Doctor Faustus ( pub 1604)
Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1601- 1602)
The Tempest (1610–1611)
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599)
The Duchess of Malfi (1614) published 1623
The Way of the World (1700)
The School For Scandal (1777)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
Murder in the Cathedral (1935)
Riders to the Sea 1904
Waiting for Godot (pub.1954, perf. 1955)
En attendant Godot ( pub 1952. perf.1953)
The Birthday Party (1957)
Christopher Marlowe (1564 –1593)
• English playwright, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era.
• Marlowe was the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day.
• He greatly influenced William Shakespeare, who was born in the same year as Marlowe and
who rose to become the pre-eminent Elizabethan playwright after Marlowe's mysterious
• Marlowe's plays are known for the use of blank verse and their overreaching protagonists.
• A warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest on 18 May 1593. No reason was given for it,
though it was thought to be connected to allegations of blasphemy—a manuscript believed to
have been written by Marlowe was said to contain "vile heretical conceipts".
• On 20 May he was brought to the court to attend upon the Privy Council for questioning.
There is no record of their having met that day, however, and he was commanded to attend
upon them each day thereafter until "licensed to the contrary." Ten days later, he was stabbed
to death by Ingram Frizer. Whether the stabbing was connected to his arrest has never been
• Marlowe attended The King's School in Canterbury (where a house is now named after him)
and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he studied on a scholarship and received his
Bachelor of Arts degree in 1584.
• In 1587 the university hesitated to award him his Master of Arts degree because of a rumour
that he intended to go to the English college at Rheims, presumably to prepare for ordination
as a Roman Catholic priest.
• However, his degree was awarded on schedule when the Privy Council intervened on his
behalf, commending him for his "faithful dealing" and "good service" to the Queen.
• The nature of Marlowe's service was not specified by the Council, but its letter to the
Cambridge authorities has provoked much speculation, notably the theory that Marlowe was
operating as a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham‘s intelligence service. No
direct evidence supports this theory, although the Council's letter is evidence that Marlowe
had served the government in some secret capacity.
• Of the dramas attributed to Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage is believed to have been his
first. It was performed by the Children of the Chapel, a company of boy actors, between 1587
and 1593. The play was first published in 1594; the title page attributes the play to Marlowe
and Thomas Nashe.
• Marlowe's first play performed on the regular stage in London, in 1587, was Tamburlaine
the Great, about the conqueror Tamburlaine, who rises from shepherd to war-lord. It is
among the first English plays in blank verse, and, with Thomas Kyd's The Spanish
Tragedy, generally is considered the beginning of the mature phase of the Elizabethan
theatre. Tamburlaine was a success, and was followed with Tamburlaine the Great, Part II.
• The two parts of Tamburlaine were published in 1590; all Marlowe's other works were
published posthumously. The sequence of the writing of his other four plays is unknown; all
deal with controversial themes.
• The Jew of Malta (first published as The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta), about a
Maltese Jew's barbarous revenge against the city authorities, has a prologue delivered by a
character representing Machiavelli. It was probably written in 1589 or 1590, and was first
performed in 1592. It was a success, and remained popular for the next fifty years. The play
was entered in the Stationers' Registeron 17 May 1594, but the earliest surviving printed
edition is from 1633.
• Edward the Second is an English history play about the deposition of King Edward II by his
barons and the Queen, who resent the undue influence the king's favourites have in court and
state affairs. The play was entered into the Stationers' Register on 6 July 1593, five weeks
after Marlowe's death. The full title of the earliest extant edition, of 1594, is The troublesome
reigne and lamentable death of Edward the second, King of England, with the tragicall fall
of proud Mortimer.
• The Massacre at Paris is a short and luridly written work, the only surviving text of which
was probably a reconstruction from memory of the original performance text, portraying
the events of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, which English Protestants
invoked as the blackest example of Catholic treachery. It features the silent "English Agent",
whom subsequent tradition has identified with Marlowe himself and his connections to the
secret service. The Massacre at Paris is considered his most dangerous play, as agitators in
London seized on its theme to advocate the murders of refugees from the low countries and,
indeed, it warns Elizabeth I of this possibility in its last scene. Its full title was The
Massacre at Paris: With the Death of the Duke of Guise.
• Doctor Faustus (or The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus), based
on the German Faustbuch, was the first dramatised version of the Faust legend of a scholar's
dealing with the devil. While versions of "The Devil's Pact" can be traced back to the 4th
century, Marlowe deviates significantly by having his hero unable to "burn his books" or
repent to a merciful God in order to have his contract annulled at the end of the play.
Marlowe's protagonist is instead carried off by demons, and in the 1616 quarto his mangled
corpse is found by several scholars.
• Doctor Faustus is a textual problem for scholars as two versions of the play exist: the
1604 quarto, also known as the A text, and the 1616 quarto or B text. Both were published
after Marlowe's death. Scholars have disagreed which text is more representative of
Marlowe's original, and some editions are based on a combination of the two. The latest
scholarly consensus (as of the late 20th century) holds the A text is more representative
because it contains irregular character names and idiosyncratic spelling, which are believed
to reflect a text based on the author's handwritten manuscript, or "foul papers." The B text, in
comparison, was highly edited, censored because of shifting theatre laws regarding religious
words onstage, and contains several additional scenes which scholars believe to be the
additions of other playwrights, particularly Samuel Rowley and William Bird (alias Borne).
• Marlowe's plays were enormously successful, thanks in part, no doubt, to the imposing stage
presence of Edward Alleyn. Alleyn was unusually tall for the time, and the haughty roles of
Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas were probably written especially for him. Marlowe's
plays were the foundation of the repertoire of Alleyn's company, the Admiral's Men,
throughout the 1590s.
• Marlowe also wrote the poem Hero and Leander (published in 1598, and with a continuation
by George Chapman the same year), the popular lyric "The Passionate Shepherd to His
Love", and translations of Ovid's Amores and the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia. In 1599,
his translation of Ovid was banned and copies publicly burned as part of Archbishop
Whitgift's crackdown on offensive material.
Reputation among contemporary writers
• Whatever the particular focus of modern critics, biographers and novelists, for his
contemporaries in the literary world, Marlowe was above all an admired and influential artist.
• Within weeks of his death, George Peele remembered him as "Marley, the Muses'
darling"; Michael Drayton noted that he "Had in him those brave translunary things / That
the first poets had", and Ben Jonson wrote of "Marlowe's mighty line".
• Thomas Nashe wrote warmly of his friend, "poor deceased Kit Marlowe". So too did the
publisher Edward Blount, in the dedication of Hero and Leander to Sir Thomas Walsingham.
• Among the few contemporary dramatists to say anything negative about Marlowe was the
anonymous author of the Cambridge University play The Return From Parnassus(1598) who
wrote, "Pity it is that wit so ill should dwell, / Wit lent from heaven, but vices sent from
• The most famous tribute to Marlowe was paid by Shakespeare in As You Like It, where he
not only quotes a line from Hero and Leander ("Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
'Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?'") but also gives to the clown Touchstone the
words "When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with the
forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little
• This appears to be a reference to Marlowe's murder which involved a fight over the
"reckoning", the bill, as well as to a line in Marlowe's Jew of Malta – "Infinite riches in a
• Shakespeare was heavily influenced by Marlowe in his work, as can be seen in the re-using
of Marlovian themes in Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II,
and Macbeth (Dido, Jew of Malta, Edward II and Dr Faustus respectively).
• In Hamlet, after meeting with the travelling actors, Hamlet requests the Player perform a
speech about the Trojan War, which at 2.2.429–32 has an echo of Marlowe's Dido, Queen of
• In Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare brings on a character "Marcade" (three syllables) in
conscious acknowledgement of Marlowe's character "Mercury", also attending the King of
Navarre, in Massacre at Paris. The significance, to those of Shakespeare's audience who had
read Hero and Leander, was Marlowe's identification of himself with the god Mercury.
• Dido, Queen of Carthage (c. 1586) (possibly co-written with Thomas Nashe)
• Tamburlaine, part 1 (c. 1587)
• Tamburlaine, part 2 (c. 1587–1588)
• The Jew of Malta (c. 1589)
• Doctor Faustus (c. 1589, or, c. 1593)
• Edward II (c. 1592)
• The Massacre at Paris (c. 1593)
• The play Lust's Dominion was attributed to Marlowe upon its initial publication in 1657,
though scholars and critics have almost unanimously rejected the attribution.
• Translation of Book One of Lucan's Pharsalia (date unknown)
• Translation of Ovid's Elegies (c. 1580s?)
• "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (pre-1593)
• Hero and Leander
Fictional works about Marlowe
• Wilbur G. Zeigler's novel It was Marlowe (1895) was the first book to argue that Marlowe's
death was faked.
• Leo Rost's Marlowe (1981), was an American rock musical staged on Broadway.
• Peter Whelan's play The School of Night (1992), about Marlowe's links to the freethinking
"school of night" and the young Shakespeare, was performed by the Royal Shakespeare
Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.
• Anthony Burgess's A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), an imaginative treatment of Marlowe's
death, was the last of Burgess's novels to be published in his lifetime.
• Louise Welsh's 2004 novel Tamburlaine Must Die
• The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, commonly referred to
simply as Doctor Faustus, is a play byChristopher Marlowe, based on the German
story Faust, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for power, experience, pleasure and
• Doctor Faustus was first published in 1604, eleven years after Marlowe's death and at
least 10 years after the first performance of the play.
• It is the most controversial Elizabethan play outside of Shakespeare, with few critics
coming to any agreement as to the date or the nature of the text.
The two versions
Two versions of the play exist:
• The 1604 quarto, printed by Valentine Simmes for Thomas Law; this is usually called the
A text. The title page attributes the play to "Ch. Marl.". A second edition (A2) in 1609,
printed by George Eld for John Wright, is merely a reprint of the 1604 text. The text is
short for an English Renaissance play, only 1485 lines long.
• The 1616 quarto, published by John Wright, the enlarged and altered text; usually called
the B text. This second text was reprinted in 1619, 1620, 1624, 1631, and as late as 1663.
