The Central Themes Presented in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark

6 June 2016

William Shakespeare is perhaps best known for being the father of plays. Of all playwrights, none can compare to Shakespeare’s style, creativity, and wit. A great example would be Hamlet which could perhaps be viewed as the best of all his plays. The lines of the play have been remembered in the minds of many that it is impossible not to remember, “To be or not to be.” This essay would discuss the central themes related to the play, Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, which is full of dark and gloomy details of life that exploring those details would mean a better understanding of the play. The themes of procrastination, death, and decay would be deeply examined in this paper along with a brief summary of the play itself.

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The Central Themes Presented in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark

Hamlet has always been regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays.  As T.S. Eliot (1922) contends, “In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others” (¶ 5). There exists the ghost, which may or may not be Hamlet Senior. As the instigator of the events that are to unfold, the Ghost may be from the Devil himself as Hamlet once feared. As the body count keeps piling up, at the end of the day no one can be too confident that the Ghost had anyone’s best interest in mind.

Then, there is Hamlet’s misogyny, “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Shakespeare, 1983, p. 1862) which is referring to more than Queen Gertrude’s hasty marriage but to womanhood itself.  He tells Ophelia, whom he loves, to give up all things of the world most especially physical intimacies and to closet herself into a nunnery. This bespeaks of an aversion to living, but that in itself is not death. There is also,the most driving question of all: Why cannot Hamlet make up his mind?  Why must he quibble and drabble?  His antics are of course most well-known: His hired players, his feigned madness and the unrelenting number of his soliloquies (seven in all) are central to the play.  Yet, he remained unable to avenge his father’s murder except to the very end of course. As Johnston (2007) has lectured:

Revenge dramas, from the Oresteia to the latest Charles Bronson Death Wish film, are eternally popular, because, as playwrights from Aeschylus on have always known, revenge is something we all, deep down, understand and respond to imaginatively (even if we ourselves would never carry out such a personal vendetta). The issue engages some of our deepest and most powerful feelings, even if the basic outline of the story is already very familiar to us from seeing lots of revenge plots (for the basic story line doesn’t change much from one story to another). (n.p.)

However, most readers and critics alike do acknowledge that the indecisiveness of Hamlet is indeed the heart of the matter.  This drives the play forward.

The mere question of whether the Ghost comes from Heaven or Hell had taken its wear and toll in Hamlet’s soul.  Delay or Hamlet’s procrastination therefore must lead us to the nature of procrastination itself:

The fundamental understanding of the procrastination definition is that, it is an act of delaying or putting off performing some tasks to a later period…Typically delaying the performance of some assignments can lead to a traumatic situation…The main reason for such delay in tasks may be avoiding or fearing of unpleasant outcomes in the assigned tasks. (Procrastination Advice, 2009, n.p.)

To murder your mother’s husband must indeed be a most unpleasant task, even though he may be at the same time the murderer of a beloved monarch and father, and an usurper-extraordinaire of a throne that rightfully belongs to the prince of Denmark. Howeverm Johnston (2007) carefully points out a conclusion that modern interpretation has carefully credited as plausible, if not acceptable:

…impossible for Hamlet to carry out. It’s not that he is by nature irresolute, too poetical or philosophical, or suffers from medical problems or a weakness of will. It is, by contrast, that this particular assignment is impossible for him.

…he is incapable of killing the man who sleeps with his mother because that would mean that he would have to admit to himself his own feelings about her, something which overwhelms him and disgusts him. (n.p.)

However, any mere interpretation of Hamlet as an Oedipal product seems superficial.  This does not mean that the desire is not there, but it is not enough.  It cannot seem to justify Hamlet’s procrastination and therefore it is inadequate. Let us not be blind to the fact that vengeance, though biblically belongs to the Lord, is the driving force of the actions in the play: “There is the striking parallel of three sons—Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras—each seeking to avenge a murdered father. Hamlet and Fortinbras (who have both been deprived of their thrones by their uncles) are the inheritors of a blood- feud” (Hornstein, Brown, & Brown, 1973, p. 315).

Moreover, Fortinbras’ father was killed by the elder Hamlet and Laertes’ father was killed by Hamlet who mistook the hidden Polonius for the king. Yet, Hamlet, who has most to avenge, is the last to act. Only the death of Gertrude who inadvertently drank the poisoned cup that Claudius’ perfidy had prepared compels him to use the sword as an instrument of death – of others and not of himself. This is because Hamlet was fighting the great human instinct until the very end to give in to baser desires—vengeance. He was fighting against the decay that permeated the whole of the Court of Elsinore as it is often illustrated as having a “physical body made ill by the moral corruption” (Phillips, 2009, n.p.).

Consider, the people, though Hamlet is loved and popular, allow Claudius to sit on the throne sullied by murder and an incestuous and hasty marriage (Hamlet Senior and Claudius are brothers).

Why have they allowed this injustice to remain?  Even Elizabeth in Shakespearean time was keen to her subjects’ gossip and opinions, but why was not there a murmur of protest even raised? Were the queen and the new king lovers even before the death of old King Hamlet?  Even the old king is tainted with the blood of others.  The old warrior’s hands are drenched in the blood of Fortinbras’ father. Were the people weak, the state weakened not only by the corrupting influence of Claudius and Polonius, but of the years before when war played so much havoc in the affairs of the kingdom?

Vengeance itself is the last recourse when nothing can be done.  Hamlet could not act against a sitting monarch; Laertes could only connive with the corrupt king because his father’s murderer is a prince and Fortinbras could only move against the kingdom because it is quite obvious that royalty have their own rules. It was as Hamlet laments it: “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! / Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!” (Shakespeare, 1983p. 1862).

For how does one fight the inevitable decay of the soul, if the environment that must foster nobility of the soul does not exist?  Hamlet lives in a world at odds with himself as he himself is at odds with himself. Thus, this state of uncertainty is pushing him to the path of suicide.  Like all young people (Hamlet was a university student before his studies was interrupted by his father’s murder) who are faced with a dilemma or situation that because of their age, inexperience or inarticulacy, they could not resolve—they turn to death.

How common it is to say, “I wish I could die,” when faced with embarrassment or one’s own inabilities.  Hamlet is unable to fulfill and carry on the task that he, as society and culture mandates, must do.

This is the source of his procrastination. Hamlet is ironically, both cruelly and nobly, indecisive but acts when he wants to.  His uncertainties are the doubts that all men and women face – when they are challenged from within.  o give in to the world that says that vengeance is acceptable, the power is desirable no matter how it is gained, that love must be sacrificed—that the self is paramount and is above everything else. For how then can one explain the ease by which Polonius has corrupted innocent Ophelia to the point that she spies on the man she loves?  That she is driven to madness and death when Hamlet spurns herself, though harsh and cruel, is inevitable.

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