Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's best-known plays and certainly his most over-analyzed. It is one of the most influential works of literature ever written.Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, whose uncle Claudius has succeeded the throne after Hamlet's own father mysteriously passed away. Hamlet receives evidence that Claudius murdered the late king to seize power, and decides to exact Revenge, covering his behavior by Obfuscating Insanity. As the play progresses, though, it becomes ambiguous as to whether Hamlet's really faking his madness. Complicating matters are the presence of a number of other characters: Ophelia, the object of Hamlet's affections; Polonius, her father and royal chancellor; Gertrude, Hamlet's mother who has now married her brother-in-law; and Claudius himself, who is well aware that Hamlet is Denmark's rightful heir note Typical rules of primogeniture say that the king's son takes the throne after him, even if the king has a brother and is scheming to remove him from the picture.Shakespeare did not invent the story of Hamlet's quest to bring the murderer of his father to justice. The earliest surviving "record" is in the twelfth-century Gesta Danorum ("Deeds of the Danes"), by Saxo Grammaticus, wherein Hamlet — or Amleth (Amlóði) as he's called in that version — is shown as a legendary character who succeeds in destroying his uncle and becoming king, only to die in a later battle. The story was abbreviated and amended numerous times and had been presented as a play in English more than once when Shakespeare decided to tackle the story. By that time it had been changed almost beyond recognition — Hamlet's mother, who had originally been forced to marry her brother-in-law, was now an accessory to his usurpation of the throne, while Hamlet had been turned into a Christian and aged a number of years.Even more than is usual for Shakespeare, Hamlet is filled with expressions that have become clichés; examples include "Hoist by His Own Petard," "The lady doth protest too much," "Frailty, thy name is woman," and "The play's the thing". Oh, and something about whether or not to be that was really difficult to translate into Klingon. And that's not to mention many subtler neologisms that have wormed their way into everyday English.
c.1605 — the premiere at the Globe Theatre, London, with Richard Burbage playing the lead.
A two-minute 1900 film, Le Duel de Hamlet, showed the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, and may be the first filmed adaptation of the play. As this production starred Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, this means the first movie Hamlet was a Gender Flipped version.
The 1911-12 Moscow Art Theatre production, seeing the play as a symbolist melodrama with a very plain set.
Asta Nielsen made her own version in the 20s, based off of a book called "The Secret of Hamlet", where Hamlet was a Sweet Polly Oliver raised to secure her mother's position on the throne.
A 1948 film starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, which remains the only filmed Shakespeare to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is a heavily cut version (excluding such characters as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entirely), with a murky Gothic aesthetic, and a prominent Freudian leaning (it carries Playing Gertrude to extremes—the actress playing Gertrude was eleven years younger than Olivier!)
A 1961 German made-for-TV production starring Maximillian Schell as Hamlet (with Ricardo Montalban dubbing Claudius into English). This version was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and information on that episode can be found here.
A 1964 Russian film directed by Grigori Kozintsev, starring Innokenty Smoktunovsky and scored by Dmitri Shostakovich. It uses Scenery Porn to "oust period stylization and express the essentials"; it's also more political than Olivier's version, probably reflecting its post-Joseph Stalin production. Despite lacking original text and being heavily truncated it was critically very well-received, but it's never been televised in the United States.
A 1964 BBC production filmed on-location in Elsinore, and featuring an Christopher Plummer as Hamlet, Michael Caine as Horatio, Robert Shaw as Claudius, and Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras.
A 1980 BBC production starring Derek Jacobi and directed by Rodney Bennett. This is an almost full-text production, made as part of the BBC's complete Shakespeare series. Also notable for featuring Patrick Stewart as Claudius and Lalla Ward (Romana #2 in Doctor Who) as Ophelia.
A 1990 film starring Mel Gibson and directed by Franco Zefirelli. This is heavily cut and rearranged and probably even more Freudian than the Olivier version. However, Gibson was praised for playing a youthful, energetic Hamlet.
Another 1990 version is a filmed version of the play starring Kevin Kline, mostly notable for featuring minimal sets and modern costuming.
A 1996 film starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh. This is a highly lavish, cinematic full-textnote with the exception of a few transposed lines, and thus clocking in at around 246 minutes long version set in the 1800s, which includes BRIAN BLESSED (as the Ghost) and a Falling Chandelier of Doom. With Kate Winslet as Ophelia. Oh, and Robin Williams as Osric, and Billy Crystal as the gravedigger.note The All-Star Cast also includes Julie Christie as Gertrude, Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, Charlton Heston as the King of the play, Richard Attenborough as the English Ambassador, and Dame Judi Dench and Sir John Gielgud as Hecuba and Priam of Troy. It's essentially Hamlet as an Epic Movie. Not financially successful, but critically acclaimed with some even calling it the greatest onscreen adaptation of Shakespeare. Was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay (which led to a lot of jokes in theatrical circles on who technically wrote the script).
