Shakespeare Criticism: Volume 164 was published last Friday, 8 August. This volume contains essays and criticism of Hamlet, Richard III, and Shakespeare’s sonnets. Below is the opening passage to Hamlet.
For additional information on the critical and stage history of Hamlet, see SC, Volumes 1, 21, 35, 44, 59, 71, 82, 92, 102, 111, 120, 129, 137, and 147.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, more often known simply as Hamlet, was written at the midpoint of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright, around 1600. It is unknown which of the three major extant versions of the play is the most accurate. Most scholars concur that the one included in the First Quarto (1603), or “bad” quarto, was an unauthorized version of the play based on a remembered performance. The two remaining versions—those in the Second Quarto (1604-05) and the First Folio (1623)—differ significantly enough from one another that it is difficult to declare one definitive.
The play revolves around Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, who is alienated from and suspicious of his family and their court at Elsinore. Prince Hamlet is repeatedly visited by a vengeful spirit who claims to be the ghost of King Hamlet, his recently deceased father. The Ghost asserts that he was killed by Claudius, his brother, who then married his wife, Queen Gertrude, and usurped the throne. Although Prince Hamlet quickly agrees to avenge his father, he is slow to act. His desire for revenge is tempered by hesitation, doubt, melancholy, and self-conscious ruminations on the role he has been left to play. Moreover, he is constantly under watch. Claudius, Gertrude, and their retainers are keen to discover the prince’s loyalties. Hamlet perceives their interest and, using wit and affected madness,
exposes their intrigues.
Polonius, the king’s adviser, believes Prince Hamlet is mad with love for his daughter, Ophelia, and encourages her to spy on the prince—but without success. Frustrated by his own inaction, Hamlet contrives to stage a play to prove his uncle’s guilt. What follows is The Mouse-Trap, Hamlet’s meta-theatrical play within a play, also called The Murder of Gonzago, that restages his father’s murder. Hamlet interprets Claudius’s reaction to the performance as evidence of his uncle’s guilt, thus setting the play’s violent conclusion in motion. After Claudius stops the players, Hamlet kills Polonius in his mother’s chambers, mistaking him for Claudius. Soon, Ophelia dies too, by her own hand. Claudius exiles his nephew to England in the care of the spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but when pirates attack their ship, Hamlet escapes back to Denmark, where he faces greater chaos. Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, perish in the final scene, leaving only Hamlet’s true friend, Horatio, to tell their tale. . .
(For the full 102-page entry on Hamlet, see Shakespeare Criticism: Volume 164. The academic advisor for this entry is Bradley Greenburg at Northeastern Illinois University)