Hamlet

When William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was first performed in 1609, it became an instant hit — and it has since become the most famous play ever written. It tells the story of Hamlet, prince of Denmark, whose uncle has murdered his father and married his mother. Hamlet is haunted by his father’s ghost requiring him to exact revenge. He feigns madness to throw people off the scent, sends his girlfriend Ophelia insane, and confronts his mother about her swift marriage. But when it comes to murder — killing his uncle — he is crippled by indecision and inaction. In the end, it all comes down to the most famous question in the English language: to be or not to be?

Revenge

In the manner of more traditional revenge plays, Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost who demands that Hamlet avenge his father’s death. It should be simple — but, throughout the play, Hamlet agonises over the morality of this request. Is revenge a justified response to a crime?

Madness

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” Polonius is unsure what to make of Hamlet’s apparent insanity in Act 2 — and, often, audiences agree. Yes, in the beginning, he is faking it. But is he still faking by the end of the play? Hundreds of years on, we know more about mental health, yet it remains greatly misunderstood.

Death

In one of the earliest scenes of the play, Hamlet’s mother comforts her grieving son. “Thou know’st ’tis common,” she says. “All that lives must die.” And so it is in Hamlet — few will survive the play’s bloody slaughter as events begin to spin out of control.

Family

Hamlet features one of Shakespeare’s most famous dysfunctional families: a murdered father; an unwanted uncle-turned-stepdad; a dearly loved mother, and a lot of talk of incest. Hamlet is obsessed with his family’s decisions — and it is a preoccupation that will see the whole clan laid to rest.

Words

“Words, words, words…” muses Hamlet. The “full text” of Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play — and around 40% is spoken by its titular character. (Editors usually combine the Second Quarto and First Folio texts: the Folger Digital Text has a whopping 4,167 lines.) Unsurprisingly, the manipulative language, misunderstood conversations and earnest soliloquies all drive the plot forward as much as any sword fight.