critical approaches to hamlet


  • Scholars have made comparisons between this explanation of Calvin’s and the frequent references made to the theatre in Hamlet, suggesting that these may also take reference
    to the doctrine of predestination, as the play must always end in its tragic way, according to the script.

  • [3] Romantic criticism[edit] Already before the Romantic period proper, critics had begun to stress the elements of the play that would cause Hamlet to be seen, in the next
    century, as the epitome of the tragedy of character.

  • Hamlet seems the most educated in the rhetoric of all the characters, using anaphora, as the king does, but also asyndeton and highly developed metaphors, while at the same
    time managing to be precise and unflowery (as when he explains his inward emotion to his mother, saying “But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”).

  • [3] Mid- and late-twentieth century[edit] Later critics of the century, such as T. S. Eliot in his noted essay “Hamlet and His Problems”, downplayed such psychological emphasis
    of the play, and instead used other methods to read characters in the play, focusing on minor characters such as Gertrude, and seeing what they reveal about Hamlet’s decisions.

  • Even more important was the question of decorum, which in the case of Hamlet focused on the play’s violation of tragic unity of time and place, and on the characters.

  • In his day, plays were usually expected to follow the advice of Aristotle in his Poetics, which declared that a drama should not focus on the character so much as action.

  • Goethe had one of his characters say, in his 1795 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, “Shakespeare meant…to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul
    unfit for the performance of it…A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear, and must not cast away.”

  • Many scholars have found it odd that Shakespeare would, seemingly arbitrarily, use this rhetorical form throughout the play.

  • This is also the period when the question of Hamlet’s delay is brought up, as previously it could be seen as plot device, while romantics focused largely on character.

  • Like Richardson, Mackenzie concludes that the tragedy in the play arises from Hamlet’s nature: even the best qualities of his character merely reinforce his inability to cope
    with the world in which he is placed.

  • [20] However, even before the Romantic period, Hamlet was (with Falstaff), the first Shakespearean character to be understood as a personality separate from the play in which
    he appears.

  • Rather than being a direct influence on Shakespeare, however, Montaigne may have been reacting to the same general atmosphere of the time, making the source of these lines
    one of context rather than direct influence.

  • [3] The play’s contemporary popularity is suggested both by the five quartos that appeared in Shakespeare’s lifetime and by frequent contemporary references (though at least
    some of these could be to the so-called Ur-Hamlet).

  • [36] Analysis and criticism Dramatic structure[edit] In creating Hamlet, Shakespeare broke several rules, one of the largest being the rule of action over character.

  • Bradley held the view that Hamlet should be studied as one would study a real person: piecing together his consciousness from the clues given in the play.

  • Freud also viewed Hamlet as a real person: one whose psyche could be analyzed through the text.

  • Scholars have wondered whether Shakespeare was censored, as the word “predestined” appears in this one quarto of Hamlet, but not in others, and as censoring of plays was far
    from unusual at the time.

  • Scholars have wondered whether Shakespeare was censored, as the word “predestined” appears in this one Quarto of Hamlet, but not in others, and as censoring of plays was far
    from unusual at the time.

  • Hamlet was written later in his life, when he was better at matching rhetorical figures with the characters and the plot than early in his career.

  • [41][b] The play’s Protestantism lies in its location in Denmark, a Protestant (and specifically a Lutheran) country in Shakespeare’s day, though it is unclear whether the
    fictional Denmark of the play is intended to mirror this fact.

  • [3] Twenty-first century[edit] The scholar Margreta de Grazia, finding that much of Hamlet scholarship focused on the psychological, dedicated her work Hamlet without Hamlet
    to understand the political in the play.

  • In 1774, William Richardson sounded the key notes of this analysis: Hamlet was a sensitive and accomplished prince with an unusually refined moral sense; he is nearly incapacitated
    by the horror of the truth about his mother and uncle, and he struggles against that horror to fulfill his task.

  • The story of Pyrrhus, told by one of the acting troupe, for example, shows Hamlet the darker side of revenge, something he does not wish for.

  • Hamlet frequently admires those who are swift to act, such as Laertes, who comes to avenge his father’s death, but at the same time fears them for their passion, intensity,
    and lack of logical thought.