Since Hamlet is almost always performed with cuts (performing the whole thing usually takes almost four hours), arguably every production is an adaptation, some even switching out scenes for pacing purposes (like the 2010 version did as explained here and here. Sometimes the basic idea is what's adapted, more or less faithfully, and little or none of the original language is used.
Some notable adaptations include:
The German play Hamletmaschine by Heiner Müller, a celebrated surrealist adaptation of Hamlet which still enjoys frequent performances 30 years after it was written... despite being completely incomprehensible.
The play I Hate Hamlet in which a TV star has to play Hamlet on stage but is unsure. So he gets help from the ghost of one of the greatest Hamlets, John Barrymore.
The wuxia film Legend Of The Black Scorpion, which is basically Hamlet IN FEUDAL CHINA! The most interesting difference is that the Gertrude stand-in is the stepmother of the Hamlet stand-in, and is actually the woman he was in love with before his father stole her away. She's also a lot more of a Magnificent Bastard.
An expansion of the MMORPGMabinogi is switching from adapting Celtic Mythology to this. Whether it's gonna be one major patch or a series remains to be seen. It is now live on both Korean and NA servers. Still no word on whether or not it's a series or a patch, but the Celtic Mythology is still in force near the end of the Hamlet storyline.
After a line in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country claimed that Shakespeare's plays were actually the work of a Klingon, some fans took the trouble to actually translate the entire play into the Klingon language.
Sons of Anarchy is another loose adaptation, set in modern day with an outlaw biker gang.
Scott G. F. Bailey's novel The Astrologer updates the action to the court of Christian IV in seventeenth-century Denmark.
Many of the aforementioned film versions of the play, plus several others (nine total), are compared and contrasted in this neat little article.NOTE: All spoilers will be unmarked. This play is over 400 years old at this point and is available for free just about everywhere.
Alas, Poor Yorick: Trope Namer. Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, the court jester, in the graveyard, prompting him to reflect on his mortality.
Anachronism Stew: Hamlet attends a university that was not founded until 300 years after the play was set and is a member of a religion that hadn't yet reached Denmark.
Anti-Hero: Hamlet. He acts rudely to many who (may) mean him no harm, kills Polonius for spying on him (though he seemed to think it was Claudius hiding and watching) and has Guildenstern and Rosencrantz sent to death (it is arguable what are their personal intentions over them spying for Claudius, making Hamlet's actions to them be justifiable to varying degrees).
Broken Bird: We don't meet Hamlet until after he has been broken, but according to his friends he used to be a generous, loving, and level-headed man. Due to his father's death and his uncle's betrayal, he is consumed by his own sadness and therefore unable to trust or show compassion to anyone. He cruelly mocks Ophelia, but he would not be this way if it hadn't been for the tragedy of his father's murder.
Polonius is the master of this trope. Appropriately enough, his last words are, "O! I am slain!" It has been assumed he says that due to the difficulty the audience would have had confirming the death of a character behind a curtain, but still....
Several minor characters in the play find themselves playing this trope as Hamlet verbally spars with them; they revert to saying inanities because they're so vastly outmatched in wit — witty though they might be compared with almost anyone in almost any other play.
Catch the Conscience: Trope Namer. Hamlet hires an acting troupe to perform a play about a king being murdered, with a few additions to make it more like Claudius's murder of King Hamlet, to get a reaction out of Claudius.
Character Filibuster: Through the character of Hamlet talking to a performer, Shakespeare tells people about his pet peeves in acting.
Comforting the Widow: Claudius "comforts" Gertrude. It helps win him the throne. On the other hand, he does seem to genuinely love her; in the prayer scene he lists her as well as the crown as his motive for the murder.
Dare to Be Badass: Hamlet tries to talk himself into it; "To Be Or Not To Be" is an attempt that fails. It takes him maybe three acts, but he finally gets the point with "My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"
The 2008 RSC production made this into a Single Entendre by leaving a pause between the first and second syllables of 'country'.
