Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the most famous literary work ever written so you’d expect it to be full of puzzles, as indeed it is, one reason why so much critical ink has been expended on analysing it. If you’re coming to the play for the first time, however, given how fast-moving and complicated it is, it’s worth knowing something of the “backstory”:
Prince Hamlet is the son of King Hamlet, who dies in his orchard, apparently from a serpent bite.
But we soon discover that in fact the old king has been murdered – by his brother, Claudius, who pours poison in his ear while he is asleep. Claudius is then elected King in his place. Claudius also marries Gertrude, King Hamlet’s widow. (Gertrude, we discover, has probably been carrying on an adulterous affair with Claudius even before her husband died.)
Young Hamlet, the old king’s son – already miserable about the death of his father and his mother’s too hasty remarriage – hears the details of the murder from a ghost which he meets on the ramparts of Elsinore Castle. The ghost claims to be the spirit of his father and commands young Hamlet to take revenge.
The second part of the “backstory” concerns old King Hamlet’s dealings with his opposite number in Norway, King Fortinbras. The two kings, in a battle over a disputed piece of land, decided to settle the matter through a duel – or single combat. King Hamlet was the victor, killing King Fortinbras and winning control of the disputed land. Now King Fortinbras’s son (also called Fortinbras) wants to avenge his father and take back the land that was lost.
The third story of revenge concerns Laertes. Laertes is the son of Polonius, who is the counsellor, or Lord Chamberlain, at the Danish court, serving (first) old King Hamlet and then, when we meet him, Claudius. Polonius has another child as well as Laertes. This is Ophelia, who is in love with Hamlet – as, before the play begins, he seems to be with her.
The revenge plot involving Laertes does not begin until Act Three, when Hamlet, bent on killing Claudius, instead kills Polonius who has been foolilshly spying on him, hiding behind an arras, or screen. Laertes vows revenge – and the scene, as it were, is set for the terrible catastrophe with which the play ends.
There are many mysteries in the play which are worth bearing in mind as you watch it, or read it. Perhaps the most important is this:
Who or what is the Ghost? Is he really the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, and is he a “spirit of health” or a “goblin damned” (in Hamlet’s words)? The answer is never as clear as many critics would have you believe.
A second interesting question concerned the play-within-a-play known as “The Mousetrap”. With the aid of a group of visiting actors, Hamlet stages a performance in court which mirrors the murder of his father, hoping that Claudius (one of the audience) will be appalled by what he sees and gives himself away. Does he? Many critics think the answer is yes. Others (and our guide to the play takes this view) believe that he does not.
Here is one more question to reflect on while you watch or read the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are old friends of Hamlet’s who are sent for by Claudius to cheer him up and to find out why he is behaving so strangely. Many productions suggest they are no more than toadies and that Hamlet is quite right not to trust them. Is this true? And more importantly are they guilty of helping Claudius to try to murder Hamlet? Hamlet himself thinks they are and arranges for them to be put to death. But many critics argue that there is nothing in the play to suggest they are anything but entirely innocent and that Hamlet is quite wrong about this.
Obviously the summary above and the questions I’ve raised don’t seek even to begin to do justice to the complexity, philosophical richness, and extraordinary dramatic and emotional power of the play, the unforgettable language and imagery of Hamlet’s soliloquies, the incomparable portrait which Shakespeare gives us of a brilliant but tortured Renaissance scholar whose world has been destroyed, and whose world view is poisoned, as his father was literally poisoned, by the terrible catastrophe which befalls him.
If you want to read more about that, try our new e-book guide, available to pre-order on Amazon now!