a Presentation in 8 Literary Elements

  • Genre

  • Sources

  • Title Explanation

  • Structure and Plot

  • Characters

  • Settings

  • Narrative Techniques

  • Themes


Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, a fusion of tragedy and revenge drama. In a revenge the protagonist is motivated by a desire to take revenge for some offence, which frequently involves the harm or murder of a loved one. That means that the tragedy is about seeking retribution for an injustice or wrong. (see article Revenge Tragedy and video).


William Shakespeare drew inspiration from a series of sources:

1. The Ur-Hamlet:

The Ur-Hamlet, an earlier play created by an unknown playwright, is believed to have existed in 1587, but no copies of it have survived. Scholars still ponder whether it was an early draft of Shakespeare's masterpiece or a previous play that might have been composed by Thomas Kyd, another celebrated playwright of that era.

2. Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum:

It is an expansive work chronicling Danish history. Saxo narrates the tale of Amleth, a character closely similar to Hamlet. From this ancient Danish narrative, Shakespeare borrowed elements, including the theme of madness, adapting them into his own version of Hamlet's character.

3. Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques:

François de Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques acted as a bridge between Saxo's original account and Shakespeare's adapted narrative: in the fifth volume of this work, published in 1570, Belleforest provided a free translation of Saxo's Gesta Danorum. A, it played a significant role in shaping the story.

4. Montaigne's Essays:

John Florio, a friend of Shakespeare's, translated Montaigne's essays into English in 1603. These essays were not available in English during Shakespeare's time. Both Hamlet and Montaigne are preoccupied with human nature, especially their own, and acknowledge that humanity is fundamentally flawed.

5. Ancient Scandinavian Sagas:

In addition to Saxo's work, Shakespeare probably drew inspiration from Scandinavian sagas full of mythology, folklore, and historical accounts.

6. The Literature of Melancholy:

Melancholy, central to Hamlet's character, was considered not only a psychological condition but also a philosophical concept. Various works of literature, including essays, poetry, and plays, reflected the fascination with melancholy, a topic that struck the curiosity of many. People could easily grasp Hamlet's melancholic disposition.

Title Explanation:

The full title of the tragedy is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Let's examine each of its components:

"The Tragedy":

The word "tragedy" in the title firmly states the genre of the play: emotionally intense and catastrophic. Elizabethan tragedies followed a pattern: the main character ultimately fails, frequently as a result of a fatal flaw. In Hamlet's case, this flaw might be his hesitancy or indecision.

"Hamlet, Prince of Denmark":

This section introduces the main character, Hamlet. His royal status provides an important background for the plot as it progresses and announces issues with power, succession, and the responsibilities of nobility. Incorporating "Prince of Denmark" in the title immediately sets the stage for a story of political intrigue. It strikes the audience's curiosity about the fate of this prince and the destiny of Denmark itself.

Tales about royalty, their plots, and their destinies retained a magnetic fascination for the public during the Elizabethan age. Much like our contemporary fascination with celebrity culture, people of that time were drawn to narratives involving kings, queens, and princes.

Shakespeare's audience possessed a solid foundation in historical and legendary narratives, and they would have likely been acquainted with the rudiments of Hamlet's plot. The story of a prince seeking revenge against a usurping king was not a novel concept. Shakespeare skillfully adapted earlier legends and narratives to craft his own narrative.

Structure and Plot:

Hamlet unfolds across five acts, offering a complex narrative web:

Act 1 - Introduction:

In Act 1, we step into the world of Elsinore Castle, the heart of Danish courtly life. It's here that the first hints of intrigue and tension emerge. The ghost of King Hamlet, who has recently passed away, appears. This ghostly visit sets the stage for the central mystery – a murder that cries out for justice.

Act 2 - Development:

Act 2 brings rising tensions. Hamlet, the grieving son, grows increasingly suspicious of his uncle Claudius. Claudius has not only taken the throne but also married Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude. Hamlet's inner turmoil and doubts about avenging his father's death take center stage.

Act 3 - Crisis/turning point:

Act 3 introduces a clever twist – a play within the play. Hamlet devises a clever plan to uncover the truth about King Claudius's guilt. He stages a play that mirrors his father's murder, hoping to catch Claudius's reaction. This pivotal scene propels the story forward, marking a turning point in Hamlet's quest for vengeance.

