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Elements of Literature Used in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Essay

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Updated: Sep 9th, 2021

Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet is a revenge tragedy because it deals with certain universal and also serious themes such as suicide, murder, and incest. It also fits into this genre of literature because it uncovers the death of the central character. These matters, as well as the presence of religion, were dominant in people’s lives in this era and they would react to them because of the dominance they had in their daily lives. A modern audience would also be seen to react because the themes are still relevant to them today. It must be noted that the play was written 70 years before the Reformation, and the dominant theme, religion played a major part in people’s lives.

The idea for ‘Hamlet,’ thought to originate from the Scandinavian legend ‘Beowulf’ and the ‘Historia Danica’ shows some evidence that Shakespeare was influenced by the works of Thomas Kyd and François De Belleforest as they all contain similarities. (Spencer, 24).

The Classical dramatist, Seneca arguably had one of the greatest impacts upon the development of this particular tragedy. He ‘revelled in sensational and shocking displays of violence and horror…’ and displayed the dominant motive of revenge in his plays. The impact his tragedies had upon English drama was extreme and was an influence on some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. This was apparent, as shown in Shakespeare’s soliloquies and this will be explored in the essay.

Act 1 Scene 2 presents Hamlet’s principal, much-needed soliloquy and sees venting his anger and frustration. It also shows him questioning the church and religion, and one must feel he is correct in this case; the church taught that ghosts failed to exist. Hamlet, the Renaissance thinker appears to battle with his Christian beliefs, as he is confused. This is a view which a modern audience would to a certain degree sympathize with as the secularisation of society takes place. ‘…the Everlasting had not fixed’ is of course a quote from Exodus and a reference to suicide. These definite thoughts enter his head very early on in the play, and rhetorical questions are used to highlight his mental instability. (Spencer, 137).

Hamlet also demeans and shows his general disgust about women, which is apparent in the way he makes judgments about his mother, using the derogatory comment ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ insinuating that all women are unfaithful and disingenuous, as he believes her to be. This has prompted suggestions from literary critics that the Oedipus Complex plagued Hamlet and this may have been an explanation for his chaotic and confused state of mind. Making comparative references between his mother and classical mythological creatures may seem surprising, but Gertrude is an influential figure for Hamlet and he openly condemns her ‘incestuous’ behavior. (Mowat, 169) Shakespeare’s use of sibilance manages to personify the ‘incestuous sheets’ in his choice of words and this makes Hamlet further sure that his observations are correct.

The whole purpose of a soliloquy is to use inner dialogue to reveal a character’s state of mind, which this does at this early point in the play. All of the themes raised in this soliloquy are relevant to both audiences, and an Elizabethan audience would certainly interpret this soliloquy in a different way to a modern audience. Hamlet’s belittling comments passed about women would still be deemed as unacceptable. Much like Renaissance thinkers, a modern audience would also feel more able and willing to question the church’s teachings, as religion is no longer the dominant focus in many people’s lives as it was in the Middle Ages. The audience may be able to show a degree of empathy with Hamlet as the play was written in a slightly satirical manner and shows that he is very much human in his qualities and this first soliloquy is crucial in identifying this through a persistent melancholy tone.

The short but detailed soliloquy in Act One Scene 5 is perhaps a clarification of the preceding scene where the ghost has just finished speaking to Hamlet; some may choose to believe that this is his conscience communicating with him. He now has just a very tenuous grasp on his sanity and his despair is apparent because of his grief. (Mowat, 102) The monarch was the supreme ruler in Elizabethan society and was an authoritative figure for the whole of society, so Hamlet decides that if Claudius can maintain his smug façade, even after he has murdered the King, then Hamlet should be capable of doing the same with his revenge.

It is the first scene in which revenge; the dominant theme in the play has been discussed. Hamlet unmistakably utters ‘I have sworn’t,’ an expression of his intent to kill the ‘Smiling, damnèd villain,’ even if he must pay the ultimate price for taking action against his emotions, still his father’s memory present in his mind. (Bates, 79) This creates a picture of Hamlet, the Renaissance thinker, but who does not know what to think, ideas taken from the society he lived in, increasingly dominated by central political institutions. This would have been a major contributing factor to his personality.

Again, Hamlet passes judgemental comments about women, in particular, his mother ‘O most pernicious woman!’

The amount of repetition is used to show the turmoil in Hamlet’s mind; he also appalls his body to ‘hold him up’ whilst he overcomes the difficulties he currently faces. There is also repetition used in the same lines as the ghost in the previous stanzas. Exclamatory lines highlight a sense of disgust towards his mother, her loyalty, and Claudius, who feels he has escaped punishment for his unforgivable, calculated actions. (Mowat, 175) An Elizabethan audience would protest a great deal about the controversial content of this soliloquy. They believed the Divine Right dictated that they must not kill the King (God’s representative) and that the individual pursuit of revenge was wrong.

Theatre brought out the truth in people, and in this case, it is no exception; the truth reveals itself about both Gertrude and Claudius through the ghost. It would be a requirement that a 21st-century director would instruct the use of caesura to convey Hamlet’s troubled state of mind suitably, as he struggles to familiarise himself with the actions he must perform. He must also direct the controversial issues with sensitivity.

In conclusion, Hamlet contributed greatly to the English Revenge Tradition in drama but it was unique in its way and this was due to Shakespeare’s ingenuity. It was unique as Hamlet delayed his revenge on Claudius and it had a fusion of death, suicide and bloody murder, and many other things that made it unique. The murder of Old Hamlet appeared to be cold-blooded as Claudius showed no mercy as he coldly planned Hamlet’s death and then that of his son young Hamlet. However, when Hamlet murdered Claudius it was revenge that most people and I agree he rightly deserved. Then there was Ophelia’s suicide, which was a result of her madness. So in all Hamlet was a very unique play and it was very well written as you felt sorry for Hamlet when he died as he had gone through so much, from his madness to the death of his loved ones. Even though he had committed bloody sins you still felt sympathy for Hamlet, but in the end, he had one enemy too many. Hamlet was a great play and will continue to be performed all over the world and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Works Cited

Spencer, T.J. Hamlet (The New Penguin Shakespeare). New York: Viking Press, 1991.

Bates, Jonathan, and Russell Jackson, eds. Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Mowat, Barbara A., and Paul Werstine, eds. The Tragedy of Hamlet (The New Folger Library Shakespeare). Washington, D.C.: Washington Square Press, 1992.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Folger Shakespeare Library.) Washington Square Press, 2003.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Elements of Literature Used in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"." September 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/elements-of-literature-used-in-shakespeares-hamlet/.


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