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 To be, or not to be...

Hamlet is Shakespeare's best-known play (if not, Romeo and Juliet is tied with it), and certainly his most over-analyzed. It is one of the most influential works of literature ever written.

Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, whose uncle Claudius has succeeded the throne after Hamlet's own father mysteriously passed away. Hamlet receives evidence that Claudius murdered the late king to seize power, and decides to exact Revenge, covering his behavior by Obfuscating Insanity. As the play progresses, though, it becomes ambiguous as to whether Hamlet's really faking his madness. Complicating matters are the presence of a number of other characters: Ophelia, the object of Hamlet's affections; Polonius, her father and royal chancellor; Gertrude, Hamlet's mother who has now married her brother-in-law; and Claudius himself, who is well aware that Hamlet is Denmark's rightful heir [1] and is scheming to remove him from the picture.

Shakespeare did not invent the story of Hamlet's quest to bring the murderer of his father to justice. The earliest surviving "record" is in the twelfth-century Gesta Danorum ("Deeds of the Danes"), by Saxo Grammaticus, wherein Hamlet -- or Amleth (Amlóði) as he's called in that version -- is shown as a legendary character who succeeds in destroying his uncle and becoming king, only to die in a later battle. The story was abbreviated and amended numerous times and had been presented as a play in English more than once when Shakespeare decided to tackle the story. By that time it had been changed almost beyond recognition -- Hamlet's mother, who had originally been forced to marry her brother-in-law, was now an accessory to his usurpation of the throne, while Hamlet had been turned into a Christian and aged a number of years.

Even more than is usual for Shakespeare, Hamlet is filled with expressions that have become clichés; examples include "Hoist by His Own Petard," "The lady doth protest too much," "Frailty, thy name is woman," and "The play's the thing". Oh, and something about whether or not to be that was really difficult to translate into Klingon. And that's not to mention many subtler neologisms that have wormed their way into everyday English.

Notable productions include Edit

  • c.1605 -- the premiere at the Globe Theatre, London, with Richard Burbage playing the lead.
  • A two-minute 1900 film, Le Duel de Hamlet, showed the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, and may be the first filmed adaptation of the play. As this production starred Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, this means the first movie Hamlet was a Gender Flipped version.
  • The 1911-12 Moscow Art Theatre production, seeing the play as a symbolist melodrama with a very plain set.
  • Asta Nielsen made her own version in the 20's, based off of a book called "The Secret of Hamlet", where Hamlet was a Sweet Polly Oliver raised to secure her mother's position on the throne.
  • A 1948 film starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, which remains the only filmed Shakespeare to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is a heavily cut version (excluding such characters as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entirely), with a murky Gothic aesthetic, and a prominent Freudian leaning (it carries Playing Gertrude to extremes--the actress playing Gertrude was eleven years younger than Olivier!)
  • A 1961 German made-for-TV production starring Maximillian Schell as Hamlet (with Ricardo Montalban dubbing Claudius into English). This version was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and information on that episode can be found here.
  • A 1964 Russian film directed by Grigori Kozintsev, starring Innokenty Smoktunovsky and scored by Dmitri Shostakovich. It uses Scenery Porn to "oust period stylization and express the essentials"; it's also more political than Olivier's version, probably reflecting its post-Joseph Stalin production. Despite lacking original text and being heavily truncated it was critically very well-received, but it's never been televised in the United States.
  • A 1980 BBC production starring Derek Jacobi and directed by Rodney Bennett. This is an almost full-text production, made as part of the BBC's complete Shakespeare series. Also notable for featuring Patrick Stewart as Claudius and Lalla Ward (Romana #2 in Doctor Who) as Ophelia.
  • A 1990 film starring Mel Gibson and directed by Franco Zefirelli. This is heavily cut and rearranged and probably even more Freudian than the Olivier version. However, Gibson was praised for playing a youthful, energetic Hamlet.
  • Another 1990 version is a filmed version of the play starring Kevin Kline, mostly notable for featuring minimal sets and modern costuming.
  • A 1996 film starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh. This is a highly lavish, cinematic full-text[2] version set in the 1800s, which includes Brian Blessed (as the Ghost) and a Falling Chandelier of Doom. With Kate Winslet as Ophelia. Oh, and Robin Williams as Osric, and Billy Crystal as the gravedigger. It's essentially Hamlet as an Epic Movie. Not financially successful, but critically acclaimed with some even calling it the greatest onscreen adaptation of Shakespeare.
  • A 2000 film directed by Michael Almereyda. Claudius is the CEO of Denmark Corp., and Hamlet is a disaffected film student. The characters still use the Shakesperean text despite the Setting Update.
  • Director Gregory Doran's 2008 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company had David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius. A film version was released in 2010, and can be seen here legally for free.

