Prince Hamlet

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Prince Hamlet
Hamlet character
Bernhardt Hamlet2.jpg
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1880–1885
Created by William Shakespeare
In-universe information
Affiliation Horatio
Family King Hamlet (father; deceased)
Gertrude (mother; deceased)
Claudius (uncle, stepfather; deceased)

Prince Hamlet is the title role and protagonist of William Shakespeare's c. 1600 tragedy Hamlet . He is the Prince of Denmark, nephew to the usurping Claudius, and son of King Hamlet, the previous King of Denmark. At the beginning of the play, he struggles with whether, and how, to avenge the murder of his father, and struggles with his own sanity along the way. By the end of the tragedy, Hamlet has caused the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, Claudius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two acquaintances of his from childhood. He is also indirectly involved in the deaths of his love Ophelia (drowning) and of his mother Gertrude (mistakenly poisoned by Claudius).


Role in the play

Hamlet statue holding skull in Stratford Upon Avon. HamletS-u-A.jpg
Hamlet statue holding skull in Stratford Upon Avon.

The play opens with Hamlet deeply depressed over the recent death of his father, King Hamlet, and his uncle Claudius' ascension to the throne and hasty marriage to Hamlet's mother Gertrude. One night, his father's ghost appears to him and tells him that Claudius murdered him in order to usurp the throne, and commands his son to avenge his death.

Claudius sends for two of Hamlet's friends from Wittenberg, to find out what is causing Hamlet so much pain. Claudius and his advisor Polonius persuade Ophelia—Polonius' daughter and Hamlet's love interest—to speak with Hamlet while they secretly listen. Hamlet enters, contemplating suicide ("To be, or not to be"). Ophelia greets him, and offers to return his remembrances (tokens of his love interest), upon which Hamlet questions her honesty and tells her to "get thee to a nunnery" (a suggestion of either erotic criticism of hypersexuality, or of escape from the Danish succession crisis that will become bloody.)

Hamlet devises a test to see whether Claudius is guilty: he hires a group of actors to perform a play about the murder of a king in front of the royal court, and has Horatio gauge Claudius' reaction. Claudius demands the play be stopped half through because it causes him to experience guilt. When Claudius leaves the on stage "audience" deeply upset, Hamlet knows that the ghost was telling the truth. He follows Claudius into his chambers in order to kill him, but stops when he sees his uncle praying; he does not want to kill Claudius while he is in a state of grace because Hamlet wants Claudius to suffer in purgatory and Claudius has just attempted to cleanse his sin through confession. A second attempt on Claudius' life ends in Polonius' accidental death.

Claudius, now fearing for his life, sends Hamlet to England, accompanied (and closely watched) by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Alone, Claudius discloses that he is actually sending Hamlet to his death. Prior to embarking for England, Hamlet hides Polonius' body, ultimately revealing its location to the King. Meanwhile, the death of Ophelia's father has driven her insane with grief, and Claudius convinces Ophelia's brother Laertes that Hamlet is to blame. Claudius proposes a fencing match between the two. Laertes informs the king that he will further poison the tip of his sword so that a mere scratch would mean certain death. Claudius plans to offer Hamlet poisoned wine if that fails. Gertrude reports that Ophelia has died.

In the Elsinore churchyard, two "clowns", typically represented as "gravediggers", enter to prepare Ophelia's grave. Hamlet arrives with Horatio and banters with one of them, who unearths the skull of a jester whom Hamlet once knew, Yorick. Ophelia's funeral procession approaches, led by Laertes. Hamlet interrupts, professing his own love and grief for Ophelia. He and Laertes grapple, but the fight is broken up by Claudius and Gertrude.

Later that day, Hamlet tells Horatio how he escaped death on his journey, disclosing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent to their deaths instead. A courtier, Osric, interrupts to invite Hamlet to fence with Laertes. Despite Horatio's warnings, Hamlet accepts and the match begins. After several rounds, Gertrude toasts Hamlet, accidentally drinking the wine Claudius poisoned. Between bouts, Laertes attacks and pierces Hamlet with his poisoned blade; in the ensuing scuffle, Hamlet is able to use Laertes' own poisoned sword against him. Gertrude falls and, in her dying breath, announces that she has been poisoned.

