Hamlet is widely hailed as the first modern play in the English language. Which characteristics of its central character might account for this label?
Hamlet is considered the first modern play partly because of the psychological depth of its main character -- Hamlet suffers from melancholy, self-doubt, and even delusions. The audience never quite knows what Hamlet is thinking, or what is real. In fact, Hamlet himself declares again and again that he doesn't understand his doubts either ("I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.")
Death is a constant presence in this play. Does Hamlet's speech to Yorick's skull represent a philosophy of death? How does his attitude toward death differ from that of the gravediggers?
Death was a much more ordinary presence in Elizabethan England than it is in the modern world. Infant mortality was high and plagues swept whole nations. In this sense, the gravediggers exhibit a much more realistic approach to death than most people. Hamlet uses the occasion for a more general examination of mortality. His attitude toward death is not necessarily inconsistent with that of the gravediggers, but it is different in his emphasis on metaphysical rather than physical implications of death.
Does the text hold up to a Freudian reading of Hamlet's relationship with his mother? How does Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia support, complicate or work against an Oedipal interpretation of the play?
Certainly Hamlet does visit his mother's bedchamber, and is immensely interested in her sexual relationships with other men, both of which are classic elements of an Oedipal complex. Freud's reading of the play may have influenced his sexual theories—but it is important to remember the order of events, especially because scholars tend to label Hamlet "Freudian." Better stated, Freud is Shakespearean, not the other way around.
"To be or not to be" is the famous question that Hamlet poses in Act Three, Scene One. Explore this speech. What does he mean by this famous question? What events of the play prompt this speech?
Hamlet is musing about death, but whose death, or what kind of death, is frustratingly difficult to pin down. He is perhaps contemplating suicide, perhaps thinking about the risks he must run in order to fulfill the task of revenge. He has an audience of Ophelia, Polonius and Claudius, who are eavesdropping on him; but he most likely does not realize that they are present.
The play within a play, the long soliloquies wherein Hamlet faces the audience and speaks to them directly, the vivid discussions of whether or not Hamlet is "acting" mad -- there are many elements of Hamlet that call attention to its status as a play, rather than reality. By showing the trappings of theater and non-reality, does Shakespeare make Hamlet's suffering seem more acute or more distant? How?
"Life's but a stage," another Shakespearean character proclaims, and the playwright recognized quite well the dramatic trappings of life and the life-like elements of staged productions. Soliloquies are modern in that they break what is much later termed the "fourth wall" separating audience from stage; the character speaks directly to the audience. Although the whole atmosphere seems patently false and theatrical, this serves to draw Hamlet somehow closer. Somehow, the effect of such "metatheatrical" gestures is to show not how different acting is from life, but how similar life is to acting.
In terms of the usual categorizations, Shakespeare's tragedies end in death, his comedies in marriage. By this measure, Hamlet is a tragedy. But Shakespeare's best plays are a tragicomic mix. Choose and discuss two comical or farcical elements in Hamlet.
The scene with gravediggers is a good example of tragedy mixed with comedy. The work is morbid, but the workers joke and sing as they go about their business. They seem totally unaware of the majestic tragedy unfolding itself in the castle nearby. On a smaller level, Yorick's skull embodies the tragicomic dichotomy; it is a gruesome, deathly object that once belonged to a joker. There are several other comic scenes, including much of Hamlet's dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and most of Polonius' scenes before his death. This gruesome mixture of pathos and humor is the essence of Shakespearean theater.
Define revenge. Is Hamlet a traditional revenge play? What other forces are at work in Hamlet's psyche?
Revenge is traditionally the cold-blooded pursuit to make up for one hurt with a strike against its perpetrator. Revenge is usually violent. Hamlet is hardly a traditional play of revenge, because the main character is so uncertain and ambivalent about both the original strike and what he should do about it. Melancholy and uncertainty play just as large a role in Hamlet's character as the desire for revenge.
Discuss the setting of Hamlet. What effect does setting the psycho-drama in a bleak northern castle -- similar to that in Macbeth -- have on the characters and audience?
From the script, the audience gathers that Elsinore Castle is a remote place in northern Europe. Not much else is known: there were no sets in Shakespeare's time. But the setting certainly matches Hamlet's melancholy mood, and the isolation of the place helps make the violence and implied incest believable.
The play begins with the fantastical appearance of a ghost. Are we meant to believe that this is really Hamlet's father, or is he a figment of Hamlet's imagination? If he is imagined, is the rest of the play imagined as well?
Hamlet struggles with the question of whether the ghost is his father and decides that he must be who he says he is. The audience remains in doubt, however, because of the ghost's claim that he comes from Purgatory (blasphemous in Elizabethan England), and the fact that Gertrude is unable to see it when it appears to Hamlet in her chamber. One of the moral questions of the play is resolved, however, when it becomes clear that Claudius is a murderer. Whether the ghost is Old Hamlet or a demon, he has told the truth about Claudius' guilt.
