What Does Hamlet Symbolize?

Sometimes when I’m looking for content, I troll for homework questions. Today, I got this one: What does Hamlet symbolize?

I find questions like that odd. And, really, unanswerable.  I think Shakespeare wrote primarily to entertain.  I think that his stuff entertains more than the other guy because his stuff really digs in and gets at what it means to be a human, and he puts that out there on the stage. I don’t think Hamlet symbolizes indecision or consequences or thought versus action, I think that Shakespeare tells the story of what happens to a man who embodies those characteristics.

Does that make sense?  When I hear “symbolize” I think, “The author wants me to discover a deeper meaning here, something that I must interpret for myself because he’s not going to come out and tell me.”  I can’t imagine the groundlings doing their English homework and debating the symbolism.

Am I way off base?  Maybe the English teachers in the crowd can chime in.  What is the expected answer for a question like that?  Do we really think it’s what Shakespeare meant from the beginning, or are we really just asking for an answer that is mutually agreed upon by later generations? 

7 thoughts on “What Does Hamlet Symbolize?

  1. Well, jeez, I'm all for "critical thinking skills" and "open-ended questions," but this sounds as if you could write anything and get an "A." There are far better–and more specific–things to break apart and discuss.

  2. Oh dear. How much do you want to bet that the teacher has a single Right Answer in mind and will mark everything else wrong?

    (However, I see absolutely nothing wrong with questions about symbolism in Hamlet — I mean, yes, Shakespeare is a popular entertainer, but he's also perfectly well aware that he's writing poetry, and he's living in a culture where people are very much attuned to symbolism. Actually, symbolism is demonstrably something that students need to understand to make sense of certain aspects of the plays. If you think the crown is just a fancy hat and fail to recognize everything else that it stands for, the "Thy wish, Harry, was father to that thought" scene is going to make no sense at all. Likewise, if you don't get that rings have symbolic meaning above and beyond their literal value, you're going to miss some key elements of The Merchant of Venice. That said, "What does Hamlet symbolize" is SO not the way to teach this concept.)

  3. "What does Hamlet symbolize?"

    Lots of different things to lots of different people. More to follow when they publish my Masters Thesis. 🙂

    There are reams already written on the subject. And there is no "definitive" answer. Maybe the teacher is asking for general research–Or maybe the "answers" THEY gave the student already… But…I agree, it does seem silly as a stand-alone question.

    For a more specific answer there, Teach, ask a more specific question.

  4. Perhaps a better question for a teacher to ask would be this: "Hamlet has been said to symbolize (list any one of a score of traits). Explain why someone might think that and then explain why he or she is guilty of underestimating Shakespeare's ability as a writer.

    Snarky and leading, perhaps. But Shakespeare wasn't writing morality plays or allegories, and students should understand that.

    Not to mention the abuse of the word "symbol." Maybe if the question asked what qualities Hamlet exemplified? At least that gives a kid a little leeway.

  5. Ed,
    I like your question. And I don't think it's snarky. It's an impetus for research and consequent understanding of how even great minds have missed the boat in attempts to dictate THE answer. Goethe and Ernest Jones immediately come to mind as candidates–with many in between– among those who have underestimated both Hamlet and Shakespeare while attempting to superimpose their own definitive symbolism on the work.

  6. Thanks, JM!

    Students of all ages need to know that it's the text above all that we need to immerse ourselves in. If you can cite textual evidence, force yourself to read and reread, Shakespeare will reveal himself to you…or at least his characters will.

    Like all great artists, Shakespeare can be frustrating because he is never as finite and neat as a grammar exercise or an algebraic equation.

  7. Thank for nothing. The question wasn’t even answered, just people ranting

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