A Sample Literary Analysis

In this deliberately brief paper, I have tried to illustrate some of my key principles. The paper offers textual specifics, it avoids an excess of summary, and it clearly expresses an opinion about Hamlet. After the sample, I'll note ways in which I followed my own advice.


Without the Ghost of Hamlet's father, there is no Hamlet. The phantom's accusation regarding Claudius sparks the play's entire action. Yet no one but Hamlet ever hears the Ghost speak, and even Hamlet wonders at times whether its claims can be trusted. Thus, the theme of overcoming doubt — about the Ghost's very existence, and then about its truthfulness — becomes crucial to the action. At the same time, however, Shakespeare keeps doubts of several kinds alive through most of the play, including the audience's doubts about Hamlet's sanity.

In the opening scene of Hamlet, Horatio appears as the personification of doubt. Marcellus, who has told him about the spirit walking the night, reports to the guards, "Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy, / And will not let belief take hold of him" (1.1.26-27). Nor is Horatio himself shy about professing his disbelief: "Tush, tush, 'twill not appear" (1.1.33). Yet when belief takes hold of Horatio, it does so in an instant. The bell is just beating one when the Ghost appears on the ramparts:

Barnardo: Looks a not like the King? Mark it, Horatio.

Horatio: Most like. It harrows me with fear and wonder. (1.1.46-47)

Horatio's response is visceral and immediate; it is as if his doubt flees before the dreaded sight. From this point onward, Horatio acknowledges the Ghost as "something more than fantasy" (1.1.57). "My lord," he will say to Hamlet as the Prince is talking of the dead king, "I think I saw him yesternight" (1.1.189).

Hamlet comes to believe in the Ghost's existence as readily as Horatio did, and his assent to its accusation against Claudius is equally swift: "My prophetic soul! My uncle!" (1.5.40). In Act 2, however, Hamlet expresses a fear that the specter has deceived him:

The spirit that I have seen

May be a devil ... and perhaps

Out of my weakness and my melancholy

As he is very potent with such spirits,

Abuses me to damn me. (2.2.594-599)

Hamlet stages The Mousetrap in order to "catch the conscience of the King" (2.2.601) and determine whether or not the Ghost has lied. When Claudius responds so passionately to the feigned murder on stage, Hamlet embraces this sign of his guilt without a qualm: "O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound" (3.2.280-81).

As we have seen, doubt in Hamlet can vanish as quickly as a troubled spirit at dawn. Yet our doubts about the character Hamlet, and specifically about his sanity, are not so easily assuaged. Immediately after his first meeting with the Ghost, the Prince tells Horatio and the guards, "I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on" (1.5.179-80). But in his confrontation with Ophelia, for example, Hamlet's wild behavior does not strike an audience as mere dissimulation. On the contrary: when he says of women's wantonness, "it hath made me mad" (3.1.148-49), his words seem a cry from the heart. By the end of the play, no doubts persist about the Ghost of Hamlet's father. But Hamlet himself remains a mystery.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London and New York: Methuen, 1982.

What This Paper Does Well

This paper incorporates several of my major guidelines. To wit: I avoided references to what Shakespeare meant to do, focusing only on what he did. The thesis focuses on a specific thematic element: the overcoming of doubt. I also included a number of direct quotations, which I arranged by theme, not by order of appearance in the original text.

This paper is hardly perfect, but it does showcase several of the techniques I have recommended in this article.

Literary Analysis

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