Analysis Of The Main Themes Represented In Shakespeare’s Hamlet

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How relevant could something from the 16th century be to a modern audience in the 21st century? The themes and issues embedded within Shakespeare’s plays, manifest around many common issues that are still advent in our modern world. The perplexing narratives that Shakespeare follows in his plays, although dating back over 400 years, capture intricate meanings, powerful imagery, valuable moral lessons, and the fundamentals of human ethical values, that still remain relevant to a young contemporary audience today. Shakespeare’s universal themes raise questions of morality, politics, war, and the meaning of life, which is why it remains crucial within the new high school English curriculum.

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In Hamlet, revenge is of most prominent among the various themes presented throughout the play. Revenge is driven in the play through Hamlet’s determination to avenge the murder of his father, where for majority of the play, he contemplates the act of revenge rather than fulfilling his retribution. When the Ghost of Old Hamlet reveals the truth of his death, Hamlet, who initially was crushed from what seemed to be the inevitable death of his father, enforces a motive to inflict the pain Claudius put on his father in return for his malicious acts. As the play progresses, Hamlet’s suppressible desire for vengeance develops as he continuously stalls from killing Claudius. His inability to avenge the murder of his father becomes mentally torturing and ultimately jeopardizes him from serving justice. Through this, Hamlet becomes more and more captivated in getting revenge, thirsting for the king’s blood.

“O! from this time forth,

My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” 

This quote exemplifies the theme of revenge predominately, portraying Hamlet’s desire for malice towards Claudius. Through his words, “bloody” and “nothing worth”, it clearly depicts Hamlet’s drive for revenge, and how all his contemplation over morality has diminished. Initially, Hamlet was concerned over whether killing Claudius was morally acceptable and how ethically, this was against all religious beliefs. This reveals the values of people during the Elizabethan era, and how among all crimes, murder is simply most ungodly. In modern society, revenge is everywhere. Recently, with the controversy surrounding the death of African American, George Floyd, who was murdered when racially profiled by a police officer, has sparked global outrage. Worldwide, people are protesting to fight for justice in regard to the ‘black lives matter’ movement. Revenge is displayed within this current situation, with people rampaging through streets, looting shops, burning buildings, and starting riots to seek vengeance for George Floyd. This relates to theme of revenge in Hamlet in the sense that Hamlet and the protestors are behaving similarly in regard to the evil acts of Claudius in the play and police officers in modern society, which shows that today, people still have the same attitudes towards the act of murder. Overall, Shakespeare remains relevant to the youth of today because the issues of revenge displayed within his plays are still seen in our modern world.

The reality is the state of things that exist, but appearance is what something looks like. In Hamlet, the theme of Appearance vs Reality depicts how something may appear differently to what it is in actuality. Shakespeare deeply explores the theme of Appearance vs Reality through the actions of the characters, and whether these actions are an act of truth or deceit. Throughout the play, many of the characters appear to portray genuine and sincere characteristics, however, what may be presented as truthful, lies complete fabrication over the dishonest and evil intentions these characters truly behold. The act of deception manifests right from the beginning of the play, where Claudius lies to the entire kingdom about the death of Old King Hamlet, saying he was bitten by a poisonous serpent in the orchard. Hidden within what seemed to be Old Hamlet’s misfortunate fate, lies the truth behind Claudius’s plan to seize the throne, by pouring poison into his brothers’ ear whilst he was sleeping.

The harlot’s cheek, beautified with plastering art,

Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it

Than is my deed to my most painted word:

O heavy burden!’ 