  • “[45] King James, as well, often wrote about his dislike of Protestant leaders’ taste for standing up to kings, seeing it as a dangerous trouble to society.

  • [45] King James, as well, often wrote about his dislike of Protestant leaders’ taste for standing up to kings, seeing it as a dangerous trouble to society.

  • Similarly, the question of “delay” must be seen in the context of a stage play—Hamlet’s “delay” between learning of the murder and avenging it would be about three hours at
    most—hardly a delay at all.

  • God, in this light, sets up a script and a stage for each of his creations, and decrees the end from the beginning, as Calvin said: “After the world had been created, man
    was placed in it, as in a theater, that he, beholding above him and beneath the wonderful work of God, might reverently adore their Author.”

  • The most extended critique of the play’s language from the end of the century is perhaps that of Hugh Blair.

  • [11] He also defends Ophelia by describing her actions in the context of her desperate situation; D’urfey, by contrast, simply claims that Dennis has discerned immorality
    in places to which no one else objected.

  • [33] Another change occurred right around the Romantic literary period (19th century), known for its emphasis on the individual and internal motive.

  • English Puritans, for example, believed that conscience was a more powerful force than the law, due to the new ideas at the time that conscience came not from religious or
    government leaders, but from God directly to the individual.

  • English Puritans, for example, believed that conscience was a more powerful force than the law, due to the new ideas at the time that conscience came not from religious or
    government leaders, but from God directly to the individual.

  • Scholars have pointed out that knowledge of the play’s Catholicism can reveal important paradoxes in Hamlet’s decision process.

  • The idea that nothing is real except in the mind of the individual finds its roots in the Greek Sophists, who argued that since nothing can be perceived except through the
    senses, and all men felt and sensed things differently, truth was entirely relative.

  • [38] Hendiadys is one rhetorical type found in several places in the play, as in Ophelia’s speech after the nunnery scene (“The expectancy and rose of the fair state” and
    “I, of all ladies, most deject and wretched” are two examples).

  • On the one hand, Shakespeare was seen as primitive and untutored, both in comparison to later English dramatists such as Fletcher and especially when measured against the
    neoclassical ideals of art brought back from France with the Restoration.

  • [21] Not until the late 18th century did critics and performers begin to view the play as confusing or inconsistent, with Hamlet falling from such high status.

  • Later criticism has come to consider this view as much a reflection of Coleridge’s own problematical nature as an insight into the Shakespearean character.

  • [46] Throughout the play, Shakespeare mixes the two religions, making interpretation difficult.

  • Not until late in the play, after his experience with the pirates, is Hamlet really able to be direct and sure in his speech.

  • [c] Scholars have pointed out this section’s similarities to lines written by Michel de Montaigne in his Essais: Who have persuaded [man] that this admirable moving of heavens
    vaults, that the eternal light of these lampes so fiercely rowling over his head, that the horror-moving and continuall motion of this infinite vaste ocean were established, and continue so many ages for his commoditie and service?

  • Claudius demonstrates an authoritative control over the language of a King, referring to himself in the first person plural, and using anaphora mixed with metaphor that hearkens
    back to Greek political speeches.

  • For Coleridge, Shakespeare depicted Hamlet’s light of indecisiveness as resulting from an imbalance between the human attention to external objects, and inward thoughts, and
    thus suffered a paralysis of action because his faculty of vivid imagination overpowered his will and induced an aversion to actually enacting any measure [34] For Coleridge, Shakespeare aimed to convey the basic message that man must act,
    and not be trammeled by excessive thinking that only leads to delay.

  • [31] They stated,” It is vulgar and barbarous drama, which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France or Italy… one would imagine this piece to be a work of
    a drunken savage.

  • Even the many critics who defended Hamlet took for granted the necessity of the classical canon in principle.

  • Seen in the same context, Hamlet is quite possibly as mad as he is pretending to be, at least in an Elizabethan sense.

  • Samuel Coleridge, for example, delivered lectures on Hamlet during this period that evaluated his tragic state of mind in an interpretation that proved influential for over
    a century.

