Unfortunately Hamlet is one of those plays that is so popular that it becomes a standard highschool text, and in being such a text, it is forced upon us poor unfortunate highschool students who struggle through the archaic language and complicated plot and end up hating it. However that does not mean that Hamlet is a bad play: it is a masterpiece and is deserving of the title.
While one may see that Hamlet is typical of Shakespeare with a number of subplots following along a main plot, I have come to see such plays as actually being multiple strands that are slowly brought together. Everything in this play has a purpose and all of the strands move together, not necessarily in unison, to the final tragic ending. The ending itself comes down to how one actually interprets this play and it is a shame that many of the film versions take liberties in removing some of the parts as being unnecessary, though with everything retained the play ends up running for about three to four hours.
The play is about the crown prince of Denmark who recently lost his father. To add insult to injury his uncle, Claudius, marries his mother and assumes the title of king. This is bad enough, but he then encounters a ghost, apparently of his father, who suggests that Claudius was his murderer. Hamlet must then decide whether the ghost is legitimate, or a deceiving demon, and then prove that Claudius is really a villain. As it turns out the ghost is correct, and Hamlet, after feigning maddness, must then look for a way to kill Claudius. In the meantime he earns the emnity of Laertes after he inadvertently kills Laertes' father, and it all comes to a conclusion in the famous dual scene where pretty much everybody dies.
This play is not straight forward, and neither are any of the characters. It is clear that Hamlet is old enough to take the throne, but is stolen from him by Claudius. However the throne seems to be the least of Hamlet's concerns as he is more appalled that his mother, before his father's corpse was even in the ground, had not only remarried, but married his uncle, or as Hamlet says, his father's brother. It is more the incestuous nature of the marriage, and then the proof that Claudius did murder his father, that has earned Hamlet's enmity.
Polonius is an interesting character as he does not seem to be a part of the conspiracy, but has been drawn into it by Gertrude and Claudius, and is being used to silence Hamlet. However after an untimely death where Hamlet stabs him while hiding behind a curtain, he earns the wrath of Laertes. Added to the complications, Hamlet was in love with Ophelia, Laertes' sister and Polonius' daughter, but it is clear that Polonius wants nothing to do with the relationship. Is Polonius apart of the conspiracy though? It does not seem to be the case, though despite the wisdom of his age, he has been fooled by Claudius. Claudius plays on this and Laertes' rage, but in the end, just before his death, Laertes discovers that Claudius has played him for a fool and asks Hamlet for forgiveness.
This is one of the great aspects of Shakespearian villains in that they do not outwardly seem villainous. This was the case with Iago, and it certainly is the case with Claudius. The only person who is outraged by Claudius' actions is Hamlet (and of course his confidant Horatio). It also appears that Claudius simply wants to get rid of those that could interfere with his plans, which includes Laertes, whom he sends away to college, and then Hamlet, whom he attempts to send to England with a letter instructing the King of England to kill Hamlet. Hamlet does escape, but it is not to become a hero, but rather meet his fate back in Denmark. However, the bad guy does not escape – he never does in Shakespeare, it is just when the bad guy is finally brought to justice, the damage has already been done and rack and ruin has been left in his (or her as in the case of Lady Macbeth) wake.
I recently saw a performance of Hamlet and you can find some thoughts that I have written down on my blog. No doubt I will be seeing it again and writing further things about this play (even though it isn't my favourite).