In his dying moments, Laertes reveals Claudius' plot. Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword, and then forces him to drink from his own poisoned cup to make sure he dies. In his final moments, Hamlet names Prince Fortinbras of Norway as the probable heir to the throne. Horatio attempts to kill himself with the same poisoned wine, but it was stopped by Hamlet, so he will be the only one left alive to give a full account of the story. He then wills the throne of Denmark to Fortinbras before dying.

Views of Hamlet

Perhaps the most straightforward view sees Hamlet as seeking truth in order to be certain that he is justified in carrying out the revenge called for by a ghost that claims to be the spirit of his father. The 1948 movie with Laurence Olivier in the title role is introduced by a voiceover: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."

T. S. Eliot offers a similar view of Hamlet's character in his critical essay, "Hamlet and His Problems" (The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism). He states, "We find Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' not in the action, not in any quotations that we might select, so much as in an unmistakable tone...".

Others see Hamlet as a person charged with a duty that he both knows and feels is right, yet is unwilling to carry out. In this view, his efforts to satisfy himself on Claudius' guilt and his failure to act when he can are evidence of this unwillingness, and Hamlet berates himself for his inability to carry out his task. After observing a play-actor performing a scene, he notes that the actor was moved to tears in the passion of the story and compares this passion for an ancient Greek character, Hecuba, in light of his own situation:

Hamlet reclines next to Ophelia in Edwin Austin Abbey's The Play Scene in Hamlet. The Play Scene in Hamlet.jpg
Hamlet reclines next to Ophelia in Edwin Austin Abbey's The Play Scene in Hamlet.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wan'd;
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
For Hecuba?
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? […]

Etymology of his name

The name Hamlet occurs in the form Amleth in a 13th-century book of Danish History written by Saxo Grammaticus, popularised by François de Belleforest as L'histoire tragique d'Hamlet, and appearing in the English translation as "Hamblet". The story of Amleth is assumed to originate in Old Norse or Icelandic poetry from several centuries earlier. Saxo has it as Amlethus, the Latin form of the old Jutish Amlethæ. In terms of etymology the Old Icelandic name Amlóði comes from the Icelandic noun amlóði, meaning ‘fool,’ suggestive of the way that Hamlet acts in the play. Later these names were incorporated into Irish as Amlodhe. As phonetic laws took their course the name’s spelling changed eventually leaving it as Amlaidhe. This Irish name was given to a hero in a common folk story. The root of this name is ‘furious, raging, wild’. [1]

Influence of the Reformation

Marcellus, Horatio, Hamlet, and the Ghost by Henry Fuseli Henry Fuseli rendering of Hamlet and his father's Ghost.JPG
Marcellus, Horatio, Hamlet, and the Ghost by Henry Fuseli

It has also been suggested that Hamlet's hesitations may also be rooted in the religious beliefs of Shakespeare's time. The Protestant Reformation had generated debate about the existence of purgatory (where King Hamlet claims he currently resides). The concept of purgatory is a Catholic one, and was frowned on in Protestant England. Hamlet says that he will not kill his uncle because death would send him straight to heaven, while his father (having died without foreknowledge of his death) is in purgatory doing penance for his sins. Hamlet's opportunity to kill his uncle comes just after the uncle has supposedly made his peace with God. Hamlet says that he would much rather take a stab at the murderer while he is frolicking in the "incestuous sheets", or gambling and drinking, so he could be sure of his going straight to hell.

