The protagonist of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, and perhaps the grandest creation of his unparalleled genius, Hamlet has stymied critics for centuries with the complexity and apparent contradictions of his enigmatic character. Is he mentally unstable, as some critics believe, a suicidal youth driven to the brink of madness by the foul revelations of his ghostly father -- or is he merely "mad in craft" as he himself suggests in the interview with his mother? Is he a habitual procrastinator incapable of any meaningful action -- or a brash and sadistic spirit of vengeance who reigns in his impulsive nature, delays his vengeance until a moment when Claudius, caught in an act that "has no relish of salvation in't," will pay the steepest price for his transgressions? Trickster or philosopher? Dreamer or realist? Lovesick puppy or callous manipulator? Pawn of the Devil or Heaven's divine scourge and minister? The list of questions is almost endless, and no two scholars seem to agree precisely on the same set of answers. Inscrutable as the Sphinx, Hamlet guards his secrets jealously, presents a riddle that not only his fellow dramatis personae, but also playgoers for centuries have been unable to crack. He is the beloved prince of Denmark, that much is certain, popular with the general population "who, dipping all his faults in their affection, would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone, convert his gyves to graces." He is the son of the late King Hamlet and reigning Queen Gertrude, and nephew to the usurper, King Claudius, but beyond this few critics seem capable of any consensus. One authority compiles a list of the prince's inconsistencies:
Hamlet, as a character, was notorious as an example of the union of the most incompatible qualities: impetuous, tho' philosophical; sensible of injury, yet timid of resentment; shrewd, yet void of policy; full of filial piety, yet tame under oppression; boastful in expression, undetermined in action ... 
Another refers to Hamlet as:
... a sort of double person; one which, covered with the darkness of its imagination, looks not forth into the world, nor takes any concern in vulgar objects or frivolous pursuits; another, which he lends, as it were, to ordinary men, which can accommodate itself to their tempers and manners, and indulge, without feeling any degradation from the indulgence, a smile with the cheerful, and a laugh with the giddy. 
This second analysis implies a certain insincerity in the young prince, as if he connivingly employs a different mask for each encounter, choosing a character as one might choose a necktie, to suit the occasion. There may be some truth to this analogy, but it does not necessarily brand him as a conscious schemer, for we all show a different face from time to time, and such subtle shifts in character are not always consciously deployed. Hamlet, however, wears so many different masks, some of them necessarily false, and changes his disguise so frequently, that his true nature, not to mention his intent from moment to moment, is sometimes difficult to decipher. In the company of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, he is a brooding youth, unbalanced by the death of his father. In the presence of Horatio, he transforms into a warm, if still troubled, friend. Alone with the ghost, he swears himself the avenger of injustice who "with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love" will sweep to his revenge. With Polonius he degenerates into a trader of shallow witticisms, with Ophelia the frustrated (and then abusive) lover, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a paranoid schizophrenic and conspiracy theorist, with Laertes an over-competetive swordsman, with the players a theatre enthusiast, and so on and so forth until the end of the play when he lays dying and bemoans his "wounded name, things standing thus unknown." He begs Horatio to straighten it all out (no small task!), but he has presumably revealed all to his conspirator offstage, and Horatio promises, in the final moments of the play, to "speak to th' yet unknowing world how these things came about." Of course, the audience isn't privy to Horatio's clarifying account, so we are left to our own devices in deciphering the true nature of the prince's character.
Who then is the real Hamlet? Which incarnation is closest to his true self? Is he most sincere in the opening scenes of the play, before he learns of the ghost's existence? Or is he already suffering the effects of severe (and character-distorting) depression? Is his true self only seen through the eyes of Ophelia who relates his many tender affections? Or does he reveal himself only in the final moments when he leaps the last hurdle and executes his uncle? Even so-called experts find it difficult to pinpoint with any accuracy when the prince's true character peeks from behind the mask and when he is merely performing a role to obtain some advantage. There are theories, to be sure. Many and varied. In the famous soliloquy, for instance, is the young prince truly suicidal, or is he putting on a show for the two plotters, Claudius and Polonius, who he knows to be hidden nearby. Shakespeare's stage directions offer little insight into the matter. Wolfgang Clemen views the soliloquies as a window into Hamlet's hidden soul:
In the soliloquies it becomes apparent that Hamlet is fighting not only against the world around him but also against the overpowering strength of his own emotions, against the antagonism of his own heart. 