Since Hamlet is almost always performed with cuts (performing the whole thing usually takes almost four hours), arguably every production is an adaptation, some even switching out scenes for pacing purposes (like the 2010 version did as explained here and here. Sometimes the basic idea is what's adapted, more or less faithfully, and little or none of the original language is used.

Some notable adaptations include: Edit

Many of the aforementioned film versions of the play, plus several others (nine total), are compared and contrasted in this neat little article.


Tropes include (spoilers abound!): Edit

  • Abusive Parents: Certain interpretations of Polonius show him as this towards Ophelia, manipulating her and keeping her emotionally stunted.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: "Marry, this is miching mallecho; it means mischief."
  • Adult Child: Hamlet is apparently 30 if the gravedigger scene is any indication. He doesn't act like it. Many, though not necessarily all, scholars think that he's actually in his late teens or maybe early twenties.
  • Alas, Poor Yorick: The Trope Namers. Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, the court jester, in the graveyard, prompting him to reflect on him mortality.
  • Anachronism Stew: Hamlet attends a university that was not founded until 300 years after the play was set and is a member of a religion that hadn't yet reached Denmark.
  • Anti-Hero: Hamlet, ranging from III and IV. He acts rudely to many who (may) mean him no harm, kills Polonius for spying on him (though he seemed to think it was Claudius hiding and watching) and has Guildenstern and Rosencrantz sent to death (it is arguable what are their personal intentions over them spying for Claudius, making Hamlet's actions to them be justifiable to varying degrees).
  • Author Filibuster: Hamlet's famous lecture on properly acting a scene he'd written.
  • Badass Boast: Before Hamlet and Laertes' duel. Laertes accuses Hamlet of mocking him. Hamlet's answer: "No, by this hand."
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty: Many, including "Hoist by His Own Petard", "Methinks the lady doth protest too much," and "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well."
  • Black and Gray Morality: Few if any of the primary characters are indisputably virtuous.
  • Black Humor: "He will stay till ye come." (Hamlet about Polonius' body)
  • Bluffing the Murderer: Hamlet's reason for staging The Murder of Gonzago.
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: The earliest example:

 Polonius: The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral...

  • Break the Cutie: Ophelia. See also Butt Monkey, Kill the Cutie, and The Woobie.
  • Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: Hamlet and Ophelia could be seen as a deconstruction.
  • But Not Too Evil: Lots of people seem to ignore who says "brevity is the soul of wit" and treat it as Shakespeare's own views.
  • Camp Gay: Osric in some performances.
  • Captain Obvious:
    • Polonius is the master of this trope. Appropriately enough, his last words are, "O! I am slain!" It has been assumed he says that due to the difficulty the audience would have had confirming the death of a character behind a curtain, but still....
    • Several minor characters in the play find themselves playing this trope as Hamlet verbally spars with them; they revert to saying inanities because they're so vastly outmatched in wit -- witty though they might be compared with almost anyone in almost any other play.
  • Catch the Conscience: Trope Namers. Hamlet hires an acting troupe to perform a play about a king being murdered, with a few additions to make it more like Claudius's murder of King Hamlet, to get a reaction out of Claudius.
  • Character Filibuster: Through the character of Hamlet talking to a performer, Shakespeare tells people about his pet peeves in acting.
  • Comforting the Widow: Claudius "comforts" Gertrude. It helps win him the throne. On the other hand, he does seem to genuinely love her. It is not an unpopular Alternate Character Interpretation that the throne was an afterthought and Claudius killed the king solely for Gertrude.
  • Country Matters: Trope Namer.
  • Curtain Camouflage: Poor Polonius should have picked a better place to hide.
  • Dare to Be Badass: Hamlet tries to talk himself into it; "To Be Or Not To Be" is an attempt that fails. It takes him maybe three acts, but he finally gets the point with "My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"
  • Darker and Edgier: Considered one of Shakespeare's darkest plays.
  • Dead Baby Comedy: Hamlet's roundabout explanation for what happened to Polonius's body.
  • Dead Guy Puppet: It's not quite explicit in the text, but the graveyard scene can be very naturally played this way.
  • Dead Person Conversation: With the ghost of King Hamlet.
  • Deconstruction: Of the "revenge drama" in vogue at the time.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: At least between Laertes and Hamlet. Unusual in that no one has really defeated the other, as the fight results in both their deaths.
  • Deus Ex Machina: In Act IV, Hamlet is conveniently kidnapped by pirates on his way to England, who kindly return him to Denmark just in time for the play's climax.
    • However, there's several subtle points of the play that imply he may have arranged the "pirate attack" himself.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: In many adaptations -- theatrical productions, films, paintings, etc. -- Ophelia is barefoot during the mad scene.
    • The recent RSC film has Hamlet barefoot in most of the indoor scenes.
  • Double Entendre: Ubiquitous throughout the entire play. Let these guys do it instead. Scroll down to #2 .

