Hamlet is without question the most famous play in the English language. Probably written in 1601 or 1602, the tragedy is a milestone in Shakespeare's dramatic development; the playwright achieved artistic maturity in this work through his brilliant depiction of the hero’s struggle with two opposing forces: moral integrity and the need to avenge his father’s murder.
Shakespeare’s focus on this conflict was a revolutionary departure from contemporary revenge tragedies, which tended to graphically dramatize violent acts on stage, in that it emphasized the hero’s dilemma rather than the depiction of bloody deeds. The dramatist’s genius is also evident in his transformation of the play’s literary sources—especially the contemporaneous Ur-Hamlet—into an exceptional tragedy. The Ur-Hamlet, or “original Hamlet,” is a lost play that scholars believe was written mere decades before Shakespeare’s Hamlet, providing much of the dramatic context for the later tragedy. Numerous sixteenth-century records attest to the existence of the Ur-Hamlet, with some references linking its composition to Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy. Other principal sources available to Shakespeare were Saxo Grammaticus’s Historiae Danicae (circa 1200), which features a popular legend with a plot similar to Hamlet, and François de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, Extraicts des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (7 Vols.; 1559-80), which provides an expanded account of the story recorded in the Historiae Danicae. From these sources Shakespeare created Hamlet, a supremely rich and complex literary work that continues to delight both readers and audiences with its myriad meanings and interpretations.
In the words of Ernest Johnson, “the dilemma of Hamlet the Prince and Man” is “to disentangle himself from the temptation to wreak justice for the wrong reasons and in evil passion, and to do what he must do at last for the pure sake of justice…. From that dilemma of wrong feelings and right actions, he ultimately emerges, solving the problem by attaining a proper state of mind.” Hamlet endures as the object of universal identification because his central moral dilemma transcends the Elizabethan period, making him a man for all ages. In his difficult struggle to somehow act within a corrupt world and yet maintain his moral integrity, Hamlet ultimately reflects the fate of all human beings.