A Critical Analysis of Hamlet

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Why is Shakespeare considered to be one of the greatest playwrights of his time? Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan era and had to write for an Elizabethan audience and theater. By today's standards, this was no picnic in the park. Under those circumstances, he wrote some of the greatest works in history. These works, still popular today, prove him to be a consummate dramatist.

Shakespeare knew how to craft dramatic scenes full of external and internal conflict and emotion, something the Elizabethan audience delighted in; he also intertwined superstitions of this era and pageantry, which the Elizabethans also loved.

Shakespeare creates external conflict between opposing characters to build tension onstage. When Hamlet and King Claudius interact in the second scene of Act I, tension builds: "But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son- A little more than kin, and less than kind. How is it that the clouds still hang on you? Not so, my lord, I am too much I'th'sun." (1.2.65-68).

While Queen Gertrude and Hamlet are heatedly discussing the "unlawful" marriage to Claudius, more tension builds between Hamlet and his mother: "Have you forgot me? No, by the rood, not so. You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife, And, would it were not so, you are my mother." (3.4.15-18). Shakespeare also creates internal conflict within Hamlet himself, using revenge, a common theme of that time. It was expected of playwrights of the Elizabethan era to write plays containing the motive revenge. He struggled with the decision to write Hamlet as a revenge play, and it is evident in the story in Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy which parallels Shakespeare's ambivalence about the theme of the play: "To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer….The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons Be all my sins remembered." (3.1.63-78) Hamlet wants revenge when he thinks of his mother and her incestuous marriage to Claudius: "Haste me to know't, that I with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love may sweep to revenge." (1.5.33-35).

Hamlet doesn't want revenge when he sees King Claudius vulnerable while praying: "Now might I do it pat, now he is a-praying. And now I'll do it. And so he goes to heaven; And so I am revenged. That would be scanned: A villain kills my father, and for that I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven. Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge." (3.3.76-83).

Shakespeare whips up the emotion onstage by incorporating the conflict and tension between Hamlet, Queen Gertrude, his mother, and King Claudius, his unclestepfather. Kinship and inheritance are very strong themes in Hamlet. "Hamlet's excessive emotion is focused on Gertrude's sexual relations with Claudius"…. Because their marriage is "unlawful" according to the era and it deprives Hamlet of his rightful succession (Jardine 39).

According to the table of affinity, "unlawful" marriages that would conflict with possible inheritance would be, a man's marriage to his father's wife, his uncle's wife, his father's wife's daughter (his sister), his brother's wife (i.e. Claudius and Gertrude), or his wife's sister ( Jardine 40). Although none of these are blood ties, each creates questions over inheritance. In Hamlet's case, his uncle Claudius' marriage to his mother threatens his claim to inheritance. Hamlet, when talking alone with his mother, exclaims: "Nay but to live In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love Over the nasty sty!" (3.4.100-104).

Hamlet, in a soliloquy, says to himself: "…. Within a month, Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, She married. O most wicked speed! To post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!" (1.2.155-159).

Shakespeare uses beliefs and superstitions of the era to entertain and relate to his audience. Realizing the rift between Catholics and Protestants in his day,...
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