'Hamlet' Themes and Literary Devices

William Shakespeare's Hamlet is considered of the most thematically-rich works of literature in the English language. The tragic play, which follows Prince Hamlet as he decides whether to revenge his father's death by murdering his uncle, includes themes of appearance vs. reality, revenge, action vs. inaction, and the nature of death and the afterlife.

Appearance vs. Reality

Appearance versus reality is a recurrent theme within Shakespeare’s plays, which often question the boundary between actors and people. At the beginning of Hamlet, Hamlet finds himself questioning how much he can trust the ghostly apparition. Is it really the ghost of his father, or is it an evil spirit meant to lead him into murderous sin? The uncertainty remains central to the narrative throughout the play, as the ghost's statements determine much of the narrative’s action.

Hamlet’s madness blurs the line between appearance and reality. In Act I, Hamlet clearly states that he plans to feign madness. However, over the course of the play, it becomes less and less clear that he is only pretending to be mad. Perhaps the best example of this confusion takes place in Act III, when Hamlet spurns Ophelia leaving her utterly confused about the state of his affection for her. In this scene, Shakespeare brilliantly reflects the confusion in his choice of language. As Hamlet tells Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery,” an Elizabethan audience would hear a pun on “nunnery” as a place of piety and chastity as well as the contemporary slang term “nunnery” for brothel. This collapse of opposites reflects not only the confused state of Hamlet’s mind, but also Ophelia’s (and our own) inability to interpret him correctly. This moment echoes the broader theme of the impossibility of interpreting reality, which in turn leads to Hamlet's struggle with revenge and inaction.

Literary Device: Play-Within-a-Play

The theme of appearance versus reality is reflected in the Shakespearean trope of the play-within-a-play. (Consider the often-quoted “all the world’s a stage” remarks in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.) As the audience watches the actors of the play Hamlet watching a play (here, The Murder of Gonzago), it is suggested that they zoom out and consider the ways in which they themselves might be upon a stage. For example, within the play, Claudius’s lies and diplomacy are clearly simple pretense, as is Hamlet’s feigning madness. But is not Ophelia’s innocent acquiescence to her father’s demand that she stop seeing Hamlet another pretense, as she clearly does not want to spurn her lover? Shakespeare is thus preoccupied with the ways we are actors in our everyday life, even when we don’t mean to be.

Revenge and Action vs. Inaction

Revenge is the catalyst for action in Hamlet. After all, it is the ghost’s injunction to Hamlet to seek revenge for his death that forces Hamlet into action (or inaction, as the case may be). However, Hamlet is no simple drama of vengeance. Instead, Hamlet continually puts off the revenge he is supposed to seize. He even considers his own suicide instead of killing Claudius; however, the question of the afterlife, and whether he would be punished for taking his own life, stays his hand. Similarly, when Claudius decides he must have Hamlet killed off, Claudius sends the prince to England with a note to have him executed, rather than doing the deed himself.

In direct contrast to the inaction of Hamlet and Claudius is the forceful action of Laertes. As soon as he hears of his father’s murder, Laertes returns to Denmark, ready to wreak revenge on those responsible. It is only through careful and clever diplomacy that Claudius manages to convince the enraged Laertes that Hamlet is at fault for the murder.

Of course, at the end of the play, everyone is revenged: Hamlet’s father, as Claudius dies; Polonius and Ophelia, as Laertes kills Hamlet; Hamlet himself, as he kills Laertes; even Gertrude, for her adultery, is killed drinking from the poisoned goblet. In addition, Prince Fortinbras of Norway, who was searching for revenge for his father’s death at Denmark’s hands, enters to find most of the offending royal family killed. But perhaps this fatally interlocking network has a more sobering message: namely, the destructive consequences of a society that values vengeance.

Death, Guilt, and the Afterlife

From the very beginning of the play, the question of death looms. The ghost of Hamlet’s father makes the audience wonder about the religious forces at work within the play. Does the ghost’s appearance mean Hamlet’s father is in heaven, or hell?

Hamlet struggles with the question of the afterlife. He wonders whether, if he kills Claudius, he will end up in hell himself. Particularly given his lack of trust in the ghost’s words, Hamlet wonders if Claudius is even as guilty as the ghost says. Hamlet's desire to prove Claudius's guilt beyond all doubt results in much of the action in the play, including the play-within-a-play he commissions. Even when Hamlet comes close to killing Claudius, raising his sword to murder the oblivious Claudius in church, he pauses with the question of the afterlife in mind: if he kills Claudius while he is praying, does that mean Claudius will go to heaven? (Notably, in this scene, the audience has just witnessed the difficulty Claudius faces in being able to pray, his own heart burdened by guilt.)

Suicide is another aspect of this theme. Hamlet takes place in era when the prevailing Christian belief asserted that suicide would damn its victim to hell. Yet Ophelia, who is considered to have died by suicide, is buried in hallowed ground. Indeed, her final appearance onstage, singing simple songs and distributing flowers, seems to indicate her innocence—a stark contrast with the allegedly sinful nature of her death.

Hamlet grapples with the question of suicide in his famous "to be, or not to be" soliloquy. In thus considering suicide, Hamlet finds that “the dread of something after death” gives him pause. This theme is echoed by the skulls Hamlet encounters in one of the final scenes; he is amazed by the anonymity of each skull, unable to recognize even that of his favorite jester Yorick. Thus, Shakespeare presents Hamlet’s struggle to understand the mystery of death, which divides us from even seemingly the most fundamental aspects of our identity.