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YMMV / Hamlet

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The original play

  • Alternative Character Interpretation: The debates have been raging unabated for 400 years:
    • Hamlet: Insane, or faking it — or Becoming the Mask and actually becoming insane without realizing it? Too Good for This Sinful Earth prince manipulated into evilnote ? Deeply troubled youth wrestling with moral and honor codes? Spineless whiny git who killed in cold blood many times before hitting his actual mark? Misogynistic, Oedipal, whiny jerk? Non-Action Guy Bookworm who would prefer to be back at school studying or writing more poetry for his girlfriend instead of carrying out the unsavory task of murder, unlike his predecessors in the Revenge Tragedies his story deconstructs? A total sociopath? Suffering from multiple personality disordernote ? A self-aware figure in in argument with his author? All of the above?
      • When he was plotting to wait to catch Claudius in some sin before killing him, was it because, as he stated, that he wanted not only to kill Claudius, but to ensure his damnation, or was it because Hamlet couldn't work up the nerve to kill his uncle in cold blood, and watching him commit a wicked act would make it easier to kill him?
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    • Ophelia: Is she a:
      • Sweet but fragile girl who got caught in the political crossfire between her father and boyfriend?
      • Pathetic and stupid doormat who was Too Dumb to Live?
      • Driven mad due to having to hide her pregnancy from her father, brother, and lover?
      • Cassandra-like oracle who can see the future but only speaks in riddles, rhymes and metaphors due to her insane state of mind?
      • Or, as was the trend in the psychoanalytic interpretations of the 1960s and 1970s, a sexually-frustrated young woman torn between her lust for her Hamlet and her lust for—wait for it—Laertes. Hey, we said 'overanalyzed', didn't we?
      • "Cut the crap, Hamlet! My biological clock is ticking and I want babies NOW!"
      • The Victorians did not question for a minute that Ophelia loves Hamlet. Some readers, nowadays, wonder if Ophelia's affection is real or another political ploy on her father's part — but if it is, why does she take Hamlet's abuse so much to heart?
      • A specific scene with Hamlet: when he's exhorting her to "get thee to a nunnery", is he simply being a massive asshole to her because he's stressed? Or mental imbalance? Or, under the cover of this, is he intentionally trying to drive her away from the castle entirely, so that she's way outside of the line of fire when things inevitably have to go down? Others have noted that since Hamlet speaks of his own sins and character flaws just after he says it for the first time, it could be interpreted as "you deserve better than me." It's been noted that it is very easy to change the entire tone of the scene just from the delivery of that one line.
      • Was she Driven to Suicide or was her death accidental? We only have Gertrude's word as to what happened and how Ophelia ended up in the river, and she might have been lying to spare Laertes' feelings; but we've already seen how Ophelia was utterly removed from reality by this point, so she might really have fallen in by accident and not understood the danger she was in.
      • Some productions have Ophelia witness the "to be or not to be" speech. (Keep in mind, that scene happens just before "get thee to a nunnery".) This makes her distraught reaction to Hamlet's actions even more understandable — if you'd just overheard your boyfriend contemplating suicide, wouldn't you be worried?
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    • Claudius:
      • While there's no doubt whatsoever that he's a villain (he admits in prayer to murdering his own brother), some think that he still was a pretty good ruler, and that Hamlet's revenge on him just made things worse for Denmark.
      • It's debatable whether he did love Gertrude at all - he tells Laertes he really does love her and wanted to avoid Hamlet's death in a manner that would be more direct then looking like an accident. However, he fails to do more to stop Gertrude from drinking poison than just telling her not to drink from the cup. He could be seen as being letting logic rule over him for that moment, simply being too late to stop her by the time she drinks (where he is standing at the time depends on the adaptation) or it can be seen as clear proof he really doesn't care.
      • Or it could just be an Oh, Crap! moment- as soon as he tells her not to drink it, he realizes he's basically admitted that the drink is poisoned and he's just tried to murder her son.