  • Richardson, who thought the play should have ended shortly after the closet scene, thus saw the play as dramatizing the conflict between a sensitive individual and a calloused,
    seamy world.

  • He also implies that he has been living in Purgatory: “I am thy father’s spirit / Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
    / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg’d away” (1.5.9-13).

  • Noting that Hamlet is suicidal in the first soliloquy well before he meets the Ghost, Gontar reasons that his depression is a result of having been passed over for the Danish
    throne which is given inexplicably to the King’s brother.

  • This change in the view of Hamlet’s character is sometimes seen as a shift in the critical emphasis on plot (characteristic of the period before 1750) to an emphasis on the
    theatrical portrayal of the character (after 1750).

  • Scholars still debate whether these odd plot turns are mistakes or intentional additions to add to the play’s theme of confusion and duality.

  • Current, New Historicist theories now attempt to remove the romanticism surrounding the play and show its context in the world of Elizabethan England.

  • Humanists living prior to Shakespeare’s time had argued that man was godlike, capable of anything.

  • [8] In addition to Hamlet’s worth as a tragic hero, Restoration critics focused on the qualities of Shakespeare’s language and, above all, on the question of tragic decorum.

  • [42] One of the more famous lines in the play related to Protestantism is: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

  • [53] Hamlet struggles to turn his desire for revenge into action, and spends a large portion of the play waiting rather than doing.

  • What a piece of work is a man—how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how
    like a god; the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals.

  • “[32] By the end of the 18th century, psychological and textual criticism had outrun strictly rhetorical criticism; one still sees occasional critiques of metaphors viewed
    as inappropriate or barbarous, but by and large the neoclassical critique of Shakespeare’s language had become moribund.

  • Also, unlike Shakespeare’s other plays, there is no strong subplot; all plot forks are directly connected to the main vein of Hamlet’s struggle to gain revenge.

  • [citation needed] Critics responded to Hamlet in terms of the same dichotomy that shaped all responses to Shakespeare during the period.

  • Critics of the Romantic era decided that Hamlet was merely a procrastinator, in order to avoid the belief that he truly desired Claudius’ spiritual demise.

  • “[2] History Renaissance period[edit] Interpretations of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s day were very concerned with the play’s portrayal of madness.

  • Each of them faces the question of revenge in a different way.

  • “[18] Slightly later, George Colman the Elder singled out the play in a general discussion of Shakespeare’s skill with supernatural elements in drama.

  • As Foakes writes, “No other character’s name in Shakespeare’s plays, and few in literature, have come to embody an attitude to life … and been converted into a noun in this

  • “[35] de Grazia points out that many related words in the play such as “adamah – like Adam from the Garden of Eden – (stone)” and “hamme (land)” have multiple meanings and
    that some of these meanings are political through their overt concern with land.

  • [17] At midcentury, Arthur Murphy described the play as a sort of poetic representation of the mind of a “weak and melancholy person.

  • At one moment, the play is Catholic and medieval, in the next, it is logical and Protestant.

  • Much of the play’s language embodies the elaborate, witty vocabulary expected of a royal court.

  • The play makes several references to both Catholicism and Protestantism, the two most powerful theological forces of the time in Europe.

  • The line appears to base this decision on his believed predestination as the killer of the king, no matter what he may do.


