It's been estimated that Shakespeare used over 17,000 words in his
writing and that at least a tenth of these had never been used before.
In 1592 Shakespeare is referred to as an "Upstart Crow" by Robert
Green in his Groats-worth of Witte : " for there is an upstart Crow,
beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a
Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke
verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum,
is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey."
Coleridge said of Shakespeare 'I believe Shakespeare was not a whit
more intelligible in his own day than he is now to an educated man.'
Hamlet was written some time around 1600. The prince of Denmark,
Hamlet, is a college student, going to Wittenberg. We know this
because he comes home from school for his father's funeral, and
intends to return there as soon as he can, even though his mother
wishes him to stay. We know it is Wittenberg because his friend
Horatio, as well as, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are schoolmates of
his from Wittenberg.
Wittenberg is the birthplace of Protestantism, Doctor Martin Luther
has published many papers, and the Reformation of the church is in
full swing by the time Hamlet is written. Remember that Hamlet is also
a contemporary play. The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of
Indulgences by Dr. Martin Luther, (1517) commonly known as the "95"
has been published and Protestantism is talked about everywhere.
This is a major part in Hamlet and his reactions. In Catholicism,
there is Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. In Protestantism, there is only
Heaven and Hell. This is one of the matters, which Hamlet balks at,
and why he is looking for proof regarding his ghost and his charge. If
Catholicism is correct, then his father's ghost could be from
Purgatory has he describes, but if Protestantism is correct, then
surely he is a devil from Hell (since there would be no need for
revenge if he was in Heaven and no one gets out of Hell). This is
hinted at several times by Hamlet and Horatio as well.
Prince Hamlet is also faced with revenge by Regicide. It is not just
revenge, but the killing of a King he is charged with. The killing of
a king, no matter what the king may or may not have done, is no small
matter, even if you are a prince. Kings are serious business.
On top of this, the person he is to kill is also a blood relation, and
at this moment, a Stepfather (as well as his uncle). In Greek
mythology, something that Shakespeare brings up many times in his
plays, as all playwrights did, the killing of parents brought forth
the Furies. Beings, which tormented you until you went mad and killed
yourself, and then, tormented you beyond death. Hamlet contemplates
suicide as well, and mentions this in reference to God 'fixing his
canon against self-slaughter'.
None of these are small matters in the minds of the crowd of Hamlet's
play. They are contemporary problems. The church is in a state of
unrest. Many changes are being made. Things, which people grew up
beliving, could never happen are happening. In fact, the question of
their very soul is on the block. Something else is also a factor;
Johann Gutenberg in c1450 invented the printing press. The common man
is now able to learn how to read, and copies of the Bible are
available to him. Most of these people are not only are very
religious, but have a family bible they can read for themselves
(Gideons doesn't start mass distribution of the Bible until 1899 or
so, but it is still a major factor in the Reformation and the coming
Hamlet's Play starts out much differently than other Shakespearean
plays. The language is common, simple. A few watchmen are talking in
the night, a shift change is happening. A normal, if cold, night for
the watch, and the usual banter is preformed for us. There is also no
comic relief here, nothing to really set us on guard or give us reason
to drop our guard. In other plays, we have a flurry of images, or are
placed in a position of knowing exactly what it is we fear. In Hamlet
we start with those who are not heroes, nor do they want to be.
It is when Hamlet speaks to himself, that we hear the "poetry" of the
writer's voice. Indeed, most of the rest of the play is written in
"common tongue". Hamlet is the one twisting words and meanings in his
"feinted madness". Hamlet even instructs others (Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern for example) to "speak plainly", when he himself expounds
on ideas, expresses inner turmoil, and converses with confusion.
During most of Hamlet's interactions with others, after the Ghost has
come, he uses double meanings, and with these (though it is never
acted out, nor should it be) Hamlet is able to create a feeling of
'winking' at the audience, especially in the scenes with Polonius. He
creates a bond with us in these scenes, drawing us to him with the
double speaking knavery he is using to keep the other characters at
bay. This in itself is a marvelous use of the English Language and
So we are soon brought to Hamlet's side, and wish him well, and
success in his quest. He becomes through his words and interactions
with others, our Hero. Then he does nothing, which is not normally how
heroes act. For those seeing the play when it was first preformed,
Hamlet is well known, and Shakespeare really doesn't need to bring his
audience as close as he does to Hamlet. Hamlet is a well known story
and legend from Saxo Grammaticus from his Historia Danica, completed
in the 13th century.
The old Hamlet (Amleth) is much more action. Yes, he feints madness,
and is sent off to England to be killed by his father's brother, who
has married his mother and took the crown. But, on returning he burns
the palace, slays the king, and becomes king himself. A much more
"direct" hero. Shakespeare's Hamlet is more "non-action" with less
direction and cunning. He acts less like a Hero, and more like... us.
He is caught up in his own thoughts, the confusion of the time and
though he makes the best of most situations, is really at the mercy of
his environment, rather than its master.
His thinking produces vocabulary and ideas, which build on themselves
creating doubles, and triples. His idea of the "play" inside a play to
mirror the murder and trap the king, is really a larger mirror to his
own duplicity. "To be or not to be ..." as it were. And once the
play-trap has sprung and the ghost validated, he is still caught by
religion and duplicity. Halted in his action by the King-Uncle's
confessions in private chamber. Here again we see the stepping in of
Protestantism, for the King-Uncle is not confessing to a priest, but
to his Lord God directly, and Hamlet knows or feels that absolution is
granted. To kill him now would be :
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
So the Ghost is validated by the play-trap, which would seem to bring
Catholicism to the light, but here we see him fall back to
Hamlet is the most talked about of Shakespeare's plays. The language
ranges all over in levels and meaning. The plot is a twist on twists,
with sub characters that shine as brightly as the main characters at
times. It is also the most quoted of Shakespeare's plays.
The thing I find most fascinating about the play itself is there are
literally thousands of ways one can interpret the play. Though I've
given one look at the play and the times the play was written for,
there are many other interpretations, and as the years pass, more
interpretations are given. Hamlet is a play, which remains
contemporary because of its language.
Links of Interest
MIT Version of Hamlet
Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet
A Shakespeare Timeline
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous critique based on his legendary and
influential Shakespeare notes and lectures
Furies, Greece, Greek mythology
The Reformation in Germany
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