Hamlet: Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Theme #1The Impossibility of Certainty There are a lot of things going on that both the characters and the audience are left to wonder about. Are there ghosts real? Are certain characters intentions good or evil? Many people see the play as a vicious circle of indecisiveness and uncertainty
Theme #2The Complexity 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 is even possible to act in a controlled purposeful way.
Theme #3The Mystery of Death Throughout the play Hamlet ponder’s death – he obsesses over King Hamlet’s and Yorick’s death, his own death, and the death he would like to see come to Claudius. “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 a capacity for action.
Theme #4The Nation (of Denmark) as a Diseased Body Everything is connected and Hamlet, including the welfare of the royal family and the health of the state as a whole. Since the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude is considered both “incestuous and unlawful” by most, it’s as though this has tainted all of Denmark. Many observers interpret the presence of the ghost as a supernatural omen indicating that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”(I. iv. 67)
Motif #1Incest and Incestuous Desire Most obviously in the characters of Gertrude and Claudius both also seen in a relationship between Laertes and Ophelia and Hamlet’s fixation on his mother (Gertrude) and his uncle’s (Claudius) sex life and with his mother in general
Motif #2 Misogyny (hatred of women) Shattered by his mother’s decision to marry Claudius (his uncle), Hamlet becomes cynical about women in general, showing a particular obsession with what he perceives to be a connection between female sexuality and moral corruption. This occurs sporadically throughout the play, but it is an important factor in Hamlet’s relationships with Opelia and Gertrude. He urges Opelia to go to the nunnery rather than experience the corruptions of sexuality and exclaims of Gertrude, “Frailty, thy name is woman” (I. ii. 146)
Motif #3Ears and Hearing Words are used to both express characters’ thoughts and to manipulate each other. Also, the mention of “ears” throughout the play is important. For example, poison was placed in King Hamlet’s ear to kill him, and several lines throughout the play refer to hearing or a persons ears.
Symbol #1Yorick’s Skull There aren’t many physical symbols in the play, but this is an important one. Hamlet talks to and about the skull and refers morbidly to the eventual death and decay of every human being.