Works Cited

[‘The “Flower Scene” is in Hamlet 4.5.151–92.[10]
2. ^ In the New Testament, see Romans 12:19: “‘vengeance is mine, I will repay’ sayeth the Lord”.
3. ^ The “What a piece of work is a man speech” is in Hamlet 2.2.264–74.[51]
4. ^ On the larger
significance of Purgatory in the play (and in post-Reformation England), see Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory.[60] See also John Freeman’s “This Side of Purgatory: Ghostly Fathers and the Recusant Legacy in Hamlet”.[61]
5. ^ See, for example,
Margreta de Grazia’s “When did Hamlet Become Modern?”[71]
All references to Hamlet, unless otherwise specified, are taken from the Arden Shakespeare Q2.[87] Under their referencing system, 3.1.55 means act 3, scene 1, line 55. References to the
First Quarto and First Folio are marked Hamlet Q1 and Hamlet F1, respectively, and are taken from the Arden Shakespeare Hamlet: the texts of 1603 and 1623.[88] Their referencing system for Q1 has no act breaks, so 7.115 means scene 7, line 115.
1. ^
Jump up to:a b c d e Freud 1900, pp. 367–8.
2. ^ Foakes 1993, p. 19.
3. ^ Jump up to:a b c d e f Wofford 1994.
4. ^ Furness 1905, p. 36.
5. ^ Jenkins 1965, p. 35.
6. ^ Kirsch 1969.
7. ^ Vickers 1974a, p. 447.
8. ^ Downes 1708, p. 21.
9. ^
Vickers 1974d, p. 92.
10. ^ Hamlet 4.5.151–92
11. ^ Shoemaker 1965, p. 101.
12. ^ Stoll 1919, p. 11.
13. ^ Morley 1872, p. 123.
14. ^ Dowden 1899, p. 50.
15. ^ Thompson 2003, p. 98.
16. ^ Addison 1711.
17. ^ Vickers 1974e, p. 5.
18. ^
Vickers 1974e, p. 156.
19. ^ Babcock 1931, p. 77.
20. ^ Vickers 1974e, p. 456.
21. ^ Wilson 1944, p. 8.
22. ^ Rosenberg 1992, p. 179.
23. ^ Kliman 2005, pp. 138–9.
24. ^ “Article clipped from Boston Evening Transcript”. Newspapers. Retrieved
23 January 2024.
25. ^ “Article clipped from The Birmingham Post”. Newspapers. Retrieved 23 January 2024.
26. ^ “Article clipped from Evening Standard”. Newspapers. Retrieved 23 January 2024.
27. ^ “Article clipped from Wisconsin State Journal”.
Newspapers. Retrieved 23 January 2024.
28. ^ “Article clipped from Tucson Citizen”. Newspapers. Retrieved 23 January 2024.
29. ^ “Article clipped from The Kansas City Times”. Newspapers. Retrieved 23 January 2024.
30. ^ “Article clipped from
The Day”. Newspapers. Retrieved 16 January 2024.
31. ^ “Article clipped from The Kansas City Times”. Newspapers. Retrieved 23 January 2024.
32. ^ “Article clipped from The Kansas City Times”. Newspapers. Retrieved 23 January 2024.
33. ^ Smith
1903, p. xxxv.
34. ^ Morgan 1939, p. 258.
35. ^ Charnes, Linda (2007-12-17). “”Hamlet” Without Hamlet (review)”. Shakespeare Quarterly. 58 (4): 538–542. doi:10.1353/shq.2007.0054. ISSN 1538-3555. S2CID 191559141.
36. ^ De Grazia, Margreta. (2007).
Hamlet without Hamlet. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521870252. OCLC 71347601.
37. ^ MacCary 1998, pp. 67–72, 84.
38. ^ MacCary 1998, pp. 84–5, 89–90.
39. ^ MacCary 1998, pp. 87–8.
40. ^ MacCary 1998, pp. 91–3.
41. ^
MacCary 1998, pp. 37–8.
42. ^ MacCary 1998, p. 38.
43. ^ Hamlet 5.2.202–6.
44. ^ Jump up to:a b c Blits 2001, pp. 3–21.
45. ^ Jump up to:a b Matheson 1995.
46. ^ Jump up to:a b Ward 1992.
47. ^ MacCary 1998, pp. 37–45.
48. ^ MacCary
1998, pp. 47–8.
49. ^ MacCary 1998, pp. 28–49.
50. ^ Jump up to:a b MacCary 1998, p. 49.
51. ^ Thompson & Taylor 2006a, pp. 256–7.
52. ^ Knowles 1999.
53. ^ Rasmussen 1984.
54. ^ Westlund 1978.
55. ^ McCullen 1962.
56. ^ Shelden 1977.
57. ^
Rust 2003.
58. ^ Cannon 1971.
59. ^ Hamlet 5.2.202–6.
60. ^ Greenblatt 2001.
61. ^ Freeman 2003.
62. ^ Jump up to:a b Quinlan 1954.
63. ^ Howard 2003, pp. 411–15.
64. ^ Bloom 2003, pp. 58–9.
65. ^ Showalter 1985.
66. ^ Bloom 2003,
p. 57.
67. ^ MacCary 1998, pp. 111–13.
68. ^ MacCary 1998, pp. 104–7, 113–16.