Act 4 - Complications:

In Act 4, the tension continues to build, and this act brings out a distinctive feature of Hamlet. Shakespeare's plays usually present a blend of poetry and prose, but here, more than 30% of the lines are in prose. The frequent shifts between poetry and prose contribute to the play's enigmatic and engaging style.

Act 4 also offers six scenes. As events unfold, the narrative becomes more intense with a web of deception, betrayals, and a growing sense of urgency. This act is where the story runs towards its inevitable climax. Moreover, Act 4 has six scenes, affecting the pace of the story.

Act 5 - Denouement/Resolution:

In the final act, tension reaches its zenith. Hamlet's inner turmoil culminates in a tragic conclusion. Justice is ultimately served in a way that resonates deeply, leaving the audience with profound reflections.



The central character is a young man grieving with profound sorrow and anger after the death of his father, the King of Denmark. This character evolves from a grieving son into a philosopher torn between action and contemplation. He represents the struggles of adolescence and the quest for identity. Hamlet's melancholic nature lends depth to the character.

The distinguishing feature of Hamlet's personality that sets Hamlet apart from other revenge tragedies is his reluctance to pursue retribution. Hamlet hesitates not out of cowardice but rather because of deep moral and intellectual contemplation. He embodies the idea of thoughtful action.


Hamlet's uncle Claudius swiftly marries Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, after the king's death, and assumes the throne. He is a skilled politician, yet he is hiding something. He manipulates various characters in the play in order to carry out his nasty plans. Claudius illustrates the themes of power and deceit.


Ophelia is Hamlet's lover. She has her own internal battles and becomes a symbol of innocence and vulnerability. She struggles with societal expectations and emotional turmoil.


Horatio, Hamlet's best friend, represents reason and loyalty. In contrast to the other characters, he provides Hamlet with a solid support.

The King of Norway:

This figure is in the background, yet his contribution is crucial. He portrays the political climate of the time showing that the events in "Hamlet" are not isolated from the rest of the world.


In Hamlet, settings indicate physical locations but also the passage of time within the story. Understanding this temporal aspect is crucial for comprehending the pace and dramatic tension in the play.

Elsinore Castle:

Elsinore Castle is the central stage for much of the action. Time seems to have some elasticity within its limits. Days turn into nights, and nights turn into days, symbolising the confusion and apprehension Hamlet is experiencing. The inside and exterior of the castle serve as the setting for political machinations, plots, and Hamlet's internal conflicts.

Other Locations:

Hamlet transports us to many places, each with its own meaning. Characters often reflect on mortality and the unstoppable march of time in graveyards, for example. The battlefield represents the conclusion of long-term events, while the royal court serves as the incubator for political intrigue.

Setting in time:

In contrast to plays where things happen quickly, Hamlet adopts a more gradual approach. Days turn into weeks, and those into months enabling us to see Hamlet's development. He changes from a heartbroken son to a man motivated by duty and vengeance. We can examine his hesitations, periods of thought, and final actions as time slowly passes.

Narrative Techniques:

The narrative techniques provide us with a window into the characters' inner worlds.


In a soliloquy, a character, often alone on stage, shares their thoughts and feelings directly with the audience. Hamlet offers several soliloquies, like for example Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy.


Another intriguing technique is the use of asides. Unlike soliloquies, where a character speaks openly to the audience, asides are whispered confessions. A character briefly steps aside from the main action to confide their thoughts directly to us. This creates an aura of intimacy. Asides in Hamlet, give us with insight into the characters' true intentions and emotions.

The Play Within the Play:

Now, let's explore a particularly ingenious narrative device in Hamlet - the play within the play. Hamlet welcomes a travelling company at the castle and asks a group of actors to perform a play mirroring the murder of his father by Claudius, his uncle. This play isn't a mere source of entertainment; it serves as a tool for Hamlet to gauge Claudius' reactions.

A Framework of Kings:

The play opens and closes with two kings: the elderly King Norway and young Fortinbras. These kings frame the narrative, foreshadowing political turmoil at the outset and marking its resolution at the end. They symbolize the themes of power and ambition in the story.


