During the first act of the play, Hamlet’s friends encounter the spirit of Old King Hamlet roaming about the outer ramparts of the castle. Seeing the spirit as a bad omen they quickly report the appearance to his very distraught son, Hamlet. The spirit explains to him that he had been murdered by his deceitful younger brother, Claudius, and that Hamlet must take revenge on the spirit’s behalf. This incident initiates Hamlet’s investigation into his father’s murder; however it is his doubt in the cause of this apparition that keeps him indecisive and prevents him for taking his revenge. First, Hamlet almost immediately questions the authenticity his father’s spirit after its disappearance. “ The spirit that I have seen may be the devil and the devil hath the power to assume a pleasing shame; yet, and perhaps out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me to damn me.” (II, ii, 596- 601). Hamlet grows unsure if the ghost’s story holds any authentication as he plunges deeper and deeper into his own melancholy; Hamlet wonders if this is work of the devil praying on his weak state of mind. This uncertainty prompts Hamlet to test his Uncle Claudius’ conscience because of his own lack of faith in the ghost and himself; which only prolongs this revenge.
Second, because Hamlet is so doubtful about the story told to him by the ghost, he must test his Uncle’s reaction first. “Observe mine uncle, if his acute guilt. Do not itself unkennel in one speech. It is a damned ghost we have seen. And my imagination are on foul as Vulcan’s stithy.” (III, ii, 80- 84 Shakespeare). This uncertainty in the ghost results in Hamlet prolonging his revenge on Claudius in attempt to confirm the ghost’s story. This course of action leads to him being called upon by his mother, accidently murdering Polonius, and then being poisoned by Laertes. Without this additional prerequisite to begin his revenge, Hamlet could have potentially avoided the resulting confrontations and his death. Third, Hamlet’s trust in the story is only confirmed at seeing his Uncle reaction to the play. “O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound..” (III, ii, 281- 282). Without Claudius’ reaction to the play Hamlet would probably remain in limbo about his own thoughts and the ghost and may never taken revenge. The play is the confirmation for Hamlet’s revenge scheme and its lengthily process was necessary to convince Hamlet of the ghost’s story; Nevertheless Hamlet’s continual indecisive behavior after the play gave Claudius amply time to plot Hamlet’s murder. However an even greater conflict to within Hamlet to prorogue his revenge and keep him unsure is his own doubts of what he really desires in terms of kingship and life in general.
After the lost of old King Hamlet, the people of Demark are asked to choose between Hamlet or Claudius to rule in place of their lost king. The people choose Claudius to rule over them, who will be succeeded by a much older and perhaps wiser Hamlet. Knowing Claudius killed the old king, Hamlet understands he is the rightfully king of Denmark; however Hamlet is unresolved about his desires for that position and makes him hesitant to take any action. First, Hamlets confesses to Ophelia of traits that he is reprehensible of, one of which is ambitious. “I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious…”(III, ii, 132- 135). This personality presented by Hamlet provides a contradiction to his behavior. He wishes to remove Claudius from the thrown however states he would rather not be ambitious, about can be assumed, his right to be king. At this moment it seems that Hamlet is unwilling to be king, which will keep him indecisive and hinder his revenge. Second, Hamlet does however reveal to Rosencrantz he is “distempered” because he “lacks advancement”. “Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper? You do, surely, bar the door upon your own liberty, if you deny your griefs to your friend……….. Sir, I lack advancement.” Contrary to what he previously states during his conversation with Ophelia, Hamlets now reveals his desire to “advance”. This change in ambition could be seen as the possibility for his revenge to finally transpire, however Hamlet may not be referring to his succession as king but his plans for his revenge; consequently not knowing if he desires both delays Hamlets for taking his revenge. Finally, Hamlets tells Horatio of his desire to be king, and disappointment of being denied this right. “Does it not, think’st thee, stand me now upon– He that hath kill’d my king and whored my mother, Popp’d in between the election and my hopes, Thrown out his angle for my proper life…” (V, I, 69- 72). This final explanation by Hamlet reveals that he does have intention to become king and therefore the expectation can be made that he will take his reveal shortly, which he prompted does in the next scene. However by the time he finally discovers this truth about his ambitions it is already too late and his murder has already been planned. Furthermore, all of this could have been avoided if Hamlet did not put so much thought into his revenge and just acted upon his feelings.