This quote exhibits the theme of Appearance vs Reality effectively, demonstrating Claudius’s conscience is getting to him. Claudius describes his lies as “painted words” hiding the truth of his crime, which resembles reality being hidden through appearance. This links to the moral and ethical values in the Elizabethan era, through Claudius’s feeling of guilt over his fratricide. This reveals that although Claudius is a manipulative, villainous, and greedy man, who has gotten what he wanted most, to reign as the ruler of the kingdom, he still acknowledges that his crime was immoral. This is relevant in today’s youth because Appearance vs Reality is seen everywhere you go, social media, politics, businesses and much more. Currently, with the coronavirus pandemic, governments are working extensively to solve the crisis immediately. Appearance vs Reality is evident within this situation, through US President, Donald Trump prioritising his efforts to create the illusion that the country is returning to normalcy over taking concrete steps to resolve the crisis safely. Trump has been seen deliberately refraining from wearing a protective mask in public, fearing that it will affect his image in publicity. Essentially, Trump is focusing on creating the appearance that the United States is getting back to normalcy, hiding the awful truth that is the virus is rapidly spreading and only getting worse. This relates to Hamlet in the sense that all the kingdom put their trust in King Claudius, when in fact, he was deceiving everyone about Old King Hamlets death. This is similar to Trump, who is making the virus appear not so severely, deceiving the public into risking their lives just to maintain his chances of being re-elected. Overall, the theme of Appearance vs Reality that Shakespeare presents in his plays are relevant to a modern contemporary audience because deception in today’s society is right under our noses, by the people we trust in most.

Madness is defined as the state of having a serious mental illness or derangement. The theme of madness in Hamlet stems from Shakespeare’s portrayal of the human mind at work, and how much thought can go behind a singular action. In Hamlet, madness is among many prevalent traits that various characters possess throughout the play, serving to depict the chaos reigning within the lives of all in the play. Hamlet displays many signs of madness throughout the play, questioning his sanity, although it is uncertain whether he is actually going insane or he is pretending to be insane to fly under the radar with Claudius. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet already displays indications of madness when he is visited by the ghost of his father. Due to mourning the death of his father, seeing his father’s ghost may be a sign that he is going insane. This further progresses to Hamlet discovering the truth about his father’s death, which causes him to behave erratically, plunging himself into a dark abyss of questioning.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them?”

This quote portrays the theme of madness convincingly, conveying Hamlet’s melancholic state. The quote depicts the result of putting too much investment into one thing, and how that ultimately impacts a human thought process and ability to function. His inner madness and melancholy drives him to the point where he is contemplating suicide, unable to cope with his perceived responsibility to his father. This reveals the values and attitudes during the Elizabethan era in the sense that those who act differently compared to socials norms are automatically defined as insane. Madness is very common in today’s modern world, with responsibilities, social pressures, stereotypes and standards, everybody has some resemblance of “imbalance” in themselves. Celebrities particularly have a lot of pressure on them, every move you make is watched by fans and the paparazzi, one bad move, and it will haunt you for the rest of your career. Amanda Bynes is one of several celebrities who have lost their sanity due to their fame. Everybody saw her as a bright and successful girl who had a very big future ahead of her, but deep down she wasn’t happy and content with her fame and fortunes. After retiring from her acting career, Amanda began behaving erratically, where she was arrested for criminal possession of marijuana, tampering with evidence, and reckless endangerment. The theme of Madness in Hamlet and Amanda becoming insane relate in the sense that both Hamlet and Amanda had extreme pressure on them, which forced them into a state of derangement. This shows that the attitudes today and then are similar in that people still automatically perceive others as lunatics when behaving in an unordinary manner, however, mental illness is recognized more in modern society and in most cases, isn’t deemed as insane. Overall, the theme of madness presented in Hamlet is still relevant in modern day with mental illness being very common, especially in today’s youth.

Overall, the themes that Shakespeare expresses in his plays are just as relevant now as they were then. Many of the issues that are exhibited in his plays correlate to many of the current crisis’s in our modern world. The moral and ethical values portrayed in his works remain relevant to a young contemporary audience in the sense that the attitudes and beliefs of the modern world are similar. In conclusion, Shakespeare’s contribution to English literature and the way readers can resonate the universal messages his works provide over 400 years later, is why it is vital for Shakespeare to be included in Queensland’s English curriculum.   

16 December 2021

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