Hamlet is one of the central works of modern European culture, probably thought and written about more than any other play. In a comprehensive sense it is by now William Shakespeare's text plus its world-wide reverberations through centuries of theatrical interpretation, critical analysis, and reshaping by other creative authors—a vast body of ``commentary'' ranging from pious exegesis to malicious mockery. Hamlet's intensity and complexity evoke seemingly infinite responses which say as much about their authors and periods as about the play.
The story derives from a 12th-century Danish history by Saxo Grammaticus. There are prototypes of Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and of course of Hamlet himself, called Amlethus, son of Horwendillus; but there is no Laertes, no Fortinbras, and no ghost. The murder of Amlethus's father by his brother Fengo is public knowledge; Amleth is cunning (like Hamlet ``mad in craft'') and resolute (unlike Hamlet); it takes him long, but he achieves his revenge and becomes king. Saxo's Latin Historiae-Danicae was printed in 1514. In 1570 François de Belleforest published a French version of it in Histoires Tragiques, adding adultery to incest and garnishing the tale with strong misogynistic and moralistic animadversions. Belleforest's tale appeared in English as The Hystorie of Hamblet in 1608—and several phrasings suggest that the translator had seen Shakespeare's play.
Some English playwright—probably Thomas Kyd—used the Belleforest story for a play which is now lost. Critics call it the Ur-Hamlet and assume that this was Shakespeare's immediate source. References to it begin in 1589, and the promptbook may have belonged to Shakespeare's company. All we know for certain is that it introduced the ghost. However, Kyd's very successful The Spanish Tragedy (1589?), another early revenge play, is extant. It has a revenger, Hieronimo, who doubts and delays, and a woman who goes mad and commits suicide; furthermore it has some comic elements, a mixture of prose and verse, and a play-within-the-play. Presumably the lost Ur-Hamlet shared such popular features.
The very text of Hamlet presents grave problems. There exist three early, fault-riddled prints differing in hundreds of details apart from major divergences: the First, ``bad'' Quarto (Q1) of 1603, a pirated version based on memorial reconstruction; the Second or ``good'' Quarto (Q2) of 1604/05, based on Shakespeare's rough copy (``foul papers''); and the collected First Folio's (F) edition's Hamlet text of 1623, based on something like a promptbook transcript. The three texts are not quite discreet, Q1 was to some extent consulted for Q2 and Q2 for F. Q1, mutilated and garbled, contains about half the lines of Q2; Q2 is the longest text, containing about 230 lines not present in F (among them Hamlet's soliloquy in IV.4, ``How all occasions do inform against me''), but lacking about 70 lines found in F. Neither Q2 nor F are viable without extensive editorial work—hence hardly two Hamlet editions are identical. For long, editors used F as copy text, variously emended from Q2; John Dover Wilson's edition of 1934 inaugurated an inversion of this procedure; the mid-1980's saw an Oxford-led return to privileging F as (possibly) embodying Shakespeare's revisions. But even the F version is far too long for normal Elizabethan (or modern) performance; Shakespeare may have envisaged variable, but substantial cuts in the theatre.
From its beginnings in the earlier 18th century, criticism has concentrated on the hero, Hamlet. This is not surprising, since he speaks nearly half the lines and the story is shown mainly from his point of view (which Horatio will perpetuate after the play). Moreover, we can share Hamlet's innermost thoughts—in the first four acts through his soliloquies, in act V through the intimate talks with Horatio which replace them. No-one else has a confidant; and Claudius is given only two asides (III.1 and V.2) and one soliloquy (III.3), Gertrude a single aside (IV.5), Ophelia one soliloquy (III.1), Polonius some baffled asides (II.2). Hamlet is thus not only central to the play, it is also difficult not to empathise and identify with him (some, including Tolstoy and Charles Marowitz, have managed it) even though many recoil, like Samuel Johnson, from his ``soul-murdering'' resolution in III.3 and his callous treatment of Ophelia in III.2—but only momentarily; later impressions efface these shadows.
