Hamlet the character is a man confronted by a series of massive problems, inside himself and outside. Hamlet the play is a dramatization of his attempts to solve those problems. No character has touched civilization as deeply, and no play has been analyzed as extensively.
Shakespeare's clearest source is an earlier version of the plot, now lost, but known as the "Ur-Hamlet," or "original Hamlet." Some critics attribute this work to Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589), which also deals with a son's delayed revenge for a murdered father. Both plays contain a ghost, a hero who suffers madness, and a play within a play. The essentials of the story of Hamlet, however, go back several hundred years as part of Scandanavian folk tradition, and were put into literary form in the history of "Amelthus" by the Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus, who lived in the latter half of the twelfth century. Thematic influences on Shakespeare's play come from a variety of Renaissance works, including Treatise of Melancholy ( 1586) by Timothy Bright, and Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) ( 1528) by the Italian diplomat Baldassare Castiglione.
From the first line, "Who's there?" (I, i, 1), this play concerns identity. Hamlet's primary dilemma is that of every human being: given this time and place and these circumstances, how is he to respond? What is his role in the world? What is his responsibility? All the heroes of Shakespeare's tragedies suffer versions of this crisis. But Hamlet's dilemma is especially overwhelming. One reason is that his circumstances are never clear to him. Nor to us. They shift constantly, like colors in a kaleidoscope, and from every perspective they may be interpreted differently. At many moments Hamlet tries to establish certainty about how and where he fits. But the values by which he attempts to judge his world and find a place in it make affirmation impossible. Thus we along with Hamlet ask questions that lead to other questions that lead to still other questions. The answers grow ever more difficult to ascertain.
What further complicates Hamlet's predicament is that not only does he react to his world, but his world reacts to him. He is a royal personage, and, according