot of pressure on the sons and daughters of the less than wealthy, the vast majority of English men and women. Put another way, inflation and job loss meant a hollowing out of the economic centre. The commoners of Shakespeare’s day faced a difficult choice: climb higher up the economic ladder than your parents or fall below the economic status of your family. Shakespeare’s father made gloves and other leather goods (and did some commodities trading), so we can see that as a sort of economic benchmark for young William.

But the turbulence made things trickier: William’s father and a good deal of his family seem to have held Catholic views well along into the reign of the first successful Protestant monarch in England (successful in the sense that she actually won the majority of her subjects over to her religious position). Advancement economically was greatly enabled by inherited wealth (Shakespeare would not have had much of that at all), inherited social status (as a commoner, Shakespeare had only a little of that), and religion (Shakespeare would have had to abandon his family’s historical preferences on this matter). But to advance economically, one also needed a path that would lead to money, a path that one’s talents and training enabled on to pursue. Here Shakespeare had an opportunity: if we know anything about him, we know that he had a way with words! And we know that Shakespeare had another, complementary, opportunity as well: the London theatre was just getting off the ground as an institution with a future—although, at the time, one could hardly have guessed what a magnificent future that would be since professional theatre people in the 1580s and 90s had only slightly higher social status than downright outlaws.

So the England of Shakespeare’s day was turbulent: the Humanism of the Renaissance had challenged the idea that logical thought could raise the human mind to eternal truths by placing emphasis instead, not on logic but on human experience, especially experience as revealed in classical poetry and history, the collective records of human aspirations and failures here on earth. Humanism’s attempts to recover the ancient Greek and Latin classics, in fact, had more than a little to do with starting the Reformation: getting back to the ancient originals also finally came to mean getting back to the original Bible, particularly the Greek New Testament. The Dutch Humanist, Desiderius Erasmus had demonstrated errors in the official Bible, the Latin Vulgate. While Erasmus said he did not have the stomach to be a martyr and challenge the Roman Church, one of his followers did: in 1517, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther published his 95 Theses to call the Roman Church back to the Christianity that Luther believed marked the period of the New Testament. King Henry VIII of England was so outraged by Luther’s views that he wrote a book against him. For this book, the Pope proclaimed Henry “defender of the faith” only to find Henry later keeping the title and changing the faith: Henry broke with the Roman Church and made himself the head of the Church in England. With this change, the rather elite intellectual dynamics of the Renaissance began to affect everyone. If there was one main cause for the social and political turmoil in Shakespeare’s day, religion was most likely it. England, one might say, became permanently unsettled in matters of basic belief. Or more positively, one might say England became permanently a nation of religious diversity, although almost no one went on record with positive things to say about diversity until well into the 17th century. Perhaps, however, this turbulence born of a new world of diversity did have something to do with Shakespeare’s genius. In any case, few writers have provoked such a wide range of critical interpretations of their work while at the same time offering so few clues as to their own point of view. Perhaps, Shakespeare’s mysterious genius was rooted, to some degree anyway, in his fascination with and exploration of a new sense of humanity’s infinite potential for variety at every level of our being. He at least found words for such wonder.

Adapted from “Notes for EH 410, Shakespeare, and LS 299W, Sacred Texts (John Bienz) – January 13, 2005


Revenge actions dominate the play, but it is worth taking a closer look at the significance of these. The concept of revenge relates to very basic concerns about the relationship of the individual to the state, and about justice and the legality of violent action.

Private revenge acts were understood at that time to be actions taken by an individual in response to a wrong committed on themselves or their family group. Often these ‘blood feuds’ would be settled by a duel or other violent retributive action. Francis Bacon describes revenge actions as ‘a sort of wild justice’, connoting these as out of control, or as transgressing regulated human society. Even as late as 1773, Dr Johnson talks about revenge as ‘an act of passion; vengeance is justice’. This seems to separate an individual’s private revenge actions (as an emotional response), from divine or state ‘vengeance’ as more clearly linked to ideas of legality (therefore ‘justice’).

The old concept of the family blood feud harked back to a past where smaller self-governing units controlled local power. However, a blood feud was entirely subjective: the person being avenged could have been right or wrong, and yet violent revenge would still be justified. This is because it is the external threat to a family’s honour and reputation, not the ethical significance of an individual’s actions, which is in question.

Under the Tudors, the move towards a more centralised understanding of power under a monarchy was developed. In this conception, the idea of the monarch as divinely appointed was established, and so too her earthly governing bodies. In this context, private revenge actions as linked to concepts of blood feud would be seen as deeply disruptive. Quite apart from the threats to public order presented by an individual seeking justice for themselves, such actions presented both a theoretical and a literal challenge to Elizabeth I’s legislative bodies.

On the other hand, what happens when the judicial systems break-down, or are shown to be unworkable? What happens if you believe that those who make the laws are misguided or corrupt? In the play, Hamlet grapples with his position in a corrupt court, where surveillance intrudes on individual’s lives, and there is an apparent lack of justice: ‘Denmark is a prison’ (2.2.239). Violent revenge appears to be the only way to achieve resolution for his anger and frustration.

Indeed, even though there were efforts to ensure it was the judicial system which handled crimes and punishment, the idea of self-government was in fact so deeply embedded in the English psyche that blood feud and duelling continued in England until the latter part of the century, and in Scotland until well after 1600. The idea of the blood feud is raised in the play through the retributive actions of both Hamlet and Laertes, and their private revenge acts are ultimately shown as entirely destructive.

Tellingly, of course, the question of justice and authority are inextricably bound up with the figure of Hamlet: as a member of the governing family of the country his private revenge has both microcosmic and macrocosmic consequences. It is useful to note the tensions between the domestic focus of much of the action in the play with the wider political world described therein, and think about how this is resolved through revenge actions. Finally, the court of Hamlet is won by Fortinbras, not through war, but through internal schism and corruption.

The Queen’s Authority

In the late sixteenth century, questions of family and politics were inextricably linked. England came under repeated threat of attack by external and internal bodies. Since Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome and establish the English monarch as head of the Church of England (1533), England had faced external threats from the Holy Roman Empire.

Mary I, had reunited with Rome during her brief reign (1553-1558) and married the Spaniard Philip II (1554), which did not prove popular with the people. Elizabeth I on acceding to the throne faced pressure to maintain a peace, both internally and externally, and so protect the English throne. However, a woman at that time would be considered as inferior to men both physically and intellectually. Elizabeth manipulated her image to prove that not only was she the rightful and divinely appointed monarch to the English throne, but that she was also a fit warrior and political leader, able to lead and protect the nation.

Equally, however, she had to answer the question of the succession. If she made a marriage alliance with a European prince, England would be lost. On the other hand, if she died childless, the threat of civil war and a further shift in religion loomed. To maintain her political power, Elizabeth would need to remain single; but to ensure England’s safety she would need to marry.

Her femininity and sexuality were therefore important elements in the control of her image. She conducted her relationships at court in the style of a Petrarchan lover: a stereotypical romantic love relationship, in which the woman is an untouchable and perfect beauty. But she maintained her political sway by professing her ‘masculinity’: ‘I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too’ (Speech to the troops facing the Spanish Armada, 1588). That she needed to construct herself in this way suggests the deeply rooted misogyny she faced as a female figure of authority in a patriarchal system. She could not be a strong, politically shrewd woman; she had to be a man in head and heart, but play up to her physical female role.

