This is the Arden Shakespeare edition, with notes and critical introduction by Harold Jenkins. I plan to see this at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer. It isn’t quite my favorite Shakespeare tragedy (that’s still King Lear) but it’s certainly powerful.
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, completed in 1601 or 1602. The basic plot is from a Norse legend recounted in Saxo Grammaticus’s 12th century account of the history of Denmark. In the 16th century a longer version was written by the French writer Francois de Belleforest. An earlier play telling the story, is known to have existed based on contemporary references; scholars call it the Ur-Hamlet.
When the play opens, Hamlet’s father, the king, has recently died and his mother, Queen Gertrude, has married the deceased king’s brother, Claudius, who immediately succeeded him to the throne. Hamlet is disgusted she remarried so quickly – about a month after his father’s death. (Wouldn’t she have lost her seat as queen if she hadn’t married Claudius? It could be a political decision.) The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him and tells him that he was murdered by Claudius, and urges Hamlet to avenge his death – but tells him to leave Gertrude out of it (“Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive/Against thy mother aught”). I’m not sure what to make of this, but it’s interesting that the ghost doesn’t have the same resentment against her that Hamlet does.
The play is full of philosophical musings by the characters. For instance, in Act II, Scene II, Hamlet remarks that “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” The editor of this edition, Harold Jenkins, mentions a similar sentiment from the essayist Montaigne, whom Shakespeare had read: “That the taste of good or evils doth greatly depend on the opinion we have of them.” In the context that Montaigne was using this idea, though, “good” and “bad” are not a matter of ethics but a matter of pleasure and pain – what we find pleasing or painful is a matter of our attitude, not of the objective reality of pain and pleasure. (This doesn’t mean the same thing as “right and wrong depend on what we think about them.”) In the play, the context right before this famous line is Hamlet’s complaint to the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Denmark – and the world – have come to feel like a prison (because of his depression). They reply that they don’t think so, and he replies that to him it is a prison.
The first of Hamlet’s two most famous soliloquies is in Act I, in which he says that he wants to kill himself because his life has come to seem meaningless (“How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, / Seem to me all the uses of this world!”) but he won’t commit suicide for fear of eternal damnation. The second – “to be or not to be” is in Act III, scene II. Hamlet contemplates whether it’s better to struggle through life or commit suicide. He concludes that death would be better if it were not for the fear of the unknown that comes after death.
Jenkins has some interesting things to say about how critics have addressed the motives of the characters:
“Sometimes criticism has even denied what is in the text; for well over a century it was almost universally accepted that when Hamlet proposes to defer his revenge till he could send the king’s soul to damnation, he could not have meant what he said. In our day a race of critics has arisen who maintain that Hamlet should have disapproved of his father’s ghost as much as they do themselves.
This desire to explain what the play does not by supplying the characters with motives and reactions on the model of our own is part of that demand for psychological realism which has dominated dramatic criticism since the eighteenth century, encouraged by the rise of the novel, which can trace the inner workings of its characters’ minds to a degree that a play, presenting its persons through speech and action, cannot.”
Jenkins also discusses how Laertes’s quest for revenge parallels Hamlet’s: “if Laertes is to take vengeance upon his father’s killer, he must seek Hamlet’s life… the situation of revenge is now revealed as one in which the same man may act both parts.” This aspect of the plot shows what Hamlet could have been; Laertes is more resolved and less cautious than Hamlet. “Hamlet knew ‘the dread of something after death’ and the ‘conscience’ that makes men ‘cowards’ but but Laertes consigns ‘conscience’ to the profoundest pit of hell when he says ‘I dare damnation.’
The play’s view of revenge is ambivalent; there’s another passage near the end of Act II where Hamlet says he is “Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell.” Shakespeare doesn’t really reject the idea that Hamlet is obligated to avenge his father, but it seems to involve him in evil anyway, in some sense.
He shows how this is reflected in the Players’ recitation of the story of the fall of Troy in Act II, Scene II. The speech describes the slaughter of Priam, the king of Troy (from the Aeneid). In the endnotes, Jenkins says that Shakespeare’s emphasis on this aspect of the story is distinctive: “Though the element of revenge is inherent in the story of Pyrrhus (his father, Achilles, had been killed by Priam’s son Paris) it receives little stress in Virgil or the medieval writers.” (I haven’t read the Aeneid, but it’s on my TBR for this year.)