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Brushing Up on Characters and Symbolism in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

A look at some of the most famous (and most morbid) parts of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Author: Paul Thomson
Date: Feb 12, 2010 - 7:33:44 AM


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Shakespeare’s Hamlet has so thoroughly been woven into Western culture that you probably can’t go a week without hearing an allusion to it, whether or not you realize it.  “To be or not to be,” on its own, has been the butt of enough jokes to last a couple of centuries.  This is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, so it’s unsurprising that a lot of what people remember has something to do with mortality.  Let’s take a look at some of the most famous bits and pieces of Hamlet, and see what about them you might have forgotten.

The play is all about Hamlet’s indecision regarding what to do when his father, Hamlet, Sr., is murdered, and his mother Gertrude marries Hamlet’s uncle Claudius about five minutes later.  When his father’s ghost visits at the very beginning of the play, Hamlet finds out that it was Claudius who killed his father.  At least, the ghost says he’s Hamlet’s father, but there’s definitely speculation as to whether Hamlet is just imagining this spooky figure, in his confused, depressed time of grieving.  Either way, the ghost sets things in motion by giving Hamlet a push in the direction of vengeance, and it takes the whole rest of the play for him to sort things out.

There’s no bigger fish in Hamlet symbolism than the skull of Yorick, the jester that Hamlet knew in his youth.  This is the picture of Hamlet that shows up on everything associated with the play – a thoughtful, troubled man in black, holding a human skull.  Incidentally, this isn’t something that people do every day.  Unless you’re forensic expert, you’ve probably never even come near a human skull (at least one that’s no longer part of someone’s head).  “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once,” Hamlet morbidly observes.  Because of this strangeness, the image of Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull would probably stick in our minds even if it weren’t held there by the weighty symbolism that comes from Hamlet’s reflections on death.

Another well-known image from the play is the drowning of Ophelia, daughter of Polonius and potential match for Hamlet.  You might have forgotten that this doesn’t even happen onstage – rather, Gertrude tells us about what happened.  From the sound of it, Ophelia wasn’t in her right mind when she was floating around in the river, but actually singing songs and not fighting to get out of the water.  What might have made Ophelia go mad?  Well, for one thing, she doesn’t get a chance to really do anything for herself during the whole play.  She has to do what Polonius says because she’s unmarried and he’s her father, and she has to take a lot of abuse from Hamlet because he’s a marriage prospect.  Of all the unfortunate Hamlet characters (after all, most of them die) Ophelia might be one of the worst off.

A ghost, a skull, and a suicide (or what looks like one): that’s a lot of death for one play, especially one that’s so ingrained in common knowledge.  Lucky for us, though, there’s a lot more to it, and Hamlet doesn’t seem in danger of dying out any time soon.



View all articles by Paul Thomson

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