The question dominating discussions since the later 18th century is: why does Hamlet not ``sweep'' to his revenge as envisaged early in I.5? He himself is puzzled by this, and is fascinating because, like most of us, he cannot account for all his thoughts, feelings, and actions. Explanations of the delay include his being too tender for such a rough task (Goethe), being a reflective, not an active man (Schlegel, Coleridge), his melancholy (Arthur Bradley), his activated Oedipus complex (Ernest Jones after Freud), his doubts in the Ghost up to III.2. (especially Wilson). What needs stressing is that, far from being a weakness of the play, this delay is one of its prime strengths. Just as Shakespeare humanises the villian by giving Claudius a ruler's poise and affability and by endowing him with a conscience, however feeble, Hamlet is interesting and attractive because he is not the simple revenger figure of Saxo's story or the Homeric tradition but, faced, like Orestes in the Greek Electra plays, with a real dilemma, is fully alive to its implications. Three figures—Pyrrhus in the Player's recitation of II.2 (though he hesitates for a moment), Fortinbras, and especially Laertes, who has no scruples at all—serve as foils to set him off.
Linked to the delay is the issue of revenge itself. Amlethus's story is set in pre-Christian times when blood revenge was an unquestioned duty; and Belleforest stresses the gulf between those barbaric times and his own period. Shakespeare has created a markedly Christian (not in all respects pre-Reformation) background. This as well as the presumed expectations of his target audience and the example of other revenge tragedies has led to hypotheses that the Ghost is indeed the Devil (as Hamlet surmises in the ``cellarage'' episode I.5 and the soliloquy II.2) and Hamlet his deluded or fully willing tool, inviting distant commiseration, reproof, and rejection. It is true that belief in purgatory and hence the possibility of ghosts coming from there had been denied by the Reformers, and that the Ghost's command infringes Christian ethic of all denominations: ``Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord'' (Romans XII.19). Turning the play upon its head such critics overlook, however, that Elizabethan reactions to ``ghosts'' were less clear-cut than the new doctrine (cf. Roland M. Frye) and that their attitude to revenge did not always conform to their faith, as is borne out notably by the Bond of Association (1584), in which thousands of god-fearing gentlemen undertook to avenge a feared assassination of their queen.
Hamlet's delay, however variably motivated, leads to the revenge not being taken until there exists written proof of Claudius's guilt in other crimes (the ``commission'' Hamlet hands to Horatio in V.2) and the King has been denounced by Gertrude and Laertes, when Hamlet has more on his side than the word of a ghost, when killing Claudius is no longer the passionate deed of a grieved individual but appears as a necessary and public act of self-defence and retribution, and Shakespeare can accord his revenger figure an end opposed to others of the period: a death ennobled by royal praise and the promise of eternal rest. It is in the service of this strategy that Shakespeare makes Hamlet, who thinks and talks about so many issues, keep silent on the morality of revenge (as Anne Barton was among the first to stress) until V.2, when he can confidently ask ``Is't not perfect conscience ... ?''
There remains a string of minor problems and inconsistencies—Horatio knowing and not knowing the Court, Hamlet being called ``young'' in Act I but called 30 in V.1, and so forth (but that applies to other plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries as well). There also remains a general numbness and bleakness; so much more than the royal house of Denmark has perished, while Fortinbras offers much less promise of renewal than Lucius in Titus Andronicus, Richmond in Richard III, and Malcolm in Macbeth.
Contrary to much critical comment, the play is tightly constructed and balanced. A case for a five-act scheme (absent in Q1 and Q2, partial in F) can be made; however, there are really three large phases of near-continuous action separated by weeks of time passing: I, II.1 to IV.4, IV.5 to the end. Each phase contains one full court scene mirroring emblematically, as it were, the state of play; in I.2 Claudius is at the height of his power, surrounded by his court, with Hamlet appearing as a wilful spoilsport and outsider; in III.2 the weights are not yet balanced, but Hamlet gains the initiative—compare the Court's exit in both scenes. In V.2, finally, the Court is decimated, Claudius has expended nearly all his proxies in the deadly struggle. Hamlet is at the centre, and when Claudius cries out ``O yet defend me, friends, I am but hurt!'' no one stirs. He has no friends; and his evident guilt now makes him the outsider.
The more closely one looks, the more one discovers the art of the mature dramatist at work. The play's flexible and forceful use of language has been noted early on, as has its richness in theatrical potential, which was appreciated even by so basically hostile an observer as Voltaire. From the first nervous challenge in the dark to the dead march at the end, we witness a succession of scenes apt to spark the imagination and remain in the mind—be it the tense play-within-the-play episode, or mad Ophelia dealing out flowers in IV.5, or Hamlet being undone by the gravedigger's equivocation and then musing over Yorick's skull in V.1. In a bout of modish iconoclasm Gary Taylor suggested that Shakespeare has been made and kept great by the cult grown up around him. Reading Hamlet alongside the large body of Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies suggests a different conclusion: by any criterion, the play stands out among its peers. And it retains its power to move most of us.