Can a healthy state be presided over by a corrupt ruler? Shakespeare draws frequent comparisons between the moral legitimacy of a leader and the health of a state. Is Denmark's monarchy responsible for the demise of the state in this play?
At the end of the tragedy, it is not only Hamlet and most of the characters who die. The entire state of Denmark fails after Norway invades, and the health of the nation seems very much wrapped up with the moral state of the leader. This accords with the medieval idea of the "body politic" with the leader making up the head, literally, and the people the body of a personified state.
HAMLET ESSAY TOPICS
"Hamlet" is Shakespeare's perpetual masterpiece of all centuries and generations. Its main character, Hamlet, is a person who rises above the grey mold of his time, philosopher, who possesses unrivalled power of eloquence, true poet, who struggles against injustice and stands up for truth. This unique image of the Denmark prince, created by William Shakespeare, has no equal in the world literature.
It is considered to be impolite not to know whom the phrase "To be or not to be" belongs to. So every person with respect for himself should be acquainted with this literary work.
Choosing one of a great diversity of Hamlet essay topics always presents a lot of difficulties, as you never know where to begin with, when writing a Hamlet essay. With this list of Hamlet essay topics you won't be at a loose end, as you can choose from a broad spectrum of approaches for Hamlet essay writing.
Hamlet Essay Topics
- Aristotle said that consistency and probability are the two most important elements in the drama. Does Shakespeare, in creating the characters in Hamlet, follow or ignore this idea? You may consider both major and minor characters.
- Write an essay on the function of the soliloquies in Hamlet.
- Discuss the function of a particular trope, such as Shakespeare's use of the military or theatrical.
- Discuss Shakespeare's use of figures from nature (weeds, worms, et al.) or of sickness, rot and contagion.
- Examine how Shakespeare makes use of classical allusions.
- Discuss Hamlet's "antic disposition." Is his madness feigned or real?
- Conflict is essential to drama. Show that Hamlet presents both an outward and inward conflict.
- Is Hamlet primarily a tragedy of revenge?
- Discuss Hamlet's relationship with Gertrude.
- How important is the general setting of Denmark to the overall play?
- Why does Hamlet delay taking revenge on Claudius?
- The character Claudius has been compared to Macbeth. How similar are these two characters? In what ways are they similar?
- Compare Laertes with Hamlet: both react to their fathers' killing/murder. Is the reaction of either right or wrong?
- Compare and contrast the characters of Hamlet and Horatio. How alike or dislike are they and why?
- Hamlet remarks, "His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy." Explain Hamlet's motivation behind this comment and examine how true his remark is.
- How important is the Ghost in the triangular relationship of Hamlet, Gertrude, and Claudius?
- Although Hamlet ultimately rejects it at the end of the play, suicide is an ever-present solution to the problems in the drama. Discuss the play's suggestion of suicide and imagery of death, with particular attention to Hamlet's two important statements about suicide: the "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt" soliloquy and the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy.
- Why did Ophelia commit a suicide? What was the reason of this deed?
- Select one of Hamlet soliloquies and by a detailed attention to the poetry discuss the nature of Hamlet's feelings as they reveal themselves in this speech. What insights might this speech provide into the prince's elusive character?
- Select a particular scene in and discuss its importance in the play. How does this particular part of the action contribute significantly to our response to what is going on? What might be missing if a director decided to cut this scene (e.g., Claudius at prayer, the scene between Polonius and Reynaldo, the gravedigger scene)
- Discuss Hamlet's treatment of and ideas about women. How might these help to clarify some of the interpretative issues of the play? You might want to consider carefully the way he talks about sexuality.
- Hamlet's flaw is that he fails to act on instinct - he thinks too much.
- Discuss the importance of appearance and reality in Hamlet.
- Reveal the philosophy of Hamlet by his affectionate love to theater.
- Hamlet and Orestes have similar challenges, and their stories are, in many respects, quite alike. In what ways are the heroes significantly different?
- What is the role of symbolic image of the Yorik's skull in the play?
- Is something rotten in the state of Denmark? If so, what precisely is it? Is anyone in particular responsible or is the rottenness simply a condition of life?
- Write an essay defending one of the following options. "Hamlet is . . . -a noble prince who suffers from a corrupt world that is not suitable to his sensitive moral nature; -a true poet."
- Think about Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia. Does he love her? Does he stop loving her? Did he ever love her? What evidence can you find in the play to support your opinion?
- Consider Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's role in the play. Why might Shakespeare have created characters like this? Are they there for comic relief, or do they serve a more serious purpose? Why does the news of their deaths come only after the deaths of the royal family in Act V, as if this news were not anticlimactic? Is it acceptable for Hamlet to treat them as he does? Why or why not?
- Analyze the use of descriptions and images in Hamlet. How does Shakespeare use descriptive language to enhance the visual possibilities of a stage production? How does he use imagery to create a mood of tension, suspense, fear, and despair?
- Analyze the use of comedy in Hamlet, paying particular attention to the gravediggers, Osric, and Polonius. Does comedy serve merely to relieve the tension of the tragedy, or do the comic scenes serve a more serious thematic purpose as well?
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