Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a complex and multi‐faceted play bringing together many themes.
Shakespeare uses the framework of a REVENGE TRAGEDY to convey the ideas of the human condition and what it means to be human, appearances vs reality, social indoctrination vs our free will and the notion of betrayal and corruption. These themes are a reflection on society and humanity as a whole. They are explored through many characters, with some characters representing a key idea such as Horatio demonstrating humanistic characteristics.
Hamlet questions the social indoctrination that young men go through as they grow up. Traditionally and socially Hamlet is expected to avenger his father’s “foul and most unnatural murder” yet he struggles with this expectation. Hamlet does not want to be the one that has to avenge his father as shown in the rhyming couplet “O cured spite / That ever I was born to set it right”. One can argue that this is Hamlet’s own free will struggling with the social expectations placed upon him. This is in contrast to the actions of Laertes who “dares damnation” and “Vows, to the blackest devil” to avenge his father as per the social standard of the time. This is important to consider when responding to the text’s theme of the meaning of life.
Underneath Hamlet’s outer framework of a Kydian revenge tragedy lies the key Shakespearean theme of the human condition. The character Hamlet throughout the play explores, through his thoughts and particularly his soliloquies, the meaning of life. For example, Hamlet wishes that his
“too too solid flesh would melt” and that God has not “fixed his gun ‘gainst self‐slaughter”. Hamlet questions the meaning of life and what the point of it is. He wonders if Caesar might now “stop a hole” and if Alexander would “stop a beer‐barrel”. Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy show’s Hamlet’s struggle between avenging his father at the price of life own life or to simply “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Eventually, Hamlet comes to the conclusion that the struggles of life are futile because we all end up being “eaten” by worms. Hamlet then says that
“There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough‐hew them how we will.”
By linking the two ideas of social indoctrination and the human condition, it is possible to come to the conclusion that we simply do as we are expected to by society because no matter how we “hew” our actions, our “ends” are all the same. The play of Hamlet clearly shows this, Hamlet and Laertes both seek revenge; there are two difference approaches but the same ending. Hamlet himself states
“what a piece of work is man… this quintessence of dust”. Despite our best intentions to shape our future, we simply become part of the machine that is society which we have to mould to.
Hamlet also explores the idea of revenge as a motive for our actions. It is socially expected of him that he complete his revenge. As well there are other revengers in the play that carry out their duty that have revenge as expected of them. Laertes and Fortinbras also seek their revenge and their actions. The use of revenge is used to further and drive the plot. Many of the major turning points in the play derive from the need for revenge. Some productions such as the David Ritchie production have omitted the very last statement by Fortinbras in which order is restored, a Kydian convention.
Hamlet deeply explores the difference between what “seems” and what actually is. Hamlet is a play about the deceptions of reality. Hamlet’s “antic disposition” is a clear example of appearances not being what they seem. Hamlet on the surface appears crazy however underneath there is a clear, logical mind and sometimes Hamlet forgets his act such as when Polonius states “there is method in’t”. Even though Hamlet does not know the truth behind how Claudius comes to power, he states early on