Freudian interpretation

Ernest Jones, following the work of Sigmund Freud, held that Hamlet suffered from the Oedipus complex. He said in his essay "The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet's Mystery: A Study in Motive":

His moral fate is bound up with his uncle's for good or ill. The call of duty to slay his uncle cannot be obeyed because it links itself with the call of his nature to slay his mother's husband, whether this is the first or the second; the latter call is strongly "repressed," and therefore necessarily the former also. [2]

Harold Bloom did a "Shakespearean Criticism" of Freud's work in response. [3]

As a mirror of the audience

Hamlet and Ophelia, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Hamlet and Ophelia.JPG
Hamlet and Ophelia, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

It has also been suggested that Hamlet, who is described by Ophelia as "th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form" (Act III, Scene i, lines 148–9), is ultimately a reflection of all of the interpretations possessed by other characters in the play—and perhaps also by the members of an audience watching him. Polonius, most obviously, has a habit of misreading his own expectations into Hamlet’s actions ("Still harping on my daughter!"), though many other characters in the play participate in analogous behaviour.

Gertrude has a similar tendency to interpret all of her son’s activities as the result of her "o’erhasty marriage" alone. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tend to find the stalled ambitions of a courtier in their former schoolmate’s behaviour, whereas Claudius seems to be concerned with Hamlet’s motivation only so far as it reveals the degree to which his nephew is a potential threat. Ophelia, like her father, waits in vain for Hamlet to give her signs of affection, and Horatio would have little reason to think that Hamlet was concerned with anything more pressing than the commandment of the ghost. And the First Gravedigger seems to think that Prince Hamlet, like that "whoreson mad fellow" Yorick, is simply insane without any need for explanation. Several critics, including Stephen Booth and William Empson have further investigated the analogous relationship between Hamlet, the play, and its audience.

Parallels with other characters

One aspect of Hamlet's character is the way in which he reflects other characters, including the play's primary antagonist, Claudius. In the play within a play, for instance, Gonzago, the king, is murdered in the garden by his nephew, Lucianus; although King Hamlet is murdered by his brother, in The Murder of Gonzago—which Hamlet tauntingly calls "The Mousetrap" when Claudius asks "What do you call the play?"—the regicide is a nephew, like Prince Hamlet. However, it is also worth noting that each of the characters in the play-within-a-play maps to two major characters in Hamlet, an instance of the play's many doubles:

Hamlet is also, in some form, a reflection of most other characters in the play (or perhaps vice versa):

Hamlet's age

In Act V, scene I of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the First Gravedigger is asked by Hamlet at about line 147 and following, how long he has "been a grave-maker." His reply appears to determine the age of Hamlet in a roundabout but very explicit manner. The Gravedigger says that he has been in his profession since the day that Old Hamlet defeated Old Fortinbras, which was "the very day that young Hamlet was born." Then, a little later, he adds that "I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years." According to this logic, Hamlet must be thirty years old. Yorick, the dead jester whose skull Hamlet holds during this scene, is said to have been in the earth "three-and-twenty years," which would make Hamlet no more than seven years old when he last rode on Yorick's back.

This view of Hamlet's age is supported by the fact that Richard Burbage, the actor who originally played the role, was thirty-two at the time of the play's premiere.

However, a case has been made [4] that at an early stage in Hamlet—with its apparent history of multiple revisions—Hamlet was presented as a sixteen-year-old. Several pieces of evidence support this view. Hamlet attends the University of Wittenberg, and members of the royalty and nobility (Elizabethan or medieval Danish) did not attend university at age 30. Additionally, a 30-year-old Prince Hamlet would clearly have been of ruling age. Given his great popularity (mentioned by Claudius), this would raise the question of why it was not he, rather than his uncle, who was elected to succeed to the throne upon the death of King Hamlet.

