AuthorWilliam Shakespeare
TimeBetween 1599 and 1601
LanguageEarly Modern English
Featured In
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or quite simply, Hamlet, is William Shakespeare’s longest play and one of his most famous tragedies, written between 1599 and 1601. Set in Denmark just as the medieval world began to transition to the Renaissance period, the play spans five acts, comprising seven soliloquies and 4000 over lines that cleverly place thematic extremes –  for instance, madness and sanity, love and hate, life and death – on both sides of the same coin. Such deliberation over the human condition at once provides insights into the circumstances of its time and imbues the play with a timeless quality, generously allowing for continued retelling and recontextualization. 


Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4), engraved by Robert Thew after Henry Fuseli’s conception, stipple engraving, first published 1796. From The Met Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hamlet, distilled down to the mere unfolding of its plot, tells of Prince Hamlet’s revenge against King Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, after learning from the ghost of Old King Hamlet that Claudius had murdered the Old King Hamlet in pursuit of “[his] crown, [his] own ambition, and [his] queen” (Act 3 Scene 3, line 55). Duty bound by the ghost’s demand to be avenged, the shaken Prince seeks to verify the ghost’s words, and thereby the presence of a supernatural being, as part of his plan for revenge by putting on an “antic disposition” (Act 1 Scene 5, line 179). Though Hamlet’s subsequent act of madness and erratic behavior – as observed by Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest, and later reported to her father, Polonius – is initially thought of as a result of distress and grief over his father’s death, Claudius soon becomes suspicious, and observes as Hamlet wittingly deflects Polonius, Ophelia, and his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Upon learning of the acting troupe brought in by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet stages The Murder of Gonzago, The Mousetrap’ that reveals, to both Hamlet and the audience, Claudius’s guilty conscience. 

Gertrude, the Queen, summons Hamlet to her chambers for an explanation as to Hamlet’s offending of Claudius. On the way to her chambers, Hamlet stumbles upon Claudius and, seeing Claudius praying, chooses to withhold his murderous intent for fear that killing Claudius then would send him to Heaven whilst Old King Hamlet stays in Purgatory. In Gertrude’s chambers, Hamlet confronts his mother with her incestuous deed and the truth of Old King Hamlet’s death. The spying Polonius behind the curtains, thinking Hamlet will kill his mother, calls for help, and is promptly stabbed by Hamlet, who believes Claudius to be in the chambers and who proceeds to audaciously insult Gertrude for her ignorance of Claudius’s depravity. The ghost then appears only to Hamlet to berate him for his inaction and his harsh words while Gertrude, only witnessing Hamlet’s fear, believes her son to be mad. 

The Death of Hamlet, by Eugène Delacroix and Villain, lithograph, 1843. From The Met Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The simultaneous occurrence of Polonius’s death and Hamlet’s slipping control over his sanity brings about a series of deaths in the remaining half of the play. Ophelia, upon learning of her father’s death, becomes mad with grief and drowns (accidental, or otherwise), causing Laertes much grief. His thirst for vengeance leads him to go along with Claudius’s suggestion to engage in a fencing match with Hamlet using a poison-tipped foil and, if Hamlet wins, to offer a glass of poisoned wine as congratulations. The plan goes terribly awry – Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine as a toast to Hamlet’s initial wins, and though Laertes manages to injure Hamlet as planned, Hamlet wounds Laertes too with the poisoned foil. As Laertes lies dying, he exposes Claudius’s plan, prompting Hamlet to kill Claudius. The play ends with Hamlet begging Horatio not to commit suicide and to tell his story as Fortinbras marches through, taking the crown for himself and ordering a military funeral in honour of Hamlet.


Reading Hamlet’s whirlwind of a trajectory as the above summary has done so leaves one bewildered by the many inconsistencies and discontinuities that would appear, at times, irrational if not for Hamlet’s soliloquies. Each of the seven soliloquy expresses Hamlet’s inner psyche at various stages of the play’s development, as Hamlet mourns for and struggles to comprehend the loss of his father that has been complicated and made ambiguous by the ghost, whose presence, claim of murder, and dwelling in purgatory entirely destablize Hamlet’s Protestant beliefs and understanding of reality. Finding himself caught in an aporia, he exclaims to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,//Than are dreamt of in our philosophy” (Act 1 Scene 5, lines 174 – 75, emphasize mine). While mourning is a transitive process when loss is definitive and comprehensible, Hamlet’s enigmatic loss causes him to remain in an intransitive state of mourning,1 which he describes to be like a “heartache, and the thousand natural shocks//That flesh is heir to”—for, as he confesses to Horatio, “in [his] heart there was a kind of fighting//That would not let [him] sleep” (Act 5 Scene II, line 4). Hamlet’s bodily description of his conscious faculty – the repeated motif of his “heart,” reference to the “flesh” and his insomnia – presents his intransitive state of mourning to be that of a melancholic2 disposition that infects his soliloquies3. In his fourth soliloquy4, he laments: 