      • The line "Give me some light, away!" (with which Claudius stops the play-within-a-play after the Catch the Conscience scene) is pivotal to the character and the drama. But what's going through Claudius's mind when he says it? Shakespeare gives us no stage directions, so the line can be, and has been, read as anything from annoyance with Hamlet to paranoia to rage to guilt to a psychotic break.
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    • Horatio: Motivated by friendship and loyalty? Something else entirely? Is he even Danish? Did he even know Hamlet very well beforehand? If not, what the hell is he doing in Denmark? Does he even exist except to give Hamlet someone to talk to when he's alone?
    • Fortinbras: Noble war hero who acted the most logically and justly of the cast? Bloodthirsty barbarian prince who's willing to send hundreds to their deaths for a scrap of land? Deus ex Machina on legs? Expy for King James?
    • Polonius: Magnificent Bastard or stupid, stupid, stupid bastard?
      • A genuinely caring father looking out for his son's personal development and raising legitimate concerns about his daughter's future, or a domineering, invasive patriarch spouting cliched wisdom and taking advantage of his children for political favour-currying?
    • Gertrude:
      • Loving mother forced to marry her brother-in-law to save her son's life or deceitful accomplice in a palace coup? (Some believe that Hamlet's emphasis on revenge over capturing the throne for himself implies that Gertrude was the queen regnant, and both Hamlet's father and Claudius were only kings consort — which at the time would have made them the rulers, not her. If this is the case, the play may also have been in part Shakespeare's approval of Elizabeth I's unmarried status. Roger Ebert and others note that Gertrude may being practical to avoid a power vacuum that would invite usurpation of the throne.)
      • The scene in which Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine is also open to interpretation; in some adaptations, she is unaware that there is poison in the wine and her line "I will, My Lord, I pray you pardon me" is said as if she's just having a good time. In others, "I will..." is delivered to imply that she knows exactly what's in there and has been Driven to Suicide. Or taking the poison for her son.
      • And speaking of Driven to Suicide, Gertrude's report of how Ophelia died is realistically rather suspect since it implies someone saw her fall into the water, and watched her slowly sink to her death without trying to help her. Did she actually kill her as a Mercy Kill, or did something else happen entirely? Did they find Ophelia's drowned body after the fact and assume she committed suicide, but Gertrude tried to do some damage control to salvage the girl's reputation: telling Laertes a gentle lie to spare his feelings and all but royally decreeing that it was an accident so that Ophelia can be properly buried (which sadly doesn't seem to work, given the attitudes of the Gravediggers and the officiating priest).
    • King Hamlet:
      • Ever read The Scottish Play? There's this great line: "and oftentime, to win us to or harms, the instruments of darkness tell us truths." Consider if the above quote applies to him, if he's actually an evil spirit. Hamlet himself even lampshades this possibility. Mind you, some scholars would say that any good Elizabethan would consider any spirit as an evil one.
      • One issue raised in the play itself is the question of whether the Ghost is indeed his spirit or simply a demon impersonating him (or if it is him, he's incompetent). The Ghost leaves when the cock crows, a behavior associated with evil spirits, and he purports to be suffering in flames and torment, which could mean he comes from Purgatory, but this concept was rejected by Protestantism (the play is ambiguous/inconsistent about its religious background). In terms of intention, the Ghost is extorting Hamlet to do something arguably immoral (under the view that only God should take revenge on sinners), and his commands lead to the deaths of tons of people, including some (e.g. his son and wife) who King Hamlet would presumably want to live.
      • From the play one could walk away with the impression that the King was a cold, stern, warmongering bastard in life who neglected his wife, bullied his little brother and was raising his son to be as much of a douche as he was and Denmark is better off with him dead, even if he was killed for selfish motives. One of the first things Claudius does on talking the throne is make peace with their enemy Norway- was King Hamlet unable to do this, or was he unwilling to try? One notes how Hamlet seems to care more about him than his mother, partly because she married Claudius and did so shortly after her husband's death: was he a crap husband and is she relieved he's gone? And was he a cold and distant "Well Done, Son!" Guy Hamlet has a higher opinion of than he should? Does he want justice for his death or revenge? Or does he see no difference? Maybe he died because he was a crap brother too?