A version, sometimes played at the Globe, is performed with the actors using the "Original Pronunciation" that would have been standard at the time of Shakespeare as well as among his audience. The newly resulting homophonies (e.g. "from hour to hour we ripe and ripe" thus sounds close to "from whore to whore we rape and rape") uncover "new" entendres that are lost in the modern idiom.
Thanks to the change in pronunciation and the archaic language in the play, many double entendres and sex jokes that would have caused the early 17th century playgoers to bust a gut laughing sail right over the heads of most modern viewers.
Double Standard: Polonius forbids his daughter to so much as spend time with Hamlet, but doesn't see much harm in spreading rumors that his son visits brothels. Ophelia doesn't buy into this, and tells her brother he'd be a hypocrite if he admonished her to be chaste and then went off and had sex himself.
Downer Ending: Almost every single important character in the play is dead at the end, from Hamlet to Ophelia to Hamlet's mother, in a mass suicide/manslaughter/murder spree. It's not entirely dark, though: Hamlet achieved his goal of avenging his father and getting Claudius off the throne, and while he didn't live to take the throne himself, it's going to someone he approves of (at least in productions where Fortinbras isn't left out).
Driven to Suicide: Ophelia drowns herself in a river. Or she was really just so insane she didn't even think to save herself from drowning after falling into the water while hanging garlands from a tree. It's not an unpopular theory that Gertrude murdered Ophelia after learning she knows too much (that or she was Mercy Killing her). The 2010/2011 London production at the National Theatre heavily implied this was the case.
Another interpretation is that, in her madness, Ophelia simply fell and, being nobility, didn't know how to swim. Ophelia is often depicted wearing a dress and well... just try swimming in that.
Due to the Dead: In the final scene of Hamlet, Fortinbras orders Hamlet be given a soldier's burial as a mark of honor.
Emo Teen: Hamlet, the original emo kid, is a brooding pessimist who dresses all in black and pontificates about suicide. He's also spoilt, and resents his mother for remarrying. The slight hitch occurs in the Gravedigger scene, where it's stated that Hamlet is actually 30. This means either (A) Hamlet is too old to be acting like this, adding to the theory that he is 'actually' mentally unbalanced (though that still doesn't explain how he's a University student at his age), or (B) Hamlet isn't 30 and Shakespeare made another mathematical error. Shakespeare scholars have suggested that the Gravedigger's line was thrown in at the insistence of Richard Burbage, the actor who originally played the lead role and was probably unwilling to play a teenager. Or, alternatively, Shakespeare could do maths just fine, but the gravedigger can't.
Alternatively, the gravedigger had it right, but later translations got it wrong. In the original spelling of the Folio text, one of the two authoritative texts for the play, the Gravedigger's answer to how long he has "been a grave-maker" reads "Why heere in Denmarke: I haue bin sixeteene heere, man and Boy thirty yeares.." "Sixteene" is usually rendered as "sexton" (a modernization of the second quarto's "sexten"), even in modern texts that take F1 as their "copy text." But modernizing the punctuation — a normal practice in modernized texts — renders "Why heere in Denmarke: I haue bin sixeteene heere—man and Boy thirty yeares." In other words, this reading suggests that he has been a grave-digger for sixteen years, but that he has lived in Denmark for thirty. According to this logic, then, it is the Grave-digger who is thirty, whereas Hamlet is only sixteen.
Fatal Flaw: It's widely agreed that Hamlet has onenote he discusses the concept in an early scene. There's rather less agreement on what, specifically, it is.
Fleeting Demographic: Determining, of all things, the setting: Shakespeare probably chose the Hamlet story as an appeal to James I's theater-loving queen — Anne of Denmark.
Flower Motifs: Ophelia's mad scene is one of the most famous in the Western canon.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. [...] There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died.
Rosemary = memory
Pansy = thought
Fennel = flattery
Columbine = determination
Rue = regret
Notably, rue is also a powerful poison and abortifacient, which might be the way Ophelia "wears it differently."
Daisy = innocence
Violet = faithfulness
Foil: Hamlet has several. Most notable are Fortinbras, Horatio and Laertes. Before they fight, Hamlet (mockingly and very ironically) refers to himself as a foil to Laertes. Also the swords which they are using are called foils making that line a Pun.
Also, the player who weeps Tender Tears over Hecuba overtly inspires Hamlet to reflect on the contrast between them.
Forged Letter: Hamlet, escorted to England accompanied (i.e. guarded) by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, replaces the letter from Claudius instructing Hamlet's execution with one condemning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead.
