Archetypes in Hamlet

In this article you will learn about the archetypes in Hamlet by William Shakespeare, a play containing various archetypes commonly seen in literature throughout the ages.

What are the Archetypes in Hamlet?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains a number of archetypes in its central characters.

In Hamlet himself we see three literary archetypes personified as he develops throughout the acts.

Initially Hamlet presents as the archetypal child – young and with a naive outlook on the world, still needing to grow up and become a man to avenge his father’s death.

After Hamlet sees his father’s ghost and becomes aware of the relationship between his mother and uncle he becomes the archetypal tragic hero on a journey for justice, desiring to avenge his wronged father but with this becoming his central weakness which means he, and the innocent people around him, are doomed.

Finally we see Hamlet embody the archetype of the trickster, using evasion and trickery to determine the truth about the behaviour of Claudius.

Alongside Hamlet we see archetypes of the King and the Shadow King in the form of the murdered King Hamlet and Claudius, the former a strong and stately king and his brother a weak tyrant and villain.

In Ophelia we see the archetypal maiden and shadow maiden – innocence and hope left stopped in its tracks and usurped by others more powerful.

In Gertrude we see the archetypal shadow mother, who has allowed her nurturing qualities to become oppressive and in doing so drives her child away. In Polonius we see the shadow sage, an advisor who’s bad advice ultimately puts Hamlet in danger.

Hamlet Book Summary

  • Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is disgusted by the marriage of his mother Gertrude to his Uncle Claudius, just two months after the death of his father King Hamlet.
  • The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells Hamlet that Claudius, now King, murdered him by poison.
  • Meanwhile, Ophelia is warned by her brother Laertes to be cautious about Hamlet’s affections towards her and rejects him as a result.
  • Everyone begins to question Hamlet’s sanity, Polonius suggesting his daughter Ophelia’s rejection of him perhaps being the cause.
  • Claudius employs Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him but he soon realises what they are doing.
  • Hamlet has a troupe of actors reenact the murder of a king using of poisoning through the ear apparently used on his father.
  • When Claudius storms out in fury Hamlet believes his guilt is confirmed.
  • Hamlet meets Gertrude in her room and argues with her.
  • Polonius, hiding behind the curtain, shouts for help and Hamlet stabs him in the mistaken belief he is Claudius.
  • Claudius sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, ordering them to execute Hamlet, but he realises their plan and has them executed.
  • He returns to Denmark, where Ophelia has gone mad with grief for her father and Laertes has learned of Hamlet’s guilt in his death.
  • Claudius suggests a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, planning to poison the tip of Laertes foil and, should that fail, poison Hamlet’s drink.
  • Gertrude announces Ophelia has drowned.
  • A duel is scheduled but Gertrude accidentally drinks the poison and dies.
  • Hamlet is wounded but the foils become switched and Laertes is also wounded by the poisoned foil, confessing Claudius’s plot.
  • Hamlet kills Claudius and the Norweigan Prince Fortinbras seizes control of Denmark.

Hamlet Archetype Examples

  • Child
  • Tragic Hero
  • Trickster
  • Tyrant
  • Villain
  • King/Shadow King
  • Maiden/Shadow Maiden
  • Mother/Shadow Mother
  • Sage/Shadow Sage

Want more literary archetypes?

Go check out our extensive list of archetypes in literature to find out more about the characters seen in literature throughout the ages.

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