Are you studying ‘Hamlet’ for English and struggling to come up with your analysis? Don’t worry, we’ll help you develop a better understanding of the text by giving you a summary of Hamlet, and walking you through key themes, quotes and characters!
You’ll get a rundown of how to analyse ‘Hamlet’, step-by-step, AND we’ll provide you with a sample analysis table (also called a TEE table) and paragraph for ‘Hamlet’!
It’s time to ace your analysis of ‘Hamlet’ — let’s go!
Summary of Hamlet
Hamlet is a dramatic revenge tragedy set in Elsinore, Denmark. What drives the 5 acts of this play is Hamlet’s indecision and delay to avenge the regicide (that is, the killing of the King) of his late father. This murder is done at the hands of the dead king’s brother, Claudius.
To make following the plot easier, we’ll use the general structure for dramas called “Freytag’s pyramid” to divide the play into five key plot-points!
Inciting Incident: Hamlet sees the Ghost of his father
As many late Elizabethan revenge tragedies start out, the play Hamlet begins with the first of two sightings of the ghost by two guards and Horatio. The ghost, who bears close resemblance to the dead king, does not speak to them and the two guards and Horatio decide that Hamlet should be told about the sighting.
The next scene continues with Claudius celebrating his marriage to Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. The marriage takes place within a month of Hamlet’s father’s death yet it is only Hamlet who wears black and thus the only one mourning his father’s death.
The inciting incident is revealed in Act 1, Scene 5. The Ghost of the dead King tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius demanding him to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”.
Hamlet tells Horatio and the guards, who also witness the ghost’s speech, to speak nothing of the Ghost’s claim and that he will “put an antic disposition” (in other words, act mad) in front of the court.
Rising Action: The Play within The Play
In Act 2, the court becomes concerned with Hamlet’s madness. Polonius is convinced that Hamlet’s love for his daughter, Ophelia, is the reason for his madness.
Claudius and Gertrude invite Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s friends from university, as spies to try to figure out what the cause for Hamlet’s madness is. Hamlet is suspicious of them and figures that they are here on Claudius’ terms.
A traveling troupe of actors enters and Hamlet, ashamed of his delay in avenging his father, arranges the actors to perform The Mousetrap in front of Claudius so that Hamlet may confirm Claudius’ guilt.
Act 3 begins with the “nunnery scene” that occurs before the night of the play. Polonius sends Ophelia to talk with Hamlet, so that Claudius and Polonius may spy on Hamlet.
Before Ophelia enters, Hamlet performs his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy where he bemoans about the pain of life and the uncertainty of death.
Ophelia enters and Hamlet aggressively rejects her, telling her to “get thee to a nunnery” (ironically, this is Elizabethan slang for a brothel).
The actors perform their play and when one actor pours poison into the sleeping character’s ear, Claudius demands that the play be stopped. Hamlet is sure of Claudius’s regicide.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet that Claudius is angry and that Gertrude wishes to see Hamlet in her sitting room.
Climax: Hamlet Kills Polonius
On his way to Gertrude’s room, Hamlet passes Claudius who appears to be praying. While this is an opportunity to avenge his father, Hamlet decides not to kill him in that moment as he is in prayer and thus, his soul would go to heaven.
The dramatic irony here is after Hamlet leaves, Claudius says that he is unable to pray.
In Gertrude’s sitting room, Polonius tries to eavesdrop on what Hamlet says and hides behind a tapestry. Polonius’ spying horribly fails when Gertrude cries out for help and Hamlet stabs Polonius when Hamlet hears Polonius echo the cry.
The ghost of Hamlet’s father returns and since Hamlet can only see and talk to him, Gertrude believes Hamlet is mad.
Hamlet tells Gertrude that Claudius killed his father and that she cannot ever bed Claudius again. The act ends with Hamlet tugging along Polonius’ body.
Falling Action: Sending Hamlet to England
The first scene of Act 4 is short with Gertrude telling Claudius that Hamlet, in madness, has killed Polonius. Claudius tells Hamlet that he is sending him to England and when alone, Claudius reveals that he is sending him to his death.
On his way to England, Hamlet is inspired by the action of the Norwegian King, Fortinbras, and finally decides to take bloody revenge.
Ophelia becomes mad, entering the scene singing and giving out flowers that resemble death and betrayal. This strikes Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, with anger.
Hamlet, despite being sent to England, sends a letter that he is returning to Elsinore.
Seeing Laertes’ anger as useful to his own plot, Claudius convinces him to kill Hamlet during a fencing duel with a poisoned sword. The act ends with Gertrude announcing that Ophelia has drowned to death.
The final act starts with Ophelia’s burial where two gravediggers sing as they dig a grave. Hamlet enters and reflects on the skull of Yorick, who was once the King’s jester.
Hamlet realises that it is Ophelia that is to be buried and declares to Laertes he loved Ophelia much more than Laertes did.