However, as the Queen aged, this representation of herself as the sexually desirable maiden became harder to manage. By the time of Hamlet’s first performance in c.1600 (approximately three years before Elizabeth’s death in 1603), Elizabeth was sixty-eight years old. De Maisse, a French ambassador to the English court, noted in 1597 that:

‘She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson… She kept the front of her dress open, and one could see the whole of her bosom [gorge], and passing low, and often she would open the front of this robe with her hands as if she was too hot… Her bosom [or throat] is somewhat wrinkled as well as {one can see for} the collar that she wears around her neck, but lower down her flesh is exceeding white and delicate, so far as one could see. As for her face, it is and appears to be very aged. It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal, compared with what they were formerly… Many of them are missing so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly. Her figure is fair and tall and graceful in whatever she does…’

Also in 1600, the Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth was released. Comparing these two representations of the Queen we can see that, even at this late stage of her reign, Elizabeth still had to make use of her image as a sexual female to maintain her political position. Her gestures towards her bosom in the De Maisse account simultaneously suggest her role as mother to the country, whilst also introducing an eroticism which resonates with her earlier adoption of Petrarchan conventions.

In Hamlet, the figure of an aging, sexual female monarch appears as a troubling figure for the central character. Through her marriage to Claudius, Queen Gertrude maintains a position of political authority within the court, and appears on-stage alongside Claudius in most court scenes. Nevertheless, she is one of the quietest characters in the play, speaking only 3.8% of the lines. Indeed, she spends a surprising amount of the play in silence, considering how important a role she apparently plays in the provocation and development of the revenge action.

Whereas Oedipal readings of Gertrude’s character often focus on the effects her role as mother has, for the exploration of the young ‘hero’s’ psychology in a domestic sense, we must also consider what kind of political figure she presents in the play. At a time when an aging Queen still sat on the English throne, projecting a sexualised image of herself in order to maintain political power, one context for a reading of Gertrude’s character is Hamlet’s response to her sexuality as an aspect of her position in the political court: ‘Nay but to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,/ Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty – ’ (3.4.81-4).

Indeed, Hamlet’s reaction of disgust at Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius appears less to do with family honour and more to do with disgust at her decision to enter into a sexual relationship at her age: ‘You cannot call it love, for at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,/ And waits upon the judgement’ (3.4.67-9). In the closet scene, we see anxieties at the idea of a sexualised older woman explode in one of the most violent scenes in the play. Gertrude’s position both as mother, sexual woman, and political figure makes her a troubling, silenced figure within the play.

Exploring debates about the nature of justice and retribution as either coming from the individual or the state can help us to think about how Hamlet responds to his position as both prince and son. Similarly, with knowledge of the declining figure of Elizabeth I at the time of the play’s first staging, we have an important political framework in which to interpret the representation of an aging, sexual Queen. Both of these concepts are used to dissect the political and the domestic spheres, and can help to enrich our reading of the play’s action and characters.

Dr Hannah Lavery – 2009 –

5. Philosophical Context

Hamlet is often perceived as a philosophical character. Some of the most prominent philosophical theories in Hamlet are relativismexistentialism, and scepticism. Hamlet expresses a relativist idea when he says to Rosencrantz: “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2.268-270). The idea that nothing is real except in the mind of the individual finds its roots in the Greek Sophists, who argued that since nothing can be perceived except through the senses, and all men felt and sensed things differently, truth was entirely relative. There was no absolute truth. This same line of Hamlet’s also introduces theories of existentialism. A double-meaning can be read into the word “is”, which introduces the question of whether anything “is” or can be if thinking doesn’t make it so. This is tied into his To be, or not to be speech, where “to be” can be read as a question of existence. Hamlet’s contemplation on suicide in this scene, however, is more religious than philosophical. He believes that he will continue to exist after death.

Hamlet reflects the contemporary scepticism promoted by the French Renaissance humanist, Montaigne. Prior to Montaigne’s time, humanists such as Pico della Mirandola had argued that man was God’s greatest creation, made in God’s image and able to choose his own nature, but this view was subsequently challenged in Michel de Montaigne‘s Essais of 1580. Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” could supposedly echo many of Montaigne’s ideas, and many scholars have disagreed whether Shakespeare drew directly from Montaigne or whether both men were simply reacting similarly to the spirit of the times.

Nevertheless, if the sentence is analysed in the textual context it is easy to understand how Hamlet was being sarcastic: “Man delights not me”, he concludes. Amaral argues that this is the result of melancholy. This condition was a main subject of philosophy in this epoch. After a period of confidence in reason’s ability to unveil reality (Renaissance), ‘Mannerism’ started questioning its power. Hamlet shows traces of this. In this sense, Hamlet is not feigning madness, but he is indeed trapped between the world everybody expects him to see (the lies told by Claudius and accepted by all, i.e. social decorum) and the world revealed to him by knowledge (the reality of the murdering, as testified by his father’s ghost). This condition of being trapped between two different ways of seeing reality was also pictured by Shakespeare’s contemporary Cervantes, in Don Quixote. This profound meditation was examined by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation. Schopenhauer uses Hamlet to clarify his main argument. He argues that the world as we see it is a conjunction of representations. These representations are formed by the projection of our will towards the world. We can only see objects of our desires. In this sense he argues that only art could show us that reality is such a construct. Exactly as Hamlet did: “If the whole world as representation is only the visibility of the will, then art is the elucidation of this visibility, the camera obscura which shows the objects more purely, and enables us to survey and comprehend them better. It is the play within the play, the stage on the stage in Hamlet.” [80]

In his openness to embrace the ghost’s message, Hamlet assuages Horatio’s wonderment with the analytical assertion, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Hamlet’s What a piece of work is a man speech:

… this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man—how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god; the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (Q2, 2.2.264-274)

Scholars have pointed out this section’s similarities to lines written by Michel de Montaigne in his Essais:

Who have persuaded [man] that this admirable moving of heavens vaults, that the eternal light of these lampes so fiercely rowling over his head, that the horror-moving and continuall motion of this infinite vaste ocean were established, and continue so many ages for his commoditie and service? Is it possible to imagine so ridiculous as this miserable and wretched creature, which is not so much as master of himselfe, exposed and subject to offences of all things, and yet dareth call himself Master and Emperor.

Rather than being a direct influence on Shakespeare, however, Montaigne may have been reacting to the same general atmosphere of the time, making the source of these lines one of context rather than direct influence.

6. Religious Context

The play makes several references to both Catholicism and Protestantism, the two most powerful theological forces of the time in Europe. The Ghost describes himself as being in purgatory, and as having died without receiving his last rites. This, along with Ophelia’s burial ceremony, which is uniquely Catholic, make up most of the play’s Catholic connections. Some scholars have pointed that revenge tragedies were traditionally Catholic, possibly because of their sources: Spain and Italy, both Catholic nations. Scholars have pointed out that knowledge of the play’s Catholicism can reveal important paradoxes in Hamlet’s decision process. According to Catholic doctrine, the strongest duty is to God and family. Hamlet’s father being killed and calling for revenge thus offers a contradiction: does he avenge his father and kill Claudius, or does he leave the vengeance to God, as his religion requires?


Hamlet was a student at Wittenberg or so is thought. Wittenberg is “one of only two universities that Shakespeare ever mentions by name,” and “was famous in the early sixteenth century for its teaching of … Luther‘s new doctrine of salvation.” Furthermore, Hamlet’s reference to “a politic convocation of worms” has been read as a cryptic allusion to Luther’s famous theological confrontation with the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521.

However, the more influential Reformer in early 17th century England was John Calvin, a strong advocate of predestination; many critics have found traces of Calvin’s predestinarian theology in Shakespeare’s play. Calvin explained the doctrine of predestination by comparing it to a stage, or a theatre, in which the script is written for the characters by God, and they cannot deviate from it. God, in this light, sets up a script and a stage for each of his creations, and decrees the end from the beginning, as Calvin said: “After the world had been created, man was placed in it, as in a theatre, that he, beholding above him and beneath the wonderful work of God, might reverently adore their Author.” Scholars have made comparisons between this explanation of Calvin’s and the frequent references made to the theatre in Hamlet, suggesting that these may also take reference to the doctrine of predestination, as the play must always end in its tragic way, according to the script.

