What is arguably Shakespeare's greatest play, “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” is understood to be a revenge tragedy, however, it is quite an odd one at that. Unlike his other plays that came off as deceptive, Shakespeare took a turn when writing Hamlet and added uncertainty. In his opening lines, William Shakespeare writes, “Who’s there?… Nay answers me. Stand and unfold yourself.” Shakespeare presents the delay of truth and caution through this opening line, which is later revealed to be the ghost of the late King Hamlet. While the opening statement shows little to no significance, it leads to the deeper meaning behind The Tragedy of Hamlet: conveying the themes of appearance vs. reality, madness, revenge, and corruption.
Being a major, recurrent theme in Shakespeare’s plays, the conflict of how things seem to be and how they really are is continuously referenced in Hamlet. First introduced in Act 1, appearance versus reality is brought to readers when Queen Gertrude asks Hamlet why he is still so heavily mourning the death of his father- stating that he’s doing more grieving than necessary. In Act 1, Scene 2, line 78, Hamlet responds, ‘Seems, madam! Nay it is, I know not ‘seems.” Hamlet points out the idea that there can be a division between what things appear to be and what they really are. Hamlet also tests the idea of appearance versus reality by questioning his father’s appearance. As the play develops, Hamlet remains stuck in his own reality: often mixing confusion with madness.
In this tragedy, one of the central themes in Hamlet is revenge; also known as vengeance. After the ghost tells Hamlet that he is his father, murdered by King Claudius, (Act 1), he continues the conversation with Prince Hamlet: asking for revenge for his “most foul, strange, and unnatural murder.” Taking these words into account, Hamlet begins his madness and swears to the ghost’s orders. Hamlet states, “Speak, I am bound to hear’, to which the Ghost responds: ‘So art thou to revenge when thou shalt hear (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 10-11). This exchange of words towards the ghost highlights the themes of madness and revenge: as Hamlet is honored to take revenge on behalf of his father. Hamlet’s duty to avenge his father is tied to his honor as a ‘good son’. This theme of revenge also was expanded through the addition of Laertes and Fortinbras, sons who feel it is their duty in war to avenge their father's deaths.
Madness is the third consecutive theme presented in Hamlet. Displays many opinions after encountering the ghost of his father. Is real or not, making him question reality? Since the death of his father, Hamlet already began displaying many sides of his personality, however, began displaying madness after the truth of his father’s death was revealed. Hamlet even states that his “method of my madness” was just his pretensions, as he was grieving his late father’s loss and wanted to show pain to others, showing his insanity. Hamlet also found it hard to understand the betrayal that King Claudius brought to his family- leading to the pressured feeling to kill Claudius. In the Tragedy Of Hamlet, the theme of madness also takes place for the character of Ophelia. Overwhelmed by her grief at her father’s sudden death, Ophelia seems to lose her understanding of reality and is sought to roam around: singing songs and handing out flowers. Out of madness, Ophelia chooses to give each person a flower that is symbolically represented of the person. Unfortunately, Ophelia’s madness takes a toll and brings her to commit in suicide: choosing to drown in the river. In comparison to Hamlet, Ophelia’s madness is genuine and without ambiguity, whereas he is a confusing deception and motive.
The last theme expressed in The Tragedy of Hamlet is corruption: introduced through death and decay. One of the most famous quotes in this tragedy helps emphasize this theme of corruption: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Act 1, Scene 4, line 99). This quote from Marcellus instantly brings a corruptive tone and a sense of unease or disease within Hamlet’s setting. Shakespeare also brings corruption into the meaning of his play by using the image of death and disease. In the story, we have the ghost of a murdered king which brings Hamlet to be preoccupied with the theme of corruption — both of the body and the soul. Throughout the tragedy, the thought of decay is always in Hamlet’s mind- ‘an unwedded garden that grows to seed — things rank, and gross possess it” – and countless images of death and disease. Another example is when he hides Polonius’ body in a place where it will decay rapidly and stink out of the castle. The imagery of decay is used when Hamlet uses the imagery of a worm’s supper in his conversation with the king about Polonius’ dead body (Act 4, Scene 3). This emphasizes the image of corruption taking place in Denmark and furthermore explains the deeper meaning behind The Tragedy of Hamlet.
In conclusion, Hamlet is a play about so many things that they can’t be totaled. Bouncing from one theme to the next, Hamlet covered various meanings throughout its script: appearance versus reality, revenge, madness, and corruption. Every theme of Hamlet holds deeper explanation and meaning to them and therefore holds strong values to the storyline.