Additions and alterations were made by the minor playwright and actor Samuel
Rowley and by William Borne (or Bird, or Boyle), and possibly by Marlowe himself.
• The 1604 version was once believed to be closer to the play as originally performed in
Marlowe's lifetime, simply because it was older. By the 1940s, after influential studies
by Leo Kirschbaum and W. W. Greg, the 1604 version came to be regarded as an
abbreviation and the 1616 version as Marlowe's original fuller version. Kirschbaum and
Greg considered the A-text a "bad quarto", and thought that the B-text was linked to
Marlowe himself. Since then scholarship has swung the other way, most scholars now
considering the A-text more authoritative, even if "abbreviated and corrupt", according
to Charles Nicholl.
• The 1616 version omits 36 lines but adds 676 new lines, making it roughly one third
longer than the 1604 version. Among the lines shared by both versions, there are some
small but significant changes in wording; for example, "Never too late, if Faustus can
repent" in the 1604 text becomes "Never too late, if Faustus will repent" in the 1616 text,
a change that offers a very different possibility for Faustus's hope and repentance.
• Another difference between texts A and B is the name of the devil summoned by Faustus.
Text A states the name is generally "Mephastophilis", while the version of text B
commonly states "Mephostophilis" .The name of the devil is in each case a reference to
Mephistopheles in Faustbuch, the source work, which appeared in English translation in
• The relationship between the texts is uncertain and many modern editions print both. As
an Elizabethan playwright, Marlowe had nothing to do with the publication and had no
control over the play in performance, so it was possible for scenes to be dropped or
shortened, or for new scenes to be added, so that the resulting publications may be
modified versions of the original script.
• In the past, it was assumed that the comic scenes were additions by other writers. However,
most scholars today consider the comic interludes, whoever wrote them, an integral part of
the play.Their tone shows the change in Faustus's ambitions, suggesting Marlowe did oversee
the composition of them.The clown is seen as the archetype for comic relief.
• Doctor Faustus is based on an older tale; it is believed to be the first dramatisation of the
• Some scholars believe that Marlowe developed the story from a popular 1592 translation,
commonly called The English Faust Book.
• There is thought to have been an earlier, lost, German edition of 1587, which itself may have
been influenced by even earlier, equally unpreserved pamphlets in Latin, such as those that
likely inspired Jacob Bidermann's treatment of the damnation of the doctor of
• Several soothsayers or necromancers of the late fifteenth century adopted the name Faustus, a
reference to the Latin for "favoured" or "auspicious"; typical was Georgius Faustus
Helmstetensis, calling himself astrologer and chiromancer, who was expelled from the town
of Ingolstadt for such practices. Subsequent commentators have identified this individual as
the prototypical Faustus of the legend.
• Whatever the inspiration, the development of Marlowe's play is very faithful to the Faust
Book, especially in the way it mixes comedy with tragedy.
• However, Marlowe also introduced some changes to make it more original. He made three
• Faustus's soliloquy, in Act 1, on the vanity of human science
• Good and Bad Angels
• The substitution of a Pageant of Devils for The Seven Deadly Sins.
• He also emphasised Faustus' intellectual aspirations and curiosity, and minimised the vices in
the character, to lend a Renaissance aura to the story.
• The play is in blank verse and prose in thirteen scenes (1604) or twenty scenes (1616).
• Blank verse is largely reserved for the main scenes while prose is used in the comic
scenes. Modern texts divide the play into five acts; act 5 being the shortest. As in many
Elizabethan plays, there is a chorus (which functions as a narrator), that does not interact
with the other characters but rather provides an introduction and conclusion to the play
and, at the beginning of some Acts, introduces events that have unfolded.
• Along with its history and language style, scholars have critiqued and analysed the
structure of the play. Leonard H. Frey wrote a document entitled “In the Opening and
Close of Doctor Faustus,” which mainly focuses on Faustus's opening and closing
• He stresses the importance of the soliloquies in the play, saying: “the soliloquy, perhaps
more than any other dramatic device, involved the audience in an imaginative concern
with the happenings on stage”.
• By having Doctor Faustus deliver these soliloquies at the beginning and end of the play,
the focus is drawn to his inner thoughts and feelings about succumbing to the devil. The
soliloquies have parallel concepts. In the introductory soliloquy, Faustus begins by
pondering the fate of his life and what he wants his career to be. He ends his soliloquy
with the solution and decision to give his soul to the devil.Similarly in the closing
soliloquy, Faustus begins pondering, and finally comes to terms with the fate he created
for himself. Frey also explains: “The whole pattern of this final soliloquy is thus a grim
parody of the opening one, where decision is reached after, not prior to, the survey”
• The chorus announces that this play will not be concerned with war, love, or proud deeds.
Instead, it will present the good and bad fortunes of Dr. John Faustus, who is born of base
stock in Germany and who goes to the University of Wittenberg, where he studies
philosophy and divinity. He so excels in matters of theology that he eventually becomes
swollen with pride, which leads to his downfall. Ultimately, Faustus turns to a study of
necromancy, or magic.
• The technique of the chorus is adapted from the traditions of classic Greek drama. The
chorus functions in several ways throughout the play. It stands outside the direct action of the
play and comments upon various parts of the drama. The chorus speaks directly to the
audience and tells the basic background history of Faustus and explains that the play is to
concern his downfall. The chorus is also used to express the author's views and to remind the
audience of the proper moral to be learned from the play itself. The opening speech of the
chorus functions as a prologue to define the scope of the play.
• The chorus speaks in very formal, rhetorical language and explains that the subject of this
play will not be that which is usually depicted in dramas. Instead of a subject dealing with
love or war, the play will present the history of a scholar. The purpose of this explanation is
that, traditionally, tragedy had dealt with such grand subjects as the history of kings, great
wars, or powerful love affairs. Consequently, Marlowe is preparing the audience for a
departure in subject matter. Most frequently, tragedy is concerned with the downfall of kings,
and Marlowe's tragedy does not fit into this formula since this drama deals with the downfall
of a man of common birth.
• The Icarus image is used in the opening passage to characterize the fall of Faustus. Icarus
was a figure in classical mythology who because of his pride had soared too high in the sky,
had melted his wax wings, and subsequently had fallen to his death. This classical image of
the fall of Icarus reinforces the Christian images of the fall of Lucifer brought out in Scene 3.
Both images set the scene for the fall of Dr. Faustus during the course of the drama.
• Another image used by the chorus to describe the situation of Faustus is that of glutting an
appetite by overindulgence. Throughout the play, Faustus is seen as a person of uncontrolled
appetites. His thirst for knowledge and power lead him to make the pact with the devil which
brings about his downfall. The chorus points out the dangers involved in resorting to magic.
It makes clear that Faustus is choosing magic at the danger of his own soul.
• Faustus is alone in his study reviewing his achievements. He concludes that he has attained
preeminence in all fields of intellectual endeavor. He disputes superbly and has mastered all
treatises of logic. He is such a skilled physician that he has saved whole cities from the
plague. He knows all the petty cavils of law but he finds them drudgery. In theology, he takes
two scriptual passages which indicate that all men must eventually die and dismisses them.
After reviewing his achievements, he decides that necromancy is the only world of profit,
delight, power, honor, and omnipotence. He then has Wagner summon Valdes and Cornelius,
who will help him conjure up spirits.
• While Faustus is waiting for the two German scholars, the Good Angel and the Evil Angel
appear. The Good Angel advises him to lay aside the "damned book" of magic and read the
scriptures. The Evil Angel appeals to Faustus' ambitions. Faustus becomes absorbed in a
vision of what he will be able to do by the power of magic.
• When Valdes and Cornelius appear, Faustus welcomes them and tells them that he has
decided to practice magic because he has found philosophy, law, medicine, and divinity to be
unsatisfactory. Valdes assures Faustus that if they work together the whole world will soon
be at their feet. Faustus agrees and tells the two men that he plans to conjure that very night.
• Two scholars come to Wagner to inquire about Faustus. Instead of giving a direct answer,
Wagner uses superficial scholastic logic in order to prove to the two scholars that they should
not have asked the question. After he displays a ridiculous knowledge of disputation, he
finally reveals that Faustus is inside with Valdes and Cornelius. The two scholars then fear
that Faustus has fallen into the practice of magic. They plan to see the Rector to "see if he by
his grave counsel can reclaim" Faustus.
• Essentially, this scene functions as a comic interlude. This type of scene is often called an
"echo scene" because Wagner's actions parody those of Faustus in the previous scene. The
scene also functions as a contrast to the earlier scene in that the same subject is being
presented — the use and misuse of knowledge. Earlier we had seen Faustus alone in his
study displaying his knowledge of logic in order to justify his resorting to black magic. Now
we have a contrast in which Wagner tries to use logic for no other purpose than to try to tell
two scholars where Faustus is at the time.
• Not only is the scene a comic interlude, but it is also a comment on the actions performed by
• Faustus decides to try incantation for the first time. He mutters a long passage in Latin which
is composed of passages abjuring the trinity and invoking the aid of the powers of the
underworld. Mephistophilis then appears in a hideous shape, and Faustus tells him that he is
too ugly. He demands that Mephistophilis disappear and return in the shape of a Franciscan
friar. Faustus is elated that he has the power to call up this devil. As soon as Mephistophilis
reappears, Faustus finds that it is not his conjuration which brings forth a devil; a devil will
appear any time that a person abjures the name of the trinity.
