Keys to Interpretation of Hamlet
William Shakespeare's Hamlet is, at heart, a play about suicide. Though it is surrounded by a fairly standard revenge plot, the play's core is an intense psychodrama about a prince gone mad from the pressures of his station and his unrequited love for Ophelia. He longs for the ultimate release of killing himself - but why? In this respect, Hamlet is equivocal - he gives several different motives depending on the situation. But we learn to trust his soliloquies - his thoughts - more than his actions. In Hamlet's own speeches lie the indications for the methods we should use for its interpretation.
Hamlet's reason for suicide is the death of his father, the late King Hamlet - or at least this is what he tells the world. He claims his father's death as the reason in his first soliloquy (1.2.133-164), but we are led towards other reasons by the evidence he gives. In the famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy, he says: "For who would bear... the pangs of despised love... when he himself might his quietus make/with a bare bodkin?" (3.1.78-84). The word "despised" is glossed as "unrequited" - and thus we are led to speculation that Ophelia, not the late King, is the true cause of his suicidal urges. The claim that he is mourning his father seems to me to be at best an excuse - in the public eye as he is, Hamlet cannot sink so low as to be moved to kill himself by a woman.
This is an example of a phenomenon that we note throughout Hamlet - the separation of what is stated on the surface from the implications a few layers beneath. The play works on two levels - the revenge drama works as a backdrop for Hamlet's internal psychodrama. It is clear that Shakespeare intends for Hamlet's thoughts to be superior to his outward actions in interpretation of the play. After listing all the outward signs of his depression, he tells his mother that he would prefer to be considered on the basis of his thoughts: "These...