1. Family and Love Relationships:

Hamlet is rich in intricate family dynamics and love relationships. It portrays the bonds between fathers and sons, mothers and sons, and lovers who are pulled apart by lies and betrayal, like for example when Hamlet reflects on his mother's hasty remarriage:

"Frailty, thy name is woman!" — Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 2)

2. Madness:

In Hamlet, the theme of madness dissolves the distinction between reality and illusion. Hamlet's staged insanity turns into a mirror that reflects the true madness of the world around him.

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." — Polonius (Act 2, Scene 2)

3. Revenge:

The plot is driven by Hamlet's desire to avenge the death of his father, highlighting the negative effects of vengeance and their effects on people and society.:

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." — Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2)

4. Corruption and Decay:

The decaying state of Denmark mirrors the moral corruption existing beneath the surface. Imagery of disease and rot pervades the play:

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." — Marcellus (Act 1, Scene 4)

5. Identity and Self-Reflection:

Hamlet's story is one of introspection and self-discovery. His famous soliloquies inspire us to ponder important questions about identity, meaning, and the nature of existence.:

"To be, or not to be: that is the question." — Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 1)

6. Political Intrigue:

The events of the play are set against the conflict for power within the Danish royal. The ascension of Claudius to the throne and Hamlet's battle for justice provoke concerns about the repercussions of political ambition and power abuse.

8. Inaction vs. Action:

The main source of Hamlet's internal dilemma is his reluctance to take action against Claudius.

9. Death:

Death pervades the play, from King Hamlet's ghostly apparition to the tragic deaths of major characters. "Hamlet" provokes thought about mortality, the afterlife, and the impact of death on the living.

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LnT suggests:

Lnt reviewing what a tragedy is thanks to https://www.literature-no-trouble.com/tragedy/</p>

LnT Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet 

LnT Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close

LnT The Lion King (1994 animated film): This Disney film draws inspiration from various sources, including Hamlet. The story follows a young lion named Simba, who must reclaim his rightful place as king after his uncle, Scar, kills his father, Mufasa, and takes over the Pride Lands. Like Hamlet, Simba struggles with his identity, responsibility, and the need for revenge. The film also features characters that parallel those in Hamlet, such as Simba's friend Nala (Ophelia), the wise baboon Rafiki (Horatio), and the comedic duo Timon and Pumbaa (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern).

LnT "Gertrude and Claudius" by John Updike. This novel serves as a prequel to the events of the play, following Gertrude from her wedding to King Hamlet, through an affair with Claudius, and its murderous results, up until the very beginning of the play

LnT  The Upstart Crow (2016-present TV series): This British sitcom, created by Ben Elton, follows the life of William Shakespeare and his experiences as a playwright. It often references and parodies Shakespeare's works, including Hamlet. While not a direct adaptation of Hamlet, the show provides a comedic and fictionalized look at the world in which Shakespeare lived and worked.

LnT  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard: This play is a tragicomedy that focuses on the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet, and their experiences during the events of Hamlet. The play explores the themes of fate, free will, and the nature of reality, often using wordplay and metatheatrical elements.

LnT The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V (1994 TV episode): This Halloween-themed episode of "The Simpsons" parodies "Hamlet" in a segment titled "The Shinning," showcasing how "Hamlet" has even influenced popular culture and animated television.

LnT watching the following lessons to delve deeper into some of the elements covered in the presentation

Hamlet: Part 2 - What Happens in Hamlet

A discussion of the characterization of "Hamlet" bringing out the recurrence of poisoning incidents and showing how they symbolize the corruption which permeates both the characters and the Kingdom. Illustrative scenes are enacted between Polonius and Laertes, Hamlet and the Queen in the bedroom, Claudius and Laertes, and Hamlet and Claudius in the praying scene.

Hamlet : Part - 3 The Poisoned Kingdom
The final lesson on "Hamlet" revealing the central character as a representative young man of the Renaissance beset by more than common problems and also as a universal image of humanity.

Hamlet: Part 4 - The Readiness Is All
Dr. Maynard Mack, Professor of English, Yale University, begins the interpretation of "Hamlet" by sketching the background of Elizabethan England and making some comparisons between Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and modern theatres. Members of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival Company of Canada present scenes from "Henry VIII", "Titus Andronicus", and "Hamlet."