  • Big-Lipped Alligator Moment: The Zefirelli version completely removes the Hecuba monologue, thereby rendering Hamlet's "Oh what an ass am I" sequence afterwards one of these.
  • Designated Hero: After learning from the ghost of his father that his father was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet spends the next Act or so mocking and taunting Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, while also verbally abusing and Slut-Shaming Ophelia. What do all 4 of these characters have in common? All 4 of them had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the murder of Hamlet's father. When Hamlet finally does something, he murders Polonius because he heard a voice behind some curtains and jumps to the conclusion that it must be Claudius. He then hides the body and jokes that everybody'll smell him soon enough. This murder leads Laertes to mount a popular rebellion against Claudius, and righteously demand vengeance for his father's death, a.k.a. the very crime which Hamlet wants to avenge but has now in turn committed. This murder drives Ophelia to insanity and her death (she may even have been Driven to Suicide). Hamlet then deliberately brings about the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern despite little to no evidence that they actually did anything wrong. He finally gets around to the one person he was supposed to be killing, Claudius, only after the latter has poisoned Gertrude and gotten Laertes to poison Hamlet who then gets accidentally poisoned by Hamlet. So it could be argued that every death that occurs from the start of the play onward is all Hamlet's fault. The final exchanges between Horatio and Fortinbras about how Hamlet would have made a good king is a major Informed Attribute because it's pretty obvious that a guy as self-absorbed and irresponsible as Hamlet would have made a terrible king.
  • Designated Villain: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Since Claudius killed Hamlet's father all by himself, he'd have no reason to confide in them or anyone else about it. So R&G might not see anything vile about obeying his summons and check out their old friend, Hamlet, and see if they can find out what's wrong with him. When Claudius sends R&G to England with Hamlet, he gives them a sealed envelope for the English which orders Hamlet's immediate execution. Since these orders are sealed, there's nothing to indicate R&G knew what those sealed orders were. Yet when Hamlet breaks into their cabin and opens the seal and reads the order, he changes the order making it for R&G's immediate executions. Since Hamlet gets kidnapped by pirates on the way to England, R&G would have no reason to deliver those sealed orders if they already knew what those orders originally were.
  • Draco in Leather Pants: Hamlet is often idealized by many fans, and even scholars, because they project themselves onto him. Mostly because he's a character who is an intellectual and waxes eloquent philosophical views about existence and death, making him appealing to scholars and intellectuals. Thus, his negative qualities — his misogyny, his snobbismnote , and his hypocritical idea of violence, i.e. he hates war, but dismisses the crime of killing Polonius — makes him out to be very bad news indeed.
  • Ensemble Dark Horse:
    • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern due to their spin-off.
    • In the David Tennant version Polonius is the standout—the character is difficult to play due the need to be simultaneously hilarious and boring, but Oliver Ford Davies nails it; he's also the only character other than Hamlet to blatantly break the fourth wall.
    • Ophelia is this for artists, judging by the number of paintings depicting her compared to any other characters except for Hamlet himself, despite the fact that her role in the plot is much smaller than Claudius or even Gertrude. She is more or less the emotional heart of the play, being that her death and funeral scene between Laertes, Gertrude, and Hamlet is one of the few openly emotional moments in an otherwise quite intellectual play. It's helps that she's also one of the nicest characters in a play full of morally gray (or worse) characters, who suffers one of the most memorably tragic fates. A few writers have also written stories focused upon her perspective, giving her more characterization and agency; a notable example is the 2018 movie Ophelia, starring Daisy Ridley in the title role.
  • Escapist Character: Amazingly for a tragedy, Hamlet proves to be this. The main reason is that Hamlet doesn't really have a Tragic Flaw in the classical sense (the flaws that we now ascribe to him, indecision, over-introspection, oedipal hang-ups are modern). He's incredibly intelligent, has Ophelia deeply in love with him, has Horatio's support, incredibly witty, able to belt out long soliloquies while chatting up and bantering with his pals and the plebs (the theater company), he's devoted to his father and family, and is more or less an Übermensch aristocratic Prince who dislikes war and fighting, but is quite charismatic and good with a sword. Throwaway comments even imply that he's popular among the people. Until the part in the end, where he and the rest of the cast die, Hamlet more or less comes up on top and wins every contest and situation he is in.