• Faustus asks Mephistophilis several questions about Lucifer and learns that he is a fallen
angel who, because of pride and insolence, revolted against God and was cast into hell. When
Faustus begins to inquire about the nature of hell, Mephistophilis answers that hell is
wherever God is not present. Faustus chides Mephistophilis for being so passionate about
being deprived of the joys of heaven, and then sends him back to Lucifer with the proposal
that Faustus will exchange his soul for twenty-four years of unlimited power. After
Mephistophilis leaves, Faustus dreams of all the glorious deeds he will perform with his new
• Wagner accosts the clown and tells him that he realizes that the clown is out of work. He
accuses him of being so desperate that he would sell his soul to the devil for a shoulder of
raw mutton. The clown insists that if he were to make so dangerous a bargain, he would
require that his mutton at least be roasted in a fine sauce. Wagner asks the clown to serve
him for seven years. If the clown refuses, Wagner threatens to have lice tear him to
• Wagner gives the clown some French money and warns him that he will have a devil
fetch him within an hour if he doesn't agree to become his servant; Wagner summons
Baliol and Belcher — two devils — who come and frighten the poor clown. Wagner
promises the clown that he will instruct him in how to summon up these devils. The
clown agrees to the bargain but wants to be taught how to turn himself into a flea on a
• Faustus, alone in his study, tries to bolster his own resolution to forget God and dedicate
himself solely to Lucifer. The Good Angel and the Evil Angel appear. The Good Angel
admonishes Faustus to think on heavenly things, while the Evil Angel emphasizes the value
of power and wealth. Faustus decides to think on wealth and summons Mephistophilis, who
then tells him that Lucifer will agree to the bargain, but it must be signed with Faustus' blood.
Faustus stabs his arm, but as he begins to write, the blood congeals. Mephistophilis rushes to
get some fire in order to make the blood flow. As Faustus begins to write again, an
inscription — "Homo, fuge!" — appears on his arm. Faustus finishes signing the bond and
orders Mephistophilis to deliver it to Lucifer.
• After the bargain has been completed, Faustus begins to ask again about the nature of hell,
but while Mephistophilis is describing hell, Faustus becomes skeptical and refuses to believe
in hell. Then, all of a sudden, Faustus changes the topic of the conversation and tells
Mephistophilis that he wants a wife because he feels wanton and lascivious. Mephistophilis
convinces him that he does not want a wife and offers to bring him any courtesan or
paramour that he desires. Before Mephistophilis leaves, Faustus demands three books — one
for incantations and spells, one for knowledge of the planets and the heavens, and one for
understanding plants and animals.
• During this scene, two omens appear to indicate to Faustus that he is in dire danger of
damnation. The first is the fact that his own blood congeals, the second is the inscription
"Homo, fuge!" which appears on his arm. The inscription warns Faustus to flee. He ignores
both of these warnings and continues blindly on his way to damnation by insisting on signing
the pact. Faustus even believes that his senses are deceived by the signs, but it is not his
senses but his reason which is deceived in signing the contract.
• Faustus begins to repent that he has made a contract with the devil. Mephistophilis tries to
console Faustus by telling him that heaven is not such a glorious place and that humans are
more wonderful than anything in heaven. The Good Angel and the Evil Angel appear, and
each tries to influence Faustus' decision. Faustus is haunted by the thought that he is damned.
He thinks that he would have killed himself by now if he had not been able to conjure up
Homer to sing and soothe him. Now he asks Mephistophilis to argue about theoretical
matters. Faustus is not satisfied with the things that Mephistophilis is able to tell him and
maintains that even Wagner knows the answers to such questions. He now wants to know
about the power behind the universe and who made the world. Mephistophilis tries to get him
to think of hell and other things rather than about these heavier philosophical matters.
• Faustus cries out for Christ to save him, and at this moment, Lucifer himself appears. Lucifer
reminds him that he is breaking his promise by thinking on Christ. He tells Faustus that he
has brought some entertainment to divert him.
• The seven deadly sins — pride, covetousness, wrath, envy, gluttony, sloth, and lechery —
appear before Faustus in the representation of their individual sin or nature. Faustus is
delighted with the show and Lucifer hands him a book and promises to return at midnight.
After everyone leaves, Wagner appears and says that Faustus has gone to Rome to see the
• t is a highly dramatic moment when Lucifer himself appears on the stage. Faustus maintains
that Lucifer looks extremely ugly, and again the implication is that hell is ugly.
• At the crucial moments when Faustus wavers, the devils always try to divert him in some
sensual manner. When Faustus begins to question Mephistophilis about primeval causes, the
devils try to take his mind off these noble questions and force him to think about carnal
matters. Consequently, in this scene the powers of hell divert Faustus by bringing forth the
seven deadly sins to entertain Faustus and to remove all these troublesome questions from his
• The appearance of the seven deadly sins is a holdover from the morality plays and becomes
another type of interlude in the play. Furthermore, the manner in which they describe
themselves is somewhat comic. Whereas in a morality play the seven deadly sins would be
paraded before the main character as a warning to abstain from evil, in Doctor Faustus they
are presented to Faustus only to delight and distract him from heavenly thoughts.
• The seven deadly sins do have a philosophical significance and do carry forward the
intellectual meaning of the plot, but they also function to appeal to the general audience, who
would find entertainment in the grotesque physical appearance of these awesome creatures.
• Immediately after the appearance of these seven deadly sins, Faustus says "O, this feeds my
• Faustus describes the trip over the Alps and the various cities on the way to Rome. After
Mephistophilis tells Faustus that he has arranged to enter the pope's private chamber, he
describes the city of Rome. They prepare to go into the pope's chambers and Mephistophilis
makes Faustus invisible. When the pope and a group of friars enter, Faustus plays tricks on
them by snatching plates and cups from them. Finally, he boxes the pope on the ear. When
the friars who are accompanying the pope begin to sing a dirge to re-move the evil spirit that
seems to be present, Mephistophilis and Faustus begin to beat the friars and fling some
fireworks among them.
• The chorus enters and reviews Faustus' career. When Faustus has seen all the royal courts, he
returns home, where many of his friends seek him out and ask him difficult questions
concerning astrology and the universe. Faustus' knowledge makes him famous all through the
land. Finally the emperor, Carolus the Fifth, asks him to come to his court.
• Robin the ostler enters with a book in his hand and reveals that he has stolen a volume from
Faustus' library. He intends to learn how to conjure in order to make all the maidens in the
village appear before him and dance naked. Rafe (Ralph) enters and tells him that there is a
gentleman waiting to have his horse taken care of. Robin ignores him, saying that he has
more important things to do: he is going to conjure up a devil with his newly stolen book. He
promises to procure the kitchen maid for Ralph, and then they both leave to clean their boots
and continue with the conjuring.
• Robin and Ralph appear with a silver goblet that Robin has apparently taken from a vintner.
Robin is very pleased with this new acquisition, but immediately the vintner appears and
demands that the goblet be returned to him. Robin insists that he does not have the goblet and
allows himself to be searched. The vintner cannot find the goblet.
• Meanwhile, Robin begins to read incantations from Faustus' book. These incantations
summon Mephistophilis, who appears and puts some firecrackers at their backs and then
momentarily disappears. In fright, Robin gives the vintner back his goblet. Mephistophilis
reappears and complains that he has had to come all the way from Constantinople because
these irresponsible servants used incantations without understanding them. He threatens to
change them into an ape and a dog, and then leaves. Robin and Ralph can only think about
how much fun and how much food they might have if transformed into these animals.
• Later at the German court, Emperor Carolus tells Faustus that he has heard reports of his
magical powers and he would like to see some proof of Faustus' skill. Faustus responds
humbly that he is not as skilled as the rumors report him to be, but he will try to please the
emperor. The emperor wonders if anyone will ever attain the stature of Alexander the Great,
and he asks Faustus to bring Alexander and Alexander's paramour back to life. As the
emperor makes this request, a knight in the court makes several skeptical and sarcastic
remarks about Faustus' powers.
• At Faustus' request, Mephistophilis leaves and returns with two spirits in the shape of
Alexander and his paramour. After the emperor inspects a mole on the paramour's neck, he
declares that the two spirits are real. Faustus asks that the sarcastic knight be requested to
return. When the knight appears, he has a pair of horns on his head. The knight is furious
about his situation and abuses Faustus. Then, at the emperor's request, Faustus releases the
knight from the spell and the horns are removed. The emperor thanks Faustus for the
conjuration and promises to reward him bounteously.
• Faustus begins to be concerned that the end of his allotted time is drawing near. Suddenly, a
horse-courser enters and wants to know if Faustus will sell his horse for forty dollars. Faustus
willingly agrees to sell his horse but warns the horse-courser that he must never ride the
horse into water.
• When the horse-courser departs, Faustus resumes contemplating that he is condemned to die
and then falls asleep. The horse-courser returns in a great fluster and accuses Faustus of
cheating him. He thought the horse had some magical quality, so he proceeded to ride the
animal into a pond. When the horse disappeared under him, he found himself sitting on a
bundle of hay and he almost drowned.
• Mephistophilis cautions the horse-courser to be quiet because Faustus has just fallen asleep
for the first time in eight days. The horse-courser pulls on Faustus' legs, awakens him, and
demands that Faustus pay him back his money. He is astounded when Faustus' entire leg
comes off. He is so frightened that he promises to pay Faustus forty more dollars.
• Wagner enters to tell Faustus that the Duke of Vanholt desires his company, and Faustus
agrees to see the noble gentleman.
• At the court of the duke of Vanholt, Faustus asks the duchess, who is with child, if she has a
desire for any special dainties. Although it is January, she desires to have a dish of ripe
grapes. Faustus sends Mephistophilis after them, and when he returns with them, the duke
wonders how this could be accomplished. Faustus explains that he sent his spirit to India for
them. The duchess exclaims that the grapes are the best she has ever tasted. The duke
promises Faustus that he will reward him greatly for this favor.
• Wagner enters with the news that Faustus is soon to die because he has given all of his goods
and properties to his servants. He doesn't understand why Faustus continues to feast and to
carouse if he is so near death.
• Faustus enters with scholars discussing who is the most beautiful woman in the world. The
scholars think it is Helen of Troy. Because of their friendship for him, Faustus promises to
raise her from the dead and let the scholars see her in all her pomp and majesty. Music
sounds and Helen passes across the stage. The scholars exclaim wildly about her beauty and
thank Faustus for allowing them to see this "paragon of excellence."
• As an old man enters, the scholars leave. The old man prevails upon Faustus to repent of "thy
most vile and loathsome filthiness" so he can come under the grace and mercy of God and be
saved. Faustus fears that hell has him trapped but asks the old man to leave him alone for a
while and he ponders his sins.
