An Analysis of Renaissance Humanist Thoughts in Hamlet, a Play by William Shakespeare

Categories: William Shakespeare

“Hamlet,” one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, was written in London around the beginning of the 1600s. The various characters at different times are presented as having symptoms of depression and various other mental illnesses, which appears to catalyze the actions that Hamlet proceeds to commit and the downfall of both his character and the narrative itself. This play comprises one of the formative pieces of literature in the English language and helped to catapult the development of Shakespeare’s career as a result.

Shakespeare uses this text, devised from one much like it, to create a story rife with deep symbolism and references to philosophical movements such as humanism and the overall ideas propagated by the Renaissance. The play was initially received extremely well, and many of the inspirations for the play itself could be seen as extensions of Shakespeare’s own life and mentalities.

“Hamlet” essentially defines the most prominent part of Shakespeare’s career, when many of his most famous works sprang to life, such as “Othello,” “Lear” and “Macbeth.

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” (Bloom, 36) While it can be said that he was already a prominent figure in literature at the time, this provided Shakespeare the platform to truly transcend the scope of just simply being a prominent figure to being a legendary one. The beginning of “Hamlet” starts with several negative changes that generally alter Prince Hamlet’s perspective of the world and cast him into an unfavorable state of existence, which can be seen as reflective of many influences on Shakespeare at the time.

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Hamlet’s darkened state is the result of Hamlet returning home to Denmark to find his father dead and his mother already remarried to his father’s brother, Claudius. (Bloom, 35) This type of depressive attitude continues and plagues at Hamlet to the point where he begins to exhibit tendencies of depressive psychosis, which can be defined as a “depressive episode that is often accompanied by psychotic symptoms.” (Bloom, 39) The main story itself is derived from a story of Danish prince Amleth whose uncle kills the king, marries the queen and takes the throne as a result. With the way that Shakespeare developed the play, it stands significantly different from the source material. There are many parts of the story which present Hamlet in a way which is indicative of him being exposed to the conditions of depressive psychosis. This is evident in the hallucinations that he has which convince him of Claudius’ guilt in his father’s murder and the delusions that he is meant to hold the throne left by his father. (Greenblatt, 106)

These hallucinations are most prominent when his father’s ghost returns to the castle and Hamlet finds it in his father’s room. The ghost tells him that he is unable to finally rest peacefully because he was in fact murdered and it is forcing his spirit to linger on the earth. The ghost further states that Claudius had put poison into the king’s ear while he was sleeping, and as a result of this, he is subjected to walking Purgatory until he finds salvation. (Greenblatt, 108) This meeting with the ghost conveniently confirms all of the suspicions that Hamlet has at the time. This begins a series of events which essentially deceive and tempt Hamlet, and the nature of his suspicions are never truly confirmed. This manifestation of his father’s ghost could be an active example of the extent of madness that Hamlet is experiencing, attempting to cope with this father’s recent death. (Greenblatt, 110) This in itself could be seen as a large inspiration for why Shakespeare chose to write “Hamlet.” In the same year that he wrote “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s father died. These inspirations could be seen as the principle reason why Shakespeare wrote a revenge tale in which the main character was so confused and introspective of the situation, possibly as a means to reflect his own ideas.

He vows to investigate the way that people are interacting throughout the castle, and to implement a sort of ruse to mask his own feelings of the events which transpired, but it is evident in his pursuits that he is furthering his own sense of depressive madness and is unable to adequately find ways to cope with his father’s death. (Welsh, 11) Hamlet continues to agonize over the implications of his father’s death and what the appearance of the ghost truly meant, and he in turn cannot prevent himself from thinking intently about the issues that were present in these moments. Hamlet even goes so far as to enlist the help of a number of actors to reenact a play known as The Murder of Gonzago, but with the inclusion scenes that mirror his father’s murder. (Thompson, 75) In this regard, there are many parallels that one could draw with the life that Shakespeare led and the connections to the death of his own father. The purpose of the play is to coerce Claudius’ guilt from him after witnessing the reenactment of the death that he is believed to have committed. In this moment, Claudius is unable to remain and leaves, stating that he can’t breathe. Hamlet states in this scene that “conscience doth make cowards of us all.” (Thompson, 77)

The overall nature of these parts of the story can often be seen as a reflection of Renaissance humanism and the wish to understand more about the human kind and its inner workings. Hamlet’s character is deeply complex and many of his inspirations and reflections on the world are introspective in nature. This is evident in his famous speech in Act II, in which he states, “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and 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!” (Thompson, 78) The state of mental deterioration is so great by the conclusion of the story that this appears as the only solution for his situation, and he chooses not be depressed or angry, but rather welcoming in a way. This could be a way for Shakespeare to deduce the overall nature of humanity and the ideas which permeate the human subconscious, which is a reflection of Renaissance humanist thoughts.

Originally, Shakespeare’s text was extremely well received, with renditions of the play making its way around the world in print version and in the theater. Furthermore, the play has transcended literature and history, becoming a staple in many different films and parodies. “Hamlet” is often considered the greatest work that Shakespeare ever produced, and this reaction mirrors much of the reaction that he had from audiences whom he originally showed the play. The complexities of the play’s meaning has baffled people even in the modern era, with details such as Gertrude’s involvement with the murder of the king or Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia being noticeably mysterious. (Greenblatt, 106) Because of these perceptions and perspectives, the story has lived on and become a staple in academic pursuits and texts since it was originally conceived all those years ago. Audiences across the globe are now familiar with the text and generations have grown with it as they have come to learn ways to apply literature in itself.

Works Cited

  1. Bloom, Harold (2001) Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human Mind (Open Market ed.). Harlow Longman. pp. 34-46.
  2. Greenblatt, Stephen (2004). Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. W.W. Norton & Co. pp. 106-114.
  3. Thompson, Ann; Taylor, Neil (1996). William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”. Northcote House. pp. 75 82.
  4. Welsh, Alexander (2001). Hamlet in his Modern Guises. Princeton University Press. pp. 11-14.
  5. Wofford, Susanne L. (1994). “A Critical History of Hamlet”. Hamlet: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Bedford Books. pp. 181–207.

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An Analysis of Renaissance Humanist Thoughts in Hamlet, a Play by William Shakespeare. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from

An Analysis of Renaissance Humanist Thoughts in Hamlet, a Play by William Shakespeare

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