Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603) continues to be valued through its presentation of ideas that are fundamental to humanity. The play highlights aspects that permeate the society of not only Elizabethan England but also that of our modern context. Hamlet subverts revenge tragedy conventions and by engaging with philosophical concerns, his actions are delayed. As a character, he engages us, he ponders on ideas from outside his time and is relatable; ultimately, Hamlet is a character that echoes the human condition “It is we who are Hamlet” [William Hazlitt]. By drawing from ideas of appearance vs reality, corruption and mortality, Shakespeare’s Hamlet delves deep into elements of the human experience. Thus, it is able to strike a chord with contemporary audiences and retaining textual integrity.
Shakespeare’s use of language and structure addresses appearance vs reality as a theme critical to Hamlet’s ability to resonate over time. In Act 1 Scene 2, Claudius seems a capable king, demonstrated by his eloquent language “Through yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death… to bear our hearts in grief,” indeed our initial reading of Claudius creates a visage of a man who is good for the country. However, the true essence of Claudius is revealed through juxtaposition “one auspicious eye and one dropping eye,” alluding to his dual personality. This is reinforced the paradox “one may smile and smile and be a villain.” As a result, Shakespeare is able to explore appearance vs reality, where many characters of Hamlet, put on facades for self-gain, echoing the ability for deception in humanity. Reflecting this, is Hamlet’s adoption of “antic disposition” which accentuates a feigning of madness in order to pursue his revenge “though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”. Thus, Shakespeare colours our understanding and promotes thinking about the capacity for deception in the human condition.
In relation to the idea of deception, is the corruption that springs from it, Shakespeare informs our understanding of this connection through the personification of Claudius “the serpent that did sting.” Corruption is central to the textual integrity of Hamlet, as it mirrors the political tension that took place during the Elizabethan period and still resonates with today’s social fabric. Foreshadowing disease imagery demonstrates this most clearly; “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” is both interpreted as the threat of war, but also Claudius’ corruption that affects the ‘health’ of the kingdom. Moreover, the vivid imagery “Blister on the fair forehead of an innocent love,” further exemplifies Hamlet’s disenchantment with Gertrude’s “o’er hasty marriage” to Claudius. “The unweeded garden that grow to seed, things rank and gross in nature,” as a biblical allusion provides a metaphorical image of corruption spreading within the social structure and sets up Hamlet’s role as the ‘gardener’ to rid the ‘garden’ of ‘weeds’ to avenge Old Hamlet. Although it is Claudius who epitomises corruption, from the Elizabethan belief of revenge being a moral right,
Hamlet is also corrupt. This is highlighted in the way that he is trapped by the ‘avenger’s dilemma’, metaphorically in “Denmark’s prison,” not taking revenge will reduce him and will make him unfit to rule by his own standards, yet acting incurs eternal damnation. In Act 5, Scene 2, the result of Claudius’ corruption and Hamlet’s clouded judgement is the casual slaughtering of 5 characters and Hamlet is ultimately portrayed as the victim of corruption. Through Hamlet, Shakespeare explores how mankind is susceptible to corruption, creating a text that continues to be studied today.
Within Hamlet, we trace the progression of corruption in the characters of Claudius and Hamlet, which eventually leads to death. In parallel, Hamlet analyses death as a destined part of life and thus, this existential questioning gives the play its literary value. This is most significant within Hamlet’s well known “To be or not to be” soliloquy, where Hamlet philosophises using metaphors, whether it is nobler to accept fate “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to fight fate “take arms against a sea of troubles,” or perhaps to fight fate by ending life “by opposing, end them.” Hamlet first sees death as more preferable to life, illustrated through the iambic line “For who would bear the whips and scorns of time” before listing problems that make life a burden, this however, is brought further by the metaphor “the undiscovered country/no traveller returns,” where Hamlet compels us to consider the uncertainty of death. Not only is it a philosophical and religious debate, what Hamlet is saying is a question that is fundamental to humanity. From Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy, we gain strong insight into Hamlet’s mind and personal dilemmas, allowing us, to understand his wrestle with his conscience. Stage directions are also used to emphasise black humour “he digs and sings,” drawing a contrast in the image of the gravedigger singing while at work “Has this fellow no feeling…?” it is clear, that Hamlet encourages understanding of the brevity of the human experience and reminds us of the inevitability of death.
The construction of the play filters Hamlet’s experiences that span the entire spectrum of humanity, including chronic issues like appearance vs reality, corruption and mortality. Not only has Hamlet experienced the things we do and felt the things we have felt, he has questioned the crippling notions of life, death and the after-life. Above all, it is clear that through responders today, Hamlet’s character resounds and will live on, prolonging the play’s enduring worth.