• Mephistophilis then threatens Faustus for disobedience to Lucifer, and Faustus agrees to
reaffirm his contract to the devil in blood again. After he writes the second deed, he tells
Mephistophilis that he desires Helen for his own paramour. When she appears, Faustus
decides that Helen's beauty shall make him immortal and thus, he will not need salvation:
• Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?Sweet
Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies!Come,
Helen, come, give me my soul again.Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,And all is
dross that is not Helen.
• After Faustus exits with Helen, the old man re-enters and expresses his disappointment in
Faustus, but he also sympathizes with him because he too has been tempted but has won
victory by turning to God.
• Faustus declares to the three scholars who accompany him that he is in a dejected state
because of what is about to happen to him. He admits that he has sinned so greatly that he
cannot be forgiven. The scholars urge him to call on God, but Faustus feels that he is unable
to call on God, whom he has abjured and blasphemed. He says: "Ah, my God, I would weep,
but the devil draws in my tears! . . . I would lift up my hands but, see, they hold them, they
hold them!" Faustus tells the scholars that he has done the very things that God most forbids
man to do: "for vain pleasure of twenty-four years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity."
• One of the scholars volunteers to stay with Faustus until the last minute, but Faustus and the
others admit that no one will be able to help him. He must face the final moments alone.
• After the scholars leave, the clock strikes eleven, and Faustus realizes that he has only an
hour left before eternal damnation. He suffers because he realizes that he will be deprived of
eternal bliss and will have to suffer eternal damnation. As the clock strikes half past eleven,
he pleads that his doom not be everlasting. He would suffer a hundred thousand years if at
last he could be saved. As the clock strikes twelve, he cries out for God not to look so fierce
upon him. Thunder and lightning flash across the stage and the devils arrive to take him
• The basic situation in this final scene evokes many literary parallels. For example, we are
immediately reminded of Job, who had his friends with him to comfort him during his
suffering, but the friends were no help to him. Likewise, in the play Everyman, Everyman
wants to take all his friends with him to the grave. In Doctor Faustus, the doctor has his
friends with him and one of the scholars wants to stay with him, but Faustus realizes that he
must face death alone.
• Man's limitation is that he lives in time, and in his final speech, we see Faustus fighting
against this very limitation. As the clock strikes eleven, he realizes that he has only one hour
left to live. He suddenly understands that one power he does not possess is the ability to
make time stop; he desires to have more time to live and thus repent of his sins.
• Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,That time may cease and midnight never
come;Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again, and makePerpetual day; or let this hour be butA year,
a month, a week, a natural day,That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
• The drama of the scene is heightened by this constant awareness of the passing of time.
Faustus is almost frantic as his end approaches.
• As the clock strikes the final hour, we have one of the most dramatic scenes in all of
Elizabethan drama. During thunder and lightning, horrible-looking devils appear to take
Faustus off to his eternal damnation. His last pleading words are an effective statement of the
horror of trafficking in the black arts. His final speech is incoherent and incomplete, as
though he were suddenly dragged off in the middle of his plea.
• The chorus makes the final and closing comment on the fall of Faustus. They comment that
he had tried to go beyond the limitations of humanity and had thus fallen into eternal
damnation. The chorus admonishes the audience to take note of Faustus' example and not go
beyond the boundary of lawful things. The chorus expresses the medieval view that Faustus'
fall resulted from his pride and ambition.
Doctor John Faustus A learned scholar in Germany during the fifteenth century who becomes
dissatisfied with the limitations of knowledge and pledges his soul to Lucifer in exchange for
Wagner Faustus' servant, who tries to imitate Faustus' methods of reasoning and fails in a
ridiculous and comic manner.
Valdes and Cornelius Two German scholars who are versed in the practice of magic and who
teach Faustus about the art of conjuring.
Lucifer King of the underworld and a fallen angel who had rebelled against God and thereafter
tries desperately to win souls away from the Lord.
Mephistophilis A prince of the underworld who appears to Faustus and becomes his servant for
Good Angel and Evil Angel Two figures who appear to Faustus and attempt to influence him.
The Clown The clown who becomes a servant of Wagner as Mephistophilis becomes a servant
Horse-Courser A gullible man who buys Faustus' horse, which disappears when it is ridden into
The Pope The head of the Roman Catholic church, whom Faustus and Mephistophilis use as a
butt of their practical jokes.
Charles V, Emperor of Germany The emperor who holds a feast for Faustus and at whose
court Faustus illustrates his magical powers.
Knight A haughty and disdainful knight who insults Faustus. In revenge, Faustus makes a pair
of horns appear on the knight.
Duke and Duchess of Vanholt A couple whom Faustus visits and for whom he conjures up
Robin An ostler who steals some of Dr. Faustus' books and tries to conjure up some devils.
Rafe (Ralph) A friend of Robin's who is present with Robin during the attempt to conjure up
Vintner A man who appears and tries to get payment for a goblet from Robin.
Old Man He appears to Faustus during the last scene and tries to tell Faustus that there is still
time to repent.
SevenDeadly Sins, Alexander, Helen of Troy, and Alexander's Paramour Spirits or
apparitions which appear during the course of the play.
Chorus A device used to comment upon the action of the play or to provide exposition.
“Hell is just a frame of mind.”
“He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall.”
“Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.”
“If we say that we have no sin,
We deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us.
Why then belike we must sin,
And so consequently die.
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.”
“I am Envy, begotten of a chimney-sweeper and an oyster-wife. I cannot read, and
therefore wish all books were burnt; I am lean with seeing others eat - O that there would
come a famine through all the world, that all might die, and I live alone; then thou
should'st see how fat I would be!
“Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burnèd is Apollo's laurel-bough,
That sometime grew within this learnèd man.”
“Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium--
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.
O, I'll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?—
See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!
• The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a tragedy written by William
Shakespeare at an uncertain date between 1599 and 1602.
• Set in the Kingdom of Denmark, the play dramatises the revenge Prince Hamlet is
instructed to exact on his uncle Claudius.
• Claudius had murdered his own brother, Hamlet's father King Hamlet, and subsequently
seized the throne, marrying his deceased brother's widow, Hamlet's mother Gertrude.
• Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play and among the most powerful and influential
tragedies in English literature, with a story capable of "seemingly endless retelling and
adaptation by others."
• The play seems to have been one of Shakespeare's most popular works during his lifetime
and still ranks among his most-performed, topping the performance list of the Royal
Shakespeare Company and its predecessors in Stratford-upon-Avon since 1879.
• It has inspired writers from Goethe and Dickens to Joyce and Murdoch, and has been
described as "the world's most filmed story after Cinderella".
• The story of Hamlet ultimately derives from the legend of Amleth, preserved by 13th-
century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum, as subsequently retold by
16th-century scholar François de Belleforest.
• Shakespeare may also have drawn on an earlier Elizabethan play known today as the Ur-
Hamlet, though some scholars believe he himself wrote the Ur-Hamlet, later revising it to
create the version of Hamlet we now have.
• He almost certainly created the title role for Richard Burbage, the leading tragedian of
• In the 400 years since, the role has been performed by highly acclaimed actors from each
• Three different early versions of the play are extant, the First Quarto (Q1, 1603), the
Second Quarto (Q2, 1604), and the First Folio (F1, 1623).
• Each version includes lines, and even entire scenes, missing from the others.
• The play's structure and depth of characterization have inspired much critical scrutiny.
• One such example is the centuries-old debate about Hamlet's hesitation to kill his uncle,
which some see as merely a plot device to prolong the action, but which others argue is a
dramatisation of the complex philosophical and ethical issues that surround cold-blooded
murder, calculated revenge, and thwarted desire.
• More recently, psychoanalytic critics have examined Hamlet's unconscious desires,
and feminist critics have re-evaluated and rehabilitated the often maligned characters
of Ophelia and Gertrude.
M AJOR CON FLICT · Hamlet feels a responsibility to avenge his father’s murder by his
uncle Claudius, but Claudius is now the king and thus well protected. Moreover, Hamlet
struggles with his doubts about whether he can trust the ghost and whether killing Claudius is the
appropriate thing to do.
R ISIN G ACTION · The ghost appears to Hamlet and tells Hamlet to revenge his murder;
Hamlet feigns madness to his intentions; Hamlet stages the mousetrap play; Hamlet passes up the
opportunity to kill Claudius while he is praying.
CLIM AX · When Hamlet stabs Polonius through the arras in Act III, scene iv, he commits
himself to overtly violent action and brings himself into unavoidable conflict with the king.
Another possible climax comes at the end of Act IV, scene iv, when Hamlet resolves to commit
himself fully to violent revenge.
FALLIN G ACTION · Hamlet is sent to England to be killed; Hamlet returns to Denmark
and confronts Laertes at Ophelia’s funeral; the fencing match; the deaths of the royal family
SETTIN G (TIM E) · The late medieval period, though the play’s chronological setting is
SETTIN GS (PLACE) · Denmark
FOR ESHAD OWIN G · The ghost, which is taken to foreshadow an ominous future for
TON E · Dark, ironic, melancholy, passionate, contemplative, desperate, violent
THEM ES · The impossibility of certainty; the complexity of action; the mystery of death; the
nation as a diseased body
M OTIFS · Incest and incestuous desire; ears and hearing; death and suicide; darkness and the
SYM BOLS · The ghost (the spiritual consequences of death); Yorick’s skull (the physical
consequences of death)
• Hamlet-like legends are so widely found (for example in Italy, Spain, Scandinavia,
Byzantium, and Arabia) that the core "hero-as-fool" theme is possibly Indo-European in
origin. Several ancient written precursors to Hamlet can be identified.
• The first is the anonymous Scandinavian Saga of Hrolf Kraki. In this, the murdered king
has two sons—Hroar and Helgi—who spend most of the story in disguise, under false
names, rather than feigning madness, in a sequence of events that differs from
• The second is the Roman legend of Brutus, recorded in two separate Latin works. Its
hero, Lucius ("shining, light"), changes his name and persona to Brutus ("dull, stupid"),
playing the role of a fool to avoid the fate of his father and brothers, and eventually
slaying his family's killer, King Tarquinius.
