Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Impossibility of Certainty
What separates Hamlet from other revenge plays (and maybe from every play written before it) is that the action we expect to see, particularly from Hamlet himself, is continually postponed while Hamlet tries to obtain more certain knowledge about what he is doing. This play poses many questions that other plays would simply take for granted. Can we have certain knowledge about ghosts? Is the ghost what it appears to be, or is it really a misleading fiend? Does the ghost have reliable knowledge about its own death, or is the ghost itself deluded? Moving to more earthly matters: How can we know for certain the facts about a crime that has no witnesses? Can Hamlet know the state of Claudius’s soul by watching his behavior? If so, can he know the facts of what Claudius did by observing the state of his soul? Can Claudius (or the audience) know the state of Hamlet’s mind by observing his behavior and listening to his speech? Can we know whether our actions will have the consequences we want them to have? Can we know anything about the afterlife?
Many people have seen Hamlet as a play about indecisiveness, and thus about Hamlet’s failure to act appropriately. It might be more interesting to consider that the play shows us how many uncertainties our lives are built upon, how many unknown quantities are taken for granted when people act or when they evaluate one another’s actions.
The Complexity of Action
Directly related to the theme of certainty is the theme of action. How is it possible to take reasonable, effective, purposeful action? In Hamlet, the question of how to act is affected not only by rational considerations, such as the need for certainty, but also by emotional, ethical, and psychological factors. Hamlet himself appears to distrust the idea that it’s even possible to act in a controlled, purposeful way. When he does act, he prefers to do it blindly, recklessly, and violently. The other characters obviously think much less about “action” in the abstract than Hamlet does, and are therefore less troubled about the possibility of acting effectively. They simply act as they feel is appropriate. But in some sense they prove that Hamlet is right, because all of their actions miscarry. Claudius possesses himself of queen and crown through bold action, but his conscience torments him, and he is beset by threats to his authority (and, of course, he dies). Laertes resolves that nothing will distract him from acting out his revenge, but he is easily influenced and manipulated into serving Claudius’s ends, and his poisoned rapier is turned back upon himself.
The Mystery of Death
In the aftermath of his father’s murder, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of death, and over the course of the play he considers death from a great many perspectives. He ponders both the spiritual aftermath of death, embodied in the ghost, and the physical remainders of the dead, such as by Yorick’s skull and the decaying corpses in the cemetery. Throughout, the idea of death is closely tied to the themes of spirituality, truth, and uncertainty in that death may bring the answers to Hamlet’s deepest questions, ending once and for all the problem of trying to determine truth in an ambiguous world. And, since death is both the cause and the consequence of revenge, it is intimately tied to the theme of revenge and justice—Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet initiates Hamlet’s quest for revenge, and Claudius’s death is the end of that quest.
The question of his own death plagues Hamlet as well, as he repeatedly contemplates whether or not suicide is a morally legitimate action in an unbearably painful world. Hamlet’s grief and misery is such that he frequently longs for death to end his suffering, but he fears that if he commits suicide, he will be consigned to eternal suffering in hell because of the Christian religion’s prohibition of suicide. In his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy (III.i), Hamlet philosophically concludes that no one would choose to endure the pain of life if he or she were not afraid of what will come after death, and that it is this fear which causes complex moral considerations to interfere with the capacity for action.
The Nation as a Diseased Body
Everything is connected in Hamlet, including the welfare of the royal family and the health of the state as a whole. The play’s early scenes explore the sense of anxiety and dread that surrounds the transfer of power from one ruler to the next. Throughout the play, characters draw explicit connections between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of the nation. Denmark is frequently described as a physical body made ill by the moral corruption of Claudius and Gertrude, and many observers interpret the presence of the ghost as a supernatural omen indicating that “[s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv.67). The dead King Hamlet is portrayed as a strong, forthright ruler under whose guard the state was in good health, while Claudius, a wicked politician, has corrupted and compromised Denmark to satisfy his own appetites. At the end of the play, the rise to power of the upright Fortinbras suggests that Denmark will be strengthened once again.