Rulers and religious leaders feared that the doctrine of predestination would lead people to excuse the most traitorous of actions, with the excuse, “God made me do it.” English Puritans, for example, believed that conscience was a more powerful force than the law, due to the new ideas at the time that conscience came not from religious or government leaders, but from God directly to the individual. Many leaders at the time condemned the doctrine, as: “unfit ‘to keepe subjects in obedience to their sovereigns” as people might “openly maintayne that God hath as well pre-destinated men to be trayters as to be kings.” King James, as well, often wrote about his dislike of Protestant leader’s taste for standing up to kings, seeing it as a dangerous trouble to society. In Hamlet’s final decision to join the sword-game of Laertes, and thus enter his tragic final scene, he says to the fearful Horatio:

“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet will it come—the readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t to leave betimes, let be.”

In itself, this line lays the final capstone on Hamlet’s decision. The line appears to base this decision on his believed predestination as the killer of the king, no matter what he may do. The potential allusion to predestinarian theology is even stronger in the first published version of Hamlet, Quarto 1, where this same line reads: “There’s a predestinate providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Scholars have wondered whether Shakespeare was censored, as the word “predestined” appears in this one Quarto of Hamlet, but not in others, and as censoring of plays was far from unusual at the time.


At the same time, Hamlet expresses several Catholic views. The Ghost, for example, describes himself as being slain without receiving Extreme Unction, his last rites. He also implies that he has been living in Purgatory: “I am thy father’s spirit / Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,/ Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg’d away” (1.5.9-13). While belief in Purgatory remains part of Roman Catholic teaching today, it was explicitly rejected by the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century.

Catholic doctrines manifest themselves all over the play, including the discussion over the manner of Ophelia’s burial in Act 5. The question in this scene is of whether it is right for Ophelia to have a Christian burial, since those who commit suicide are guilty of their own murder in the doctrines of the church. As the debate continues between the two clowns, it becomes a question of whether her drowning was suicide or not. Shakespeare never fully answers this question, but presents both sides: either that she did not act to stop the drowning and therefore committed suicide of her own will, or that she was mad and did not know the danger and thus was killed by the water, innocently.

The burial of Ophelia reveals more of the religious doctrines in question through the Priest overseeing the funeral. Scholars have carefully outlined the “maimed rites” (as Hamlet calls them) carried out by the Priest. Many things are missing in her funeral that would normally make up a Christian burial. Laertes asks, “What ceremony else?” The priest answers that since her death was questionable, they will not give her the full funeral, although they will allow her “maiden strewments,” or flowers which were thrown into her grave. In cases of suicide, sharp rocks, rather than flowers, were thrown in. The difficulties in this deeply religious moment reflect much of the religious debate of the time.


Quotations in Hamlet where Context is important

  1. Shakespeare’s Theatre Context & Performance History of Hamlet


memory holds a seat/In this distracted globe” – Act1 li96-97

Here Shakespeare is referencing the Globe Theatre – a multisided structure with a central, uncovered “yard” surrounded by three tiers of covered seating and a raised stage at one end of the yard. Spectators could pay for seating at multiple price levels; those with the cheapest tickets simply stood for the length of the plays.


there are more things in heaven” – Act1 li165

Shakespeare displays his views on acting and the role of theatre in society as a way of mirroring the truth. Actors could descend from the “heavens” above the stage or enter and exit from the “hell” below through the trapdoor.


most excellent canopy the air” – Act2 li265

Shakespeare uses this metaphor to reference the Globe. Playgoers in Shakespeare’s day paid a penny to stand in the uncovered yard of a playhouse or two pennies for a balcony seat. Shakespeare may be hinting at the lively atmosphere during these outdoor plays.


majestical roof fretted with golden fire” – li267

Here Shakespeare uses irony with the phrase “golden fire” to refer to the event where the Globe was burnt to the ground when the “majestical roof” caught fire during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. A new second Globe was quickly built on the same site, opening in 1614.


a beast that wants discourse of reason” – Act1 li150

Shakespeare uses Hamlet to criticise women as he compares his mother to a wild animal. Most women’s roles in the Globe were played by boys or young men in the all-male casts, comic female parts might be reserved for a popular adult comic actor or clown.


customary suits of solemn black” – Act1 li78

Actors usually did not aim for historically accurate costumes, instead they typically wore extravagant modern clothes, especially for leading parts. Costumes provided the essential “spectacle” of the plays and were often second-hand clothes once owned and worn by real-life nobles.


(Marcellus) Look where it comes again // (Barnardo) In the same figure like the King that’s dead

Explanation: Normally this exchange wouldn’t be necessary between two speakers but Shakespeare puts them in for the audience’s benefit; having never seen Old Hamlet, the audience would have no idea of the ghost’s significance. It also makes clear to the audience the supernatural nature of the apparition, by telling us that the king is “dead” and that this is therefore a ghost. In Shakespeare’s time, lighting and other dramatic techniques weren’t as well developed as now so words would have been the easiest way to communicate that the spectre is other-worldly.


(Hamlet) O, it offends me to the very soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags …

Explanation: In Shakespeare’s time, it was the style of performance which was judged and appreciated by audiences, rather than the text or emotions behind it. Actors would deliver speeches in a dramatic, extravagant style to please audiences of all classes, who would be separated according to the seats they could afford. Here Shakespeare seems to mock this elaborate acting style through Hamlet’s hatred for it; alternatively, he could be giving us an insight into Hamlet’s melancholy and over-thoughtful nature by presenting him as someone who has an aversion for something which most people at the time would have considered highly entertaining. In later performances, this line may lose some of its significance as acting styles became subtler.


(Hamlet) To split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise

Explanation: The “groundlings” were those who had paid just a penny to watch the play from the lowest possible level, standing on the ground in front of the raised stage (this at least applies to the Globe Theatre) and were therefore the poorest people who would have come to see the performance. Wealthier people would also have been watching, from more expensive, higher up seats; this line may endear richer viewers towards Hamlet as he insults the (more rowdy) lower classes but it could also serve to insult the “groundlings” themselves. This would create sympathy for Hamlet with one portion of the audience and aversion with the other. However, if we assume that what Hamlet says is true, those on the ground won’t even understand the insult which they have received.


(Queen) To whom do you speak this?

Explanation: This question on the part of the Queen indicates that she does not see the ghost; the fact that the ghost speaks as well as various stage directions relating to him seem to suggest that he should appear as a physical character. To effectively demonstrate Gertrude’s ignorance, Shakespeare therefore has to make her explicitly state that she sees nothing, so that the audience is aware of her oblivion, otherwise we would assume that, as we can see the ghost, so can she. The question of the ghost’s reality is also raised earlier in the play and certain previous performances have featured the ghost merely as a voice in the background. Most interpretations, however, in accordance with the stage directions, represent the ghost as a physical being, which seems to reflect Shakespeare’s intention to establish the ghost as real. Through the Queen’s denial, Shakespeare is exploring the idea of appearance and reality.


(Osric) A hit, a very palpable hit.

Explanation: The whereabouts of the play’s performance could have varied drastically at the time the play was written; plays may have been executed in large outdoor theatres like the Globe, in more intimate indoor playhouses, in the courtyard of a pub (particularly in the case of travelling players) or in the King’s court. This meant that plays had to be adaptable. If this scene was being acted out in a larger venue such as the Globe then there would have been large sections of the audience who were too far away from the stage to see clearly some of the finer details. Shakespeare therefore uses Osric to make it explicitly clear for the audience, and, in theory, the play’s characters, whether or not Hamlet has been successful in the duel.