Get Thee to a Nunnery: Trope Namer. The play contains several double entendres that go over the heads of modern audiences; among the best known are the "nunnery" and the "fishmonger" (slang for a brothel and a pimp, respectively), from the scene where Polonius tries to manipulate Hamlet through Ophelia.
Guess Who I'm Marrying?: The actual reveal happens before the play starts, so the story is about the fallout from this trope.
Hero of Another Story: Fortinbras, who has his own revenge plot (directed against Hamlet's father/the Danes), and whose movements are referenced throughout the play, although he only appears in person at the end, wherein his revenge completely succeeds and he conquers Denmark (aided by almost everyone else being dead).
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deliver their own death warrant, not realising that Hamlet altered the document before his escape by replacing his name with theirs. Hamlet remarks:
'tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petard
Claudius and Laertes are killed by their own poison.
Laertes: Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric, I am justly killed with mine own treachery.
Hot-Blooded: Played straight with Laertes on Ophelia's death, and with Fortinbras who goes to war over a valueless piece of land. Hamlet himself subverts this, claiming to admire these characters but never taking the initiative himself and passing up chances to kill his target. In something of a contradiction he castigates himself for own his lack of passion ("I am pidgeon livered and lack gall") while praising Horatio for it ("Give me the man who is not passion's slave and I will wear him in my heart's core").
Hypocritical Humor: Polonius. For example, he gives the well-known line "brevity is the soul of wit" — at the end of a very long-winded speech — but he is one of the least brief and least witty talkers around. He proceeds to give plenty of other advice that he also doesn't follow. Later, he complains that the Player King's speech is too long.
Ignored Epiphany: Claudius comes to realize what evil he's done, but keeps right on being evil.
My words fly up: my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Incest Is Relative: Hamlet is very squicked at the idea of his mother and his uncle doing the nasty.
Innocent Innuendo: Ophelia and Laertes, brother and sister, admonish each other to remain chaste. They probably don't mean to get as graphic as they do. Ophelia's going to keep her lock to herself, not open up her chaste treasure to Hamlet's unmastered importunity, while Laertes will keep his key to himself.
Irony: In a Long List to Ophelia about all the things he hates about women, Hamlet says he dislikes women pretending not to know things in front of men. Ophelia often has to resort to pretending to know nothing to try and pacify Hamlet or in an attempt to avoid further humiliation such as in Act 3, Scene 2 where he makes crude jokes in front of the whole court. Ashamed, Ophelia says, ‘I think nothing’ which instead fuels more lewd comments. The irony appears lost on Hamlet.
It's All About Me: When Hamlet comes across Laertes burying Ophelia, his beloved sister, how does he react? He claims that he loved Ophelia far more than her brother did, and no woe can possibly equal his.
Karma Houdini: Discussed when Hamlet considers murdering Claudius while Claudius is praying, which Hamlet worries would send him (Claudius) to Heaven. Subverted when, after Hamlet departs, Claudius reveals that he was not actually praying ("Words without thoughts never to Heaven go"), so Hamlet's hesitation was moot.
I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.
Malaproper: The First Gravedigger, though unfortunately his slips (like saying "argal" when he means "ergo") can be very easy to miss given all the formal language surrounding them.
Malicious Slander: "Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny."
Man Child: Hamlet is apparently 30, if the gravedigger scene is any indication, but continues to live with his parents, has not found a wife, does not possess a castle or any other feudal fief, and in general has not accomplished anything one would expect of a college-educated nobleman. (Many, though not necessarily all, scholars think that he's actually in his late teens or maybe early twenties.)
Please Shoot the Messenger: Claudius famously sends Hamlet off to England with a message (and with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to watch him.) The message directs the English to kill the person holding it. Hamlet manages to escape, and gives them the message to deliver instead.
Sibling Triangle: Claudius murders his brother and marries his brother's wife. Interpretations vary as to how complicit Gertrude is in the plot.
Sketchy Successor: The late King Hamlet is considered a ruler among rulers. King Claudius assassinated him to get the job and spends his reign doing nothing but trying to keep people from becoming suspicious. Also inverted at the end of Hamlet, after everyone has died. The Danish crown is passed down to King Fortinbras, monarch of Norway. Throughout the story, it is mentioned that Denmark and Norway are having conflicts, but by the end, the entire Danish royal family is dead and Fortinbras is implied to be an improvement over Claudius.
Sleazy Politician: Polonius in certain interpretations, also Claudius, who quickly turns the rebellious Laertes to his side.
Speech Impediment: In certaininterpretations, Ophelia does have a lisp, and some of her lines actually reflect this (for example, "twice two months" is understood as "two-es...two months). This gives Hamlet's line ("...you lisp, you nickname God's creatures...") a second, literal meaning.