69. ^ de Grazia 2007, pp. 168–70.
70. ^ Freud 1900, pp. 575.
71. ^ de Grazia 2003.
72. ^ Walpole 1968, pp. 44–5.
73. ^ Cantor 1989, p. 2.
74. ^ Cantor 1989,
p. 5.
75. ^ Cantor 1989, p. 4.
76. ^ Cantor 1989, p. 33.
77. ^ Cantor 1989, p. 39.
78. ^ Cantor 1989, p. 42.
79. ^ Cantor 1989, pp. 43–4.
80. ^ Cantor 1989, p. 22.
81. ^ Cantor 1989, p. 12.
82. ^ Cantor 1989, p. x.
83. ^ Jump up
to:a b c Mack 1993, p. 111.
84. ^ Jump up to:a b c Mack 1993, p. 109.
85. ^ Mack 1993, p. 110.
86. ^ Evans 2007.
87. ^ Thompson & Taylor 2006a.
88. ^ Thompson & Taylor 2006b.
Editions of Hamlet[edit]
• Cantor, Paul A., ed. (1989). Shakespeare:
Hamlet. Landmarks of World Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-84003-1.
• Dowden, Edward, ed. (1899). The Tragedy of Hamlet. The Works of Shakespeare. Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill. hdl:2027/hvd.hwpnwb. OCLC 894247294. OL
• Furness, Horace Howard, ed. (1905). A New Variorum Edition of Hamlet. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott. OCLC 921859510.
• Thompson, Ann; Taylor, Neil, eds. (2006). Hamlet. The Arden Shakespeare, third series. Vol. 1. London: Cengage
Learning. ISBN 1-904271-33-2.
• Thompson, Ann; Taylor, Neil, eds. (2006). Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623. The Arden Shakespeare, third series. Vol. 2. London: Cengage Learning. ISBN 1-904271-80-4.
• Wofford, Susanne L. (1994). “A Critical
History of Hamlet”. Hamlet: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Boston: Bedford Books. pp. 181–207. ISBN 0-312-08986-4.
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• Babcock, Robert Witbeck (1931). The Genesis of
Shakespeare Idolatry, 1766-1799: A Study in English Criticism of the Late Eighteenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-1-4696-0914-0.
• Blits, Jan H. (2001). Deadly Thought: Hamlet and the Human Soul. Langham, Maryland:
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• Bloom, Harold (2003). Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 1-84195-461-6.
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Studies in English Literature 1500–1900. Rice University. 11 (2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama): 203–22. doi:10.2307/450060. eISSN 1522-9270. ISSN 0039-3657. JSTOR 450060.
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John (1968) [1708]. Roscius Anglicanus (Reprinted ed.). New York: Benjamin Bloom. ISBN 9780405084645.
• Evans, Martin (30 March 2007). Evans, Martin; McCall, Marsh (eds.). Shakespeare, Hamlet. The Literature of Crisis. Stanford University.
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R. A. (1993). Hamlet versus Lear: Cultural Politics and Shakespeare’s Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-60705-1.
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Angela (ed.). The Interpretation of Dreams. The Penguin Freud Library. Vol. 4. Translated by Strachey, James. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-013794-7.
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Jean E. (2003). “Feminist Criticism”. In Wells, Stanley; Orlin, Lena (eds.). Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 411–23. ISBN 0-19-924522-3.
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The University of Chicago Press. 66 (3): 256–61. doi:10.1086/390087. eISSN 1545-6951. ISSN 0026-8232. JSTOR 436454. S2CID 162049086.
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History”. In Dutton, Richard; Howard, Jean E. (eds.). A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture. Vol. I: The Tragedies. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 134–157. doi:10.1002/9780470996539.ch8. ISBN 978-1-4051-3605-1.
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