  1. Religion & Philosophical Context

“Go not to Wittenberg” I.ii.119

Wittenberg was the university in which Martin Luther, the father of Lutheran Protestantism who is often considered as the founder of the 16th century religious reformation, wrote his Ninety-Five Theses. They were revolutionary ideas serving as the catalyst from people breaking from the Catholic Church and forming new religions. He called for a full reform of the Catholic Church. Considering that Hamlet is staying in Wittenberg, it is probably fair for the audience to assume that Hamlet is a Protestant, although this could be disputed by the continued references to Catholic beliefs such as purgatory.


“doom’d for a certain term to walk the night” I.v.10

“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”

These quotes are references by the ghost to his purgatory, illuminating the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Purgatory, where the soul goes before heaven to undergo purification, was a Catholic belief that had been reflected by the Anglican Church in the early 16th century. The first quote shown above is one of the suggestions of Catholicism in the play, whereas the second play is undoubtedly less so. In Catholicism, ghosts return from purgatory so that the living can help them repent their sins. However, in the play, the ghost seems more focused on revenge, suggesting a more anti-Catholic stance within the play. It also suggests that this actually isn’t a ghost but is actually just a reflection of Hamlet’s conscience.


“Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.” I.v.91

This is another reference to purgatory by the ghost. Praying for purgatorial spirits was an important way for the living to deal with an express their grief, so the Anglican church rejected this doctrine in 1563, it eliminated an important social and psychological function for the living, which is similar to Claudius ordering Hamlet to stop grieving, as he does here. This makes the audience empathise more with Hamlet as they can understand his situation better.


“His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” I.ii.132

“To be or not to be”

‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable’

Here, Hamlet is lamenting about how even though death is the most agreeable solution to the pain he is feeling, he cannot kill himself because it goes against the Bible. This is a reflection of the importance of religion in Shakespeare’s time – no matter how Hamlet feels, he cannot go against his religion; this is similar to how people at the time would have felt about their actions – they were very conscious about how their actions would reflect on them, and didn’t want to seem ungodly. Furthermore, the teachings of the bible in relation to suicide will have been imprinted onto the audiences mind, helped by the fact that if you did not attend church every week you would be subject to a 12 pence fine under the provisions of the 1558 Act of Uniformity. This therefore meant the audience would be in tune with Hamlet’s religious fears.


“A brother’s murder” III.iii.38

This is a major religious allusion to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Here the King is comparing his sin to Cain’s sin of killing Abel. This assures the audience that it was Claudius who killed King Hamlet. With this reference to the first murder to be committed this biblical allusion means that the audience are aware Hamlet does know the repercussions of this actions therefore suggesting some sanity.

“there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”

Shakespeare promotes the concept of relativism through Hamlet suggesting that nothing is real except in the mind of the individual, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” this suggests that there are not ‘real’ truths and everything that is believed is relative (effectively everything is a lie). Relativism directly relates to the characters in the play as the Greek sophists believed each man perceived a statement through the senses differently and therefore each character believes a different truth, when in reality nothing is true due to their devious actions.

“To be or not to be”

Hamlet is used to show existentialism through first scenes of the play. Shakespeare conveys the idea that the individual determines their own development through the acts of will; Hamlet shows this in the famous line of his soliloquy “To be or not to be”. This could portray Hamlets understanding of his predicament as although fate will lead to his death, the choice he makes to not commit suicide allows for the king to be killed.

“I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (1.3.103)

The concept of scepticism is shown through Ophelia questioning the existence of truths; Ophelia’s sceptical attitude shows her doubting Hamlets feelings towards her. The audience may believe that Hamlets love is ‘true’, however when Ophelia speaks to Polonius “I do not know, my lord, what I should think”, this shows how she is sceptical of his true desires. It would be common to be sceptical of people in Denmark as each character constantly betrays one another.

“Am I a coward?” (2.2.506)

Another philosophical concept that Shakespeare introduces is melancholia from the four temperaments and the four humours, these suggest there are four personalities (one being melancholic) and four humours (bodily fluids that directly affect the individual’s health and temperament).  Hamlet is shown to be melancholic as he is beyond sadness, questioning himself “Am I a coward?” Shakespeare presents the character in this light to highlight how the ‘black bile’ (one of the four humours) is making Hamlet feel melancholic.

“My fate cries out”(1.4.83)

Shakespeare uses the idea of fate to show how the tragedy gives each character a role to play and in the end, nothing the character has done despite their attempts to change their fate with acts of will, they will die as that is their destiny. Shakespeare shows this through Hamlets knowledge of his fate “My fate cries out” suggesting that he knows he has to go and see the king Hamlets ghost because it is what he is meant to do.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (2.5.166-168)

Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher argues that we see the world in a conjunction of representations; we can only see objects of our desire due to our projection on the world, Hamlet proves this when he speaks to Horatio “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare here, in Arthurs eyes, suggests that Horatio cannot perceive anything more than the objects of his desire.


Horatio says ‘tis but our fantasy/and will not let belief take hold of him” (1.1.22-23)

So at this point in the play the soldiers are telling sceptical Horatio about the ghost they have seen. Yet, it seems that Horatio doesn’t want to know and pushes this thought out of his mind.  “’tis but our fantasy”- here it suggests that Horatio is saying its what we want to hear and believe because its something new, exciting and supernatural. In a way, these soldiers are just as sceptical as he is, as they are oblivious to the real world. Probably at the time that this play was set, people had to go off things they had seen or heard, and believed others because they didn’t have any equipment to prove what they had experienced.The idea that nothing is real except in the mind of the individual finds its roots in the Greek Sophists, who argued that since nothing can be perceived except through the senses, and all men felt and sensed things differently, truth was entirely relative. There was no absolute truth.

“Is not this something more than fantasy?” (1.1.53)

Barnardo is speaking to Horatio and is questioning him on his previous thought. Since the ghost is visible and existent before the eyes of the soldiers, surely this would mean that it is real. It also suggests that we can’t always be sure about something before we have experienced it for ourselves. Greek philosophers would say that nothing is real except in the mind of the individual, meaning lots of people could see the same thing, however everyone would interpret it differently, so is there truth in what is seen before you?

“Then no planets strike/No fairy takes, nor witch has power to charm” (1.1.162)

This meaning, no form of the supernatural exposes itself or comes into view of the living. Referring to the ghost, it doesn’t take on its form and doesn’t interact with the soldiers. This is only in the day and as Marcellus describes “wherein our saviour’s birth is celebrated” this has links to Christianity as the saviour’s birth is about Jesus. There seems to be rules and laws that the supernatural beings have to abide by, and they don’t seem to be in control of they way they can “live”. ‘no planets strike’ is a reference to the old astrological belief in the malignant (spiteful) influence of the stars. This suggest that the supernatural has a good and bad side, so is the ghost really Hamlet’s father?

Bernardo: “Last night of all, when yond same star that’s westward from the pole had made his course to illume that part of heaven where now it burns.” (1.1.34-37)

Scholars have long considered that means Bernardo is referring to a star west of the pole star. The hour has struck twelve and it is cold, so winter is assumed. Astronomers have recently argued that, if Shakespeare had a specific star in mind, he might be referring to the supernova Cassiopeia which was first seen in Wittenberg in 1572 and also discovered independently by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Throughout most of written history the Earth was believed to lie at the center of creation, while the seven Ancient Planets (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) revolved about it. The entire arrangement was encased in a shell of stars beyond which was the abode of the Prime Mover.


