Hamlet Themes

Revenge, Death, Misogyny and More

Original Hamlet stamp and book.
claudiodivizia / Getty Images

Hamlet themes cover a wide spectrum--from revenge and death to uncertainty and the state of Denmark, misogyny, incestuous desire, the complexity of taking action and more.

Revenge in Hamlet

Hamlet Stages Play In 'Hamlet' Scene
Hamlet stages a play enacting his father's murder. Kean Collection - Staff/Archive Photos/Getty Images

There are ghosts, family drama, and a vow of enacting revenge: Hamlet is all set to present a story with a tradition of bloody revenge… and then it doesn't. It is interesting that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy driven by a protagonist unable to commit to the act of revenge. It is Hamlet’s inability to avenge the murder of his father that drives the plot forward.

During the course of the play, several different people want revenge on somebody. However, the story is not at all about Hamlet seeking vengeance for his father's murder—that's resolved quickly during Act 5. Instead, most of the play is revolved around Hamlet's inner struggle to take action. Thus, the play focus is on calling into question the validity and purpose of revenge than in satisfying the audience's lust for blood.

Death in Hamlet

Illustration of Horatio, Marcellus and Hamlet with Hamlet's father.
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

The weight of impending mortality permeates Hamlet right from the opening scene of the play, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father introduces the idea of death and its consequences.

In light of his father's death, Hamlet ponders the meaning of life and its end. Will you go to heaven if you're murdered? Do kings automatically go to heaven? He also contemplates whether or not suicide is a morally sound action in a world that's unbearably painful. Hamlet isn't so afraid of death in and of itself; rather, he's afraid of the unknown in the afterlife. In his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet determines that no one would go on enduring the pain of life if they weren't after of what comes after death, and it's this fear that causes the moral conundrum.

While eight of the nine main characters die at the end of the play, the questions about mortality, death, and suicide still linger as Hamlet doesn't find resolution in his exploration.

Incestuous Desire

Patrick Stewart and Penny Downie in Shakespeare's play Hamlet.
Patrick Stewart as Claudius and Penny Downie as Gertrude in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The theme of incest runs occurs throughout the play and Hamlet and the ghost often allude to it in conversations about Gertrude and Claudius, the former brother-in-law and sister-in-law who are now married. Hamlet is obsessed with Gertrude's sex life and is generally fixated on her. This theme is also apparent in the relationship between Laertes and Ophelia, as Laertes sometimes speaks to his sister suggestively.

Misogyny in Hamlet

Rod Gilfry as Claudius and Sarah Connolly as Gertrude.
Rod Gilfry as Claudius and Sarah Connolly as Gertrude in Glyndebourne's production of Hamlet. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Hamlet becomes cynical about women after his mother decides to marry Claudius soon after her husband's death and he feels a connection between female sexuality and moral corruption. Misogyny also impedes Hamlet’s relationships with Ophelia and Gertrude. He wants Ophelia to go to a nunnery rather than experience the corruptions of sexuality.

Taking Action in Hamlet

Hamlet's dueling with Laertes as Horatio watches.
1948 Film: Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet, he is involved in a sword fight with Laertes (Terence Morgan), watched by (Norman Wooland) as Horatio. Wilfrid Newton / Getty Images

In Hamlet, the question arises of how to take effective, purposeful and reasonable action. The question is not only how to act, but how one can do so when affected not only by rationality but also by ethical, emotional and psychological factors. When Hamlet does act, he does so blindly, violently and recklessly, rather than with certainty. All the other characters are not so troubled about acting effectively and rather try to just act appropriately. 

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Jamieson, Lee. "Hamlet Themes." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-are-the-themes-in-hamlet-2984984. Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 27). Hamlet Themes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-the-themes-in-hamlet-2984984 Jamieson, Lee. "Hamlet Themes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-the-themes-in-hamlet-2984984 (accessed March 24, 2023).

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