• A 17th-century Nordic scholar, Torfaeus, compared the Icelandic hero Amlodi and the
Spanish hero Prince Ambales (from the Ambales Saga) to Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Similarities include the prince's feigned madness, his accidental killing of the king's
counsellor in his mother's bedroom, and the eventual slaying of his uncle.
• Many of the earlier legendary elements are interwoven in the 13th-century Vita
Amlethi ("The Life of Amleth") by Saxo Grammaticus, part ofGesta
Danorum. Written in Latin, it reflects classical Roman concepts of virtue and heroism,
and was widely available in Shakespeare's day.Significant parallels include the prince
feigning madness, his mother's hasty marriage to the usurper, the prince killing a hidden
spy, and the prince substituting the execution of two retainers for his own.
• A reasonably faithful version of Saxo's story was translated into French in 1570 by
François de Belleforest, in his Histoires tragiques.
• Belleforest embellished Saxo's text substantially, almost doubling its length, and
introduced the hero's melancholy.
• According to a popular theory, Shakespeare's main source is believed to be an earlier
play—now lost—known today as the Ur-Hamlet.
• Possibly written by Thomas Kyd or even William Shakespeare himself, the Ur-
Hamlet would have been in performance by 1589 and the first version of the story known
to incorporate a ghost.
• Shakespeare's company, the Chamberlain's Men, may have purchased that play and
performed a version for some time, which Shakespeare reworked.
• Since no copy of the Ur-Hamlet has survived, however, it is impossible to compare its
language and style with the known works of any of its putative authors. Consequently,
there is no direct evidence that Kyd wrote it, nor any evidence that the play was not an
early version of Hamlet by Shakespeare himself.
• This latter idea—placing Hamlet far earlier than the generally accepted date, with a much
longer period of development—has attracted some support, though others dismiss it as
• The upshot is that scholars cannot assert with any confidence how much material
Shakespeare took from the Ur-Hamlet (if it even existed), how much from Belleforest or
Saxo, and how much from other contemporary sources (such as Kyd's The Spanish
• No clear evidence exists that Shakespeare made any direct references to Saxo's version.
However, elements of Belleforest's version which are not in Saxo's story do appear in
Shakespeare's play. Whether Shakespeare took these from Belleforest directly or through
the Ur-Hamlet remains unclear.
• Most scholars reject the idea that Hamlet is in any way connected with Shakespeare's
only son, Hamnet Shakespeare, who died in 1596 at age eleven. Conventional wisdom
holds that Hamlet is too obviously connected to legend, and the name Hamnet was quite
popular at the time.
• However, Stephen Greenblatt has argued that the coincidence of the names and
Shakespeare's grief for the loss of his son may lie at the heart of the tragedy. He notes
that the name of Hamnet Sadler, the Stratford neighbour after whom Hamnet was named,
was often written as Hamlet Sadler and that, in the loose orthography of the time, the
names were virtually interchangeable. Sadler's first name is spelled "Hamlett" in
• Scholars have often speculated that Hamlet 's Polonius might have been inspired
by William Cecil (Lord Burghley)—Lord High Treasurer and chief counsellor to Queen
Elizabeth I. E. K. Chambers suggested Polonius's advice to Laertes may have echoed
Burghley's to his son Robert Cecil. John Dover Wilson thought it almost certain that the
figure of Polonius caricatured Burleigh, while A. L. Rowse speculated that Polonius's
tedious verbosity might have resembled Burghley's.
• Lilian Winstanley thought the name Corambis (in the First Quarto) did suggest Cecil and
• Harold Jenkins criticised the idea of any direct personal satire as "unlikely" and
"uncharacteristic of Shakespeare", while G. R. Hibbard hypothesised that differences in
names (Corambis/Polonius:Montano/Raynoldo) between the First Quarto and other
editions might reflect a desire not to offend scholars at Oxford University.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark The crown prince of Denmark who returns from the university in
Wittenberg, Germany, to find his father dead, his mother married to the king's brother Claudius,
and Claudius newly self-crowned King.
Claudius, King of Denmark Dead King Hamlet's brother who has usurped the throne and
married his sister-in-law.
Gertrude, Queen of Denmark Prince Hamlet's mother, King Hamlet's widow, King Claudius'
The Ghost Spirit of the late King Hamlet, condemned to walk the earth until his soul is cleansed
of its sins.
Polonius The elderly Lord Chamberlain, chief counselor to Claudius.
Horatio A commoner, Horatio went to school with Hamlet and remains his loyal best friend.
Laertes A student in Paris, Laertes is Polonius' son and Ophelia's brother; he returns from school
because of King Hamlet's death, leaves to go back to Paris, and then returns again after his own
Ophelia Daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, Ophelia is beloved of Hamlet.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Classmates of Hamlet's in Wittenberg. Claudius summons them
to Elsinore to spy on Prince Hamlet.
Fortinbras King of Norway, bound to avenge his father's death by the Danes' hands.
Osric Affected courtier who plays a minor role as the King's messenger and as umpire of the
fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes.
Voltimand and Cornelius Danish courtiers who are sent as ambassadors to the Court of
Marcellus and Barnardo Danish officers on guard at the castle of Elsinore.
Francisco Danish soldier on guard at the castle of Elsinore.
Reynaldo Young man whom Polonius instructs and sends to Paris to observe and report on
Two Clowns (the Gravediggers) Two rustics (identified as clowns) who dig Ophelia's grave.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Impossibility of Certainty
What separates Hamlet from other revenge plays (and maybe from every play written before it)
is that the action we expect to see, particularly from Hamlet himself, is continually postponed
while Hamlet tries to obtain more certain knowledge about what he is doing. This play poses
many questions that other plays would simply take for granted. Can we have certain knowledge
about ghosts? Is the ghost what it appears to be, or is it really a misleading fiend? Does the ghost
have reliable knowledge about its own death, or is the ghost itself deluded? Moving to more
earthly matters: How can we know for certain the facts about a crime that has no witnesses? Can
Hamlet know the state of Claudius’s soul by watching his behavior? If so, can he know the facts
of what Claudius did by observing the state of his soul? Can Claudius (or the audience) know the
state of Hamlet’s mind by observing his behavior and listening to his speech? Can we know
whether our actions will have the consequences we want them to have? Can we know anything
about the afterlife?
Many people have seen Hamlet as a play about indecisiveness, and thus about Hamlet’s failure to
act appropriately. It might be more interesting to consider that the play shows us how many
uncertainties our lives are built upon, how many unknown quantities are taken for granted when
people act or when they evaluate one another’s actions.
The Complexity of Action
Directly related to the theme of certainty is the theme of action. How is it possible to take
reasonable, effective, purposeful action? In Hamlet, the question of how to act is affected not
only by rational considerations, such as the need for certainty, but also by emotional, ethical, and
psychological factors. Hamlet himself appears to distrust the idea that it’s even possible to act in
a controlled, purposeful way. When he does act, he prefers to do it blindly, recklessly, and
violently. The other characters obviously think much less about “action” in the abstract than
Hamlet does, and are therefore less troubled about the possibility of acting effectively. They
simply act as they feel is appropriate. But in some sense they prove that Hamlet is right, because
all of their actions miscarry. Claudius possesses himself of queen and crown through bold action,
but his conscience torments him, and he is beset by threats to his authority (and, of course, he
dies). Laertes resolves that nothing will distract him from acting out his revenge, but he is easily
influenced and manipulated into serving Claudius’s ends, and his poisoned rapier is turned back
The Mystery of Death
In the aftermath of his father’s murder, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of death, and over the
course of the play he considers death from a great many perspectives. He ponders both the
spiritual aftermath of death, embodied in the ghost, and the physical remainders of the dead, such
as by Yorick’s skull and the decaying corpses in the cemetery. Throughout, the idea of death is
closely tied to the themes of spirituality, truth, and uncertainty in that death may bring the
answers to Hamlet’s deepest questions, ending once and for all the problem of trying to
determine truth in an ambiguous world. And, since death is both the cause and the consequence
of revenge, it is intimately tied to the theme of revenge and justice—Claudius’s murder of King
Hamlet initiates Hamlet’s quest for revenge, and Claudius’s death is the end of that quest.
The question of his own death plagues Hamlet as well, as he repeatedly contemplates whether or
not suicide is a morally legitimate action in an unbearably painful world. Hamlet’s grief and
misery is such that he frequently longs for death to end his suffering, but he fears that if he
commits suicide, he will be consigned to eternal suffering in hell because of the Christian
religion’s prohibition of suicide. In his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy (III.i), Hamlet
philosophically concludes that no one would choose to endure the pain of life if he or she were
not afraid of what will come after death, and that it is this fear which causes complex moral
considerations to interfere with the capacity for action.
The Nation as a DiseasedBody
Everything is connected in Hamlet, including the welfare of the royal family and the health of
the state as a whole. The play’s early scenes explore the sense of anxiety and dread that
surrounds the transfer of power from one ruler to the next. Throughout the play, characters draw
explicit connections between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of tdhe nation.
Denmark is frequently described as a physical body made ill by the moral corruption of Claudius
and Gertrude, and many observers interpret the presence of the ghost as a supernatural omen
indicating that “[s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv.67). The dead King Hamlet is
portrayed as a strong, forthright ruler under whose guard the state was in good health, while
Claudius, a wicked politician, has corrupted and compromised Denmark to satisfy his own
appetites. At the end of the play, the rise to power of the upright Fortinbras suggests that
Denmark will be strengthened once again.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and
inform the text’s major themes.
Incest and Incestuous Desire
The motif of incest runs throughout the play and is frequently alluded to by Hamlet and the
ghost, most obviously in conversations about Gertrude and Claudius, the former brother-in-law
and sister-in-law who are now married. A subtle motif of incestuous desire can be found in the
relationship of Laertes and Ophelia, as Laertes sometimes speaks to his sister in suggestively
sexual terms and, at her funeral, leaps into her grave to hold her in his arms. However, the
strongest overtones of incestuous desire arise in the relationship of Hamlet and Gertrude, in
Hamlet’s fixation on Gertrude’s sex life with Claudius and his preoccupation with her in general.