To be or not to be, that is the question: 
… To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks 
That flesh is heir to: ‘tis a consummation 
Devoutly to be wished: to die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub; 
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, 
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, 
Must give us pause
(Act 3 Scene I, lines 57-65, emphasis mine)

Hamlet’s repetition of the words “die (death)”, “sleep” and “dream” in a fervent attempt to draw connections between these notions expresses his struggle to comprehend the mortal condition. Upon suggesting that death is a kind of “sleep” that would forebode unknown “dreams,” Hamlet concludes that it is the feared possibility of “dreams,” of the afterlife that causes a “pause,” an inability (or refusal) to make peace with death. The conclusion of this fear, as hinted by his metaphorical reference to the afterlife as an “undiscovered country” later in this soliloquy (Act 3 Scene I, line 80), is very much born out of his attempt at registering the presence of the ghost that reveals the political corruption in Denmark. Hamlet’s lengthy soliloquizing, then, as both a result of and a cause of his melancholia, not only pushes the physical and temporal boundaries of the stage and provides insights into his psychological state, but also shows how Renaissance thought is motivated by the age that precedes it. 

Hamlet’s pause caused by his struggle to comprehend death and the afterlife also effectively prepares the audience for the chain of unnatural deaths that will occur later in Act 5, seemingly perpetuated by an unknown force. As the play develops, Hamlet’s mulling over of divine justice and retribution almost writes itself, with deaths happening spontaneously in a reversal of fortune, as my classmates and I had (mirthfully) concluded below: 

Missing above is Hamlet’s causing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths, as well as the soldiers’ deaths at the battlefield that went unaccounted for.

Most of the characters’ deaths are unwittingly a result of their misdoings, suggesting the capricious Rota Fortunae5, the Fortune’s Wheel which the goddess Fortuna spins at random, changing the position of those on the Wheel. The medieval and Renaissance period saw the use of the wheel in the “Mirrors for Princes,” a popular genre of writing that sets out advice for the ruling classes on the wielding of power, shifting the Wheel from the Goddess to the hands of humans. For Prince Hamlet, figures of philosophy like Fortune are not personified as divine guides, but rather figuratively addressed: 

A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards 
Hath ta’en with equal thanks; and blest are those 
Whose blood and judgement are so well commingled 
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger 
To sound what she please. (Act 3 Scene II, lines 62 – 66) 

Here, Hamlet likens Fortune’s control over humans’ “buffets and rewards” to that of a musician playing a pipe, and suggests that humans’ ability to reason and judge frees us from becoming Fortune’s fool. As Hamlet later exclaims, “Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me” (Act 3 Scene II, lines 353 – 354), seeing Fortune as the mere making of human manipulation, and perceiving himself to be above that. Yet Hamlet himself is also manipulated, as his effort to serve divine retribution (his revenge that results in Ophelia’s undeserving death) in turn provokes Laertes’ desire for revenge against Hamlet: 

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well 
When our dear plots do pall; and that should teach us 
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, 
Rough-hew them how we will – (Act 5 Scene II, lines 8 – 10) 

Print depicting the Wheel of Fortune, engraved by Martin Rota, 1572.

Whether it is the inevitable submission to the whims of Fortune6 (whereby death is the divine retribution for having sinned, prior to repercussions in the afterlife) or undeserving deaths as a result of human folly (Ophelia’s death, as well as that of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the soldiers involved in the war between Denmark and Norway), Hamlet addresses the limitations of letting “your own discretion be your tutor,” wherein our moments of irrationality, although beyond our control, are also part of what “shapes our ends”. Through Hamlet’s consciousness, then, Hamlet goes beyond the singular focus of a revenge tragedy plot to consider the vicious cycle of revenge that interweaves the characters’ (including the barely mentioned soldiers) fate, exposing human reasoning as limited by the human condition which, in effect, presents the dichotomies7 of Renaissance thought. 

Indeed, Hamlet’s focus on the individual’s mourning and their positioning in a complex web of human relations allows us to better comprehend the occurrence of mass deaths that often ironically evade our empathy and ability to fully register the gravity of our loss. Hamlet’s continued use of the collective pronoun “we” and “us” in his soliloquies (and his addressing of Horatio) includes the audience, extending the ‘pause’ beyond himself which makes room for “commentary and reflection instead of narration” (Genette Gerard, Narrative Discourse 36). Through the experience of mourning, insights on death very much inform life, for the play, “despite its concerns with death, is bursting with life” (General Introduction 29). With Hamlet’s eventual acceptance – “since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.” (Act 5 Scene II, lines 169-170), one is prompted to accept the dramatic portrayal of sentiments – excessive fear, anger, love and hate, mourning and mirth – and failings that are only human, as a form of peace-making with death. 


