Hamlet Study Guide

Read our modern English translation.

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's father was a glove-maker, and Shakespeare received no more than a grammar school education. He married Anne Hathaway in 1582, but left his family behind around 1590 and moved to London, where he became an actor and playwright. He was an immediate success: Shakespeare soon became the most popular playwright of the day as well as a part-owner of the Globe Theater. His theater troupe was adopted by King James as the King's Men in 1603. Shakespeare retired as a rich and prominent man to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1613, and died three years later.
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Historical Context of Hamlet

Hamlet is in many ways a product of the Reformation, in which Protestants broke away from the until-then dominant Catholic Church, as well as the skeptical humanism of late Renaissance Northern Europe, which held that there were limits on human knowledge. Hamlet's constant anxiety about the difference between appearance and reality, as well as his concerns about and difficulties with religion (the sinfulness of suicide, the unfairness that killing a murderer while the murderer is praying would result in sending the murder to heaven) can be seen as directly emerging from the breaks in religion and thought brought on by the Reformation and Renaissance humanist thought.

Other Books Related to Hamlet

Hamlet falls into the tradition of revenge tragedy, in which the central character's quest for revenge usually results in general tragedy. This tradition existed from Roman times (the Roman playwright Seneca was well known for writing revenge tragedies). The most famous revenge tragedy of Shakespeare's day before Hamlet was Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and some believe that Kyd wrote an earlier play of Hamlet, now lost, which scholars call the Ur-Hamlet. The story of Hamlet is based on a Danish revenge story first recorded by Saxo Grammaticus in the 1100s. In these stories, a Danish prince fakes madness in order to take revenge on his uncle, who had killed the prince's father and married his mother. But Shakespeare modified this rather straightforward story and filled it with dread and uncertainty—Hamlet doesn't just feign madness; he seems at times to actually be crazy.
Key Facts about Hamlet
  • Full Title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
  • When Written: Between 1599 - 1601
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 1603 (First Quarto), 1604 (Second Quarto).
  • Literary Period: The Renaissance (1500 - 1660)
  • Genre: Tragic drama; Revenge tragedy
  • Setting: Denmark during the late middle ages (circa 1200), though characters in the play occasionally reference things or events from the Elizabethan Age (circa 1500).
  • Climax: The climax of Hamlet is a subject of debate. Some say it occurs when Hamlet kills Claudius, others when Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius while Claudius is praying, others when Hamlet kills Polonius, and still others when Hamlet vows to focus on revenge at the end of Act 4.

Extra Credit for Hamlet

Shakespeare or Not? There are some who believe Shakespeare wasn't educated enough to write the plays attributed to him. The most common anti-Shakespeare theory is that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays and used Shakespeare as a front man because aristocrats were not supposed to write plays. Yet the evidence supporting Shakespeare's authorship far outweighs any evidence against. So until further notice, Shakespeare is still the most influential writer in the English language.