One of the most famous works of the Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has provided throughout the course of history ideas for every kind of reflection and for the most varied literary, theatrical and cinematographic readjustments; starting from what became in the era of Romanticism tòpos of the hero tormented by external circumstances, but also and above all by internal ones, up to the very original reinterpretation of the fundamental themes of the Shakespearean tragedy in the animated film by Roger Aller and Rob Minkoff, The Lion King.
Plausibly composed between 1598 and 1602, in addition to offering numerous references and insights into the culture, especially theatrical, of the time, Hamlet has a very innovative plot and characteristics, with the gaze turned towards modernity. In the composition of the drama, Shakespeare uses medieval sources, in particular the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus, contaminating them with an original reinterpretation of the so-called “revenge tragedy” of the Senechian mold, which in turn has its progenitor in the Oresia of Aeschylus, famous Athenian playwright of the fifth century BC
Hamlet is, in all respects, a tragedy of revenge, since all the action revolves around the assassination perpetrated against the King of Denmark Hamlet by his brother Claudio; a hideous crime which Prince Hamlet, the victim’s son, is charged with by the ghost of the father himself, to avenge. A peculiarity, however, distinguishes this work from previous revenge tragedies, both Elizabethan and dating back to previous eras: revenge never seems to take place. This feature, in addition to having led the work to become the drama of inaction par excellence, is reflected in the main plot, which is constantly slowed down, interrupted and hampered by episodes and collateral characters, as well as by the second thoughts and reflections of the protagonist, who he feels the need to clarify any type of doubt, among which, first of all, the perplexity on the true identity of the father’s ghost stands out, an entity that commissioned him to expose Claudio and take revenge for having poisoned him, for marrying his wife, Queen Gertrude, after a very short time and thus appropriating the Danish throne. The fact that the mother made this decision has disheartened the young prince on the whole female world, convinced him of the non-existence of pure and true love, which will – fatally – go to affect his relationship with the beautiful Ophelia, daughter of Polonius, adviser to the king. Not only that: the sudden marriage, moreover on the edge of the incestuous, takes on such a negative relevance from the point of view of the prince, to convince him that in reality nothing is as it really seems, but that there are many “[…] actions that man can counterfeit ”, while there are hidden sensations that overcome any type of possibility of being expressed externally; such an opinion, expounded in the second scene of the first Act, right in front of Claudio, appears incredibly emblematic given that the new sovereign is dressed in mourning for the death of his brother, whom he has assassinated, and expresses his condolence with artificial words and clichés: an appearance at the antipodes of what he conceals within himself. An argument of this kind gives way to highlight the centrality that the word has in the drama, both for its ability to conceal inexpressible feelings and truths, and for the efficiency it has, through, for example, reflection and speculation, in postponing an action that you are not ready to put into practice. The Shakespearean drama offers an extreme variety of languages and lexicons, which become peculiar and identifying characteristics of numerous characters: Claudio’s hypocritical and constructed language, Polonius’ articulated, hyperbolic and magniloquent language and finally the way of expression of Hamlet, sometimes ironic , disenchanted and aimed at unmasking the duplicity and superficiality of those in front of him, at other times full of rhetorical figures such as the endiades, who together with the numerous monologues and soliloquies have the potential to postpone the actions that the prince is called to bring to completion.
In a climate where reality is not what it appears and is hidden behind word games, deceptions and subterfuges, the way to reach it can only be paradoxical. “The play’s the thing”, is the affirmation of the prince in the second act, which makes Hamlet one of the metateatral works par excellence. The young man takes the opportunity to exploit a company of wandering actors in order to stage a drama in the presence of the entire Danish court that proposes a story very similar to the crime committed by Claudio, to observe the reaction and confirm the veracity of the accusation of the specter of king Hamlet. In a completely disconcerting way, Shakespeare moves in the opposite direction to the Platonic tradition, which considers theater mere fiction, placing the theatrical representation as the only means of harbinger of truth, as a type of mimesis of passions defined even “monstrous”, which is exacerbated to the point of making Claudio identify with the crime he has committed, make him jump up and stop the show, dissolving any doubt.
Another fundamental theme of the work, which is connected to the fact that nothing is as it seems and to the deceptive power of the word, is that of madness. The “recited” madness of Hamlet, who pretends to be crazy not to arouse suspicion and to be able to act undisturbed on the basis of revenge against his uncle, who in turn investigates together with the adviser Polonius on the causes that induce the young man to behave in such a way ; causes that are identified in the love for Ophelia, who reciprocates her feelings but is forced by the father and king, according to the investigation, to reject the prince. All this costs dearly both to Polonius, killed almost by mistake by Hamlet while eavesdropping on his conversation with his mother, and to Ophelia, who goes mad with grief and therefore lets herself die drowned. The theme of suicide, addressed by the prince at various points in the work, is part of a reflection, due to all these circumstances, on the problem of identity – his and the father’s ghost – on the baseness of humanity and on the meaning of existence , to blame himself for his melancholy, for all the doubts that lead him to delay the action, for his own sense of inadequacy to “let himself be acted” by others and for the inability to take a specific initiative. The reflection and questioning of the protagonist are very modern and “human” characteristics, which culminate in the famous soliloquy of the first scene of the Third Act – the so-called “monologue of Being or not being”. A mother scene for the whole history not only of the theater, but of culture and, to be honest, of humanity: often in the theater it is said that man was no longer the same after Shakespeare, and this soliloquy is one of the emblems of such a statement; still taught in acting schools, even extrapolated from the context of the work, the “monologue of Being or not being” assumes a universal value, since, speaking to the first person plural and therefore implying not only the involvement of the public, but of all human beings, the Danish prince wonders whether it is better to continue a life of hardships and abuses or abandon oneself to the sleep of death, which could however be dotted with dreams and nightmares and therefore consist of a sort of other “dream” life. What is there after death is unknown and, therefore, the fear of the unknown compels most to continue living a life of the unknown, waiting for someone to act for them or to let themselves be carried away by the action of others. This is exactly what Hamlet does in the last scene of the tragedy. Challenged to a duel by Laerte, brother of Ophelia who, incited by Claudio, wants to avenge the death of his father Polonius and his sister. The foil of Laertes, poisoned by Claudio, kills both young people for a scuffle during the dispute. In the same deception Queen Gertrude falls, who drinks from the cup destined for the prince, previously poisoned by Claudio. Only at the point of death Hamlet manages to inflict the fatal blow to Claudio, and to force him to drink from the poisoned glass. The revenge conceived and procrastinated throughout the work takes place only in the extreme moment, at the completion of which Hamlet is dragged by Laertes who in turn wants a revenge. The two young people become “double” of each other, framed by the fact that they are avengers and victims at the same time. Even in extremis, Hamlet does not follow his own initiative, but lets himself act, demonstrating his humanity, modernity, and, if desired, his “romantic” torment, coherently to his character.