  "Do you think I mean country matters?"

    • The 2008 RSC production made this into a Single Entendre by leaving a pause between the first and second syllables of 'country'.
  • Double Standard: Polonius forbids his daughter to so much as spend time with Hamlet, but doesn't see much harm in spreading rumors that his son visits brothels. Ophelia doesn't buy into this, and tells her brother he'd be a hypocrite if he admonished her to be chaste and then went off and had sex himself.
  • Driven to Suicide: Ophelia drowns herself in a river. Or she was really just so insane she didn't even think to save herself from drowning after falling into the water while hanging garlands from a tree. It's not an unpopular theory that Gertrude murdered Ophelia after learning she knows too much (that or she was Mercy Killing her). The 2010/2011 London production at the National Theatre heavily implied this was the case.
  • Due to the Dead
  • Emo Teen: Hamlet, the original emo kid, is a brooding pessimist who dresses all in black and pontificates about suicide. He's also spoilt, and resents his mother for remarrying. The slight hitch occurs in the Gravedigger scene, where it's stated that Hamlet is actually somewhere in his 30s. This means either (A) Hamlet is too old to be acting like this, adding to the theory that he's crazy, or (B) Hamlet isn't 30 and Shakespeare made another mathematical error. Shakespeare scholars have suggested that the Gravedigger's line was thrown in at the insistence of Richard Burbage, the actor who originally played the lead role and was probably unwilling to play a teenager. Or maybe Shakespeare could do maths just fine, but the gravedigger can't.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: The only major named characters who survive are Horatio and Fortinbras (who is often left out). A messenger even arrives at the very end to assure you that, yes, even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
  • Evil Uncle: Claudius.
  • Famous Last Words:

 Hamlet: The rest is silence.

  • Fatal Flaw: It's widely agreed that Hamlet has one[3]. There's rather less agreement on what, specifically, it is.
  • Fleeting Demographic: Determining, of all things, the setting: Shakespeare probably chose the Hamlet story as an appeal to James I's theater-loving queen -- Anne of Denmark.
  • Foil: Hamlet has several. Most notable are Fortinbras, Horatio and Laertes. Before they fight, Hamlet (mockingly and very ironically) refers to himself as a foil to Laertes, thus making this play a possible Trope Namers. Also the swords which they are using are called foils making that line a Pun.
    • Also, the player who weeps Tender Tears over Hecuba overtly inspires Hamlet to reflect on the contrast between them.
  • Gender Flip: While not exactly common, there is a recurring trend of recasting characters as the opposite sex in modern productions:
    • Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress of her time, played Hamlet in an 1899 production (and was the first to portray him on film in Le Duel de Hamlet.)
    • Alexander Fodor's 2007 arthouse film adaptation featured a female Horatio and "Polonia."
    • The 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production converts minor character Cornelius to Cornelia.
  • Get Thee to a Nunnery: The Trope Namers. The play contains several double entendres that go over the heads of modern audiences; among the best known are the "nunnery" and the "fishmonger" (slang for a brothel and a pimp, respectively), from the scene where Polonius tries to manipulate Hamlet through Ophelia.
  • Gondor Calls for Aid: Fortinbras's entrance is somewhere between this and Deus Ex Machina.
  • Goodnight, Sweet Prince: The Trope Namers. The phrase originates in Horatio's farewell to the dying Hamlet in the final act.
  • Held Gaze: The "long distance love-scene" from Laurence Olivier's film version of Hamlet, where Hamlet and Ophelia hold each others' gaze from opposite ends of a corridor.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deliver their own death warrant, not realising that Hamlet altered the document before his escape by replacing his name with theirs. The Trope Namers; Hamlet remarks:

 'tis the sport to have the engineer

Hoist with his own petard

    • Claudius and Laertes are killed by their own poison.