Throughout the play, Hamlet is constantly over analyzing the world around him. Every action that he takes, Hamlet tediously examines all the potential outcomes and reasoning behind it. This over thinking of the world around him is a reason for his indecisiveness and consequently his downfall. First, Hamlet argues to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the philosophy of what is “good” and “bad”. “Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” (II, ii, 260- 262). This point made by Hamlet only illustrates how critically he thinks of the world around him. His insight of the objectiveness of all behavior, made only subjective through perspective displays he is character of deep thought who muct analyze a problem from all angles before processing often resulting in him being indecisive on an issue. Second, Hamlet reveals in his soliloquy, his justification of why humans, and himself, fear death and anything related to it. “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action” (III, I, 91- 95). This over analyzing of death of what makes Hamlet question his right to kill another human and the fear that all humans have toward death. This scrutinizing of his own plan, only makes Hamlet doubt himself and prolong his revenge even more. It also illustrates that Hamlet does fear killing another and inaction on his behalf is this awareness of his fear. Finally, Hamlet debates to himself what the reasoning behind his inaction on his father’s behalf. Now whether it be b*stial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th’ event…” (VI, vi, 39- 46). This is a realization on Hamlet’s behalf that the cause of his inaction is indeed his overanalyzing of all his behavior just to establish his own excess thought and deliberations. The examination of so many situations of his life causes Hamlet to yet again prolong his revenge and seem indecisive to the reader.
In conclusion, there were many paths Hamlets could have taken throughout the course of the book, which he own indecisiveness prevented him from doing. Hamlet’s dismay is attributed to the hesitant behavior toward his father’s revenge due to several internal conflicts and personality traits Hamlets posses. From the beginning of the play Hamlet is in indeterminate state about the validity of anything occurring around him. Furthermore, Hamlet’s doubts in the truthfully of his father’s spirit, doubts of his own ambitions and over analyzing of the world around him, left Hamlet an very indecisive man which ultimately led him to his own death.
Shakespeare is one of those authors who is hard to escape if you’re in any English or literature program long enough. While Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays, they fall roughly into two categories: comedies and tragedies. And when he wrote tragedies, he went all out.
Spoiler alert: Most, if not all, of the characters die in Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Hamlet is no exception.
But beyond the bloodbath, Hamlet offers a lot of possible elements to analyze. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, though, I’ll give you a few pointers on how to set yourself up for success when writing your Hamlet essay.
Read Critically Before Writing Your Hamlet Essay
The first key to writing well is reading well. There are tons of methods to critical reading, and you may have to try a couple until you find one that fits your style.
My personal favorite is highlighting. If this sounds a bit basic, you haven’t highlighted the way I have before.
You’ll definitely need more than one color—around 4 or 5 should do it. When you see something pertaining to one theme, use yellow. Then pink for a particular symbol. Blue for things you might want to use in a character analysis.
Always be sure to make a key, so you know what each color means.
Color-coding your highlighting does two things—it keeps your evidence organized and allows you to see if you have enough support to write your whole Hamlet essay on symbolism or on one character.
Other methods include annotating and taking notes on the computer or a separate sheet of paper. These two methods work roughly the same way.
With annotations in the margins of books, you can see exactly which lines made you write a note, and everything is right there in front of you. Note-taking, on the other hand, gives you more space to explain your thoughts, but always be sure to jot down what part of the work the notes pertain to.
You can use all of these methods at once or come up with a technique all your own.
The important part is to read beyond basic enjoyment of the story with the goal of really comprehending the play… plus, this prewriting work will help you remember exactly which points to write about in your Hamlet essay.
Draft a Detailed Outline
Once you have all the important bits flagged in some way, it’s time to figure out what you want your Hamlet essay to focus on and organize the information in an outline.
The more detail you put into this outline, the less work you’ll have to do later in the writing process. (If you have lots of details in your outline, the essay will basically just be about making everything connect and read better.)
Let’s say I’m writing my Hamlet essay on what the ghost of Hamlet’s father represents. My outline would look like this:
- Auditory and visual hallucinations in modern times are considered signs of a mental disorder, and the same could be said in Hamlet’s time.
- Thesis Statement
- In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet is the only character to have conversations with the ghost of his father, and the ghost advises him to murder his uncle. The existence of the ghost demonstrates how mad Hamlet has become.
- Castle guards and Horatio see, but don’t talk to, the ghost.
- Hamlet gets advice from the ghost, which puts the idea of revenge in his mind.
- Hamlet tells Horatio he senses his father before he knows about the guards’ sightings of the ghost, showing his grief and longing to connect with his father again.
- Hamlet is the only one at all to notice the ghost in Gertrude’s room
- Murder Advice
- The ghost says that he will be tormented in the afterlife until all is made right.
- Hamlet doesn’t believe the news about Claudio, calling into question the validity of the advice.
- Questioning this advice can be seen as questioning the validity of the ghost in general and questioning Hamlet’s own sanity.
- Hamlet is grief-stricken more than anyone else in the play and is focused almost the entire time on revenge.
- In his grief and diminishing mental state, he hallucinates a ghost and has conversations with it as a way to justify his revenge plot.