Francis Albert Marshall concurs:
The audience should be made to feel that they are really watching the workings of a human mind crushed under the burden of a life from which all joy, and hope, and peace, have departed; of one tempted to seize the terribly easy escape from such a life which self-destruction offers. 
But David Ball sees something very different in the Rorschach test of Hamlet's words:
Don't mistake 'To be or not to be' for an action-interrupting digression on suicide. Structural investigation of stasis and intrusion shows it is not. Why would Hamlet, generally acknowledged as Shakespeare's most intelligent character, stupidly refer to death as "the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns"? Can Hamlet have forgotten whom he saw in act 1, scene 5?... If Hamlet knows he has been sent for, and if he knows Polonius is a master spy ... then indeed this most famous of soliloquies is no soliloquy. It is a maneuver by Hamlet, who knows he is being overheard by the folks who have sent for him, a maneuver aimed at Claudius to help Hamlet regain stasis in a world that went topsy-turvy ... when the ghost revealed how rotten things were in the state of Denmark. 
Like many questions raised by the enigmatic nature of Hamlet's character, no definitive ruling is possible on the problem of the soliloques -- though there are staunch advocates on both sides of the argument. Hamlet refuses to reveal himself entirely even to his closest ally, Horatio, until the final act of the play when, after finally taking his schoolfellow into his confidence, he charges him to "report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied." [V. ii.]
Throughout the play, Hamlet seems to struggle with the logistics of avenging his father's death, stumbling at times, at other moments finding his way. We are sometimes aware of his tactics. On other occasions, perhaps, we are not. As the climax of the play approaches, he seems to give his purpose up to Providence, saying to Horatio:
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will. [V. ii.]
Does Hamlet mean to imply that men are no more than leaves in the wind--that, if his vengeance is just, some unseen divinity will give the King into his hands without any great effort on his part? Although circumstances bear this theory out, it is doubtful whether Hamlet's methodical brain at any time gives up his hopes entirely to Fate. He knows his time is running short. It will soon be known from England what devilry he has played on the unsuspecting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he acknowledges to Horatio that:
The interim is mine. [V. ii.]
Allowances must be made, however, for Hamlet's seeming inaction in this and other portions of the play. He is not judged fairly by critics who suggest that his task is as simple as charging into the king's chamber and running him through with a sword. Hamlet is not a blunt instrument. He is a fine foil, and, as such, must drive his point home with precision to be effective. He has been charged by the ghost not only with vengeance, but with certain conditions, provisions and addendums. He must not contrive against his mother, for instance, and he must not taint his own mind by the course of events. There are also political ramifications to consider. If he is unable to present evidence to justify the assassination of Claudius, his murder may throw Denmark into chaos, leaving the country unstable and vulnerable to an attack from an aggressor such as Fortinbras of Norway who has already made some noise by demanding the surrender of certain lands that were lost by his own father in a previous war. As the play progresses, Hamlet's hand is stayed by one consideration after another, a false step here, a missed opportunity there, but he seems to lay the groundwork, biding his time and moving ever closer to his purpose. Even within the play, there is some debate as to the efficacy of Hamlet's intrigues and devices. The impatient ghost appears to him during the interview with his mother to whet his "almost blunted purpose," and yet Hamlet's machinations have already been sufficient to strike fear in the heart of Claudius. Even prior to the murder of Polonius, the king has made arrangements to dispatch Hamlet to England so that
The terms of our estate may not endure
Hazard so near's as doth hourly grow
Out of his brows. [III. iii.]
After escaping his escort (a bold move that thwarts the execution Claudius has planned for him in England), Hamlet returns to Denmark even more aimless (apparently) than before. He seems to have lost all urgency, claims to be no more than a pawn of Fate, is drawn easily into the duel with Laertes. In light of all this, it is tempting to pass judgment on him as a fatally flawed hero, but as one critic cautions:
"What's the matter with Hamlet?" is a tempting question to ask when we seek solutions or a cure. But when we ask it, we keep uneasy company with Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. 
By accepting the challenge of Laertes, does Hamlet not arm himself with a deadly weapon in the presence of the very king he hopes to assassinate? Would a lesser man have managed this? Would a less courageous man have escaped Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and braved the company of pirates to put himself in this position? Would a less crafty man, even if he managed by some guile to escape his escort, have returned raging, thus putting the king on notice and telegraphing his intentions?
Hamlet himself almost seems to censure those who would reduce him to more easily comprehensible dimensions when he says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me. [III, ii.]
