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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Impossibility of Certainty
What separates Hamlet from other revenge plays (and maybe from every play written before it) is
that the action we expect to see, particularly from Hamlet himself, is continually postponed while
Hamlet tries to obtain more certain knowledge about what he is doing. This play poses many
questions that other plays would simply take for granted. Can we have certain knowledge about
ghosts? Is the ghost what it appears to be, or is it really a misleading fiend? Does the ghost have
reliable knowledge about its own death, or is the ghost itself deluded? Moving to more earthly
matters: How can we know for certain the facts about a crime that has no witnesses? Can Hamlet
know the state of Claudiuss soul by watching his behavior? If so, can he know the facts of what
Claudius did by observing the state of his soul? Can Claudius (or the audience) know the state of
Hamlets mind by observing his behavior and listening to his speech? Can we know whether our
actions will have the consequences we want them to have? Can we know anything about the
Many people have seen Hamlet as a play about indecisiveness, and thus about Hamlets failure to
act appropriately. It might be more interesting to consider that the play shows us how many
uncertainties our lives are built upon, how many unknown quantities are taken for granted when
people act or when they evaluate one anothers actions.
The Complexity of Action
Directly related to the theme of certainty is the theme of action. How is it possible to take
reasonable, effective, purposeful action? In Hamlet, the question of how to act is affected not only
by rational considerations, such as the need for certainty, but also by emotional, ethical, and
psychological factors. Hamlet himself appears to distrust the idea that its even possible to act in
a controlled, purposeful way. When he does act, he prefers to do it blindly, recklessly, and
violently. The other characters obviously think much less about action in the abstract than
Hamlet does, and are therefore less troubled about the possibility of acting effectively. They
simply act as they feel is appropriate. But in some sense they prove that Hamlet is right, because
all of their actions miscarry. Claudius possesses himself of queen and crown through bold action,
but his conscience torments him, and he is beset by threats to his authority (and, of course, he
dies). Laertes resolves that nothing will distract him from acting out his revenge, but he is easily
influenced and manipulated into serving Claudiuss ends, and his poisoned rapier is turned back
upon himself.
The Mystery of Death
In the aftermath of his fathers murder, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of death, and over the
course of the play he considers death from a great many perspectives. He ponders both the
spiritual aftermath of death, embodied in the ghost, and the physical remainders of the dead,
such as by Yoricks skull and the decaying corpses in the cemetery. Throughout, the idea of death
is closely tied to the themes of spirituality, truth, and uncertainty in that death may bring the
answers to Hamlets deepest questions, ending once and for all the problem of trying to
determine truth in an ambiguous world. And, since death is both the cause and the consequence
of revenge, it is intimately tied to the theme of revenge and justiceClaudiuss murder of King
Hamlet initiates Hamlets quest for revenge, and Claudiuss death is the end of that quest.
The question of his own death plagues Hamlet as well, as he repeatedly contemplates whether or
not suicide is a morally legitimate action in an unbearably painful world. Hamlets grief and
misery is such that he frequently longs for death to end his suffering, but he fears that if he
commits suicide, he will be consigned to eternal suffering in hell because of the Christian
religions prohibition of suicide. In his famous To be or not to be soliloquy (III.i), Hamlet
philosophically concludes that no one would choose to endure the pain of life if he or she were
not afraid of what will come after death, and that it is this fear which causes complex moral
considerations to interfere with the capacity for action.

The Nation as a Diseased Body

Everything is connected in Hamlet, including the welfare of the royal family and the health of the
state as a whole. The plays early scenes explore the sense of anxiety and dread that surrounds the
transfer of power from one ruler to the next. Throughout the play, characters draw explicit
connections between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of the nation. Denmark is
frequently described as a physical body made ill by the moral corruption of Claudius and
Gertrude, and many observers interpret the presence of the ghost as a supernatural omen
indicating that [s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark (I.iv.67). The dead King Hamlet is
portrayed as a strong, forthright ruler under whose guard the state was in good health, while
Claudius, a wicked politician, has corrupted and compromised Denmark to satisfy his own
appetites. At the end of the play, the rise to power of the upright Fortinbras suggests that
Denmark will be strengthened once again.