(Note: If you also have to turn in a formal outline as part of the assignment, make sure each level has at least two parts.)
Come Up With a Killer Thesis Statement
Your thesis statement is perhaps the most important sentence of your entire essay. I’ve known teachers who have taken half of the points away if there was no thesis statement.
While the stakes may not be that high for you, pretending like they are really makes you focus on writing a clear, identifiable thesis statement.
But what is a thesis statement, and why is it so important?
Simply put, a thesis statement tells the reader what you’re going to be writing about in the rest of your Hamlet essay. It’s a little bit of a preview that lets the reader know what they’re in for.
And that’s why it’s so important—you’re going to bring up a lot of points in your essay, but your thesis is the thing that ties all of those points together.
You can either write the entire thesis statement during your outlining phase or write a simple version while outlining and refine it when you start writing.
Different Directions Your Hamlet Essay Can Take
Like I said before, there’s a lot to unpack in Hamlet. It’s not just a story about people killing other people (even though there’s a lot of that)—it’s about madness, mistrust, revenge, and inaction. And it’s got some pretty interesting characters to boot.
Some students make the mistake of trying to fit too much into their Hamlet essay at once. This not only creates incohesive writing, but also doesn’t give you the space to actually analyze your main points.
Focus on one theme, character, or symbol—and analyze the heck out of it.
Below are a few of the different topics you could use for your Hamlet essay. There are so many more. Feel free to write about something totally different. As long as you have enough support for your argument, you can essentially write about anything in the play.
The need for revenge vs. the inability to take action
Revenge is a pretty common theme in tragedies, but in Hamlet, it’s not actually about the act of revenge itself. Hamlet is not the most decisive person in the world. He wants to be certain of the facts.
If he had simply killed Claudius when the ghost told him to, the play wouldn’t have made it past the first act.
But the idea that a murderer like Uncle Claudius gets to live is enough to drive Hamlet up the wall. He thinks about revenge and talks about revenge, but when it comes time to pull the metaphorical trigger, he chokes almost every time.
And when he does try in earnest, he ends up killing the wrong guy, sending someone else (Laertes) into a tizzy and leaving him ready to get his own revenge.
If Hamlet had taken swifter action in the first place, maybe only one person would’ve wound up dead. But instead, everyone dies.
So in the end, there are two things of note about what Hamlet says about revenge:
- Revenge breeds more revenge; violence begets violence.
- If you absolutely have to carry out a revenge plot, at least do it decisively. Fewer people get hurt that way, except… you know… the one on the receiving end of said revenge.
My thesis statement for this theme would be:
In Hamlet, Shakespeare poses the need for revenge against the inability to take action by showing how both revenge and indecisiveness can cause destruction.
Theme of madness
There’s so much uncertainty in Hamlet, both from the characters and from the audience/readers. Take, for example, the theme of madness.
Hamlet’s plot from the beginning is to fake being crazy so that he can get Claudius’s guard down. The only problem is that he starts talking to his dead dad’s spirit a lot, which no one else seems to be doing.
Also, his inability to take action starts making for a lot of dead bodies. That’s certainly enough to drive anyone crazy.
So the question is, is Hamlet just really good at acting mad? Or did he take the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach and go mad because he was playing the part?
My thesis statement here would read:
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet feigning madness ultimately drives him mad, as seen through him talking to the ghost and becoming stuck between the decision to kill or not to kill.
The ghost is another symbol/character that makes some readers skeptical. The king had just died, and those who loved him were grieving, naturally. So a few people actually did see the ghost.
Hamlet was the only person to actually talk to the ghost, though.
This is a pretty big detail. The guards and Horatio could’ve been tired and just seeing things when they witnessed the ghost. But carrying on full conversations with the spirit of your dead father is more than “just seeing things.”
Even Hamlet is skeptical that the ghost is real, which is why he doesn’t kill Claudius immediately. (He might be mad, but if he is, he’s not mad enough to kill someone without real proof.)
So the ghost can stand for different things, depending on the evidence you pull from the play. It can serve as proof that Hamlet is actually mad or can represent the elusiveness of certainty.
You can find my thesis statement for this one in the outline above, but as a quick reminder, here it is again:
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet is the only character to have conversations with the ghost of his father, and the ghost advises him to murder his uncle. The ghost shows how mad Hamlet has become.
If these themes weren’t enough to inspire you, here are some example Hamlet essays other people have written. Take a look, and get your ideas flowing.
As always, if you feel like your Hamlet essay is still lacking life, send it to the Kibin editors to take a look at.
They’ll check for grammar, flow, and to see whether it makes sense overall. With their help, you can be absolutely certain your Hamlet essay won’t be dead in the water.
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