Themes in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare Essay

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a remarkable, well constructed, dramatic play that communes many flaws and challenges of humans today. Despite contextual differences between Elizabethan times and that of the 21st century, Shakespeare has maintained the textual integrity of the play through his effective characterization of Hamlet’s paradoxical nature – this inconsistency of character makes it possible for the audience to connect and even relate to Hamlet. With consideration of critical responses, use of language and structure, and through a close analysis of Hamlet’s soliloquies, the role of Shakespeare’s characterization of Hamlet in shaping the enduring power of the text is appreciated to a further extent.

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Hamlet’s personality is many-sided and his character is greatly complicated by outside factors. He can be regarded as one of the most complicated characters which Shakespeare has ever created. It is not easy to explore this character and “it is very difficult to generalize about Hamlet, because every observation will have to admit its opposite” (Bloom, p. 409). His personality is full of inconsistency; he is cautious yet reckless, courteous yet uncivil, tender yet ferocious. Hamlet can sometimes be “gentle and thoughtful, but on numerous occasions throughout the play, he is cruel and bitter – especially with his mother and Ophelia” (Mulherin, Frost, and Payne, p. 28). In addition to this, Hamlet’s personality is constantly changed by different factors. It is the sudden death of his much-loved father and the hasty remarriage of this mother to his uncle (Hamlet considers Claudius vastly inferior to his father) that traumatizes Hamlet, and transforms him from a once life affirming, friendly extrovert into a withdrawn, unhappy and introspective man. All this diversifies Hamlet’s character and results in his producing a number of universal themes.

The brightest of the themes which Hamlet produces are love, family values, confusion, grief, and revenge; at this, the last three are closely intertwined. His pure and passionate love for Ophelia is hard to look through. His love letter to Ophelia suggests a man given to idealizing those he loves: “To the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia” (Act 2, Sc. 2). This scene shows Hamlet’s commitment to relations and his giving himself up to love and passion. We see the same tendency to idealize in his descriptions of his dead father, throughout the play, as godlike. Hamlet’s desire to take revenge for his father’s death emphasizes his devotion to family values. It is namely this devotion that “enmesh(es) Hamlet in a web of anxiety, deceit, and death: tragedy stems from the commitment the family elicits” (Barroll, Pitcher, Lindsey, and Cerasano, p. 252). Quite remarkable is Hamlet’s expression of confusion, grief, and revenge. The famous soliloquy “To be or not to be” (Act 3, Sc. 1) illustrates this mixture of themes and inconstancy of Hamlet’s character. These words express Hamlet’s confusion and his hesitation to kill Claudius. He struggles between taking revenge and acting against his conscience for “his conscience cannot convince him that the act is good” (Wells, p. 47). These features make Hamlet an immortal character giving the play enduring power over centuries.

Complexity of Hamlet’s character and his producing numerous universal themes makes him a significant representation of humanity today. Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as a self-critical person, which is clear from the other soliloquy, namely “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave I am!” (Act 2, Sc. 2) This self-induced verbal abuse reveals a certain disgust that Hamlet feels for his unsatisfactory reaction to his current situation. He analyzes and examines every nuance of his situation until he has exhausted every angle – he is irresolute because of this exact reflective and speculative state of consciousness. He concludes that the reason for the cowardly inaction which he despises in himself is that he thinks too much, and over intellectualizes his problems to the point of inertia. Despite race, gender, age and contextual values, people always have and always will sympathize with Hamlet’s character in pertaining to his indecisiveness and how arduous and frustrating our own irresolution can sometimes be. Thus, our own ability to understand the nature of indecisiveness, in a way, reflects our own ability to understand and relate to the indecisiveness of Hamlet.