Horatio: You might have rhymed.note Horatio was expecting Hamlet to go for "ass", the obvious rhyme.
Suddenly Always Knew That: Hamlet has "been in continual practise" at fencing since Laertes went to France. Really? Because not a single word was uttered about that until Act V, Scene II. Kenneth Branagh's film version actually has Hamlet practicing continually.
The play's subplot involves deciding whether Ophelia drowned herself on purpose or not. If it were to be determined a suicide, she would have not gotten her burial rights, which according to the belief of the characters, would have denied her soul entry to heaven.
Hamlet's famous "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy is about how he would kill himself if he weren't afraid it would damn his soul.
Tomato Surprise: During the duel with Laertes, Gertrude casually mentions that Hamlet is fat and short of breath. This fact seemingly justifies the whole deal with everyone assuming fight will immediately make him thirsty. Authenticity of this line is fiercely challenged by many Shakespearean scholars, who argue it's supposed to read "hot", not "fat".
Too Dumb to Live: Hey, Polonius. Maybe it's not a good idea to hide behind the curtains while spying on Hamlet. *stab* Never mind.
A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: After blowing his first chance to kill Claudius, Hamlet strikes out blindly at a shape in the curtains he thinks is Claudius. This turns out to be Polonius, who is the father of the woman Hamlet loves, which sends everything straight to hell for him.
What Happened to the Mouse?: Reynaldo is an agent of Polonius's sent to both spy on and ruin the reputation of Laertes when the latter leaves for France. Whatever actual impact Reynaldo has on anything is never touched on, and he hasn't returned to Denmark by the end of the play.
Hamlet is at least 27 if his memory of Yorick is to be believed, but he was studying at Wittenberg University when his father died (see Anachronism Stew above). In Shakespeare's time, most university students were teenagers. People seem to forget this when insisting that Hamlet must be thirty years old. There is a theory that Shakespeare originally wrote for Hamlet to been in his teens but somewhere towards the end decided to age him up so a specific actor could play the part.
Dawn comes, by Horatio's count, one hundred seconds after midnight.
You Killed My Father: The main plot. Also, the reason Laertes kills Hamlet and possibly why Fortinbras wants to invade Denmark.
Karma Houdini: Lucianus, unless his comeuppance was left out of the dumb-show and occurred after the play is stopped.
Stylistic Suck: A spoileriffic dumb show followed by a series of tedious heroic couplets. This may be Hamlet's fault, since he rewrote bits of it, and was more concerned with trying to Catch the Conscience of Claudius than with coming up with a truly decent play.
Trailers Always Spoil: Before the play properly starts, three clowns come out and act out almost the entire plot. Many modern productions omit this part, since you're not supposed to spoil The Mousetrap.
Particular productions or adaptations also provide examples of:
Abusive Parents: Certain interpretations of Polonius show him as this towards Ophelia, manipulating her and keeping her emotionally stunted.
In many adaptations — theatrical productions, films, paintings, etc. — Ophelia is barefoot during the mad scene.
The RSC film has Tennant's Hamlet barefoot in most of the indoor scenes.
Gender Flip: While not exactly common, there is a recurring trend of recasting characters as the opposite sex in modern productions:
Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress of her time, played Hamlet in an 1899 production (and was the first to portray him on film in Le Duel de Hamlet.)
The 2000 film version, starring Ethan Hawke, not only changes the character of Marcellus to a girl, but also gives her a romantic relationship with Horatio. At the end of the play, the two of them are shown sharing an apartment and sleeping in the same bed.
Alexander Fodor's 2007 arthouse film adaptation featured a female Horatio and "Polonia".
In the 1990 and 1996 film adaptations, Laertes explicitly breaks the rules of the dueling conduct to wound and poison Hamlet.
Productions vary on how much effort Claudius puts into preventing Gertrude from drinking from the cup of wine he poisoned for Hamlet; in some, he only tells her to not drink from it (which she does anyway) but makes no move to stop her — despite earlier claiming that he really does love her. This differs by production. Derek Jacobi in Branagh's film version is visibly shaken at not being able to stop her from drinking.
Race Lift: Modern versions will usually find a traditionally white character to cast as a different race, in order to diversify the cast.
This was done to great effect in the 2008 David Tennant production, where Horatio was portrayed by a black actor.
Campbell Scott's 2000 film adaptation, which takes place on a Southern plantation, depicts Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia as a family of house slaves.