• Not a critical or scholarly text but a reading text for a seminar

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Index to Selections


William Shakespeare

 The Tragedy of Hamlet,
Prince of Denmark


Hamlet may be the greatest tragedy ever, but it's very long—too long in its entirety to squeeze into our Tragedy course's overpacked schedule. Since most students are at least familiar with Hamlet and may well study it elsewhere, our course focuses on some scenes for comparison to other tragedies:

Backstory: Prince Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, has died, and the King's brother Claudius has married Queen Gertrude, the prince's mother.

Old King Hamlet's ghost tells Prince Hamlet that Claudius murdered him by pouring poison in his ear as he slept. Hamlet swears vengeance but remains uncertain of the Ghost's reliability.

The greatness of tragedy: Tragedy often proclaims the greatness of humanity even while observing its failure. Compare "The Ode to Man" in Sophocles's Antigone, ll. 388-414, beginning:

There are many strange and wonderful things,
       but nothing more strangely wonderful than man. . . .

In Act II, scene 2 of Hamlet, Hamlet speaks:

"I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so."

Another key continuity b/w Hamlet and other tragedies esp. Oedipus the King.

Premise: since Aristotle (Poetics 13a, 14a & b), the purpose or effect of tragedy has often been interpreted as medicinal or therapeutic: a serious problem—often depicted as disease, disorder, sterility, uncleanliness or putridity—affects the world, calling for cleansing and healing (or catharsis)

This interpretation is supported by the figurative descriptions of many tragedies, e. g. Oedipus the King where the Priest in the opening scene informs Oedipus:

Disease infects fruit blossoms in our land,    
disease infects our herds of grazing cattle,                                                30
makes women in labor lose their children.
And deadly pestilence, that fiery god,
swoops down to blast the city . . . .

The disease is serious and affects everyone, and the cure is described in ways that are metaphorically consistent, as when Creon returns from the Oracle at Delphi with a message from Apollo, the god of medicine and healing:

Lord Phoebus clearly orders us to drive away                                    113
the polluting stain this land has harbored—     

which will not be healed if we keep nursing it.

Through catharsis, an audience watching a tragedy implicitly undergoes the same conflict and resolution of disease or uncleanliness and healing or purification.


The backstory to Shakespeare's Hamlet is told with similar figures of speech, and the character Hamlet reinforces such imagery throughout the play.

Most famously, in Act 1 when Hamlet encounters the ghost of his slain father the old king, the palace guard Marcellus intones, "Something is rotten in the State of Denmark."

In Act 3, scene 4 when Hamlet challenges his mother Queen Gertrude with his repulsion over her marriage to his father's supposed murderer, he uses imagery such as "mildew," "rank sweat," "enseamed" (i.e., greasy), "corruption" and "nasty sty."


Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear,                                         [65]

Blasting his wholesome brother. . . .  


Nay, but to live

In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,             [enseamed = greasy]

Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love

Over the nasty sty!                                          [sty = pig pen]                         [95]


The treatment of problems in comedy contrasts with their troubling and consequential depictions in tragedy. Comedy according to Aristotle's Poetics (5) "consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.  To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.

Thus in comedy, the story-line often begins with a problem or a mistake (as in mistaken identity), but the problem is less significant than tragedy. The problem may involve a recognizable social situation, but unlike tragedy, the problem does not intimately threaten or shake the audience, the state, or the larger world.

For example, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (2.1), a problem similar to those depicted in Oedipus the King and Hamlet is glanced at but quickly forgotten for the sake of the personal or romantic intrigues that are more common to comedy:

OBERON. How canst thou thus, for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta,
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus? . . . .   [Oberon, king of the Fairies, argues about sexual liaissons and jealousies concerning him and Titania, queen of the Fairies. In the speech below, Titania first describes how these ]

TITANIA. These are the forgeries of jealousy;             81
And never, since the middle summer's spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By paved fountain, or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,        [contagious = infectious]           90
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,   [does no good to plow]
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted . . . .
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound. . . .

OBERON. Do you amend it, then; it lies in you.    [i.e., "just make it better," then a return to the personal]
Why should Titania cross her Oberon?
I do but beg a little changeling boy                                   120
To be my henchman.

TITANIA. Set your heart at rest;
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a vot'ress of my order . . . .

OBERON. How long within this wood intend you stay?