The seeming inconsistencies in the conduct and character of Hamlet have long exercised the conjectural ingenuity of critics. Thus, Coleridge once mentioned: “I have a smack of Hamlet in myself, if I may say so” (cited by Bradbrook 151), as Hazlitt noticed that “It is we who are Hamlet’ (cited by Pennington, p. 3). Namely this ability of Hamlet to produce unforgettable impressions on the readers and his unpredictability makes his character interesting for any kind of a reader. His experience spans the entire spectrum of human emotion; he feels almost every emotion which humanity has ever been capable of feeling. This is one of the reasons why he is such an enduring character. As long as people experience any of these emotions, Hamlet’s character will continue to persist and resound within audiences.

Certainly, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most psychologically complex character, balancing grief and affection so perfectly – as the critic James Agate once said, “Hamlet must make us cry one minute and shudder the next” (cited by Herbert, p. 343). Despite vast contextual margins, Hamlet continues to inspire and connect to audiences even today. His characterization to feel varying human emotion, his complexity and drastic contradiction of personality, his expression of universal values – all contribute to Hamlet’s endurance and unchanging power over centuries of literature.

Works Cited

  • Barrol, John L., Pitcher, John, Lindsey, Robert, and Cerasano, Susan. Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England. Madison, NJ : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
  • Bradbrook, M.C. Shakespeare: the Poet in His World. New York: Routkledge, 2005.
  • Herbert, I. London Theatre Record. Detroit: The University of Michigan, 1989.
  • Mulherin, Jennifer, Frost, Abigail, Payne, and Roger. Hamlet. London: Cherrytree Books, 2001.
  • Pennington, Michael. Hamlet: A User’s Guide. London: Nick Hern Books, 1996.
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. London: Classic Books Company, 2001.
  • Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
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IvyPanda. (2022, September 1). Themes in "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare.

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IvyPanda . 2022. "Themes in "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare." September 1, 2022.

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William Shakespeare

Home — Essay Samples — Literature — Plays — Hamlet Theme

essays on themes in hamlet

Essays on Hamlet Theme

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essays on themes in hamlet

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Hamlet Themes

Want to know more about the Hamlet theme? This page discusses a number of the major Hamlet themes that are evident in the play.

The background to the Hamlet theme structure

When Shakespeare arrived in London and began his acting career he made many friends among the theatre community. Before long he tried his hand at working on plays with the play writers who welcomed anyone who could help them fulfill the voracious hunger for plays. His talent was soon recognised and he became a regular member of their fraternity.

One of the writers he worked with was Thomas Kyd , who was responsible for scores of plays, although only one has survived to be regularly performed in the 21st century – The Spanish Tragedy . Kyd and Shakespeare became friends, and it is thought that working with Kyd, first on an earlier play, Ur-Hamlet , one of Shakespeare’s earliest forays into playwriting, and then The Spanish Tragedy, formed a very significant part of Shakespeare’s apprenticeship.

The Spanish Tragedy was very popular. It caught the late Elizabethan taste for violence informed by revenge, a model that became full-blown in the Jacobean theatre, subsequently known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy.’

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a revenge tragedy but, being by the mature Shakespeare, it is very much more than that. Nevertheless, the play hangs on the skeleton of the then fashionable revenge story – in this case, a young man told by his late father’s ghost that he has been murdered by his brother and so, according to convention, the young man has the obligation to seek and achieve revenge. There is no doubt that in that sense, Hamlet is the simple story of a man avenging his father’s death. It is in the telling of that story, though, that Shakespeare made this play what is so often described as the most famous play ever written.

Hamlet is a play about so many things that they can’t be reckoned. Those things that the play is about are the themes. One can name them as themes but it should be remembered that all each Hamlet theme interacts and resounds with all the others.

Here are brief accounts of a selection of the major Hamlet themes of revenge, corruption; religion, politics, appearance and reality, and women.

6 Major Themes in Hamlet

The theme of revenge in hamlet.