1 Mourning as a response to loss can be transitive and intransitive (“mourn, v.1”). 

2 According to Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholia (1883), melancholia is a disposition as much as it is a ‘habit’; in other words, melancholia is an affect that is “an act of Mortality” that manifests as a treatable physical “settled humour” of black bile (93). Hamlet is also described as cloaked in black (Act 1 Scene II, line 77) and he confesses to have already “lost all of [his] mirth, forgone all custom of exercise” (Act 2 Scene II, line 294), both of which are also symptoms of melancholia.

3 Here I refer to his soliloquies that come after his meeting with the ghost. 

4 For the purpose of this essay, I focused largely on the fourth soliloquy, for it is in Act 3 where Hamlet is most unsettled, having confirmed the presence of the ghost. 

5 The Rota Rotunae was greatly popularized for the Middle Ages by its extended treatment in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and was widely used as an allegory in medieval literature and art to aid religious instruction.

6 Charles M. Radding states in his article ‘Fortune and her Wheel: The Meaning of a Medieval Symbol’:“If the popularity of Fortune in the central Middle Ages does not reflect a new social reality, then it is likely that it was meant to suggest [that] the operation of a force distinct from necessity and also (one might add) from divine justice… the meaning of the Wheel of Fortune is thus quite general: that everyone in human society is subject to the whims of Fortune, that not all of the world’s gifts or the world’s tragedies are deserved” (133). 

7 That is, the extremes of reasoning and faith. The opposing ends of Renaissance thought presents either an entire lack of faith in the divine (as proposed by the philosopher Edward Herbert of Cherbury) or, according to Blaise Pascal, total disbelief in the human ability to understand the world with certainty (Fieser). 


Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Claxton & Co. 1883. Internet Archive, urn:oclc:record:1039522579

Fieser, James. “Renaissance and Early Modern Philosophy.”  The History of Philosophy: A Short Survey, 2020, https://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/110/6-renaissance.htm 

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin, Cornell UP, 1980 

Radding, Charles M. “Fortune and Her Wheel: The Meaning of a Medieval Symbol.” Mediaevistik, vol. 5, Peter Lang AG, 1992, pp. 127–38, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42584434.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Bloomsbury Arden, 2016. 

“mourn, v.1.” OED Online, Oxford UP, March 2021, www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/11125. Accessed 5 March 2022. 


The following creative projects, produced for the course on Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature, offer further perspectives and insights on Hamlet and its thematic concerns:


[Featured Image & Fig. 1] http://www.strangehistory.net/2014/11/17/daily-history-picture-playing-medieval-chess/

[Fig. 2] https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/files/special/exhibns/chaucer/works.html

[Fig. 3] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1873-0809-801


Hamlet in Bukit Brown: A Creative Exploration


Hamlet in Bukit Brown: A Creative Exploration
Performing Art (Proposed Directorial Vision)
An Interpretation of Hamlet
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)


The oft quoted “To be, or not to be – that is the question”1 in Shakespeare’s canonical text, Hamlet, is a solemn meditation on existence. It is a reflective grappling with states of life and death, a vacillation between doubt and certainty, and a question that is suspended within the intermedial throes of madness and sanity. Such a general utterance invites three potential interpretations on what “the question” in this context could be, moving from macro to micro spheres of agentic discourse: (a) whether life is worth living, (b) whether he should take his own life, and (c) whether he should act against the King.

These three possible interpretations suggest that while the play seems to centre around avenging his father’s death, Hamlet is essentially about identity and existence, as explored through the different proxies of politics, family, and romance/friendship – with the formation (and/or fragmentation) of the self taking on expressions of loyalty, duty, and love. This idea of identity and existence is not only embodied in the titular character, Hamlet, and in the relationships that he has, but also in the Ghost that appears and adds supernatural spice to what would be, otherwise, a plot without precedent.

In this way, Hamlet is a story that seems to be about a man’s search for “heimlich” (homecoming; belonging), wherein the themes of death, mourning, and memory are relevant to that struggle. The sense of “heimlich” is motivated by the presence of the Ghost, which is the interpretive crux to Hamlet’s character and the device that moves the plot of the play. The Ghost’s roaming and existence is also possibly a lack of eschatological “heimlich”, which surfaces an interesting cultural debate about the existence of Purgatory and theologically sanctioned practices of remembrance.

