Themes in Hamlet Essay

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Themes in Hamlet

Within the Shakespearean tragic drama Hamlet there are a number of themes. Literary critics find it difficult to agree on the ranking of the themes. This essay will present the themes as they are illustrated in the play – and let the reader prioritize them.

Michael Neill in “None Can Escape Death, the ‘Undiscovered Country’” interprets the main theme of the play as a “prolonged meditation on death”:

How we respond to the ending of Hamlet – both as revenge drama and as psychological study – depends in part on how we respond to [the most important underlying theme] of the play – that is, to Hamlet as a prolonged meditation on death. The play is virtually framed by two encounters with the dead:
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What is the central, unifying action of Hamlet? Revenge. (43-44)

R.A. Foakes in “The Play’s Courtly Setting” explains the burden of revenge which the protagonist must carry for the duration of the play:

Perhaps the most terrible feature of his recognition of corruption everywhere is his recognition of it in himself too; where others deceive he must deceive too, where others act he must put on an antic disposition, where the inmost desires and passions of others must be revealed, so must his own passions be roused. And where there is no legal punishment for his father’s death, he must stoop, driven by the universal wrong, and “being thus be-netted round with villainies”, to revenge. He must share the corruption of others in spite of his nobility, and recognize in himself the common features, "we are arrant knaves all." (53)

Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes the opening scene of the drama, which introduces the theme of supernatural influence on the present:

The story opens in the cold and dark of a winter night in Denmark, while the guard is being changed on the battlements of the royal castle of Elsinore. For two nights in succession, just as the bell strikes the hour of one, a ghost has appeared on the battlements, a figure dressed in complete armor and with a face like that of the dead king of Denmark, Hamlet’s
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