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William Shakespeare's Hamlet Essay

3266 words - 13 pages

William Shakespeare's Hamlet

“To be or not to be - that is the question” Hamlet famously declaims
in the third act of William Shakespeare’s longest drama, and one of
the most probing plays ever to be performed on stage. Shakespeare’s
‘Hamlet’ was written around the year 1600 in the final years of the
reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who had been the monarch of England for
more than forty years and was then in her late sixties. The prospect
of Elizabeth’s death and the question of who would succeed her was a
subject of grave anxiety at the time, since Elizabeth had no children,
and the only person with a legitimate royal claim, James of Scotland,
was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and therefore represented a
political faction to which Elizabeth was opposed. ‘Hamlet’ and many
other Shakespeare plays from this period, unsurprisingly, explore this
theme of the transfer of power from one monarch to the next,
particularly focusing on the uncertainties, betrayals, and upheaval
that accompany such shifts in power, and the general sense of anxiety
and fear that surround them. These themes of disorder, dilemma and
indecision, madness and revenge and the discrepancy between appearance
and reality are mainly explored through the main characters,
principally Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia,
and through the plot itself. Therefore, the first two acts in this
drama are paramount in introducing the characters, and thus also
themes, of Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’ for it to be regarded as one of
the greatest plays ever to be written and staged in universal drama.

As one critic, T.S. Elliot, remarks in his book ‘On Poetry and Poets’,
“the opening scene of ‘Hamlet’ is as well constructed as that of any
play ever written…”. Immediately, from the opening of the play,
Shakespeare establishes a mood of anxiety and dread by using fragments
of conversation, for example, ‘Nay, answer me, stand and unfold
yourself’ and ‘Long live the King!’ The verses do not flow and their
broken rhythms generate an atmosphere of unease, apprehension and
confusion; this, and the fact that the play begins with the question
‘Who’s there?’ and is followed by six more in the next twenty lines,
reveals from this early point of the play the notion of distrust and
uncertainty that is prevalent throughout the play. In addition, the
supernatural appearance of the ghost on a chilling, misty night
outside Elsinore Castle indicates immediately that something is wrong
in Denmark. The ghost serves to enlarge the shadow King Hamlet casts
across Denmark, indicating that something about his death has upset
the balance of nature. The appearance of the ghost also gives physical
from to the fearful anxiety that surrounds the transfer of power after
the king’s death, seeming to imply, as Horatio sees it, a dark and
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