The line about the length of the Gravedigger's career does not appear in the First Quarto of Hamlet; in that text Yorick is said to have been in the ground only twelve years. Furthermore, in Belleforest, possibly one of Shakespeare's sources for the story, it is said that Amleth has "not attained to man's estate." And in the original spelling of the Folio text, one of the two authoritative texts for the play, the Gravedigger's answer to how long he has "been a grave-maker" reads "Why heere in Denmarke: I haue bin sixeteene heere, man and Boy thirty yeares.." "Sixteene" is usually rendered as "sexton" (a modernization of the second quarto's "sexten"), even in modern texts that take F1 as their "copy text." But modernizing the punctuation—a normal practice in modernized texts—renders "Why heere in Denmarke: I haue bin sixeteene heere—man and Boy thirty yeares." In other words, this reading suggests that he has been a gravedigger for sixteen years, but that he has lived in Denmark for thirty. According to this logic, then, it is the Gravedigger who is thirty, whereas Hamlet is only sixteen.

Although, the difference between a sexton and a grave digger must also be taken into account. A sexton oversees many different jobs around the church and surrounding areas. A grave digger simply digs graves. There are sextons who also dig graves and some that do not. It is completely possible that the Gravedigger has been a sexton for 30 years, but has not been digging graves for that entire time. This could be another example of the character's very round-about way of speaking.

However, this reading has the disadvantage that in the Folio the length of time Yorick has been in the ground is said to be twenty-three years, meaning that he had been dead seven years by the time Hamlet was born. Another theory offered is that the play was originally written with the view that Hamlet was 16 or 17, but since Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, and not read, these lines were likely changed so Burbage (who was almost always the protagonist in Shakespeare's plays) could play the role.


The day we see Hamlet die in the theatre, something of him dies for us. He is dethroned by the spectre of an actor, and we shall never be able to keep the usurper out of our dreams.

Maurice Maeterlinck (1890). [5]

Gustaf Grundgens as Hamlet Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S01144, Berlin, Gustav Grundgens als 'Hamlet'.jpg
Gustaf Gründgens as Hamlet
Barry Sullivan's burial site in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, with a statue of Sullivan in character as Hamlet. Barry Sullivan as Hamlet statue.jpg
Barry Sullivan's burial site in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, with a statue of Sullivan in character as Hamlet.

Below are listed some of the notable acting portrayals of Hamlet.


Other versions

In the comic book series Kill Shakespeare , Hamlet is the central character. After he is exiled from Denmark, his ship is attacked and he washes up on England. He is encountered by Richard III of England, who tells him that he is the "Shadow King", a figure of prophecy. He tells Hamlet that he must find and kill the wizard William Shakespeare and retrieve his quill. He goes off, but is relentlessly pursued by assassins from Richard and his lieutenant, Iago. He is eventually captured by the fool known as Falstaff, who helps him get out of the woods after an encounter with a being known as a Prodigal. He is shot in the leg by Iago, but is saved by Juliet Capulet and Othello. Hamlet stops Othello from killing Iago, but is taken captive by Juliet and her resistance army. After going with them into a town and seeing the cruelty of Richard, Hamlet flees into the woods, where he is forced to face the ghost of his father. He defeats the ghost and is eventually picked up by two travellers: Lysander and Demetrius.


  1. Malone, Kemp (July 1927), "Etymologies for Hamlet", The Review of English Studies , 3 (11): 257–271, doi:10.1093/res/os-III.11.257, JSTOR   508112
  2. Jones, Ernest (January 1910), "The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet's Mystery: A Study in Motive", The American Journal of Psychology, 21 (1): 72–113, doi:10.2307/1412950, JSTOR   508112
  3. Bloom, Harold. "Freud: A Shakespearean Reading" (PDF). Yale Review. Retrieved 6 August 2020.
  4. Roth, Steve “Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country” .
  5. Writing in La Jeune Belgique in 1890; quoted by Braun (1982, 40).
  6. Howard, Tony (2007). Women as Hamlet : performance and interpretation in theatre, film and literature (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press. p. 39. ISBN   978-0521864664.
  7. Rowell, p. 158
  8. "Daniel Day-Lewis: 10 defining roles from the method master". BBC. Retrieved 21 May 2020.
  9. "A Punishing System's Stress Chews Up Another Hamlet". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 1 August 2020.
  10. Peter, John. "A Hamlet Who Would Be King at Elsinore". Sunday Times . 12 November 1989.


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