“It hath the primal eldest curse upon‘t”

Reference the ‘eldest curse’ from the bible. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve, who made offerings to God to show their love for him. When God preferred Abel’s offering, Cain was filled with rage and jealousy and murdered his brother. This led to jealousy and hatred between mankind; Claudius’ sin is being compared to this to show how the murder of old Hamlet will cause the downfall of each character and is equally as evil as the first murder.


“Purging of his soul.”

Hamlet believes that killing Claudius is the right thing to do as punishment for his sins and will be the correct sacrifice. However, he doesn’t want to kill Claudius whilst he is praying in case this helps Claudius get to heaven; he wants to wait until he can be sure that Claudius goes to hell and doesn’t get a nice place in the afterlife with God.


“Heaven will direct it.”

Horatio does not believe that the current monarchy, as corrupt and messed up as is it, will be capable of ruling Denmark alone. He puts his trust in God and the heavens to control what is going to happen and make sure the country is safe, even if Hamlet and his family don’t meet a very pleasant fate.


“Get thee to a nunnery.”

Hamlet doesn’t believe that, even as a royal, he or his family have the power needed to free the queen of her sins. He is so stuck on the belief that she has been incestuous and evil by marrying Claudius that he constantly prays and begs for God and the heavens to save her (due to his love for her) or send her to hell with Claudius.


  1. Monarchy, Sources and Influences of Hamlet


Let him go, Gertrude; do not fear our person.
There’s such divinity doth hedge a king
That treason can but peep to what it would.”

Claudius on the divine right of kings.                                                                                              At the time that Hamlet was written, Christianity was the dominant religion, and it was believed that any monarch was chosen by God to rule. Shakespeare is perhaps using this to portray how Claudius has offended God, as he murdered a divine ruler; two deadly sins.


‘Justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.’   

Qualities a king should have

Shakespeare does this to show how unjust a ruler Claudius is: he fits none of the categories of what is believed to be a good king.


‘A cutpurse of the empire and the rule
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket?’

Hamlet debating the crime of murdering a king..

This shows how sacred the role of king was: even after Claudius had murdered Hamlet’s father, Hamlet still didn’t know if he should steal from Claudius as he was a king.


“A murderer and a villain;
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord; a vice of kings.”                                                                                                                                

Hamlet describing Claudius

The way that Claudius is described completely contrasts with the qualities usually associated with a king. In this instance, Shakespeare further portrays how unjust Claudius’ leadership is.


“The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse.
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down.”.   

Description of Claudius’ drunken ways- and how he isn’t fit to be a king

The fact that the king ‘Drains his draughts of Rhenish’ implies that he is a drunk, and that he is unfit to be a leader.


“This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax’d of other nations;
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition.”   

A view on how the other countries viewed Denmark’s royal family.

This quote ties in with the previous quote on Claudius’ drunken tendencies: the other countries ‘clepe us drunkards’. This quote shows how Claudius’ role as monarch is affecting other people’s views of the country, and how his thirst for power is affecting the wellbeing of his subjects.

“A murderer and a villain;
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe”                                                                                                                     

Hamlet describing Claudius

The fact that Hamlet calls the king a ‘slave’ perhaps implies that Claudius is a ‘slave’ to his own temptations; hence why he murdered his brother to become king.

“offence is rank smells to heaven                                                                                                  

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,                                                                                                        A brother’s murder”                                                                                                                        

Claudius admitting that his actions were wrong as a king

The fact that even Claudius admitted that what he did was wrong shows just how sacred the role of king is: even the murderer felt bad for killing, as it was the murder of a king, who has the divine right to rule.

“that incestuous, that adulterate beast”                                                                                                                                  

Hamlet’s views on Claudius contrasting with Malcolm’s previous quote on how a king should be furthermore show how Shakespeare portrays Claudius to be an unjust leader.

“Heaven will direct it”      

Horatio commenting on the poor leadership by the monarchy in Denmark.

This quote shows how religion dictated who should and shouldn’t be leader. However, the plethora of quotes used by Shakespeare to portray Claudius in a bad way contrast with this idea, and is perhaps Shakespeare conveying his own views on the legitimacy of religion.

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’                                                                     

Hamlet accusing the monarchy of being corrupt. Many believe this quote may be in reference to the plague, which perhaps symbolizes the spread of corruption and sin through the government of Denmark.


“A little month, or ere those shoes were old”                                                                                

Hamlet accusing the queen of adultery this view contrasts with the stereotypical depiction of kings, and ties in with the previous quote: the state of Denmark is so ‘Rotten’, that even the queen is committing treachery.


“Which might deprive you of your sovereignty and drive you into madness”

Madness – Hamlet is compared to the Earl of Essex and was executed for leading a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. Essex was largely seen as out of his mind by Elizabethans, and admitted to insanity on the scaffold before his death. Here Horatio is talking of the ghost turning Hamlet insane. “Sovereignty” meaning in this instance the ability to rule his own mind and when Hamlet is “deprived” of it then his madness ensues.

“So excellent a king; that was, to this,/ Hyperion to a satyr”

The character Hamlet perhaps is based upon Hamlets only son Hamnet Shakespeare, who died in 1596 at age eleven. Stephen Greenblatt has argued that the coincidence of the names and Shakespeare’s grief for the loss of his son may lie at the heart of the tragedy. He notes that the name of Hamnet Sadler, the Stratford neighbour after whom Hamnet was named, was often written as Hamlet Sadler and that, in the loose orthography of the time, the names were virtually interchangeable. Sadler’s first name is spelled “Hamlett” in Shakespeare’s will. However, most scholars reject the idea that Hamlet is in any way connected with Shakespeare’s only son, and conventional wisdom holds that Hamlet is too obviously connected to legend, and the name Hamnet was quite popular at the time.

The tragedy of Hamlets father’s death shows the tragedy of losing a love one as he looked up to his father and saw how his Uncle’s jealousy broke down his life which eventually leads to his own his death.

‘He seem’d to find his way without his eyes’’ “But two months dead – nay, not so much, not two.”

We see many aspects of the ‘story-line’ are similar to that of Vita Amlethi (“The Life of Amleth”) written in the 13th century, it reflects concepts of virtue and heroism, and was widely available in Shakespeare’s day. Significant parallels include the prince feigning madness, his mother’s hasty marriage to the usurper, the prince killing a hidden spy, and the prince substituting the execution of two retainers for his own. The first quote shows the parallel of insanity, where it is unusual that he can see without using his eyes. The second quote explains how Gertrude married the King extremely quickly, where Hamlet sees this as distrustful and transient (as would the audience at the time), we might see the action as almost heroic in a way to stabilise the countries situation.

“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”

According to a popular theory, Shakespeare’s main source is believed to be an earlier play—now lost—known today as the Ur-Hamlet. Possibly written by Thomas Kyd or even William Shakespeare himself, the Ur-Hamlet would have been in performance by 1589 and the first version of the story known to incorporate a ghost. This is a quote of the ghost talking of the death of Old Hamlet. “Unnatural” suggests murder and “revenge” suggests that there is a need to ‘get back’ at the one who killed him. The ghost explains how it was against nature and that if Hamlet truly loved his father then he should take revenge.

“all but one – shall live”

Explaining Hamlets plot to kill the King. A 17th-century Nordic scholar, Torfaeus, compared the Icelandic hero Amlodi and the Spanish hero Prince Ambales to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Similarities include the prince’s feigned madness, his accidental killing of the king’s counsellor in his mother’s bedroom, and the eventual slaying of his uncle. In the plot to kill the King, Hamlet mentions his mother too, perhaps showing his growing hatred for her; it does not explicitly say that the King will be killed instead of the Queen. There are many links between the two plays and in the end when the King is killed by Hamlet it will be a parallel to how Ambales killed his uncle.