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and
inform the texts major themes.
Incest and Incestuous Desire
The motif of incest runs throughout the play and is frequently alluded to by Hamlet and the
ghost, most obviously in conversations about Gertrude and Claudius, the former brother-in-law
and sister-in-law who are now married. A subtle motif of incestuous desire can be found in the
relationship of Laertes and Ophelia, as Laertes sometimes speaks to his sister in suggestively
sexual terms and, at her funeral, leaps into her grave to hold her in his arms. However, the
strongest overtones of incestuous desire arise in the relationship of Hamlet and Gertrude, in
Hamlets fixation on Gertrudes sex life with Claudius and his preoccupation with her in general.
Shattered by his mothers decision to marry Claudius so soon after her husbands death, Hamlet
becomes cynical about women in general, showing a particular obsession with what he perceives
to be a connection between female sexuality and moral corruption. This motif of misogyny, or
hatred of women, occurs sporadically throughout the play, but it is an important inhibiting factor
in Hamlets relationships with Ophelia and Gertrude. He urges Ophelia to go to a nunnery rather
than experience the corruptions of sexuality and exclaims of Gertrude, Frailty, thy name is
woman (I.ii.146).
Ears and Hearing
One facet of Hamlets exploration of the difficulty of attaining true knowledge is slipperiness of
language. Words are used to communicate ideas, but they can also be used to distort the truth,
manipulate other people, and serve as tools in corrupt quests for power. Claudius, the shrewd
politician, is the most obvious example of a man who manipulates words to enhance his own
power. The sinister uses of words are represented by images of ears and hearing, from Claudiuss
murder of the king by pouring poison into his ear to Hamlets claim to Horatio that I have words
to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb ( The poison poured in the kings ear by
Claudius is used by the ghost to symbolize the corrosive effect of Claudiuss dishonesty on the
health of Denmark. Declaring that the story that he was killed by a snake is a lie, he says that the
whole ear of Denmark is Rankly abused. . . . (I.v.3638).

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Yoricks Skull
In Hamlet, physical objects are rarely used to represent thematic ideas. One important exception
is Yoricks skull, which Hamlet discovers in the graveyard in the first scene of Act V. As Hamlet
speaks to the skull and about the skull of the kings former jester, he fixates on deaths
inevitability and the disintegration of the body. He urges the skull to get you to my ladys
chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must comeno one can avoid
death (V.i.178179). He traces the skulls mouth and says, Here hung those lips that I have
kissed I know not how oft, indicating his fascination with the physical consequences of death
(V.i.174175). This latter idea is an important motif throughout the play, as Hamlet frequently
makes comments referring to every human bodys eventual decay, noting that Polonius will be
eaten by worms, that even kings are eaten by worms, and that dust from the decayed body of
Alexander the Great might be used to stop a hole in a beer barrel.


Hesitation: Hamlet has an obligation to avenge his fathers murder, according to the customs of his
time. But he also has an obligation to abide by the moral law, which dictates, Thou shalt not kill.
Consequently, Hamlet has great difficulty deciding what to do and, thus, hesitates to take decisive
action. In his famous critiques of Shakespeares works, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) has
He [Hamlet] is all dispatch and resolution as far as words and present intentions are concerned, but
all hesitation and irresolution when called upon to carry his words and intentions into effect; so that,
resolving to do everything, he does nothing. He is full of purpose but void of that quality of mind which
accomplishes purpose. . . . Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth that action is the chief
end of existencethat no faculties of intellect, however brilliant, can be considered valuable, or indeed
otherwise than as misfortunes, if they withdraw us from or rend us repugnant to action, and lead us to
think and think of doing until the time has elapsed when we can do anything effectually.
Inherited Sin and Corruption: Humans are fallen creatures, victims of the devils trickery as described
in Genesis. Allusions or direct references to Adam, the Garden of Eden, and original sin occur
throughout the play. In the first act, Shakespeare discloses that King Hamlet died in an orchard
(Garden of Eden) from the bite of a serpent (Claudius). Later, Hamlet alludes to the burdens imposed
by original sin when he says, in his famous To be, or not to be soliloquy, that the flesh is heir to
tribulation in the form of heart-ache and a thousand natural shocks (3. 1. 72-73). In the third scene
of the same act, Claudius compares himself with the biblical Cain. In Genesis, Cain, the first son of
Adam and Eve, kills his brother, Abel, the second son, after God accepts Abels sacrifice but not
Cains. Like Cain, Claudius kills his brother, old King Hamlet. Claudius recognizes his Cain-like crime
when he says:
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse5 upon t,
A brothers murder. (3. 3. 42-44)
In Act V, the second gravedigger tells the first gravedigger that Ophelia, who apparently committed
suicide, would not receive a Christian burial if she were a commoner instead of a noble. In his reply,
the first gravedigger refers directly to Adam: "Why, there thou sayest: and the more pity that great folk
should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian.
Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they
hold up Adams profession" (5. 1. 13). After the gravedigger tosses Yoricks skull to Hamlet, the prince
observes: That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as
if it were Cains jaw-bone, that did the first murder! (5. 1. 34). All of these references to Genesis seem
to suggest that Hamlet is a kind of Everyman who inherits the slings and arrows of outrageous
fortunethat is, the effects of original sin.
Sons Seeking Revenge: Young Fortinbras seeks revenge against Elsinore because King Hamlet had
killed the father of Fortinbras, King Fortinbras. Hamlet seeks to avenge the murder of his father, King
Hamlet, by Claudius, the kings brother and Hamlets uncle. Laertes seeks revenge against Hamlet for
killing his father, Polonius, the lord chamberlain.