Shattered by his mother’s decision to marry Claudius so soon after her husband’s death, Hamlet
becomes cynical about women in general, showing a particular obsession with what he perceives
to be a connection between female sexuality and moral corruption. This motif of misogyny, or
hatred of women, occurs sporadically throughout the play, but it is an important inhibiting factor
in Hamlet’s relationships with Ophelia and Gertrude. He urges Ophelia to go to a nunnery rather
than experience the corruptions of sexuality and exclaims of Gertrude, “Frailty, thy name is
Ears and Hearing
One facet of Hamlet’s exploration of the difficulty of attaining true knowledge is slipperiness of
language. Words are used to communicate ideas, but they can also be used to distort the truth,
manipulate other people, and serve as tools in corrupt quests for power. Claudius, the shrewd
politician, is the most obvious example of a man who manipulates words to enhance his own
power. The sinister uses of words are represented by images of ears and hearing, from Claudius’s
murder of the king by pouring poison into his ear to Hamlet’s claim to Horatio that “I have
words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb” (IV.vi.21). The poison poured in the king’s ear
by Claudius is used by the ghost to symbolize the corrosive effect of Claudius’s dishonesty on
the health of Denmark. Declaring that the story that he was killed by a snake is a lie, he says that
“the whole ear of Denmark” is “Rankly abused. . . .” (I.v.36–38).
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In Hamlet, physical objects are rarely used to represent thematic ideas. One important exception
is Yorick’s skull, which Hamlet discovers in the graveyard in the first scene of Act V. As Hamlet
speaks to the skull and about the skull of the king’s former jester, he fixates on death’s
inevitability and the disintegration of the body. He urges the skull to “get you to my lady’s
chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come”—no one can avoid
death (V.i.178–179). He traces the skull’s mouth and says, “Here hung those lips that I have
kissed I know not how oft,” indicating his fascination with the physical consequences of death
(V.i.174–175). This latter idea is an important motif throughout the play, as Hamlet frequently
makes comments referring to every human body’s eventual decay, noting that Polonius will be
eaten by worms, that even kings are eaten by worms, and that dust from the decayed body of
Alexander the Great might be used to stop a hole in a beer barrel.
Analysis and criticism
• From the early 17th century, the play was famous for its ghost and vivid dramatisation
of melancholy and insanity, leading to a procession of mad courtiers and ladies in
Jacobean and Caroline drama.
• Though it remained popular with mass audiences, late 17th-century Restoration critics
saw Hamlet as primitive and disapproved of its lack of unity and decorum.
• This view changed drastically in the 18th century, when critics regarded Hamlet as a
hero—a pure, brilliant young man thrust into unfortunate circumstances.
• By the mid-18th century, however, the advent of Gothic
literature brought psychological and mystical readings, returning madness and the Ghost
to the forefront.
• Not until the late 18th century did critics and performers begin to view Hamlet as
confusing and inconsistent. Before then, he was either mad, or not; either a hero, or not;
with no in-betweens. These developments represented a fundamental change in literary
criticism, which came to focus more on character and less on plot.
• By the 19th century, Romantic critics valued Hamlet for its internal, individual conflict
reflecting the strong contemporary emphasis on internal struggles and inner character in
• Then too, critics started to focus on Hamlet's delay as a character trait, rather than a plot
device. This focus on character and internal struggle continued into the 20th century,
when criticism branched in several directions, discussed in context and
• Hamlet departed from contemporary dramatic convention in several ways. For example,
in Shakespeare's day, plays were usually expected to follow the advice of Aristotle in
hisPoetics: that a drama should focus on action, not character.
• In Hamlet, Shakespeare reverses this so that it is through the soliloquies, not the action,
that the audience learns Hamlet's motives and thoughts. The play is full of seeming
discontinuities and irregularities of action, except in the "bad" quarto.
• At one point, as in the Gravedigger scene, Hamlet seems resolved to kill Claudius: in the
next scene, however, when Claudius appears, he is suddenly tame. Scholars still debate
whether these twists are mistakes or intentional additions to add to the play's themes of
confusion and duality.
• Finally, in a period when most plays ran for two hours or so, the full text of Hamlet—
Shakespeare's longest play, with 4,042 lines, totalling 29,551 words—often takes over
four hours to deliver.
• Even today the play is rarely performed in its entirety, and has only once been
dramatised on film completely, in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version.
• Hamlet also contains a favourite Shakespearean device, a play within the play, a literary
device or conceit in which one story is told during the action of another story
• Compared with language in a modern newspaper, magazine or popular novel,
Shakespeare's language can strike contemporary readers as complex, elaborate and at
times difficult to understand. Remarkably, it still works well enough in the theatre:
audiences at the reconstruction of 'Shakespeare's Globe' in London, many of whom have
never been to the theatre before, let alone to a play by Shakespeare, seem to have little
difficulty grasping the play's action.
• Much of Hamlet's language is courtly: elaborate, witty discourse, as recommended
by Baldassare Castiglione's 1528 etiquette guide, The Courtier. This work specifically
advises royal retainers to amuse their masters with inventive language. Osric and
Polonius, especially, seem to respect this injunction. Claudius's speech is rich with
rhetorical figures—as is Hamlet's and, at times, Ophelia's—while the language of
Horatio, the guards, and the gravediggers is simpler. Claudius's high status is reinforced
by using the royal first person plural ("we" or "us"), and anaphora mixed
with metaphor to resonate with Greek political speeches.
• Hamlet is the most skilled of all at rhetoric. He uses highly developed
metaphors, stichomythia, and in nine memorable words deploys
bothanaphora and asyndeton: "to die: to sleep— / To sleep, perchance to dream".
• In contrast, when occasion demands, he is precise and straightforward, as when he
explains his inward emotion to his mother: "But I have that within which passes show, /
These but the trappings and the suits of woe".
• At times, he relies heavily on puns to express his true thoughts while simultaneously
concealing them. His "nunnery" remarks to Ophelia are an example of a cruel double
meaning as nunnery was Elizabethan slang for brothel. His very first words in the play
are a pun; when Claudius addresses him as "my cousin Hamlet, and my son", Hamlet
says as an aside: "A little more than kin, and less than kind."
• An aside is a dramatic device in which a character speaks to the audience. By convention
the audience realises that the character's speech is unheard by the other characters on
stage. It may be addressed to the audience expressly (in character or out) or represent an
• An unusual rhetorical device, hendiadys, appears in several places in the play. Examples
are found in Ophelia's speech at the end of the nunnery scene: "Th'expectancy and rose of
the fair state"; "And I, of ladies most deject and wretched".
• Many scholars have found it odd that Shakespeare would, seemingly arbitrarily, use this
rhetorical form throughout the play. One explanation may be that Hamlet was written
later in Shakespeare's life, when he was adept at matching rhetorical devices to characters
and the plot. Linguist George T. Wright suggests that hendiadys had been used
deliberately to heighten the play's sense of duality and dislocation.
• Pauline Kiernan argues that Shakespeare changed English drama forever
in Hamlet because he "showed how a character's language can often be saying several
things at once, and contradictory meanings at that, to reflect fragmented thoughts and
disturbed feelings." She gives the example of Hamlet's advice to Ophelia, "get thee to a
nunnery", which is simultaneously a reference to a place of chastity and a slang term for a
brothel, reflecting Hamlet's confused feelings about female sexuality.
Context and interpretation
Written at a time of religious upheaval, and in the wake of the English Reformation, the play is
alternately Catholic (or piously medieval) and Protestant (or consciously modern). The Ghost
describes himself as being in purgatory, and as dying without last rites. This and Ophelia's burial
ceremony, which is characteristically Catholic, make up most of the play's Catholic connections.
Some scholars have observed that revenge tragedies come from traditionally Catholic countries,
such as Spain and Italy; and they present a contradiction, since according to Catholic doctrine the
strongest duty is to God and family. Hamlet's conundrum, then, is whether to avenge his father
and kill Claudius, or to leave the vengeance to God, as his religion requires.
Much of the play's Protestantism derives from its location in Denmark—both then and now a
predominantly Protestant country, though it is unclear whether the fictional Denmark of the play
is intended to mirror this fact. The play does mention Wittenberg, where Hamlet, Horatio, and
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attend university, and where Martin Luther first proposed his 95
theses in 1517, effectively ushering in the Protestant Reformation. In Shakespeare's day
Denmark, like the majority of Scandinavia, was Lutheran
Hamlet is often perceived as a philosophical character, expounding ideas that are now described
as relativist, existentialist, and sceptical. For example, he expresses a subjectivistic idea when he
says to Rosencrantz: "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". The idea
that nothing is real except in the mind of the individual finds its roots in the Greek Sophists, who
argued that since nothing can be perceived except through the senses—and since all individuals
sense, and therefore perceive things differently—there is no absolute truth, only relative
truth. The clearest alleged instance of existentialism is in the "to be, or not to be" speech,
where Hamlet is thought by some to use "being" to allude to life and action, and "not being" to
death and inaction.
Hamlet reflects the contemporary scepticism promoted by the French Renaissance humanist,
Montaigne. Prior to Montaigne's time, humanists such as Pico della Mirandola had argued that
man was God's greatest creation, made in God's image and able to choose his own nature, but
this view was subsequently challenged in Michel de Montaigne's Essais of 1580. Hamlet's "What
a piece of work is a man" could supposedly echo many of Montaigne's ideas, and many scholars
have disagreed whether Shakespeare drew directly from Montaigne or whether both men were
simply reacting similarly to the spirit of the times.
Nevertheless, if the sentence is analysed in the textual context it is easy to understand how
Hamlet was being sarcastic: "Man delights not me", he concludes. Amaral argues that this is
the result of melancholy. This condition was a main subject of philosophy in this epoch. After a
period of confidence in reason's ability to unveil reality (Renaissance), 'Mannerism' started
questioning its power. Hamlet shows traces of this. In this sense, Hamlet is not feigning
madness, but he is indeed trapped between the world everybody expects him to see (the lies told
by Claudius and accepted by all, i.e. social decorum) and the world revealed to him by
knowledge (the reality of the murdering, as testified by his father's ghost). This condition of
being trapped between two different ways of seeing reality was also pictured by Shakespeare's
contemporary Cervantes, in Don Quixote. This profound meditation was examined by the
philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation. Schopenhauer uses
Hamlet to clarify his main argument. He argues that the world as we see it is a conjunction of
representations. These representations are formed by the projection of our will towards the
world. We can only see objects of our desires. In this sense he argues that only art could show us
that reality is such a construct. Exactly as Hamlet did: "If the whole world as representation is
only the visibility of the will, then art is the elucidation of this visibility, the camera obscura
which shows the objects more purely, and enables us to survey and comprehend them better. It is
the play within the play, the stage on the stage inHamlet." 