“A little more than kin, and less than kind.” Iii65 170

This is Hamlet’s first line, and it is an immediate instigation of the tension in the family relationships in the play because of cynical sarcasm. This is similar to the relationship between Hroðgar and Hrólfr in the traditional Danish Hrólfs saga kraka; a damaged relationship between Uncle and Nephew. The legend was later developed into two Old-English poems, Beowulf and Widsith, which do not clarify this feud however they are considered two of the most important works of old English literature. Also, the tension in the royal family of Denmark mirrors the anxiety in England towards the heir of Elizabeth’s throne.

“O cursed spite / that i was ever born to set it right!” Iiiiii186-7 227

This conclusion of the first act is Hamlet becoming aware of his tragical and revengeful yet destined path. The theme of revenge is also apparent in Shakespeare’s 1599 Julius Caesar, and Hamlet’s revenge replicates the character of Brutus (a leading role in the assassination of Caesar). The Spanish Tragedy was also a popular play written by Thomas Kyd around 1583-91, and this introduced a new and alternative theatrical genre of revenge tragedies, and their revolutionary popularity was influential on Shakespeare. Also, the Danish Gesta Danorum could have influenced Hamlet’s revenge, because both plots involve a vengeful Nephew who seeks to overthrow his Uncle in justice for his Father. Moreover, Amleth is an anagram for Hamlet. One final influence upon Hamlet’s revenge could possibly have been Robert Devereux, the Second Earl of Essex: Hamlet is often compared to this man for many reasons, one of which is possibly their shared treasonous affairs.


“Liegemen to the dane” Ii13 149 AND “Where is my Switzers?” IIIIiiiii97 381

In the first scene of the play, the theme of conflict is initiated. This is represented on a wide scale, possibly to incite the audiences patriotism through this war association considering the recent Armada defeat of 1588. Also, the Gesta Danorum is a Danish piece of literature from the 12th century, and it’s detailed accounts of European affairs could have inspired some of the conflict in Hamlet’s Denmark.

“that incestuous, that adulterate beast” Iiiiii42 214

There is much open discontent in Hamlet regarding the relationship between Gertrude and King Claudius, and it often perceived as incestuous. There are resembling relationships to this in Gesta Danorum between the Mother and Uncle: the wed after a brief mourning period, and the similarity between Gertrude of Hamlet and Geruth of Gesta Danorum is also an indication to the sources influence. The play Hrólfs also contains a much brutal incesteous relationship between Uncle and Niece, and the controversy surrounding this could have influenced Shakespeare.

“Can you play The Murder of Gonzago?” IIii474 273

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s many piece which include a play within a play. His other plays of this style which came before Hamlet are Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, neither of which are tragedies like Hamlet. His use of a tragedy is similar to The Spanish Tragedy of around 1583, another play within a play whose popularity could have inspired Shakespeare. A final play within a play to consider is Thomas Kyd’s Ur-Hamlet, which is in almost every way closely corresponds with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.


“canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.”Iii132 176


In the second scene when Hamlet disputes suicide, the theme of madness arises in the play. This is the main reason that Hamlet is compared to The Earl of Essex Politically ambitious, and a committed general, he was placed under house arrest following a poor campaign in Ireland during the Nine Years’ War in 1599. In 1601, he led an abortive coup d’état against the government and was executed for treason. He was considered insane by some, and would have definitely been a well known name at that time. Also, this use of suicide indicates towards the impending death of Queen Elizabeth, therefore plays with the anxiety and fear of the audience. The Spanish Tragedy also uses the suicide of a mother to drive Hieronimo to madness.


“I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.”

Act 1, Scene 2, Line 119

Shakespeare lived in very dangerous times of political and religious tension. Catholics and Protestants plotted and killed and oppressed each other.

The Queen was old so uncertainty about the religion of England when a new monarch came to the throne was an influence.

Wittenberg – Reference to Protestantism. Martin Luther, one of the first to speak out against the Catholic faith, wrote his thesis at Wittenberg University implying support of the protestant faith.

This is significant because the play had previously referenced the catholic religion which could represent the varying religion in England. However, Denmark was a firmly protestant country, allied with England. This implies that Hamlet is protestant.


Monarchy – Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon

“O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason,

Would have mourned longer,”

Act 1, Scene 2 ,Line 153/154

Henry VII married his Brother’s wife, like Claudius married Gertrude. It was believed that Henry VIII lived in sin (according to the bible) therefore he couldn’t have a son because of this. People will have a vivid memory of this as it is fairly recent therefore the same ideas will be applied to Hamlet.

The quote implies that Hamlet believes that even a creature incapable of speech would have mourned longer than Gertrude mourned for Hamlet’s father suggesting that nothing good can come from this hastiness. Just as no good came from Henry VII marrying his Brother’s wife quickly.



“My father’s brother, but no more like my father” – refers to ‘closeness’ of the marriage. Claudius is presented as being detached not uses ‘uncle’.


Throughout the Middle Ages, and beyond, monarchs were seen as being God’s deputies on Earth and they had the divine right to rule, as they had been placed on the throne by God and did not have to answer to anybody else.

Many started to question the idea of divinely-given earthly power, although it persisted among monarchs and the Papacy.

The divine right of kings had a huge influence on Shakespeare’s plays as the Elizabethan concept of world order affects the plot structures, the psychology of the characters, and the imagery of their discourse and fates in Shakespeare’s plays.


Claudius refers to the belief in God’s protection of kings when, in Act IV scene v, he is confronted by the furious Laertes, whom Gertrude tries to hold off:

“Let him go, Gertrude; do not fear our person. There’s such divinity doth hedge a king

That treason can but peep to what it would”

Act 4, Scene 5, Line 99/100/101


This is of course terrible hypocrisy, since an awareness of the ‘divinity’ surrounding Old Hamlet had not prevented Claudius from killing him.

By Claudius saying this, the idea of what makes a good monarch, and in particular a good king is explored through Hamlet.

There are contrasts made throughout between the Old Hamlet, as a good, noble man and Claudius as a murderer and a villain.



Influence on Hamlets Character– Earl of Essex & his madness.

Queen’s favourite – became greedy for money & attention.

Talked about leading a rebellion and when he finally did it, he failed and was then executed. Ultimately ended badly.

He was thought to be actually mad. Like Hamlet?

Deceived the Queen in order to gain land and patronage.

Shakespeare was well acquainted with Essex and some say Hamlet was written to tribute his life.

“Which might deprive you of your sovereignty and drive you into madness?”

Act 1, Scene 4, Line 76

Reference to madness.

Unable to rule his own mind but he hasn’t gone mad yet.  Foreshadowing.

Sanity can easily be taken away. Threat is always there.


  1. 1590’s Society, physical conditions& plague

In his first soliloquy, Hamlet says of the world, “things rank and gross in nature / Possess it” (1.2.136-137). He feels that the whole world is diseased, that it is “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed.” A plague swept through London in 1592/93 and wiped out around 20,000 inhabitants.  Shakespeare was perhaps referring to this plague, as just like many others he was afraid it would return.


“‘Tis now the very witching time of night, / When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out / Contagion to this world” (3.2.388-390), Hamlet says to himself, before going to see his mother in her closet. For “contagion” we would say “contagious disease.” Again this is a link to the Plague which was contagious and spread easily and quickly.


“It will but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whilst rank corruption, mining all within, / Infects unseen” (3.4.146-149), Hamlet tells his mother, warning her against thinking that his accusations are only a result of his madness. Most of us are not familiar with the sort of “ulcerous place” that Hamlet has in mind. It’s the kind of thing a drug addict might get from using a dirty needle. The infection under the skin eats away at the flesh, forming a pool of pus, and the skin above the pus gets crusty. These kinds of symptoms are often symptoms of the Plague.


