Study Guide

Hamlet in Hamlet

By William Shakespeare


(Click the character infographic to download.)

What's Up with Hamlet?

Hamlet is a teenager... right? After all, he sure acts like one. He's a moody and smart-alecky kid with suicidal tendencies, a penchant for wearing black mourning clothes, and a habit of delivering long, drawn-out speeches on the futility of life. But in Act 5, Scene 1, the gravedigger pretty much tells us he's thirty. Thirty?! Well, not everyone agrees on this point—and Shmoop just can't seem to picture him as an adult. He's just too darn dramatic.

In his first soliloquy, he tells us he wishes his "too, too sullied flesh would melt / Thaw, and resolve itself into dew" and that the world seems "weary, stale, flat," like an "unweeded garden (1.2.133-134; 137; 139). Pretty intense stuff, right? And he's got some pretty intense problems: it turns out his father, Old King Hamlet, died less than two months ago, so Hamlet's feeling the loss. To make matters worse, his mother, Gertrude, has already remarried and is now the wife of Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, who's also helped himself to the Danish crown. (Did we mention that Hamlet's new stepdad also calls him a wimp for being sad about his father's death?)

And then a ghost claiming to be Old King Hamlet's spirit shows up, tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle/stepfather, and basically orders Hamlet to take revenge. Great! We can get behind a revenge tragedy—only that's not what happens. Instead, Hamlet pretends to be a madman, runs around delivering lengthy philosophical speeches, verbally abuses his girlfriend, stabs his girlfriend's father in the guts, and terrorizes his mother.

Hmm. Sounds more like an episode of Days of Our Lives than the greatest play in the history of the world. Yet, that's what makes Shakespeare's character (and the entire play) so bizarre —and so brilliant. Hamlet's complex psychological response to life and death, his mother's sexuality, and the implications of avenging his father's murder is like taking a psychological roller coaster ride.

Hamlet and Sex

So, you've probably noticed that Hamlet is seriously angry with his mother—especially her sex life. Here's what Hamlet says in his first soliloquy after he tells us he wants his "flesh" to "melt."

That it should come to this:
But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two. 
So excellent a king, that was to this 
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and Earth, 
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him 
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on. And yet, within a month
(Let me not think on 't; frailty, thy name is woman!) 

OK, we get that Hamlet's ticked that mom's moved on so quickly —less than two months after his old man died. Fine. But here's the thing: Hamlet says he can hardly stand to "remember" the way his mother couldn't get enough of his father when he was alive —"she would hang on him" with a major sexual "appetite" that she seems to have simply transferred over to her new husband.

So what's the deal? Is he mad that Gertrude is into her new husband, or that Gertrude is into any man at all, including his dead dad? And check out that, by the end of this passage, Hamlet's attitude toward his mom has generously expanded to include all women, who, according to Hamlet, are "frail," or morally weak, because they're so lustful. But this also has major consequences for Hamlet's relationship with his girlfriend—it might even drive her all the way to her death. (You can check out our discussion of "Sex" and "Gender" if you want to know more about Hamlet's attitude toward women and sexuality in general.)

Hamlet and The Really Big Question

That's interesting and all, but, truth: there's only one big question we're really interested in. Why does Hamlet delay so long in carrying out his revenge? We (and scholar-types) have a few theories.

Theory #1: He doesn't believe the ghost.

The political and religious turmoil of the Protestant Reformation were only a few decades in the past when Hamlet was written, and these new Protestants had different views of Christianity than the previous ruling team, the Catholics. From what the ghost says, it sounds like he's coming from Purgatory, a sort of waiting room where souls chilled out before they could get to Heaven.

But Protestants denied the existence of Purgatory. This means the ghost may be a demon from hell, which is why Hamlet wonders if the spirit is a "goblin damned" (1.4.44). So what is Hamlet —Protestant or Catholic?

Protestant. Hamlet's chilling in Denmark, which is definitely Protestant nation, and he goes to the University of Wittenberg (where all the cool kids go), which was Martin Luther's university and also home to the church door he so famously nailed his theses to. This means the ghost could possibly be a devil that has come to tempt him and is, therefore, not telling the truth about Old Hamlet's murder.

Theory #2: Hamlet has some scruples.

There's a famous passage in the Christian Bible, from Romans, xii, 19: "Avenge not yourselves […] vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord."

Translation: It's not man's place to take vengeance on anyone, period. That's God's job. Plus, everyone knows that murder is a sin. Shakespeare's inclusion of Christian morality doesn't necessarily square with the basic tenets of revenge tragedy, which calls for bloody vengeance. (See "Genre" for more on this.)

At work in Hamlet is also the notion of the old, pagan revenge code that says when someone kills your father, you have to get your revenge on. Which, of course, means that person's kid will eventually kill you, and so on and so on ad infinitum until everybody dies and entire families are wiped out. What does that mean? Hamlet is a Christian hero with a pagan duty. Pretty confusing, whether you're 13 or 30.

Theory #3: Hamlet stinks. Shakespeare stinks.

We're not kidding. Some people say that you can't answer the question of why Hamlet delays seeking revenge because there is no answer. Stop trying to preserve the play's integrity and/or psychological accuracy, because there isn't any to be preserved. Who thought this? Oh, just super famous author Voltaire. And super famous poet T. S. Eliot.

According to this school of thought, Hamlet is only "mysterious" to us because he's a poorly drawn dramatic figure. Shakespeare didn't give him enough of a motive to make any sense of his behavior. But remember from your lesson in Historical Context that there's a Renaissance crisis going on at the time: nothing is supposed to make sense. Around 1600, everyone's confused about religion, geography, and the state of the universe. If a play doesn't make sense… maybe it's not supposed to. Hamlet is full of contradictions, inconsistencies, and uncertainties —just like the rest of the world at the time.

Theory #4: Hamlet suffers from an Oedipus Complex

Some people believe Hamlet is, in some ways, a re-telling of Oedipus the King by Sophocles. Doesn't ring a bell? Oedipus was an ancient Greek king who, according to legend, was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Fast-forward to the late 19th or early 20th century, and you've got Sigmund Freud going around talking about the "Oedipus Complex," which basically says every man wants to do what Oedipus did. Sure, Freud came around a few hundred years after Hamlet —but since Oedipus the King was written in the 400s B.C., it's safe to say that it's an old idea.

Bear with us on this for a minute. Let's say Hamlet does suffer from an Oedipus Complex. If this is true, then Claudius has done what Hamlet wants to do: kill King Hamlet (senior), and sleep with Gertrude. Hamlet can't kill Claudius, because secretly, he wants to be Claudius. If you want to add some weight to this theory, check out all those scenes where Hamlet displays a gnawing obsession with his mother's sexuality, down to the tiny details in his imaginings of her and Claudius getting it on. Also, think about it this way: if Claudius is in a way like Hamlet, then killing Claudius would be like killing himself. Revenge would be like suicide, which is why the two get so mixed-up, and why Hamlet has the same feelings about both.

When you put it like that, it sounds pretty convincing, right?

Regardless of what school of thought you subscribe to, there is no question that Hamlet is one of the most complex, compelling, and fascinating characters in literary history. Shakespeare created a hero whose inner thoughts and quandaries dominate the audience's experience of him… and literature hasn't been the same since.