By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
Hamlet is the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays for readers and theater audiences, and it is also one of the most puzzling. Many questions about the play continue to fascinate readers and playgoers, making Hamlet not only a revenge tragedy but also very much a mystery. What is this Ghost that appears to Hamlet? Is it Hamlet’s murdered father returned from the everlasting fire to demand justice upon his murderer? Is it a “goblin damned”—that is, a demon bent on claiming Hamlet’s soul by tempting him to assassinate his king? Or is the Ghost “a spirit of health,” an angelic messenger revealing to Hamlet that the young man’s mission in life is to cleanse the kingdom of Denmark of its corrupt king?
And what happens to Hamlet after the Ghost commands that the throne of Denmark be cleansed? Does Hamlet actually go mad, becoming unhinged by the accusation that his uncle murdered his father or by the ugly picture the Ghost paints of Hamlet’s lustful mother? Or does Hamlet merely pretend to be mad, pretend so well that he makes us wonder if we can tell the difference between sanity and madness? Why is he so hostile to women, both to his mother and to the woman whom he once courted and whom he claims to have loved dearly? Why does he wait so long to confirm the guilt of the king after the Ghost has accused the king of murder? And once he is convinced that the king is a murderer, why does Hamlet not act immediately?
And what about Gertrude? Was she unfaithful to her husband during his lifetime? Was she complicit in his murder? What does she come to believe about Hamlet’s madness? And about her new husband?
Beyond such questions about the play and its characters lie deeper issues about the rightness of revenge, about how to achieve an ethical life, and about how to live in a world where tears of sorrow, loving smiles, and friendly words are all suspect because all are “actions that a man might play.” Hamlet’s world is bleak and cold because almost no one and nothing can be trusted. But his world, and Hamlet himself, continue to draw us to them, speaking to every generation of its own problems and its own yearnings. It is a play that seems particularly pertinent today—just as it has seemed particularly pertinent to any number of generations before us.
After you have read the play, we invite you to turn to “Hamlet: A Modern Perspective,” by Professor Michael Neill of the University of Auckland.