“Do it, England; / For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me” (4.3.65-67). So says the King in a soliloquy at the end of the scene in which he sends Hamlet to England. “The hectic” is a high fever that won’t quit, and the King wants England to execute Hamlet. A fever was a very common and widely recognised symptom of the Plague that Shakespeare was very much aware of.


“This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace, / That inward breaks, and shows no cause without / Why the man dies” (4.4.27-29), says Hamlet of Fortinbras’ attack on Poland for a worthless little piece of ground. An “imposthume” is an abscess, and so once again the disease or poison is imagined as working below the surface, unseen, until it becomes deadly.


“O, this is the poison of deep grief” (4.5.75), says the King of Ophelia’s madness. In the same speech, the King complains about the people being “muddied, / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers” (4.5.81-82), and refers to rumours about Polonius’ death as “pestilent speeches” (4.5.91), meaning that they will spread like the plague.


“The canker galls the infants of the spring / Too oft before their buttons be disclosed” (1.3.39-40), says Laertes to  Ophelia, warning her of Hamlet and to stay away from hi,. The “canker” is a worm, and to “gall” is to break the skin. “Infants of the spring” is metaphor for early spring flowers, and their “buttons” are their unopened buds. In Laertes’ mind, Ophelia is like a young and unopened bud and the “canker” is her love for Hamlet. Laertes believes that Hamlet, being of royal blood, cannot marry Ophelia and therefore can only break her heart. Then she would be like the flower bud which has been eaten by a canker, hollowing out her heart. Worse, she could go to bed with Hamlet and get pregnant, and so be publicly shamed which was very highly frowned upon in society during Shakespearian times. Then that same worm that had hollowed out her heart would have broken the surface, ruining her reputation.


The King refers to rumours about Polonius’ death  as “Pestilent speeches” (4.5.91) meaning they will spread like the plague. ‘Pestilent’ meaning deadly/ destructive to life just as the plague epidemic was.


9.”Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open”

Laertes to Ophelia (1.3.27-39)

-Laertes tells her to guard her “chaste treasure”, not because he’s interested in chastity as a moral issue but because he believes Ophelia’s virginity is literally valuable. It’ll determine what kind of marriage offers she’ll get and what kind of family she can align herself with. This was a very important matter in 1590’s society as most women in that time were wives and mothers. Marriages were usually arranged, except for the poorest people, and divorce was unknown. Legally, girls could marry when they were 12 years old.


10.A little later Hamlet sarcastically asks forgiveness of his mother for trying to tell her some truths, “For in the fatness of these pursy times / Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg” (3.4.153-154). “pursy” means puffy or bloated. We might not consider a pursy person to be sick, but we could suspect that they would be a likely candidate for a heart attack. The meaning of “pursy” is echoed a few minutes later when Hamlet refers to Claudius as “the bloat king” (3.4.182),and again expresses disgust at the fact that his mother goes to bed with her husband.


“An unweeded garden” – Hamlet 1.2.135


The metaphor “an unweeded garden” creates an image of a neglected garden in the audience’s mind to imply the social disorder of the time. Plague epidemics were rife in London in 1592/93, wiping out around 20,000 inhabitants which could be what Shakespeare was referring to here with the quote “an unweeded garden”, perhaps afraid of its return. This quote also foreshadows the death of many characters in the near future with this image of plague which is a cause of mass death and havoc, as this “garden” has been forsaken and left to grow wild with no one to preserve its order.


“It will but skin and film the ulcerous place” – Hamlet to Gertrude 3.4.145


Here Hamlet is warning his mother against thinking that his accusations towards the king are nothing more than a result of his madness. The idea of a thin “film” could be the difference between Hamlet’s madness and his sanity for we, as readers, are unsure of whether Hamlet is still creating an antic disposition or if he truly has lost his mind with grief and vengeance. Shakespeare chooses the word “ulcerous” as a reference to the plague, as ulcers are usually one of its symptoms; an infection under the skin which eats away at the flesh and produces pus, just as Hamlet’s madness is eating away at his mind and causing him to become ill.


“Or lose your heart, or chaste treasure open” – Laertes to Ophelia 1.3.30


This quote demonstrates the patriarchal society in the 16th century; Laertes tells Ophelia to guard her “chaste treasure”, meaning protect her virginity as it was a valuable feature to have as a women. If a woman lost her virginity before marriage it could not be certain that any child conceived was the husband’s legitimate heir. Marriages were usually arranged in higher class families, and Ophelia’s chastity would determine what marriage proposals she would receive, however it was suggested earlier in the play that Hamlet and Ophelia had a sexual relationship which if discovered would jeopardise her chances at getting a respectable proposal- this being the main concern of her brother.



“Diseases desperate grown”

The plague- shows how unsettling and uncontrollable the situation of Hamlet’s father’s death was and the backlash and constant reoccurring issues that cropped up because of this (the death being a murder/the Queen’s sex life etc). Caused an almost snowball effect from the situation it was, and to the situation it became, as Hamlet fuelled the fire with his own mind, as if the disease in Hamlets mind grew. The plague was unprepared for and was hard to control, as the situation exacerbates until it is dealt with properly, much like something you want to stop growing.

Society- through the social norms the Queen has to deal with, in which she has to be married to have authority, the situation she is put in is directly linked to her control over the state, as if she has no man, she has no authority or power- these were the social norms. Her desperation to let the kingdom carry on growing, but not disease the state (letting a murderer rule the country), which could also relate to the quote “there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark”.


“We do sugar o’er

The devil himself”

The plague- Shakespeare must have lived his life in a perpetual state of fear. The amount of remedies and cures that circulated, the constant hope in healing the plague was sugar coating the fact that so many people died in London in 1592, the theatres were closed. Much like Hamlet sugar-coating his father’s death and how he is going to avenge him, when in actual fact he has not entirely convinced himself to do it yet.

The devil- In relation to Queen. In both situations of context of the time and the play, there are both characters that say everything is okay and everything will be fine, so the doctors of the time and the Queen, as each are trying to rectify a situation that is far from fixable. The Queen has a quick fix for her husband’s death and doctors thrived off of giving naive patients remedies that would ‘help them recover’, when in reality it just gave them a sense of comfort before their passing. Although they probably didn’t understand or know it at the time, they wouldn’t have realised the harm they had caused in the long run, as the Queen simply put her head in the sand and picked a new king as quick as she could, and the doctors just silenced the victims of the plague by giving them false hope.


  1. Social Structure and Women in Society


And yet within a month/(Let me not think on’t- frailty, thy name is woman)”- Hamlet


This quote reflects the common misogyny in Shakespeare’s time. Hamlet shows a particular obsession with what he perceives to be a connection between female sexuality and moral corruption. He indicates his disgust at her “sexual appetite” and believes that is why she marries Claudius so quickly. He implies that women are slaves to their desires – “frail”-too weak to be loyal. Hamlet is angrier at his mother initially as he associates with this marriage with her typical needs, rather than from a political point of view.


“I shall obey, my lord”- Ophelia


Ophelia has to listen to her father after a lengthy speech about why Ophelia should keep her distance from Hamlet and cannot trust him. As an unmarried daughter in a patriarchal society, Ophelia has no choice but to “obey”. We soon learn she refuses letters and refuses seeing Hamlet – until she gets used as bait to spy on Hamlet. This emphasises, how women were powerless over their own body, relationships or how they even speak (as they were viewed as property).