  • Fan-Preferred Couple: Hamlet/Ophelia has its fans, but Hamlet/Horatio is ridiculously popular among modern readers, probably considering that Hamlet's behaviour towards Ophelia can be seen as sexist and abusive.
  • Ho Yay:
    • Hamlet and Horatio.
      • At one point in Act 3 Scene 2, Hamlet delivers a speech elaborating on why he values Horatio so much.
        Hamlet: Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man as e’er my conversation coped withal.
      • This is most notable in Hamlet’s death scene when Horatio attempts to poison himself just because he doesn’t want to live without Hamlet. The scene can also be seen as a parallel to the famous poisoning dilemma of two lovers in another famous Shakespeare work.
      • Just as he tries to poison himself, Horatio comments that he is "more antique Roman than a Dane." Ancient Romans had a much more favorable view of suicide than the Danes... and a much more favorable view of male homosexuality.
    • In the 2008 RSC version, with basically everybody to some degree.
    • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are never seen or referenced to without the other.
  • Incest Yay Shipping: Laertes and Ophelia. Laertes even gets into a tussle with Hamlet over who loves her more, and he shows a fascination with her sex life (or lack of).
    • Hamlet and his mother Queen Gertrude.
  • It Was His Sled: Ophelia goes mad, and everyone dies.
  • Jerkass Woobie:
    • Hamlet himself is ultimately this kind of trope.
    • Laertes too. Specifically because of his dead sister.
    • Heck, even Claudius. The same scene that confirms his guilt in killing Hamlet's father also shows he has some remorse over it.
  • Magnificent Bastard: King Claudius, in many productions, is depicted as a more respectable figure than the stereotypical overambitious royal. Taking advantage of his skill at murdering in ways that give him Plausible Deniability, he kills his brother by poisoning him and making it look like a snakebite, then subsequently marries his brother's widow Queen Gertrude and claims the Danish throne. A charming conversationalist with considerable language skills, he manages to secure the support of nearly the entire court. Spying on his nephew Prince Hamlet, he determines he's planning something and arranges for him to be sent to England on a diplomatic assignment, later plotting to have him killed after he determines he's too dangerous to live. When Laertes returns from France and tries to overthrow him, Claudius manages to get him on his side and rope him into another attempt on Hamlet's life. Only being exposed and killed due to Laertes seeking forgiveness before he dies, and still managing to end Hamlet's life, Claudius demonstrates why he's one of Shakespeare's most iconic and enduring villains.
  • Memetic Mutation:
  • Moe: Ophelia.
  • Moral Event Horizon:
    • Arguably, Claudius letting the Queen drink from the poisoned cup. He earlier claimed to truly love her, but only tells her to not drink from the cup once rather than risk giving up his scheme, not to save her life.
    • That depends on the production. He could be on the other side of the stage from her, and unable to do anything without betraying that the cup is poisoned.
    • Also, using Laertes' grief at his sister's death to manipulate him into being his pawn.
    • Frankly murdering his own brother to steal his kingdom and his wife probably crosses this before the play even starts.
  • Narm:
    • At the end of the "Play Within a Play" scene, Claudius has the line, "Bring me some light! Away!" It is very difficult to portray this seriously.
      • In Branagh's version, Derek Jacobi nails it. His achievement is then ruined by the overreaction of his sycophants, who begin to scream "LIGHTS, LIGHTS, LIGHTS!" like they are trapped in a darkened room.
    • Also from Branagh's version, Polonius' face after his death looks more like a mischievous frog than a murder victim, although this may be intentional.
    • Every bit of Claudius' death in the Branagh version. Especially the sword
    • And again from Branagh:
      Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
      Hamlet: Words, words, WOUEUOEOUEUOERRRDS.note 
    • Polonius yelling out "Oh, I am slain!" after being fatally stabbed. Initially required for the audience to understand what was happening in the more bare bones Elizabethan theater, it's often removed from adaptations. Branagh's uncut version wisely changes it to him barely whispering it out in disbelief.