There are two young men bent on avenging their father’s death in this play. Hamlet and Laertes are both on the same mission, and while Hamlet is pondering his approach to the problem Laertes is hot on his heels, determined to kill him as Hamlet has killed his father, Polonius. This is, therefore, a double revenge story. Shakespeare examines the practice of revenge by having two entirely different approaches to it – the hot-headed abandon of Laertes and the philosophical, cautious approach by Hamlet. The two strands run parallel – invoking comparisons, each one throwing light on the other – until the young men’s duel and both their deaths. The revenge theme feeds into the religious element of the play as Hamlet is conflicted by his Christian aversion to killing someone and his duty to avenge his father’s death, whereas it is not a consideration for Laertes, whose duty is clear to him, and he acts on it immediately.

The theme of corruption

Corruption is a major concern in this play. The text is saturated with images of corruption, in several forms – decay, death, poison. From the very first moments of the play the images start and set the atmosphere of corruption which is going to grow as Shakespeare explores this theme. The tone is set when Marcellus says, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ after seeing the ghost of Hamlet’s father. What Shakespeare is doing here, and in using the image structure of corruption, is addressing the broadly held view that a nation’s health is connected to the legitimacy of its king. Here we have the ghost of a murdered king, and his murderer – a decidedly illegitimate king – is sitting on his throne. All through the play, Hamlet is preoccupied with rot and corruption – both of the body and the soul, reflecting the way in which society is destroyed by the corruption of its inner institutions – in this case, the court, which is the government.

Decay, rot and mould are always in Hamlet’s mind, and his language is full of those images – ‘an unweeded garden that grows to seed – things rank and gross possess it,’ and countless images of death and disease. He hides Polonius’ body in a place where it will decay rapidly and stink out the castle. It’s an image of the corruption in secret places that is going to contaminate the whole country.

The theme of religion

Religion has an impact on the actions of the characters in this play. Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy outlines his religious thinking on the subject of suicide. He declines to kill Claudius while he is praying for fear of sending him to heaven when he should be going to hell. Hamlet believes, too, that ‘there is a destiny that shapes our ends.’

One of the most important things of all in this play is the Christian idea of making a sacrifice to achieve healing. Hamlet is Christ-like in his handling of the crisis. The court is rotten with corruption and the people in it are almost all involved in plotting and scheming against others. Hamlet’s way of dealing with it is to wait and watch as all the perpetrators fall into their own traps –‘hauled by their own petards,’ as he puts it. All he has to do is be ready – like Christ. ‘The readiness is all,’ he says. And then, all around him, the corruption collapses in on itself and the court is purified. Like Christ, though, he has to be sacrificed to achieve that, and he is, leaving a scene of renewal and hope.

The Hamlet theme of politics

Hamlet is a political drama. Hamlet’s uncle has murdered his father, the king. He has subsequently done Hamlet out of his right of succession and become king. Hamlet’s mother has married the king while the rest of the palace is engaged in palatial intrigues, leading to wider conspiracies and murders. The king, Claudius, determined to safeguard his position in the face of the threat Hamlet presents, plots in several ways to kill Hamlet. Polonius plots against Hamlet to ingratiate himself with Claudius. Characters, including Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, spy on each other. This is all to do with power and the quest to achieve and hold it.

The theme of appearance and reality

This is a major theme in every one of Shakespeare’s plays. The text of Hamlet is saturated with references to the gap that exists between how things seem to be and how they really are. Very little in this play is really as it seems. That is bound to be so in a play in which there are so many murderous plots and schemes by those who, on the surface, strive to appear innocent, like Claudius, who, behind his charismatic smile, is a damned villain. He is, as Hamlet puts it, a ‘smiling villain.’ Although Ophelia loves Hamlet she pretends to spurn his affections. Hamlet pretends to be mad so that he can explore the ghost’s assertion that Claudius killed him. All the characters, in one way or another, are hiding their true intentions.

What makes this theme particularly interesting and different in this play is that as the play develops the gap between appearance and reality narrows by the characters becoming more like the masks they are using than any reality that may lie behind that so the identities they have assumed eventually become their realities.

The theme of women

For much of the play, Hamlet is in a state of agitation. It is when he is talking to either of the two female characters that he is most agitated – so much so that he is driven to violence against them. He cares about both but does not trust either. He feels his mother, Gertrude, has let him down by her ‘o’er hasty marriage’ to Claudius. To him, it means that she didn’t really love his father. In the case of Ophelia, he is suspicious that she is part of the palace plot against him.