Throughout the play he struggles with weighty questions -- whether, and in what manner, to avenge his father's murder -- and wrestles with his own sanity along the way. Michael Payne notes:
Hamlet is not a collection of symptoms of one or more mental diseases, nor is he an intellectual problem to be solved. He is, however, surrounded by those who would, if they could, reduce him to a collection of symptoms or to a problem. 
And George Morris Cohen Brandes, in a more poetic description, proclaims:
He is the cry of humanity horror struck at its own visage. 
Perhaps the most straightforward view sees Hamlet as seeking truth in order to be certain that he is justified in carrying out the revenge called for by a ghost that claims to be the spirit of his father, but may just as easily be some devil who leads him on to eternal damnation. The 1948 movie with Laurence Olivier in the title role is introduced by a voiceover: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." Yet Hamlet's contradictions are not so difficult to understand. We are all guilty of wearing different masks in different situations. In Hamlet, Shakespeare delineates "the passions and affectations of the human mind, as they exist in reality, with all the various colourings which they receive in the mixed scenes of life; not as they are accommodated by the hands of more artificial poets, to one great undivided impression, or an uninterrupted chain of congenial events."  On the stage, we are accustomed perhaps to more consistency of character, something less human and more easily understood, but Shakespeare was not a common dramatist and refused to condemn the greatest of his creations to such shallow dimensions.
The debate is not limited to such abstract notions as the nature of Hamlet's character. Even his age is subject to interpretation. Valdemar Osterberg, the most learned Danish Shakespeare philologist of his day, devotes an entire book to the subject! 
At first glance, Hamlet's age seems obvious. In Act V, scene i, the prince asks the First Gravedigger how long he has "been a grave-maker," and he replies that he took up his current profession on "the very day that young Hamlet was born--he that is mad and sent into England." Furthermore, he goes on to say that he has "been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years." This exchange would seem to set Hamlet's age firmly at thirty years, a theory bolstered by the fact that Richard Burbage, who originally played the role of Hamlet, was thirty-two at the time of the play's premiere. Elsewhere in the same scene, the gravedigger produces the skull of Yorick, the king's jester, who "hath lain i' th' earth three and twenty years." Hamlet recalls this same jester from his childhood and exclaims, "I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times." If Hamlet is thirty, and Yorick has been dead for twenty-three years, the prince would have been no more than seven when he last rode on the jester's back. A reasonably consistent timeline.
A case can be made, however, for a much younger Hamlet -- as young, perhaps, as sixteen. Perhaps the most commonly quoted evidence for a teenage Hamlet is the fact that the line referring to the length of the gravedigger's career is omitted from the First Quarto, and, in that text, Yorick is reported to have been in the ground only twelve years. As Marvin Rosenberg notes:
This would knock eleven years off Hamlet's age. Champions of a young Hamlet seize on this; but the presumed "reporter" of that "bad" quarto mixed up other numbers, so this must be generally considered only an interesting sidebar. 
There is other evidence, however, to be considered. Take, for instance, the fact of Hamlet's enrollment at the University of Wittenberg. As a rule, the nobility did not attend university past the age of twenty, much less thirty. In addition, a 30-year-old Prince Hamlet would have been of ruling age, which raises the question of why it was not he, rather than his uncle, who succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father, especially given his noted popularity with the people. Furthermore, in Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques, generally considered the source of Shakespeare's story, Amleth has "not attained to man's estate."
Howard Furness, often referred to as the leading authority on this matter, sums the matter thus:
I look on it as certain, that when Shakespeare began the play he conceived Hamlet as quite a young man. But as the play grew, as greater weight of reflection, of insight into character, of knowledge of life, &c., were wanted, Shakespeare necessarily and naturally made Hamlet a formed man; and, by the time that he got to the Grave-digger's scene, told us the Prince was 30 -- the right age for him then; but not his age when Laertes and Polonius warned Ophelia against his blood that burned, his youthful fancy for her -- "a toy in blood" -- &c. 
Ultimately, the age problem is of little importance to audiences who quite naturally accept the Prince's age to be that of his impersonator on the stage.
Even Hamlet's name is the center of some controversy. Although the name Hamlet can be traced as far back as the 10th century and is easily derived from the "Hamblet" of Belleforest's story and the "Amleth" of Saxo Grammaticus' Danish history, still the striking similarity to the name of Shakespeare's only son cannot be ignored.
