Main Themes in Hamlet
The play takes place in Elsinore, Denmark, which is a military town on the Eastern Coast of Denmark. Overlooking the sea, it is a hub for military watch over the sea to protect against impending attacks. The fortress contains most of the action of the play, which enhances the mood of being trapped. Many of the characters retreat to private places to give monologues, but a lot of the play occurs where other characters are present, creating an atmosphere that each character must be performing some version of themselves at all times, rather than giving in to authenticity.
The play’s motifs mostly revolve around issues of desire. One such issue is incestuous desire. The most obvious occurrence is with Claudius marrying his late brother’s wife, Gertrude. Although not strictly incestuous, it comes pretty close in a lot of people’s eyes. Less obvious is Hamlet’s obsession with his mother’s sexuality. He resents her for marrying Claudius so quickly after his father’s death and is tormented by the implications of this. Furthermore, Laertes has a suspicious fixation on his sister, and when she dies, he proclaims his deep love for her and even jumps into her grave to embrace her one last time. Related to this is the motif of misogyny. Most of the male characters of this play try to control the women in their families. Polonius and Laertes manipulate and control Ophelia. Hamlet wishes to control his mother and is hurt that he ultimately cannot because another man, Claudius, has stepped into her life.
What are the major themes in Hamlet?
- The Uncertainty of Life
- The Complexity of Action vs. Inaction
- Death and What is Means for Life
- How Rulership Affects a Nation’s Wellbeing
- Genuine Behavior vs. Performance
- Indecision Leading to Madness
The Uncertainty of Life
Although Hamlet has goals for action which center around revenge, he never really takes action like most people going for revenge would. Hamlet, being a deeply contemplative and brooding character, has a hard time deciding what the right thing to do in any situation is and this leads him to feel frustrated. Threatened with an impending attack by the Norwegians in the name of revenge, Hamlet is almost paralyzed with possibilities and realizes that nothing in this life will ever truly be certain, except for the fact that death will come eventually. In the meanwhile, life is a series of uncertainties that people have to find a way to navigate.
The Complexity of Action vs. Inaction
As is seen throughout the play, failing to action when action is due can create a slew of problems. Hamlet questions, again and again, how he can ever know when it is the right time to take action, and whether that action is truly the best course. This creates an emotional and psychological conundrum for poor Hamlet as he feels bound by honor to get revenge but just doesn’t know how to do it. He finds himself going mad after some time unable to make a decision and stick with it about how to act. However, some of the more impulsive characters like Claudius, Polonius, and Laertes all find tragedies coming their way due to their excessive willingness to just act. So where is the sweet spot?
Death and What is Means for Life
Hamlet becomes obsessed with the idea of death, realizing that every human will meet the same end, whether king or commoner. He wonders what happens after someone dies, thinking of his father’s ghost which he saw at the start of the play. Hamlet has deep spiritual questions about death that he just does not know how to answer, and this stresses him out. Hamlet questions whether or not he can morally commit suicide to relieve himself of his conundrums.
How Rulership Affects a Nation’s Well-being
A common theme in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet is no exception to speaking on this theme. When a nation’s rulership is under attack, the nation seems to suffer as well. For example, in Hamlet this is a lot of anxiety around the transfer of rulership once King Hamlet dies. This anxiety touches each character profoundly as they feel both lost and trapped at the same time, unable to control much beyond their own little personal sphere of influence.
Genuine Behavior vs. Performance
In this play there are instances of characters acting either for show or for a play-within-the-play. Hamlet notices several times that people seem to behave differently around certain individuals than they would just alone. He finds it hard to know who to believe and who to trust, uncertain of who is genuine with him and who is acting. At one part of the play, Hamlet asks a troupe of traveling actors to put on a play that acts out how he imagines Claudius murdered his father. All of this relates back to Hamlet trying to decipher what is real and what is fake because it is closely tied in to how he proceeds in his quest for revenge.
Indecision Leading to Madness
A prominent theme, Hamlet goes mad due to his indecisive nature. Although he has large reason to be suspicious of others, since Polonius, Claudius, and Gertrude are all enlisting characters to spy on Hamlet, he is largely feeling frustrated and uncertain of anything because of his own need to over-analyze every situation. He is indecisive because he cannot decide what the best course of action will be. He cannot trust anyone because he is always questioning whether or not people are being honest and genuine with him. Feeling lost and uncertain, he begins pondering the meaning of life as well as the meaning of death and his melancholy nature becomes so much that he feels unstable. However, he is truly not as unstable as Polonius, Claudius, and Gertrude make him out to be and there is no doubt that their actions heavily contribute to Hamlet’s characterization as someone who is intensely mad.