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FREE ONLINE STUDY GUIDE FOR HAMLET
The major theme of the novel is revenge. Several of the characters are entrusted with the duty of restoring family honor by exacting vengeance. Young Fortinbras reclaims his father's lost honor by gaining territory. Hamlet must avenge his father's murder by killing Claudius. And Laertes must avenge his father and his sister by exacting revenge upon Hamlet.
A second major theme is appearance vs. reality. The play makes several references to how things appear versus the truth. Hamlet speaks in riddles, feigned madness gives birth to real insanity, and even actors appear to confuse the truth. King Hamlet's death, an event that precedes the beginning of the play, appears to be snakebite but in reality is calculated murder. The new King of Denmark seems to be the proper and rightful heir to the throne, but he is really a power-hungry murderer. The theme of appearance vs. reality is a favorite of Shakespeare's, but in Hamlet, the theme is more well developed than in most of his plays.
An atmosphere of evil darkness pervades the play right from the beginning,
for "something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Hamlet feels
that he is living in a world of deceit and corruption where no one can
be trusted. For that matter, reality is not even certain. The imagery
of disease, corruption, and decay contributes to the mood of darkness
and evil. The aura of tragedy is present from the beginning to the end
of the play; the only slight respite in the dark mood comes in the Gravediggers'
scene, but even the comedy of this scene is morbid.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
William Shakespeare is usually considered the greatest dramatist and finest poet the world has ever known. No other writer's plays and poetry have been produced so many times or in so many countries or translated into so many languages. One of the major reasons for Shakespeare's popularity is the variety of rich characters that he successfully creates, from drunkards and paid murderers to princes and kings and from inane fools and court jesters to wise and noble generals. Each character springs vividly to life upon the stage and, as they speak their beautiful verse or prose, the characters remind the viewers of their own personalities, traits, and flaws. Shakespeare also made his characters very realistic. The dramatist had an amazing knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, and his well-developed characters reflect this knowledge, whether it be about military science, the graces of royalty, seamanship, history, the Bible, music, or sports.
In Shakespeare's time, few biographies were written, and none of the literary men of the Elizabethan Age was considered important enough to merit a book about his life. The first portfolio of his works, collected as a memorial to Shakespeare by members of his own acting company, was not published until 1623, seven years after his death. His first biography was written one hundred years later. As a result, many of the facts of Shakespeare's life are unknown. It is known that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon in England, sometime in early 1564, for his Baptism is recorded on April 26 of that year. His mother Mary had eight children, with William being the third. His father, John Shakespeare, was a fairly prosperous glovemaker and trader who owned several houses in Stratford and became the town's mayor when Shakespeare was a boy. The young Shakespeare probably studied in the local grammar school and hunted and played sports in the open fields behind his home.
The next definite information about William Shakespeare is that the young man, at age 18, married Anne Hathaway, who was 26, on November 28, 1582. In 1583, it is recorded that Anne gave birth to their oldest child, Susanna, and that twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to the couple in 1585. By 1592, the family was living in London, where Shakespeare was busy acting in plays and writing his own dramas. From 1592 to 1594, the plague kept most London theaters closed, so the dramatist turned to writing poetry during this period, and his poems, which were actually published unlike his plays, became popular with the masses and contributed to his good reputation as a writer. From 1594 to the end of his career, Shakespeare belonged to the same theatrical company, known first as Lord Chamberlain's Men and then as the King's Company. It is also known that he was both a leader and stockholder in this acting organization, which became the most prosperous group in London, and that he was meeting with both financial success and critical acclaim.
In 1954, Shakespeare was popular enough as an actor to perform before Queen Elizabeth. By 1596, he owned considerable property in London and bought one of the finest houses in Stratford, known as New Place, in 1597. A year later, in 1598, he bought ten percent of the stock in the Globe Theatre, where his plays were produced. In 1608, he and his colleagues also purchased The Blackfriars Theatre, where they began to hold productions during the winter, returning to the Globe during the summer months. Throughout the rest of his life, Shakespeare continued to purchase land, homes, and businesses. He obviously was a busy man between handling his business ventures, performing on the stage, and writing or collaborating on the thirty-seven plays that are credited to him.
Shakespeare's most productive years were from 1594 to 1608, the period in which he wrote all of his great tragedies, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. During these fourteen years, he furnished his acting company with approximately two plays annually. After 1608, it appears he went into semi-retirement, spending more time in Stratford and creating only five plays before his death on April 23, 1616. He was buried before the altar in the Stratford Church, where his body still lies today. Many literary students and visitors make a pilgrimage to this shrine each year in order to honor William Shakespeare, still recognized after 400 years as the world's greatest poet and dramatist.
Probably written in 1601 or 1602, Hamlet is probably one of Shakespeare's most studied and popular plays. Loosely based on Danish history, the play most likely has its origins in Histoires Tragiques, written by Belle-Forest in 1570; much of Belle-Forest's information is drawn from the Historica Danica, written by Saxo Grammaticus in 1208. In Belle-Forest's version of Hamlet, it is a known fact that Claudius, the King's brother, murders him and takes the throne. Claudius then tries to find reason to have Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, put to death in order to ensure his retention of the throne. Realizing her error in marrying Claudius, Hamlet's mother begs forgiveness from her son and acts with him to seek vengeance on Claudius. During a banquet, Hamlet sets fire to the dining hall and beheads his uncle, the guilty King of Denmark. Hamlet is then crowned King.
As usual, Shakespeare has researched information about his main character and then changed him into the dramatic personage that he becomes. Although the Shakespearean version of Hamlet has similarities to the Belle-Forest version, there are also obvious differences, including the introduction of the Ghost to heighten dramatic interest and the death of Hamlet at the end of the play to heighten the tragedy. The end results of Shakespeare's changes are the creation of a powerful and memorable protagonist and a dramatically effective play.