Hamlet has inspired more critical speculation and comment from critics and scholars than any other play by any dramatist in English literature, including Shakespeare himself. The play has become a cultural icon of our times. The first performance of Hamlet was in all probability within 1601 to 1602. Shakespeare put together the story of Hamlet on the basis of his familiarity of Ur-Hamlet, which in turn was based on an account of Hamlet in Belleforest and Saxo. But Shakespeare’s play was still distinct from the original Hamlet.
Hamlet is a revenge play. Revenge as an aspect of plot structure of the plays appears in many plays of Shakespeare, for example, in the “Richard II, ” and “Tempest. ” Hamlet has not one but four revenge plots. Hamlet commits himself to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Claudius, his uncle, who also marries his mother and usurps the throne of Denmark. Another son, Laertes, vows to take revenge for the killing of his father by Hamlet. Fortinbras invades the kingdom of Denmark to avenge his father’s death at the hands of old King Hamlet. And there is yet another son who vows “revenge” in Hamlet: Pyrhhus slaughters Priam, whose son had killed Pyrhuss’s father. Each plot of Shakespeare’s revenge play followed a structure, beginning with an “exposition” followed by “anticipation” and “confrontation” and “delay” leading to “fulfillment” or “completion” of the revenge. But what makes Shakespeare’s Hamlet a different and superior work is that even though, Hamlet is a revenge play, the focus of the play is on higher principles of life and living. The great poetic richness of the play raises it to a higher plane of enriched creativity and distances it away from the average revenge play and their insistent focus on blood, violence and amoral and villainous unthinking protagonists. Hamlet is less of a revenge play than a play about revenge.
Theatre is a theme in Hamlet. The play within the play is the central action of the play and is the key to the very mystery of the plot. Hamlet is full of references to the language of theater, like “ play, ” “ perform, ” “ applaud, ” “prologue, ” “part, ” etc. the play contains numerous private jokes, as if, shared between the actors of the play, such as the comment in act III by the actor playing Polonius: “ I did enact Julius Caesar. ” All the characters in the play have an obsessive compulsion to act a role. In the play, no opportunity is missed to exploit the potential of a theatrical situation: eight deaths, high pitched rhetorical speeches, the play-within-play, the fencing match, the graveyard scene, the duel between Laertes and Hamlet and numerous rhetorical speeches including Hamlet’s own soliloquies.
In the end, Hamlet turns out to be a great tragedy rather than a mere revenge play. In Hamlet, the extra human agency takes the form of the ghost and the tragic disaster occurs on account of Hamlet’s acts of commission or omission. Hamlet also is a religious play. The Christian element so predominates the play that Hamlet comes across as concerning himself with the theological questions of sin, damnation and salvation. Elizabethans had an obsessive concern with afterlife and believed in heaven, hell and purgatory.
In conclusion Hamlet has been treated as a study in melancholia and madness, as a study in ambition and political manipulation, as a philosophy can inquiry into a number of issues that feature in the writings of Montaigne, of even as a study the back part of characterization.
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