Foreshadowing in Hamlet

Foreshadowing in Hamlet
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  • 0:04 How it All Begins
  • 1:04 Foretelling of Tragedy
  • 1:39 Hamlet & Ophelia
  • 2:33 The Players
  • 3:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

Shakespeare's classic tragedy ''Hamlet'' is a complex and philosophical exploration of family relationships and loyalty. Many elements in the first half of the play foreshadow later events in the action of the play, adding to the mystery of the story for readers and viewers.

How it All Begins

At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is mourning his father's death and agonizing over his mother's marriage to his uncle, Claudius. Watchmen alert the prince to the appearance of a ghost who looks very much like the dead King Hamlet.

Hamlet waits for the ghost to appear, and finds that it is his father, dressed in battle gear, and stuck in limbo because he was murdered without being forgiven for his earthly sins. The murderer? Of course, it is Claudius, who purportedly put poison in the king's ears while he was napping in the garden. The young prince is assigned the task of revenging his father's death.

There is an element of foreshadowing in the fact that the departed king is dressed for battle: soldiers from Norway are preparing to attack Denmark. This issue will come out to both the characters and the audience a bit later in the action.

Later, Hamlet has an opportunity to kill Claudius while he kneels in prayer but restrains himself because he does not want his uncle to die without heavenly forgiveness, as King Hamlet did.

Foretelling of Tragedy

Students of drama know that a tragedy ends in the total downfall of most of the characters. This is true of Hamlet as well. At the end of the play, basically everyone except Horatio and the Norwegian intruders lies dead on the stage.

A key instance of foreshadowing for this carnage is Marcellus' statement in Act One, Scene IV, ''Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.'' The adjective rotten carries a double meaning: decayed and ruined like a spoiled piece of meat, and also mean, evil behavior. Denmark turns out to have both sorts of rottenness afoot.

Hamlet and Ophelia

Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius, an advisor to the king. Polonius warns his daughter not to get too close to the young prince, as he will never marry her. Ophelia, like most teenagers, says one thing to her father and quite another to her love interest. She promises Polonius that she will not encourage Hamlet.

Once Hamlet has said that he intends to ''put an antic disposition on,'' the audience may feel a bit confused with the idea of madness when Ophelia announces that Hamlet has spoken to her as if he is crazy. Lovesick, perhaps? This is Polonius' explanation, and Claudius suspects this might be correct. The entire concept of madness becomes part of the mystery: Hamlet's strange behavior foreshadows Ophelia's later fall from sanity and death.

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