  • Nightmare Fuel: In the Branagh version, the courtier Osric (who has until then been a prissy Comic Relief character) stabs himself in the final scene before announcing that Fortinbras has taken the kingdom, and we see a pretty graphic close-up of his bloodied hand from holding the wound shut. In fact, the whole of Fortinbras' entry into the palace is played more as the chilling arrival of a military dictator and less as the restoration of order that critics have often considered it to be.
  • No Yay: The closeness between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude in the 1990 film adaptation. His obsessing and constant interference with his mother's love life and disgust with her sharing the bed with his uncle. Gertrude doting on Hamlet and shutting her son up by kissing him on the mouth.
  • Padding: It is Shakespeare's longest play, and Hamlet has more lines than any other Shakespeare character, with his runner-up John Falstaff needing three whole plays to even come second. The real problem for critics, audiences, theatre directors and actors, is how much this padding is a defect of the play, or the poor nature of the texts handed down to us, and how much it is an Intended Audience Reaction. The basic plot, Hamlet gaining revenge on Claudius because You Killed My Father could ideally have been wrapped up at most by Act 3, but Hamlet keeps delaying the deed for reasons that are either because he has some serious philosophical qualms or because Shakespeare knows that if he did that the play would just end early and he needed to keep butts in the seat. Some of the plots and subplots (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia's suicide, Laertes' making a comeback and starting a rebellion and being acclaimed king by the populace, the Gravedigger) don't really have anything to do with the situation of the Old King's death and usurpation.
  • "Seinfeld" Is Unfunny:
    • The sheer number of lines in the play that have become established expressions in English can make it seem like all Shakespeare has done is just string a bunch of clichés together. Indeed, the overexposure of this play has often made it difficult, in the views of dramatists, to properly stage it, since the Hamlet of the text is not the same as the Hamlet that the audience wants.
    • Most people have heard Hamlet praised as "the crowning achievement of Elizabethan drama" so often that it's easy to forget that it was once seen, especially in the 18th century as an avant-garde play. While popular among the public, critics didn't like the play for its violation of Aristotle's Poetics, and the fact that the play very self-consciously delays its obvious conclusion (Hamlet killing Claudius) for reasons entirely due to the hero's character. Later generations saw Hamlet as a groundbreaking play for consciously sliding that far to the "Character" side of the Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters, which led to so many more radical tweaks and changes, that today, Hamlet is proverbial for its baroque revenge plot and machinations, when in fact it's a highly character-driven work.
  • Shipping:
    • Hamlet & Ophelia
    • Alternatively, Hamlet & Horatio
  • Signature Scene:
    • Most people, if they come across a skull, feel moved to pick it up, hold it out dramatically, and start in on "To be or not to be . . . " Only problem being is, that speech comes at a completely different point in the play.
    • Although it actually happens offscreen in the play and we only hear it described by Gertrude, Ophelia's drowning death (possibly suicide), surrounded by flowers, has become iconic, especially because artists have frequently depicted the subject over the years. A lot of filmed adaptations include the scene in some form, as its easier to pull off than on-stage.
  • Squick: The Incest Subtext between the titular Prince Hamlet and his mother Queen Gertrude. The 1990 film adaptation depicts a lot of closeness and open-mouth kissing between mother and son.
  • The Woobie:

The Show Within a Show:

  • Anvilicious: Its entire purpose: to be so blatantly anvilicious that Claudius can't fail to miss it.
  • Big-Lipped Alligator Moment: Depending on the adaptation, the midgets and/or clowns in the prelude.

Other adaptations

  • Hilarious in Hindsight: In the Takarazuka Revue musical, Ophelia is played by Ranno Hana (蘭乃 はな). 蘭 means "orchid", and "hana" (written in katakana) sounds like "flower". Ophelia, who gives a speech about flowers and herbs, and is compared to flowers by other characters.


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