Deception: Deception makes up a major motif in Hamlet. On the one hand, Claudius conceals his
murder of Hamlets father. On the other, Hamlet conceals his knowledge of the murder. He also
wonders whether the Ghost is deceiving him, pretending to be old King Hamlet when he is really a
devil. Polonius secretly tattles on Hamlet to Claudius. Hamlet feigns madness. Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern pretend to have Hamlets best interests at heart while attempting to carry out Claudiuss
scheme to kill Hamlet. After that scheme fails, Claudius and Laertes connive to kill Hamlet during the
fencing match. However, that scheme also goes awry when Gertrude drinks from a poisoned cup
prepared for Hamlet.
Ambition: Claudius so covets the throne that he murders his own brother, King Hamlet, to win it. In this
respect he is like Macbeth and Richard III in other Shakespeare plays, who also murder their way to
the Crown. Whether Claudiuss ambition to be king was stronger than his desire to marry Gertrude is
arguable, but both were factors, as he admits to himself in Act III, Scene III, when he reflects on his
guilt: I am still possessed / Of those effects for which I did the murder, / My crown, mine own ambition
and my queen. . . (60-61).
Loyalty: Hamlet is loyal to his fathers memory, as is Laertes to the memory of his father, Polonius,
and his sister, Ophelia. Gertrude is torn between loyalty to Claudius and Hamlet. Horatio remains loyal
to Hamlet to the end. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, school pals of Hamlet, betray Hamlet and spy on
Mischance, Coincidence, and Serendipity: Hamlet just happens to kill Polonius. Pirates just happen
to rescue Hamlet. Hamlet just happens to come across Ophelias funeral upon his return to
Denmark. Hamlet and Laertes just happen to exchange swordsone of them with a poisoned tipin
their duel. Gertrude just happens to drink from a poisoned cup meant for Hamlet. Fate, or
unabashed plot contrivance, works its wonders in this Shakespeare play.
Christ-like Hamlet: Hamlet is like Christ, George Bernard Shaw has observed, in that he struggles
against the old order, which requires an eye for and eye, as Christ did.
Madness: Madness, pretended or real, wears the mask of sanity. In his attempt to prove Claudiuss
guilt, Hamlet puts on an antic dispositionthat is, he pretends madness. But is he really mentally
unbalanced? Perhaps.
Serpentine Satan: Imagery throughout the play dwells on Satans toxic influence on Elsinore and its
inhabitants. Particularly striking are the snake metaphors. It is the venom of a serpent (in the person
of Claudius) that kills old King Hamlet. Claudius, remember, had poured poison into the kings ear as
reported by the Ghost of the old king: While sleeping in mine orchard, the Ghost says, A serpent
stung me (1. 5. 42-43). It is a sworda steel snake, as it werethat kills Polonius, Hamlet, Laertes,
and Claudius. (The sword that kills Hamlet and Laertes is tipped with poison.) Moreover, it is a
poisoned drink that kills Gertrude. As for Ophelia, it is poisoned words that kill her. The word poison
and its forms (such as poisons, poisoner, and poisoning) occur thirteen times in the play. Serpent
occurs twice, venom or envenom six times, devil nine times, and hell or hellish eleven times. Garden
(as a symbol for the Garden of Eden) or gardener occurs three times. Adam occurs twice.
Ambiguous Spirit World: In Shakespeares time, ghosts were thought by some people to be devils
masquerading as dead loved ones. Their purpose was to win souls for Satan. It is understandable,
then, that Hamlet is reluctant at first to assume that the Ghost on the castle battlements is really the
spirit of his father. Hamlet acknowledges his doubt at the end of Act II:
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. (2. 2. 433-438)
Empty Existence: Time and again, Hamlet bemoans the uselessness and emptiness of life. He would
kill himself if his conscience would let him. He considers taking his life, as his To be, or not to be
soliloquy reveals. But as a Roman Catholic, he cannot go against the tenets of his religion, which
forbids suicide.