Dénouement: Hamlet avenges his father and dies
During Hamlet and Laertes’ duel, Gertrude toasts to Hamlet and drinks from a poisoned cup that Claudius intended for Hamlet. Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned tip of the sword.
In an exchange of weapons, Laertes is also wounded. When Hamlet sees Gertrude fall, Hamlet stabs Claudius and demands he drink the poison himself.
In Hamlet’s last moments, he tells Horatio to tell the story of the deaths and give his support for Fortinbras to take the throne.
Key Characters in Hamlet
We’ve mentioned quite a few characters in our summary of Hamlet above, so here are some descriptions of the key characters in the play to give you a better understanding!
The Prince of Denmark and son of the usurped late King. However, he is not a typical tragic hero as he is also a comedian, a philosopher, and revenger.
He is distrustful of the Danish court and prefers solitude, using his soliloquies to reveal his innermost thoughts. Though he delays his plan for vengeance until the fifth and last act, he becomes more violent and fatalistic as the play goes on.
The King of Denmark, usurper to the Throne and Hamlet’s uncle. A lot of his deceptive character resembles the Machiavellian politics and surveillance tactics within the Queen at the end of her Elizabethan reign, especially prevalent with the factional divisions of the Queen’s privy council.
Though he is the villain of the play, he also shows signs of love for Gertrude, guilt and repentance.
The Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother. Gertrude quickly marries Claudius after the late king’s death.
Because of her speedy remarriage, Hamlet sees her as a “whore” and opposite of the virginal Ophelia (however both are scapegoats of the men’s flawed actions). She is equally loving to Hamlet and Claudius despite both of their violence.
Her motives are not clear in the play however, some may call her deceitful and disloyal. But, is she immoral or is she trying to upkeep her status in court?
Hamlet’s most trusted and close friend. He is loyal and contrasts all the deception within the Court.
The Lord Chamberlain of Claudius’ court. His spying and plotting resembles how many Elizabethan politicians tried to deceive each other and go as high in rank no matter the cost.
He uses Ophelia as a pawn to spy on and decipher Hamlet’s madness.
Polonius’ daughter and Hamlet’s romantic interest. She is said to be beautiful and sweet. Both her father and Hamlet disregard her intellect and objectify her.
She becomes mad in the fourth act. While what drives her madness is unclear, we might see Ophelia’s songs as a critique of the patriarchal Elizabethan speech, where she releases her repressed and unmet emotional needs.
Polonius’ son. He is a dramatic foil to Hamlet as he quickly avenges his father’s death.
King of Norway. Also a dramatic foil to Hamlet as Fortinbras leads thousands of men to war while Hamlet continues to delay his filial duty of vengeance.
The Ghost of the old King (also called Hamlet). Young Hamlet first is skeptical of the Ghost and thinks he may be a devil tempting him to commit murder.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Two of Hamlet’s university friends and spies for Claudius.
Remember that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet for Elizabethans (particularly from 1590s to 1620s), so we have to know what was going on for the English at the end of the sixteenth century.
Feudalism and the Renaissance Era
During the time Hamlet was written, England was transitioning from the Feudal system to the Renaissance Humanist era. Feudalism was a form of government where the King owned everything and gained his authority over all people from the “Divine Right of Rule”.
If one was to kill the King, it would be equivalent to killing God Himself and disturbing the Great Chain of Being, wherein chaos would erupt in the kingdom (as we see in Hamlet!).
Whereas Feudalism valued combat and loyalty, the Renaissance Humanist era valued philosophy, logic, arts and beauty. A typical contrast would be between the Feudal “Man of Action” and the Renaissance “Thinking Man”.
Importantly, Renaissance Humanists had a great appreciation for human life and thought, which opposes the feudal duty of avenging one’s dead parent and other combat. This largely fuels Hamlet struggles with his own vengeance.
Court Deceptions and Faith
Queen Elizabeth was nearing the end of her reign in 1603 and with no heir to the throne, many divisions of the Queen’s privy council sought to deceive each other to secure higher ranks once the Queen had passed. The spying and deception in the Queen’s council reflects the Machiavellian politics and surveillance tactics of the time.
In other words, ministers and politicians would use any means, unethical or not, to gain political power. Queen Elizabeth had a whole network of spies to prevent the threat of assassination, which mainly came from Catholic countries and people who refused Elizabeth’s Protestant faith.
The Protestant Reformation also created a lot of moral questioning for Christians, as the Churches had contrasting viewpoints on how to get to Heaven. This, in turn, fuelled a lot of philosophy about the meaning of life and whether people had control of their own lives.
Misogyny and Patriarchal Structures
Despite the Humanist appreciation of life, women lost almost all of their social rights throughout the 16th and 17th century and female insubordination was violently punished (think about the Witch Trials!).
While the Humanists praised reason, mind over matter and human thought, Renaissance thinkers saw women as the opposite of these values and were to be placed under male control. This can be seen by the virgin-whore dichotomy shown in the characterisation of Ophelia and Gertrude, where the women are objectified to be either pure or dirty.