 Laertes: Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric,

I am justly killed with mine own treachery.

  • Hot-Blooded: Played straight with Laertes on Ophelia's death, and with Fortinbras who goes to war over a valueless piece of land. Hamlet himself subverts this, claiming to admire these characters but never taking the initiative himself and passing up chances to kill his target. In something of a contradiction he castigates himself for own his lack of passion ("I am pidgeon livered and lack gall") while praising Horatio for it ("Give me the man who is not passion's slave and I will wear him in my heart's core").
  • Hurricane of Aphorisms: Polonius.
  • Hurricane of Puns: The whole play.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Polonius. For example, he gives the well-known line "brevity is the soul of wit" -- at the end of a very long-winded speech -- but he is one of the least brief and least witty talkers around. He proceeds to give plenty of other advice that he also doesn't follow. Later, he complains that the Player King's speech is too long.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Claudius comes to realize what evil he's done, but keeps right on being evil.

 My words fly up: my thoughts remain below.

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

  • Incest Is Relative: Hamlet is very squicked at the idea of his mother and his uncle doing the nasty.
  • Innocent Innuendo: Ophelia and Laertes, brother and sister, admonish each other to remain chaste. They probably don't mean to get as graphic as they do. Ophelia's going to keep her lock to herself, not open up her chaste treasure to Hamlet's unmastered importunity, while Laertes will keep his key to himself and reck his own rede (wreck his own reed).
  • Irony: In a Long List to Ophelia about all the things he hates about women, Hamlet says he dislikes women pretending not to know things in front of men. Ophelia often has to resort to pretending to know nothing to try and pacify Hamlet or in an attempt to avoid further humiliation such as in Act 3, Scene 2 where he makes crude jokes in front of the whole court. Ashamed, Ophelia says, ‘I think nothing’ which instead fuels more lewd comments. The irony appears lost on Hamlet.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Arguably, young Fortinbras - some readings of the text and some adaptations have him attempting to conquer Denmark underhandedly rather than just passing through with his army as he claims, and the ending for him is Hamlet supporting him to be the next king. If this was his plan, then he's not only not made to pay for his treacherous actions, he ends up being rewarded for it.
    • Hamlet, sort of. He kills Polonius, and although Claudius tries to have him killed on the quiet Hamlet evades punishment. He also seems to receive no punishment for the deaths of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern OR Ophelia, until the very end, and it's implied that Laertes's forgiveness absolves him completely.
    • Discussed when Hamlet considers murdering Claudius while Claudius is praying, which Hamlet worries would send him (Claudius) to Heaven. Subverted when, after Hamlet departs, Claudius reveals that he was not actually praying ("Words without thoughts never to Heaven go"), so Hamlet's hesitation was moot.
  • Karmic Death: Ophelia and King Hamlet didn't suffer this. Everyone else who died -- i.e., almost the entire cast -- did, in one way or another.
  • Kick the Dog: In the 1990 and 1996 film adaptations, Laertes explicitly breaks the rules of the dueling conduct to wound and poison Hamlet. In the lines of the play, Claudius lets Gertrude drink from a cup of wine he knowingly poisoned for Hamlet to drink, only telling her to not drink from it (which she does anyway) as opposed to rushing over to ensure she doesn't -- despite earlier claiming that he really does love her. This differs by production. Derek Jacobi in Branagh's film version is visibly shaken at not being able to stop her from drinking.
  • Kill'Em All: The play has become famous for this, even though it was a standard trope in tragedy at the time. Actually, Horatio and Fortinbras are both still alive at play's end.
  • Kill Him Already: A major part of the premise.
  • Kill the Cutie: Ophelia.
  • Like a Weasel: The Trope Namers. Polonius is like this all the time. Osric, too.
  • Local Reference: The gravedigger says that Hamlet has been sent to England to cure his madness, and if it doesn't work nobody will notice since everyone there is mad anyway.
  • Love Hurts: It also kills.
  • Mad Oracle: Possibly Ophelia, in her mad scene.
  • Make Up Is Evil: One charge he brings against Ophelia

 I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.

