Hamlet, the first in Shakespeare's series of great tragedies, was initially classified as a problem play when the term became fashionable in the nineteenth century. Like Shakespeare's other problem plays -- All's Well that End's Well, Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure -- Hamlet focuses on the complications arising from love, death, and betrayal, without offering the audience a decisive and positive resolution to these complications. This is due in part to the simple fact that for Hamlet, there can be no definitive answers to life's most daunting questions. Indeed, Hamlet's world is one of perpetual ambiguity.
Although those around him can and do act upon their thoughts, Hamlet is stifled by his consuming insecurities. From the moment Hamlet confronts the spirit of his father, and consistently throughout the play from that point on, what he is sure of in one scene he doubts in the next. Hamlet knows that it is the spirit of his father on the castle wall, and he understands fully its unmistakable cry for revenge. But, when he is alone, Hamlet rejects what he has witnessed in a maelstrom of doubt and fear:
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil; and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness, and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. (2.2.600-05.)
The emphasis on ambiguity in the play, and the absence of overt instruction on how to overcome such ambiguity is Shakespeare's testament to real life. Each one of us has experienced Hamlet's struggle to find the truth in a mire of delusion and uncertainty, often to no avail. As Kenneth Muir points out in Shakespeare and the Tragic Pattern:
[Hamlet] has to work out his own salvation in fear and trembling; he has to make a moral decision, in a complex situation where he cannot rely on cut-and-dried moral principles, or on the conventional code of the society in which he lives; and on his choice depend the fate of the people he loves and the fate of the kingdom to which he is the rightful heir. (154)
Hamlet also can be sub-categorized as a revenge play, the genre popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Elements common to all revenge tragedy include: 1) a hero who must avenge an evil deed, often encouraged by the apparition of a close friend or relative; 2) scenes of death and mutilation; 3) insanity or feigned insanity; 4) sub-plays; and 5) the violent death of the hero. Seneca, the Roman poet and philosopher, is accepted to be the father of such revenge tragedy, and a tremendous influence on Shakespeare. Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, written in 1592, is credited with reviving the Senecan revenge drama as well as spawning many other plays, such as Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, the Ur-Hamlet (see the sources section), and Shakespeare's own Titus Andronicus, in addition to Hamlet.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Introduction to Hamlet. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/hamletintroduction.html" > .
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare and the Tragic Pattern. London: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973.
"Of the five classic attempts by eminent scholars and poets to solve the baffling problem of Hamlet's conduct, the first four are subjective (the fourth being purely pathological), and the fifth is objective, or based solely on external circumstances.
The first and most famous is the so-called "sentimental" theory of Goethe, leading poet of Germany, advanced in his Wilhelm Meister (1795). Coming from such an eminent source, every consideration is due this opinion." Haven McClure. Read on...
Did You Know? ... An English translation of Belleforest's mid sixteenth-century Histories Tragiques appeared in quarto form in 1608. It is The Hystorie of Hamblet. The translation was possibly in circulation before this, but whether it or Shakespeare's work came first in unknown. The focus of Chapter Three of the The Hystorie of Hamblet is the closet scene and it is fascinating to compare it to Shakespeare's version. To say that Hamblet is more vengeful than our hero is an understatement:
"drawing his sworde thrust it into the hangings, which done, pulled the counsellor (half dead) out by the heeles, made an end of killing him, and beeing slaine, cut his bodie in pieces, which he caused to be boyled, and then cast it into a vaulte or privie, that so it mighte serve for foode to the hogges."