Kydian Revenge Tragedy
Hamlet follows from the structure of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which popularised the foundation of the Elizabethan Revenge tragedy. A Kydian tragedy features a tragic hero who is a hesitant revenger who almost goes mad and a Machiavellian villain.
This hesitant delay includes three soliloquies on the subject of revenge, which include the mourning of the death of his relative, shame for his delay and suicidal contemplation.
Themes Explored in Hamlet
The ambiguities and complexities of the play Hamlet bring out timeless and interesting themes. Here are some that can get you started on your thesis and topic sentences:
- Passion vs. Reason
- Appearance vs. Reality
- Freewill vs. Determinism
How to Analyse Hamlet in 3 Steps
Often students will try to start with their thesis when trying to answer an essay question. Instead, start with your analysis! You need to equip yourself with the knowledge of your text before you can answer anything about it.
After you’ve analysed your text, you can draw ideas from it, then you can build your thesis!
We’re going to walk you through creating an analysis for ‘Hamlet’ in three simple steps!
Step 1: Choose your example
The best way to choose an example is to find a technique. The technique is the key to unlocking deeper meaning in a text, which you will need in your analysis.
We have chosen to look at one quote from Act 1 of Hamlet to demonstrate how deception has clouded the judgment and empathy in Claudius’ court:
“Why seems it so particular with thee?”
Step 2: Identify your technique(s)
When trying to find a technique within your example, it’s not about finding the fanciest technique or just any old technique for that matter!
It’s about identifying a technique which will enable you to say something about your idea that’s interesting and can contribute to your argument and analysis.
Try to focus on finding examples with techniques which unveil a deeper meaning like metaphors, similes, figurative language, connotations, symbolism and recurring motifs. Other techniques like alliteration and repetition are a bit harder to find a deeper meaning in!
We have identified 3 techniques in the quote above: repetition, motif and connotation.
It’s always great to try and find multiple techniques in your quotes as it allows you to take your analysis up a notch!
Step 3: Write the analysis
When you write the analysis, it is important to always focus on what the effect of the technique is. One of the worst things you can do when writing analysis is technique labelling. Technique labelling would look like this:
The motif of deception that repeats through the connotation of the word “seeming” is most present in Hamlet and Gertrude’s first conversation, where Gertrude apathetically asks Hamlet “Why seems it so particular with thee?”.
Instead of this we need to flesh out how each of those techniques get us to our point.
Firstly, the motif of deception is given moral weight as it is imbued with negative connotations of the word, “seeming”.
We also need to dig deeper into the impact of Gertrude’s apathetic question to show how she cannot comprehend Hamlet’s candid grief. The combination demonstrates deception is so widely used that it impairs the innate human ability to empathise with others.
So if we include all that in our analysis it looks like:
The motif of deception that repeats through the negative connotation of the word “seeming” is most present in Hamlet and Gertrude’s first conversation, where Gertrude apathetically asks Hamlet “Why seems it so particular with thee?” and believes he is only pretending to be mournful at the wedding celebration.
Studying This Text for HSC Extension 1 English for Elective 4: Literary Mindscapes
In the space below, we will show you how to connect a number of the syllabus points in Literary Mindscapes to assist with your analysis of ‘Hamlet’. We have also included the Literary Mindscapes Rubric to refresh your memory!
Link #1: Interior worlds of individuals and how they perceive, think and feel about themselves and the societies in which they live
Shakespeare explores how the codes of one’s social structure often convey harsh repercussions on one’s self-esteem and emotional wellbeing.
In particular, the moral codes of any social structure, whether that of Elizabethan era or the 21st century, can be deeply entangled with systems of power. We may see cracks and paradoxes when deciding what action is socially good.
The effect this has on one’s interior world is best shown in Hamlet’s role of revenger. While Hamlet is expected to uphold his filial duty to kill Claudius and restore the natural order of his kingdom, it is also a sin to murder and would send Hamlet to damnation.
This realisation causes Hamlet’s sense of self to degrade as the play goes on because whether he acts or not would be deemed corrupt by the Elizabethan mores.
Link #2: Alternative ways of being and thinking through representations of the mind, including desires, motivations, emotions and memories
The fact that Hamlet cannot escape his own corruption creates heavy emotional burdens for him, where he gradually sees both himself and Elsinore nihilistically. Through this, Hamlet and the reader are compelled to question what is held as desirable and rational, and whether we as individuals would feel better if we challenged our loyalty to social codes.
There you have it!
We’ve given you everything you need to know about Hamlet and how to craft your analysis, by taking you through a summary of the play, the key characters, themes and quotes!
You’ve got all the info, so now it’s time to ace your analysis of Hamlet in English!
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Lynn Chen is a Content Writer at Art of Smart Education and is a Communication student at UTS with a major in Creative Writing. Lynn’s articles have been published in Vertigo, The Comma, and Shut Up and Go. In her spare time, she also writes poetry.