  • Malaproper: The First Gravedigger, though unfortunately his slips (like saying "argal" when he means "ergo") can be very easy to miss given all the formal language surrounding them.
  • Malicious Slander: "Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny."
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Hamlet and Polonius are obsessed with words and the craft of writing.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: "What a piece of work is man ... and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me."
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Hamlet fakes insanity. Or hell, maybe he is actually insane. Or possibly he's faking insanity and is actually insane.
  • Old Windbag: Polonius
  • The Ophelia: Another Trope Namers. Ophelia becomes this after going mad in Act IV.
  • Pet the Dog: Claudius prays and confesses his sins, unaware that Hamlet is watching him. He also states that it will not be enough to absolve him as he still benefits from his sins. Though some adaptations seem to imply that Claudius knows that Hamlet is listening and prays because he knows that Hamlet will not kill him while he is confessed because that means he will go to heaven.
  • Please Shoot the Messenger: Claudius famously sends Hamlet off to England with a message (and with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to watch him). The message directs the English to kill the person holding it. Hamlet manages to escape, and gives them the message to deliver instead.
  • Railing Kill: Branagh's version. Falling Chandelier of Doom follows shortly thereafter.
  • Rasputinian Death: Claudius. Although it's likely Hamlet's determination to make sure he's Killed Off for Real.
  • Revenge: Hamlet was written in the tradition of the revenge tragedies that were popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies: The final scene sees most of the cast dead with almost farcical suddenness.
  • Show Within a Show: The Murder of Gonzago. (Trope Namers for Catch the Conscience.)
  • Sibling Triangle: Claudius murders his brother and marries his brother's wife. Interpretations vary as to how complicit Gertrude is in the plot.
  • Sketchy Successor: The late King Hamlet is considered a ruler among rulers. King Claudius assassinated him to get the job and spends his reign doing nothing but trying to keep people from becoming suspicious. Also inverted at the end of Hamlet, after everyone has died. The Danish crown is passed down to King Fortinbras, monarch of Norway. Throughout the story, it is mentioned that Denmark and Norway are having conflicts, but by the end, the entire Danish royal family is dead and Fortinbras is implied to be an improvement over Claudius.
  • Sleazy Politician: Polonius in certain interpretations, also Claudius, who quickly turns the rebellious Laertes to his side.
  • Speech Impediment: In certain interpretations, Ophelia does have a lisp, and some of her lines actually reflect this (for example, "twice two months" is understood as "two-es...two months). This gives Hamlet's line ("...you lisp, you nickname God's creatures...") a second, literal meaning.
  • Spin-Off: Many, many, many. The most famous is Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. A more recent example is John Updike's novel Gertrude and Claudius.
  • Stealth Insult: Hamlet's weapon of choice.
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion:

 Hamlet: For thou dost know, O Damon dear,

This realm dismantled was

Of Jove himself; and now reigns here

A very, very -- pajock.

Horatio: You might have rhymed.

 Gertrude: O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!

  • Who Is This Guy Again?: Claudius is only named in the stage directions; the other characters all refer to him via sobriquets such as "the King" or "my uncle".
  • World of Hamlet
  • Writers Cannot Do Math:
    • Hamlet is at least 27 if his memory of Yorick is to be believed, but he was studying at Wittenberg University when his father died (see Anachronism Stew above). In Shakespeare's time, most university students were teenagers. People seem to forget this when insisting that Hamlet must be thirty years old. There is a theory that Shakespeare originally wrote for Hamlet to been in his teens but somewhere towards the end decided to age him up so a specific actor could play the part.
    • Dawn comes, by Horatio's count, one hundred seconds after midnight.
  • You Killed My Father: The main plot. Also, the reason Laertes kills Hamlet and possibly why Fortinbras wants to invade Denmark.

The Play Within A Play contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: And how!
  • Karma Houdini: Lucianus, unless his comeuppance was left out of the dumb-show and occurred after the play is stopped.
  • Stylistic Suck: A spoileriffic dumb show followed by a series of tedious heroic couplets. This may be Hamlet's fault, since he rewrote bits of it, and was more concerned with trying to Catch the Conscience of Claudius than with coming up with a truly decent play.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Before the play properly starts, three clowns come out and act out almost the entire plot. Many modern productions omit this part, since you're not supposed to spoil The Mousetrap.

In addition to all the above, the Klingon version also contains examples of the following tropes:

Notes

  1. Typical rules of primogeniture say that the king's son takes the throne after him, even if the king has a brother
  2. with the exception of a few transposed lines, and thus clocking in at around 246 minutes long
  3. he discusses the concept in an early scene