Hamlet Symbolism – Overview of Symbols

Hamlet Symbolism – Introduction

The play takes place in Elsinore, Denmark. During the time in which the play took place, it was an important military location for the country of Denmark. This location watches over the area of the sea that Denmark controlled, and the fortress kept an eye out for impending invasions. During the play, it is learned that the Norwegian prince, Fortinbras, is planning to attack Denmark out of revenge for his father’s death. This creates a mood of anxious uncertainty throughout the play.

During the course of the play, there are several motifs that speak to the play’s overall symbolism. Perhaps the most noticeable motif is misogyny. Hamlet is destroyed by his mother’s decision to marry Claudius after his father’s death. He wishes to control her and feels cynical about women when he realizes that ultimately, he cannot control her. When Hamlet is approached by Ophelia, he suggests that she join a nunnery rather than to be corrupted by sexuality and marriage. Similar to the misogyny motif, there is also a motif of incestuous desire. Hamlet is relatively obsessed with his mother’s sexuality and her union with Claudius. Some people also consider the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude as incestuous as well, since they were sister-in-law and brother-in-law before their marriage. Furthermore, Laertes seems to have an unhealthy attachment to his sister, as he argues with Hamlet about who could have loved her better after she dies. This all speaks back to the misogyny motif, in a sense, as it shows how the men of the play have strong desires to control and manipulate the women in their lives.

Another motif is hearing. Hamlet knows that words do not always represent the truth. His uncle, Claudius, killed his father by pouring poison into his ear. Hamlet also refers to information as being so volatile that it can ruin one’s hearing.

Symbols in Hamlet

Here’s a list of major symbols in Hamlet.

  • The Skull

Symbolism in Hamlet

symbols in hamlet

The Skull

Although the play overall does not find itself rich with symbolism in the form of objects, the skull from the graveyard scene is a noticeable exception. In Act V, Hamlet is watching as gravediggers prepare a grave and move old bones around to make room. He picks up a skull and is told that it belongs to Yorick, the late king’s jester. He is impressed that someone who he knew as a young boy is now merely dust and bones. In this intense moment of contemplation with the skull, he realizes that absolutely nobody escapes death. He notices how unglamorous death is, and that even kings will simply become food for worms one day. His famous “to be, or not to be” monologue occurs here as he wonders whether continuing to try and get revenge is really worth it in the end. In this moment, Hamlet becomes aware that he will die eventually, no matter what he does—so is there a point?