What Is Hamlet About?

Overview of William Shakespeare's Hamlet


Written by William Shakespeare, the Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was based on the legend of Amleth, recorded by the historian Saxo Grammaticus in the Gesta Danorum and later by the 16th century author Francois de Belleforest. In writing Hamlet, William Shakespeare may also have been inspired by an earlier play now referred to as the Ur-Hamlet. Shakespeare undoubtedly fashioned the role of Hamlet for Richard Burbage, one of the period’s most acclaimed actors, prominent in Shakespeare’s theater company. Since the first performance, the role of Hamlet has been portrayed by some of the most talented actors over the course of the last four centuries.

Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest tragedy, and one of the most formidable and compelling plays of English literature, a story that still resonates with modern audiences. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, Hamlet was one of the poet’s most popular plays, and remains one of his most-performed plays ever. Hamlet has influenced authors from Charles Dickens to James Joyce, and has been performed countless times on the stage and in film.

Taking place in the Kingdom of Denmark, Hamlet follows the story of the prince Hamlet on his path of vengeance after his uncle Claudius murders his father, King Hamlet, and usurps his position as king, taking Hamlet’s mother as his wife. Hamletillustrates a wide spectrum of themes, from crippling grief to incredible rage, genuine and phony madness, to incest and immorality.

There are three varied early versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in existence, in the First Quarto, the Second Quarto and the First Folio. Each account of Hamlet includes lines and scenes that are absent from the other versions. Due to the arrangement and the complexity of Hamlet’s characterization, there has been much critical analysis of Shakespeare’s play. Consider, for instance, the long-held argument over Hamlet’s reluctance to kill Claudius. Some read this as simply a tool to extend the action of the play, while others assert it is an illustration of the complicated theoretical and moral concerns involved with revenge and premeditated murder. In modern times, critics have even analyzed Hamlet’s unconscious longings and feminist scholars have reformed the perception of the much disparaged female characters of Gertrude and Ophelia.

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