“I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.”- Hamlet


Hamlet uses the artificiality of cosmetics (paintings) as an analogy for women’s deception. Hamlet implies fake behaviour (acting innocent, walking, talking and dancing in an affected way) is like makeup which covers a “face”- makes a woman appear as something she’s not. In Shakespeare’s time it is evident women are seen as deceitful in many aspects, using Hamlet’s speech to Ophelia to portray that. How roles for women were more constrained…


‘’For on his choice depends / The safety and health of his whole state.’’ –Laertes

The role of social structure is reflected here. Laertes tells Ophelia that Hamlet cannot marry who he wants to- he has to marry someone for the good of the kingdom. In the 16th century, marriage was an opportunity to forge strategic political, social and economic alliances to get up the social hierarchy. Marrying for love was not very common due to class differences.


‘’Or lose your heart or your chaste treasure open.’’-Laertes


Losing her virginity as a woman will cause her to lose her honour in this context. This is evidently not a moral issue in general, rather about Ophelia’s chances for a future marriage being compromised.


‘’Do not, as some ungracious pastors do/ Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven/ whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine/ Himself the primrose path.’’ –Ophelia


Ophelia points out the double standards- Laertes advised her but is soon travelling to Paris and will most likely be promiscuous. This was a very common concept at the time- males generally had more freedom as gambling and prostitutes was acceptable for them. Moreover, this quote demonstrates that women at the time were very aware of this and were not as held back as we think.


‘’But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading.’’- Queen


The queen points out that the idea of reading is frowned upon as in the 16th century it was seen as a new activity. Not many people were literate at this time, therefore anyone seen reading was looked at in pity as they were isolated in this aspect. People who were able to read and access education were usually men of higher class so even the queen in Hamlet would have been illiterate.


‘’I shall obey you.’’- Queen


In Hamlet, the queen shows that even in such a high position her femininity was seen as a hinder to her power, by this she was unable to voice her opinions over the king, showing that even women in monarchy were not as strong. This weakness seen in queens contradicts to the time of Queen Elizabeth I who marched to the coast during the Spanish armada and wore battle armour to face them.


“She married. O most wicked speed!”- Hamlet


This shows that Hamlet is upset with the thought that his mother married too fast as she needed another man to depend on. During Shakespeare’s time Elizabeth was very different as she herself never married and used that as an image of control over her people. The fact that Gertrude did marry so quick shows that she didn’t have that control and women in general didn’t.


‘’You cannot call it love, for at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble/ And waits upon the judgement’’- Hamlet


Indeed, Hamlet’s reaction of disgust at Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius appears less to do with family honour, which was a big issue in the 16th century, and more to do with the disgust at her decision to enter into a sexual relationship at her age. At this time, the idea of a sexual relationship at that age was scandalous and something to be frowned upon, especially when it is seen as dishonouring the dead.


‘’Tender yourself more dearly.’’ –Polonius


By this, Polonius implies that Ophelia cannot sell herself too shortly. This idea comes from the 16th century whereby it was important not to lose social status by marrying off the daughter to someone of lower standing. Mothers and fathers spent much time doing the calculations and figuring out the best possible scenario for their family. Normally, families would put a dowry on their daughter which consisted of a good sum of money, as Polonius stated.


‘’She married. O most wicked speed!’’- Hamlet


Another side to the queen’s quick marriage as opposed to the political side was that in the 17th century divorce was a lengthy and expensive process and although it was mainly reserved for the wealthy, women could not file a divorce. This may have been the reason king Hamlet was killed so Claudius and the queen could be together.


‘if with too credent ear you list his songs…or your chaste treasure open.’

This quote shows just how important a woman’s chastity and modesty were, and even suggests that the mere mention of love comes close to damaging it. Pregnancy outside of marriage would have led to major public humiliation and damaged a woman’s reputation irreparably; Laertes and Polonius, therefore, warn Ophelia severely against accepting any form of Hamlet’s love, knowing the harm any rumours could cause her marital prospects, which could yield advantages to them. The contrast between the pardoning of Laertes’ supposed upcoming promiscuity in Paris in a following discourse highlights the double standard and women’s perceived inferiority or weakness in controlling and managing their own bodies.


‘What is between you? Give me up the truth.’

The fact that Polonius demands information regarding Ophelia’s love life (and the fact that she readily yields it) shows both the patriarchal structure of society at the time (men having complete power over information in the household) and the importance of a woman’s marriage. Women were seen as the property of their fathers and then husbands (due to this patriarchal social structure); but moreover marriage was a valuable opportunity for parents to exploit this ‘property’ and gain social position or financial benefits for their family. Polonius as well as the audience will also be aware of the strict class distinctions and the social necessity of marrying according to these boundaries. Thus, Polonius’s controlling Ophelia could be motivated by a genuine concern for her happiness in love and marriage, or simply a desire to ensure an advantageous and appropriate match for her; in any case it highlights the unchallenged and universal patriarchy of the time.


‘His father’s death and our hasty marriage.’

The character of Gertrude would present many parallels with the ageing Queen Elizabeth to early audiences. On one hand she is in a very similar position of high power and authority. Queen Elizabeth admitted that she had only ‘the body of a weak and feeble woman’, and was forced to present herself as sexual in order to maintain political power. The many references in the play, mainly by Hamlet, to his mother’s sexual activity are reminiscent of this idea and some critics have suggested that perhaps these show less of a fixation with her actual sex life, than an obsession with the at that time unusual political power of his mother. There is, however, one key difference between the two Queens; Gertrude does marry Claudius, whereas Elizabeth dies unmarried. Thus her marriage (and its urgent necessity in maintaining her power, shown in her use of ‘hasty’) indicates the actual lack of choice, control and power which most women at the time experienced.


‘Ay, madam, it is common’

Hamlet’s response to his mother’s discussion of his father’s death suggests he is dismissive of Gertrude and petulant towards the death of his father. Furthermore, he twists her banal statement into an aggressive accusation that she has acted in a predictable way, showing that women’s decisions were highly scrutinised at the time. Hamlet also insinuates that his mother has been promiscuous, which is consistent with the issue he takes with female sexuality throughout the play: associating it with moral corruption. However, like Queen Elizabeth I at the time, Gertrude is forced to exploit her image as a sexual female to maintain political influence, whilst retaining a ‘masculine head and heart’. Therefore, this quote reveals only Hamlet’s limited capacity to be politic, as he condemns his mother’s diplomatic behaviour as moral weakness.


‘I shall in all my best obey you, Madam’

Shakespeare’s depiction of Gertrude could be seen as a subversion of a typical female character at the time with no autonomy. Hamlet is seen to be obsequious to his mother, who has earned his respect by presenting herself as a paragon of female power. However, the queen is only an exception to this because she has professed her ‘masculinity’, therefore maintaining political sway. Gertrude assumes a similar role to Queen Elizabeth at the time, who professed to have ‘the heart of a King’ in 1588. Gertrude has discarded feminine traits to maintain the respect of her counterparts; highlighting the deep-rooted misogyny and condemnation of femininity at the time. The respect she has been given may have even been feigned or exaggerated by Hamlet, to create a disparity between his opinion of Gertrude and his low opinion of Claudius. In any case, this demonstrates that although women made sacrifices to maintain political influence, they were too often the subject of the political manoeuvring of men rather than having any autonomy themselves.












2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Context

  1. I am pleasantly surprised to find (only by chance) an extended adaptation of material from two of my syllabi in the above. As far as I was aware, neither had been published. I’m pleased to re-read the material here, but who are you and where did you find my syllabi?

    1. Hi – sorry if i’ve done something inappropriate (or one of my students have) – this website is simply a means of sharing information with students at my school. I’ve tried to acknowledge wherever i’ve lifted stuff from other sources. the website i created is a mix of my own work, students work, and references to other on-line sources. please let me know if you wnat me to remove anything that shouldn’t have been posted. thanks

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