In his openness to embrace the ghost's message, Hamlet assuages Horatio's wonderment with the
analytical assertion, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in
In the first half of the 20th century, when psychoanalysis was at the height of its influence, its
concepts were applied to Hamlet, notably bySigmund Freud, Ernest Jones, and Jacques Lacan,
and these studies influenced theatrical productions. In his The Interpretation of HYPERLINK
"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Interpretation_of_Dreams"Dreams(1900), Freud's analysis
starts from the premise that "the play is built up on Hamlet's hesitations over fulfilling the task of
revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these
hesitations". After reviewing various literary theories, Freud concludes that Hamlet has an
"Oedipal desire for his mother and the subsequent guilt [is] preventing him from murdering the
man [Claudius] who has done what he unconsciously wanted to do". Confronted with
his repressed desires, Hamlet realises that "he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom
he is to punish". Freud suggests that Hamlet's apparent "distaste for sexuality"—articulated in
his "nunnery" conversation with Ophelia—accords with this interpretation.[83 HYPERLINK
"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet"HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet" HYPERLINK
"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet"] HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet"HYPERLINK
"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet"HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet" This "distaste for sexuality" has
sparked theories of Hamlet being what is now referred to as a homosexualor asexual. John
Barrymore's long-running 1922 performance in New York, directed by Thomas Hopkins, "broke
new ground in its Freudian approach to character", in keeping with the post-World War I
rebellion against everything Victorian. He had a "blunter intention" than presenting the
genteel, sweet prince of 19th-century tradition, imbuing his character with virility and lust.
Beginning in 1910, with the publication of "The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of
Hamlet's Mystery: Study in Motive," Ernest Jones—a psychoanalyst and Freud's biographer—
developed Freud's ideas into a series of essays that culminated in his book Hamlet and
Oedipus (1949). Influenced by Jones's psychoanalytic approach, several productions have
portrayed the "closet scene", where Hamlet confronts his mother in her private quarters, in a
sexual light. In this reading, Hamlet is disgusted by his mother's "incestuous" relationship with
Claudius while simultaneously fearful of killing him, as this would clear Hamlet's path to his
mother's bed. Ophelia's madness after her father's death may also be read through the Freudian
lens: as a reaction to the death of her hoped-for lover, her father. She is overwhelmed by having
her unfulfilled love for him so abruptly terminated and drifts into the oblivion of insanity. In
1937, Tyrone Guthrie directed Laurence Olivier in a Jones-inspired Hamlet at The Old
Vic. Olivier later used some of these same ideas in his 1948 film version of the play.
In the 1950s, Lacan's structuralist theories about Hamlet were first presented in a series
of seminars given in Paris and later published in "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire
in Hamlet". Lacan postulated that the human psyche is determined by structures of language and
that the linguistic structures of Hamlet shed light on human desire. His point of departure is
Freud's Oedipal theories, and the central theme of mourning that runs through Hamlet. In
Lacan's analysis, Hamlet unconsciously assumes the role of phallus—the cause of his inaction—
and is increasingly distanced from reality "by mourning, fantasy, narcissism and psychosis",
which create holes (or lack) in the real, imaginary, and symbolic aspects of his
psyche. Lacan's theories influenced literary criticism of Hamlet because of his alternative
vision of the play and his use of semantics to explore the play's psychological landscape.
In the Bloom's Shakespeare Through the Ages volume on Hamlet, editors Bloom and Foster
express a conviction that the intentions of Shakespeare in portraying the character of Hamlet in
the play exceeded the capacity of the Freudian Oedipus complex to completely encompass the
extent of characteristics depicted in Hamlet throughout the tragedy: "For once, Freud regressed
in attempting to fasten the Oedipus Complex upon Hamlet: it will not stick, and merely showed
that Freud did better than T.S. Eliot, who preferredCoriolanus to Hamlet, or so he said. Who can
believe Eliot, when he exposes his own Hamlet Complex by declaring the play to be an aesthetic
failure?" The book also notes James Joyce's interpretation, stating that he "did far better in the
Library Scene of Ulysses, where Stephen marvelously credits Shakespeare, in this play, with
universal fatherhood while accurately implying that Hamlet is fatherless, thus opening a
pragmatic gap between Shakespeare and Hamlet."
In the essay "Hamlet Made Simple", David P. Gontar turns the tables on the psychoanalysts by
suggesting that Claudius is not a symbolic father figure but actually Prince Hamlet's biological
father. The hesitation in killing Claudius results from an unwillingness on Hamlet's part to slay
his real father. If Hamlet is the biological son of Claudius, that explains many things. Hamlet
doesn't become King of Denmark on the occasion of the King's death inasmuch as it is an open
secret in court that he is Claudius' biological son, and as such he is merely a court bastard not in
the line of succession. He is angry with his mother because of her long standing affair with a
man Hamlet hates, and Hamlet must face the fact that he has been sired by the man he loathes.
That point overturns T.S. Eliot's complaint that the play is a failure for not furnishing an
"objective correlative" to account for Hamlet's rage at his mother. Gontar suggests that if the
reader assumes that Hamlet is not who he seems to be, the objective correlative becomes
apparent. Hamlet is suicidal in the first soliloquy not because his mother quickly remarries but
because of her adulterous affair with the despised Claudius which makes Hamlet his son. Finally,
the Ghost's confirmation of an alternative fatherhood for Hamlet is a fabrication that gives the
Prince a motive for revenge.
In the 20th century, feminist critics opened up new approaches to Gertrude and Ophelia. New
Historicist and cultural materialist critics examined the play in its historical context, attempting
to piece together its original cultural environment. They focused on the gender system of early
modern England, pointing to the common trinity of maid, wife, or widow, with whores outside of
that stereotype. In this analysis, the essence of Hamlet is the central character's changed
perception of his mother as a whore because of her failure to remain faithful to Old Hamlet. In
consequence, Hamlet loses his faith in all women, treating Ophelia as if she too were a whore
and dishonest with Hamlet. Ophelia, by some critics, can be seen as honest and fair; however, it
is virtually impossible to link these two traits, since 'fairness' is an outward trait, while 'honesty'
is an inward trait.
Carolyn Heilbrun's 1957 essay "The Character of Hamlet's Mother" defends Gertrude, arguing
that the text never hints that Gertrude knew of Claudius poisoning King Hamlet. This analysis
has been praised by many feminist critics, combating what is, by Heilbrun's argument, centuries'
worth of misinterpretation. By this account, Gertrude's worst crime is of pragmatically marrying
her brother-in-law in order to avoid a power vacuum. This is borne out by the fact that King
Hamlet's ghost tells Hamlet to leave Gertrude out of Hamlet's revenge, to leave her to heaven, an
arbitrary mercy to grant to a conspirator to murder.[97 HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet"
HYPERLINK"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet" HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet"]HYPERLINK
"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet"HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet" HYPERLINK
"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet" This view has not been without objection from some critics.
Ophelia has also been defended by feminist critics, most notably Elaine Showalter. Ophelia is
surrounded by powerful men: her father, brother, and Hamlet. All three disappear: Laertes
leaves, Hamlet abandons her, and Polonius dies. Conventional theories had argued that without
these three powerful men making decisions for her, Ophelia is driven into madness. Feminist
theorists argue that she goes mad with guilt because, when Hamlet kills her father, he has
fulfilled her sexual desire to have Hamlet kill her father so they can be together. Showalter points
out that Ophelia has become the symbol of the distraught and hysterical woman in modern
• Hamlet is one of the most quoted works in the English language, and is often included on
lists of the world's greatest literature. As such, it reverberates through the writing of later
• Academic Laurie Osborne identifies the direct influence of Hamlet in numerous modern
narratives, and divides them into four main categories:
• fictional accounts of the play's composition, simplifications of the story for young
readers, stories expanding the role of one or more characters, and narratives featuring
performances of the play.
• Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, published about 1749, describes a visit to Hamlet by Tom
Jones and Mr Partridge, with similarities to the "play within a play".
• In contrast, Goethe's Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, written between
1776 and 1796, not only has a production of Hamlet at its core but also creates parallels
between the Ghost and Wilhelm Meister's dead father.
• In the early 1850s, in Pierre, Herman Melville focuses on a Hamlet-like character's long
development as a writer.Ten years later,Dickens's Great Expectations contains many
Hamlet-like plot elements: it is driven by revenge-motivated actions, contains ghost-like
characters (Abel Magwitch and Miss Havisham), and focuses on the hero's guilt.
• Academic Alexander Welsh notes that Great Expectations is an "autobiographical novel"
and "anticipates psychoanalytic readings of Hamlet itself".
• About the same time,George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss was published, introducing
Maggie Tulliver "who is explicitly compared with Hamlet" though "with a reputation
• L. Frank Baum's first published short story was "They Played a New Hamlet" (1895).
When Baum had been touring New York State in the title role, the actor playing the ghost
fell through the floorboards, and the rural audience thought it was part of the show and
demanded that the actor repeat the fall, because they thought it was funny. Baum would
later recount the actual story in an article, but the short story is told from the point of
view of the actor playing the Ghost.
• In the 1920s, James Joyce managed "a more upbeat version" of Hamlet—stripped of
obsession and revenge—in Ulysses, though its main parallels are with Homer'sOdyssey.
• In the 1990s, two women novelists were explicitly influenced by Hamlet. In Angela
Carter's Wise Children, To be or not to be is reworked as a song and dance routine,
and Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince has Oedipal themes and murder intertwined with a
love affair between a Hamlet-obsessed writer, Bradley Pearson, and the daughter of his
• There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first time and said, "I don't see
why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together."