More main ideas from Hamlet
Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for Hamlet by William Shakespeare that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of Hamlet in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from Hamlet by William Shakespeare at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: Hamlet’s Preoccupation with Philosophy
One of the most famous Shakepearean lines—“To be or not to be, that is the question” is found in Hamlet, spoken by the title character himself. While this is the most obvious reference that Hamlet makes to his own philosophy, Hamlet makes frequent proclamations about his philosophy of life. Hamlet’s philosophy touches not only on the subject of love, but also about loyalty, family, and the virtue of suffering, among other themes. His philosophy, summed up in the “To be or not to be” (click here for a full analysis of the “to be or not to be” speech) soliloquy and reflected in his actions, might not be comfortable for all characters or all readers. Hamlet’s philosophy is particular to his own strange obsessions, and help explain the fates of the characters in the play.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Hamlet’s View of Love
Because Hamlet has been disillusioned about love by his mother’s actions, he rejects the possibility that romantic love is an important part of human relationships. He is consumed by the outrageousness of his mother’s love for his uncle, and he rejects Ophelia’s love for him, though he admitted once to loving her. Although Hamlet is justified to feel disgust towards his mother and her actions, his pessimistic view of love has dreadful implications, not just for him, but for other characters as well. For this essay on Hamlet, you might want to take a character analysis approach to Hamlet with this theme as your guide or thesis statement.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Taboos in Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Many of Shakespeare’s plays involve transgressions that violate social taboos. Hamlet is no exception. In this play, numerous social norms are violated; however, the most powerful taboo is that of incest. Hamlet is outraged when his mother marries his uncle shortly after the death of his father, and his mother’s action causes him to lose faith in love. Although the incest taboo may seem grotesque, Shakespeare puts his characters in such dynamic tension and outrageous situations in order to make profound observations about the nature of both familial and romantic love.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Unmanly Grief in Hamlet
Claudius could hardly be considered to be a model of upright behavior and insight, given that he seduces Gertrude while the grief over her husband’s death is still fresh. While he is obviously advancing his own motives, his speech to Hamlet about “unmanly grief” is oddly compelling. Claudius takes the view that all men die, all men lose their fathers. They enter a period of appropriate grief and then move on. Because Hamlet is not conforming to this norm, Claudius suggests that Hamlet’s grief is not only unhealthy, but unmanly. A close reading of the play supports Claudius’s observation. Although Claudius is certainly not free from reproach, Hamlet’s obsessional grief is not praiseworthy either.
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Role of Women in Hamlet
The female characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are a complicated lot. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is much maligned for her sexual and romantic alliance with Hamlet’s own uncle. Ophelia is portrayed as a woman who is so consumed with love for Hamlet that she is willing to sacrifice her life for him. Through these two very different characters, Shakespeare portrays women negatively in limited roles. Women have no chance for redemption, and are subject to the decisions that men make for them.
A few articles that might offer some guidance with these thesis statements for Hamlet include :
This list of important quotations from Hamlet by William Shakespeare will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Hamlet listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet they are referring to.
“Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father. But you must know your father lost a father, that father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound in filial obligation for some term to do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubborness, tis unmanly grief….” (I.ii. ll. 87-94).
“O God, God, How stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!.” (I.ii.132-134).
“Within a month, Ere, yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, Shemarried–O most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets, It is not, nor it cannot come to good…” (I.ii.153-57).
“Be wary then, best safety lies in fear….” (I.ii.43)
“Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast… who won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming virtuous queen.” (I.v.42-46)
“There are more things in heaven and earth,…Than are dreamt of in your philosophy….” (II.i.166-167)
“This must be known, which, being kept close, might move More grief to hid, than hate to utter love.” (II.i.113-115)
“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.” (III.i.55-59)
“Be not too tame neither, but your own discretion be your tutor.” (III.ii.16)
Reference: Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In The Riverside Shakespeare. Eds. G. Blakemore Evans and J.J.M. Tobin. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 1189-1234.