Both women die in this play. Ophelia is driven mad by the treatment she receives from the three men – Claudius, Polonius and Hamlet – and takes her own life. Gertrude’s death is more complex because it raises the question: how far is she responsible for the corruption that Hamlet has to deal with?

Whilst the play features the meeting and falling in love of the two main protagonists, to say that love is a theme of Romeo and Juliet is an oversimplification. Rather, Shakespeare structures Romeo and Juliet around several contrasting ideas, with a number of themes expressed as opposites. To say that the tension between love and hate is a major theme in Romeo and Juliet gets us closer to what the play is about. These – and other – opposing ideas reverberate with each other and are intertwined through the text.

Shakespeare Themes by Play

Hamlet themes , Macbeth themes , Romeo and Juliet themes

Shakespeare Themes by Topic

Ambition, Appearance & Reality , Betrayal , Conflict , Corruption , Death , Deception , Good & Evil , Hatred , Order & Disorder , Revenge , Suffering , Transformation

Kenneth Brannagh looks at skull as he considers the Hamlet theme of death

Kenneth Brannagh looks at skull, symbolising the recurring Hamlet theme of death

What do you think of these Hamlet themes – any that you don’t agree with, or would add? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Helen Barrett

Don’t bereavement and madness feature in Hamlet too or are they subsumed by themes you identify?

Dek Mavodse

Wonderful notes

احمد أحمد

I believe the king Claudius is frevolous. Logacious and cantacarous as reflected by his mean personality and in terms of psychoanalysis as he asserts assert his dominance and show superiority as an alpha-male.

Naanpoes Benjamin Vien'toe

What if the character of hamlet was not pointed sheakspear..

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essays on themes in hamlet

William Shakespeare

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Action and Inaction Theme Icon

Action and Inaction

Hamlet  is part of a literary tradition called the revenge play, in which a person—most often a man—must take revenge against those who have wronged him. Hamlet , however, turns the genre on its head in an ingenious way: Hamlet , the person seeking vengeance, can't actually bring himself to take his revenge. As Hamlet struggles throughout the play with the logistical difficulties and moral burdens of vengeance, waffling between whether he should kill Claudius …

Action and Inaction Theme Icon

Appearance vs. Reality

Hamlet is full of references to the wide gulf that often exists between how things appear and how they really are. From Hamlet ’s own “craft[ed]” madness to Claudius ’s many schemes and plots involving Polonius , Ophelia , Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern to the very foundation of Denmark’s political stability (or lack thereof), things within Elsinore castle are hardly ever as they seem. Hamlet ’s characters’ collective desire to make sense of the difference between…

Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon

Though there are only two traditionally female characters in Hamlet — Ophelia and Gertrude —the play itself speaks volumes about the uniquely painful, difficult struggles and unfair fates women have suffered throughout history. Written in the first years of the 17th century, when women were forbidden even from appearing onstage, and set in the Middle Ages, Hamlet exposes the prejudices and disadvantages which narrowed or blocked off the choices available to women–even women of noble…

Women Theme Icon

Religion, Honor, and Revenge

Every society is defined by its codes of conduct—its rules about how to act and behave. In  Hamlet , the codes of conduct are largely defined by religion and an aristocratic code that demands honor—and revenge if honor has been soiled. As the play unfolds and Hamlet (in keeping with his country’s spoken and unspoken) rules) seeks revenge for his father’s murder, he begins to realize just how complicated vengeance, justice, and honor all truly…

Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon

Poison, Corruption, Death

When the sentinel Marcellus speaks the line “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” after seeing the ghost of the former King Hamlet, he is speaking to a broadly-held societal superstition. In medieval times and the Middle Ages—the era in which Hamlet is set—the majority of people believed that the health of a nation was connected to the legitimacy of its king.  As Hamlet endeavors to discover—and root out—the “rotten” core of Denmark, he…

Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon


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