—Isaac Asimov, Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare,
Literary influence of Hamlet
• William Shakespeare's Hamlet is a tragedy, believed to have been written
between 1599 and 1601. It tells the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark—who takes revenge
on the current king (Hamlet's uncle) for killing the previous king (Hamlet's father) and for
marrying his father's widow (Hamlet's mother)—and it charts the course of his real or
• Hamlet is the longest play—and Hamlet is the largest part—in the entire Shakespeare
canon.Critics say that Hamlet "offers the greatest exhibition of Shakespeare's powers".
• Academic Laurie Osborne identifies the direct influence of Hamlet in numerous modern
narratives, and divides them into four main categories: fictional accounts of the play's
composition, simplifications of the story for young readers, stories expanding the role of one
or more characters, and narratives featuring performances of the play.
Novels and plays
• Hamlet is one of the most-quoted works in the English language, and often included on lists
of the world's greatest literature.
• As such, it has proved a pervasive influence in literature. For instance, Henry Fielding's Tom
Jones, published about 1749, merely describes a visit to Hamlet by Tom Jones and Mr
• In contrast, Goethe's Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, written between
1776–1796 not only has a production of Hamlet at its core but also dwells on parallels
between the Ghost and Wilhelm Meister's dead father.
• In the early 1850s, in Pierre, Herman Melville focuses on a Hamlet-like character's long
development as a writer.
• Ten years later, Dickens' HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens"
HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Expectations" HYPERLINK
"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens"Great Expectations contains many Hamlet-
like plot elements: it is driven by revenge actions, contains ghost-like characters (Abel
Magwitch and Miss Havisham), and focuses on the hero's guilt.
• Academic Alexander Welsh notes that Great Expectations is an "autobiographical novel"
and "anticipates psychoanalytic readings of Hamlet itself".
• About the same time, George HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eliot"
HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eliot" HYPERLINK
"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eliot"Eliot's The HYPERLINK
"https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mill_on_the_Floss" Mill on the Floss was published,
introducing Maggie Tulliver "who is explicitly compared with Hamlet". Scholar Marianne
Novy suggests that Eliot "demythologises Hamlet by imagining him with a reputation for
sanity", notwithstanding his frequent monologues and moodiness towards Ophelia. Novy
also suggestsMary Wollstonecraft as an influence on Eliot, critiquing "the trivialisation of
women in contemporary society".
• Hamlet has played "a relatively small role" in the appropriation of Shakespeare's plays by
women writers, ranging from Ophelia, The Fair Rose of Elsinore in Mary Cowden Clarke's
1852 The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, to Margaret Atwood's 1994 Gertrude Talks
Back—in her 1994 collection of short stories Good Bones and Simple Murders—in which
the title character sets her son straight about Old Hamlet's murder: "It wasn't Claudius,
darling, it was me!”
• Also, because of the criticism of the sexism, American author Lisa Klein wrote Ophelia, a
novel that portrays Ophelia, too, as feigning madness and surviving.
VARIOUS INTERPRETATIONS OF HAMLET
The Approach of Wilson Knight
Until the 1930s, the evaluation of Hamlet was mostly a continuation of the nineteenth century
approach to the character of its tragic hero. After Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy was
published in 1904, an entire generation of critics remained obsessed with Hamlet's delay in
killing Claudius. They blamed the whole tragedy on the fact that it took the Prince too long to act
on his revenge. They never acknowledged the basic premise that Hamlet was a sweet and noble
prince, that Claudius was a treacherous villain, and that the tragedy of Hamlet lay in the fact that
a "good" character was destroyed because of an "evil" usurper.
In 1930, Wilson Knight's The Wheel of Fire questioned the delay premise. Instead, Knight
described the story of Hamlet as an "Embassy of Death" with the Ghost being a true devil,
setting all the evil doings within the plot in motion. He even questioned if Claudius was truly a
treacherous villain. He referred to the image of Claudius at prayer, repenting of his crimes, while
Hamlet refuses to kill him, not wanting his soul to go to heaven. Further, Knight stated that
Hamlet was a very unpleasant person -- rude, callous, and sometimes ruthless -- to his mother,
Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Knight thinks that most critics have over
sentimentalized Hamlet's being. Many critics do agree that Hamlet embodies both good and evil.
Although he is basically innocent and pure, he has been tainted by the evil around him. As a
result, his procrastination leads to further ruin.
Hamlet Seen Solely as the Victim of External Difficulties
To see Hamlet solely as the victim of external problems is the simplest approach to the play.
Many critics argue, however, that Hamlet's tragedy is not a result of the supposed
weaknesses/flaws in his character or even mistakes in his judgement/action, but from the evil and
intolerable situation into which he is cruelly thrust. With his father dead and his mother
remarried to his enemy, Hamlet has no one to turn to for help; therefore, he is totally a victim of
circumstance. The critics further argue that the external situation prevents him from taking swift
action. After all, Claudius is an extremely powerful man now that he is King; any person would
have faced enormous difficulties in scheming against him. They excuse Hamlet's lack of action,
and in so doing, make him a much less interesting character.
The Romantic Interpretation of Hamlet
The Romantic critics of the nineteenth century, led by Coleridge, were more interested in the
character of Hamlet than in the plot construction of the play. For them, Hamlet was one of the
greatest artistic creations ever drawn by an author or playwright. They saw Hamlet as an
individual torn apart by doubt and fearful of taking action. As an idealist, Hamlet was unable to
deal with the harsh realities of life; as a result, he paid a tragic penalty. These critics often quoted
Hamlet's own words in support of their interpretation.
Many Romantic writers came to identify themselves with Hamlet. Coleridge went so far as to
admit that he had much of Hamlet in himself, for, like the Prince, he was more prone to thought
than to action. In fact, many Romantics felt that Hamlet's overdeveloped intellect made it
impossible for him to act. Instead, he became a sentimental dreamer, just like many of the
The Psychoanalytical Approach
The psychoanalytical approach focuses on the neurotic tendencies of Hamlet and judges him to
suffer from an Oedipus Complex. In ancient Greek mythology, Oedipus is the unconscious
instrument of an old curse, a destiny to murder his father and marry his mother. Today, many
psychologists feel that there are many sons who have developed erotic feelings for their mothers
and, as a result, they resent and hate their fathers. Normally, these feelings about their parents are
repressed, pushed into the unconscious; but from time to time, these feelings may overcome
repression and re-emerge due to crisis situations. The psychoanalysts believe that Hamlet's
possessiveness towards his mother proves his Oedipal Complex; they defend their arguments in
specifics from the play. Hamlet explicitly urges Gertrude not to have intercourse with Claudius;
moreover, he advises her to curb her desire to have sex as well. The psychoanalysts then argue
that Hamlet's repressed Oedipal Complex prevents him from killing Claudius. They feel that
Hamlet procrastinates because, in his subconscious, he does not really want to murder the man
who killed the father that he so envied. They also argue that it is Oedipal Complex prevents him
from committing himself to Ophelia.
The Historical Approach
The historical approach holds that only those theories prevalent in Shakespeare's time should be
utilized to interpret his texts. Supporters of this school of thought argue that the clue to Hamlet's
madness and his hesitancy in killing Claudius lies in his melancholic disposition. Indeed,
Shakespeare calls Hamlet the "melancholy Dane." The malady of melancholy was well known in
the Elizabethan age, and several treatises were written on the subject. Shakespeare had probably
read or heard about these treatises, which state that the primary characteristics of melancholy are
sadness, fear, distrust, doubt, despair, and diffidence. Sometimes the negative feelings are
interrupted by a false laughter or sardonic humor.
Hamlet displays all these traits of melancholy. He is extremely sad over the death of his father
and hasty remarriage of his mother; he is fearful and distrusting of the Ghost; he behaves with
diffidence as he procrastinates about taking revenge on Claudius; he falls into despair over his
inaction, even contemplating suicide. But from time to time, Hamlet jests sardonically with
people he dislikes, making it seem that his mood fluctuates between depression and elation.
While Hamlet's behavior can be reasonably explained in terms of melancholy, it is an extremely
simplistic approach to the problems of the tragic hero.
• Twelfth Night, or What You Will is a comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have
been written around 1601–02 as a Twelfth Night's entertainment for the close of the
• The play centres on the twins Viola and Sebastian, who are separated in a shipwreck. Viola
(who is disguised as a boy) falls in love with Duke Orsino, who in turn is in love with the
• Upon meeting Viola, Countess Olivia falls in love with her thinking she is a man.
• The play expanded on the musical interludes and riotous disorder expected of the
occasion,with plot elements drawn from the short story "Of Apollonius and Silla"
by Barnabe Rich, based on a story by Matteo Bandello.
• The first recorded performance was on 2 February 1602, at Candlemas, the formal end
of Christmastide in the year's calendar. The play was not published until its inclusion in the
1623 First Folio.
• Illyria, the setting of Twelfth Night, is important to the play's romantic atmosphere. Illyria
was an ancient region of the Western Balkans whose coast (the eastern coast of the Adriatic
Sea which is the only part of ancient Illyria which is relevant to the play) covered (from north
to south) the coasts of modern day Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania. It included
the city state of the Republic of Ragusa which has been proposed as the setting.
• Illyria may have been suggested by the Roman comedy Menaechmi, the plot of which also
involves twins who are mistaken for each other. Illyria is also referred to as a site of pirates
in Shakespeare's earlier play, Henry VI, Part 2.
• The names of most of the characters are Italian but some of the comic characters have
English names. Oddly the "Illyrian" lady Olivia has an English uncle, Sir Toby Belch.
• It has been noted that the play's setting also has other English allusions such as Viola's use of
"Westward ho!", a typical cry of 16th-century London boatmen, and also Antonio's
recommendation to Sebastian of "The Elephant" as where it is best to lodge in Illyria; The
Elephant was a pub not far from the Globe Theatre.
• The play is believed to have drawn extensively on the Italian
production Gl'ingannati (or The Deceived Ones), collectively written by the Accademia
degli Intronati in 1531. It is conjectured that the name of its male lead, Orsino, was suggested