This creative exploration thus aims to reimagine how Hamlet participates in the debate about Purgatory and memorialising the dead through a proposed directorial vision of the play – an exploration of site-specific theatre, set in Bukit Brown Cemetery. This vision is inspired by itinerant cinema practices that have screened films in cemeteries for the dead (a cinema night for spirits), and commedia dell’arte as one of the first recognised theatre practices to perform in non-conventional production spaces.

The Ripple Effects of Hamlet’s Murder


The Ripple Effects of Hamlet’s Murder
An Interpretation of Hamlet
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)

Artist’s Remarks

Breakdown of Animation: Scene 1 of my animation begins with Yorick’s skull in frame. The skull then splits into several pieces which recombine to form a knife. Prince Hamlet’s hand then comes into frame as he grabs the knife and plunges it into Polonius’s heart in Scene 2. The heart starts bleeding in an explosive fashion as the camera pans upwards to show Polonius’s shellshocked face. The blood pouring out of the heart then fills up Ophelia’s gown in Scene 3. The camera zooms out and Ophelia’s face pops into the scene with her person being enclosed within Hamlet’s eyes. Hamlet cries in blood as his tears drown Ophelia. The wave of blood then transforms into Hamlet’s eyeballs as his mouth appears uttering the lines:

“Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander
returneth to dust, the dust is earth” (Shakespeare, 5.1.205-215)

The camera, then, pans downwards onto Scene 4 to reveal the cup of poison that kills Gertrude. A tree grows out from the cup and extends out of frame. The camera, for the last time, pans upwards to reveal Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet all impaled by the tree.

The animation ends with the camera zooming in on Hamlet’s face as his own soliloquy about Alexander the Great’s remnants being part of the soil plays in the background.

Commentary: My visuals and the lines spoken in this animation contradict each other. While the soliloquys I have chosen as the audio suggest that Hamlet is a meditative spirit who understands how intangible, feeble, and pathetic human greed, emotions, and desires are, my visuals – that depict him committing murder and the ripple effects of his murder – suggest otherwise. They suggest that he is an impulsive creature who is so swayed by the happenings in his environment that he possesses no understanding of the ramifications his actions might have.

These soliloquys suggest that human might, wealth, greed, or, in the case of Yorick, even idiosyncratic traits that a person is remembered the most by, hold no weight over the all-levelling nature of death. Yet, Hamlet is constantly propelled by his emotions and swayed by his propensities. For example, upon seeing a player become so overwhelmed by emotion while acting The Aeneid out, Hamlet wonders why he was not as consumed by emotion when it came to enacting revenge on his uncle. (Shakespeare, 2.2.530-605) Similarly, he is once again spurred into a vengeful state when he hears about all the Poles and the Norwegians dying over plots of land. (Shakespeare, 4.4.60) But if he were to apply the essence of his soliloquys onto these thoughts, he would know that there are no emotions or goals worth pursuing when you think of them in a wider timeframe.

My Scene 1 punctures these soliloquys by having Yorick’s skull, a symbol of this meditative aspect of Hamlet, being torn apart and put back together as a knife – a tool that symbolises death. Hamlet’s act of murdering Polonius thinking it might be his uncle goes to show how propelled by tendencies he is. There was nothing calculative at all about his actions and therefore, just like Yorick’s skull, so do his ruminations on death break apart.

I begin to show the ripple effect of Hamlet’s murder by having the blood pouring out of Polonius’s heart drench Ophelia’s clothes in Scene 3. I also wanted to capture Gertrude’s expression about the river drenching Ophelia’s clothes and carrying her away. (Shakespeare, 4.7.181) This expression reduces Ophelia’s culpability in her own death: it was not just suicide but the river also played a role in killing her. Similarly, since Ophelia’s psyche shows a clear deterioration following Polonius’s death, (Shakespeare, 4.5.30) I wanted to put Hamlet partly at fault for her death. This is why I had her drown inside his eyes with her clothes drenched from Polonius’s blood: she is the first victim of Hamlet’s propensities. Ophelia’s site of death turns into Hamlet’s eyeballs and his talking mouth takes over the scene. I wanted to show Hamlet’s short-sightedness and ego through this scene. He does not think about Ophelia at all when he finds out that he had accidentally killed Polonius. His indifference is to be blamed when we are talking about Ophelia’s death.

Similarly, I animated a tree in Scene 4 because it was a good visual representation of the branching effect of Hamlet’s actions. Claudius and Laertes wishes to kill Hamlet because of his involvement in the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. The glass of poison and the sword laced with the poison become all of their undoing as one thing leads to another and they all die by the end of the events of the play.


Audio Recording obtained from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ilZn_1MPrE&t=473s.


William, Shakespeare. Hamlet. The Arden Shakespeare.

Boyle, Danny. Trainspotting. PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. 1996.