Hamnet Shakespeare (baptised 2 February 1585 – buried 11 August 1596) died at age 11 of unknown causes, and scholars have long speculated that the dramatist's work may have been influenced by this tragic event. While many critics point out that Hamlet has a Scandinavian origin and was likely chosen as a play subject for commercial reasons, taking as its basis an earlier box office success often referred to as the Ur-Hamlet (possibly written by Thomas Kydd), still Shakespeare's grief over the loss of his only son may lie at the heart of the tragedy.
Attempting to justify this theory, one critic writes:
Hamlet marks a sufficient break in Shakespeare’s career as to suggest some more personal cause for his daring transformation both of his sources and of his whole way of writing. A simple index of this transformation is the astonishing rush of new words, words that he had never used before in some twenty-one plays and in two long poems. There are, scholars have calculated, more than six hundred of these words, many of them not only new to Shakespeare but also—compulsive, fanged, besmirch, intruding, overgrowth, pander, outbreak, unfledged, unimproved, unnerved, unpolluted, unweeded, to name only a few—new to the written record of the English language. Something must have been at work in Shakespeare, something powerful enough to call forth this linguistic explosion. As audiences and readers have long instinctively understood, passionate grief, provoked by the death of a loved one, lies at the heart of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Even if the decision to redo the old tragedy of Hamlet had come to Shakespeare from strictly commercial considerations, the coincidence of the names—the writing again and again of the name of his dead son as he composed the play—may have reopened a deep wound, a wound that had never properly healed. 
This same grief, perhaps, echoes also in one of the most painful passages Shakespeare ever wrote, in the final pages of King Lear when the ruined monarch realizes that his daughter is dead:
No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
One of the most interesting features of the play, and one of the most challenging for those wishing to impersonate the prince onstage, Hamlet's soliloquies have sometimes been omitted in an ill-advised attempt to make the hero "do more and think less." Today, however, most critics would agree that the soliloquies are integral to our understanding of the play.
The most famous of Hamlet's soliloquies, those that have tended both to become set pieces and to dominate critical discussion, differ radically from his speech in dialogue. Whereas his conversation normally reflects the doubleness of meaning characteristic of wit, his soliloquies characteristically single-minded expressions of emotion. Rather than presenting the full range of Hamlet's response to his dilemma, they tend to express moods of grief, despair, self-reproach, even malice. 
According to this interpretation, the soliloquies serve as a sort of window into Hamlet's soul, allowing the audience to more easily follow his emotional course, but not all critics accept this simple purpose.
Although Hamlet's soliloquies give expression to his inner conflict they also reflect the world and the people around him. Hamlet's father, his mother, Claudius, make their presence felt, and they come alive in the imagination.... Thus the term "introspective" which is often used to describe the essence of the soliloquies is not entirely adequate. What Hamlet has just seen or experienced is shaped in the soliloquies into recollections, admonishments or mental confrontations with counterfigures against whom he tries to match himself. 
As this critic implies, the soliloquies may be the secret key to a sort of inner play that takes place within Hamlet's own mind. "The process of playing roles is infinite," Northrop Frye writes in Divisions on a Ground, "and, as Hamlet's soliloquies demonstrate, we keep on dramatizing ourselves to ourselves."
Further Reading on Hamlet
- "The Emergence of Character Criticism" by Brian Vickers. Shakespeare Survey, Volume 34. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- Henry Mackenzie. The Mirror. No. 100. Saturday, April 22, 1780.
- Shakespeare's Soliloquies. Wolfgang Clemen. New York: Methuen & Co., 1987.
- A Study of Hamlet. Francis Albert Marshall. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1875.
- Backwards and Forwards. David Ball. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
- "What's the Matter with Hamlet?" Michael Payne. Perspectives on Hamlet. New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1975.
- William Shakespeare. Georg Morris Cohen Brandes. London: William Heinemann, 1898.
- Henry Mackenzie. The Mirror. No. 100. Saturday, April 22, 1780.
- Prince Hamlet's Age. Valdemar Osterberg. Copenhagen: Høst & Søn, 1924.
- The Masks of Hamlet. Marvin Rosenberg. Cranbury: University of Delaware Press, 1992.
- Hamlet. Ed. Howard Furness. Philidelphia: J. B. Lippencott, 1877.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. "The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet". N.Y. Review of Books 51.16 (Oct. 21, 2004).
- Some Necessary Questions of the Play. Robert E. Wood. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1994.
- Shakespeare's Soliloquies. Ingeborg Boltz. London: Methuen & Co., 1987.