Hamlet: Shakespeare’s Detective
Written at the turn of the 16th century, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is the longest and one of the most renowned works by William Shakespeare. Right from the start, the author sets the mood for tragedy with the mysterious death of Hamlet’s father, king of Denmark. The play takes the prince and audience on a thorny path to uncover the murder mystery, get revenge, and face a bitter end. Evidently, Hamlet is crime fiction and arguably a Renaissance detective that shaped the literary tradition of mystery and crime novels of prominent 19th-20th century authors.
The play has features of mysticism and superstition, most notably the ghost that wanders the palace. Said ghost appears at the beginning of the play when three palace guards and Hamlet’s friend see it and note its resemblance to the late king (Shakespeare n.d.). The deceased’s spirit is most commonly tied to the place of death. It is a manifestation of the dead’s grievance, sorrow, or anger for interrupting their life or because of some unfinished business or regret. Here, the ghost is a clue about the murder, stimulating the audience’s interest and creating an actual mystery. Later, the spirit becomes a tool to convey the truth both to Hamlet and the audience. The second clue is that the new king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, married the widowed queen right after the king’s death.
In this way, the crime and culprit are foreshadowed and then exposed, similar to any crime fiction. Detective is “a story … written in prose that begins with a crime, usually a murder, or some other puzzling occurrence that is solved” (Lim 2012, as cited in Nozen et al. 2021, 1090). Usually, the protagonist starts investigating a case based on occurred crime or his suspicions of its occurrence. In Hamlet, the author uses mysticism to create more suspense and influence a less-than-enthusiastic and more or less happy Hamlet to act and pursue the killer. Hamlet says:
“I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain” (Shakespeare n.d., 1.5.106-110).
These words indicate how Hamlet has been distracted by his surroundings and could not see the clues presented. However, it still takes more than half of the play to bolster Hamlet’s commitment to avenge his father.
Such pace and manner of development resemble Fyodor Dostoevsky’s framework in his massive novel Crime and Punishment. Similar to Hamlet, “the crime and criminal are exposed at the very beginning of the novel, but it takes the whole work to move from suspicion to determination and finally to the confession of the murderer” (Nozen et al. 2021, 1088). Literary researchers believe that Dostoevsky used Hamletian subtext out of deep appreciation for Shakespeare’s genius. Nozen et al. (2021, 1087) note how murder mystery, suspension, and the lengthy nature make Hamlet akin to Crime and Punishment and novels by “Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie.” As such, Hamlet is comparable with Dupin, Holmes, or Poirot.
The bulk of the play revolves around Hamlet’s amateur detective work and flourishes in his ingenuity. First, the prince decides to pretend to be insane to confirm the ghost’s accusations against Claudius and does it brilliantly, as evident from the following passage:
“Something have you heard
Of Hamlet’s transformation, so call it,
Sith nor th’ exterior nor the inward man
Resembles that it was” (Shakespeare n.d., 2.2.4-7).
The transformation is widely employed in mystery novels: bad guys appear innocent and good until the end, or the protagonist uses con artistry to conduct an undercover investigation. Doyle used transformations for Sherlock Holmes to confuse readers and compel them to question the book. Similarly, Shakespeare urges the audience to question reality and Hamlet’s sanity: ‘is there a ghost,’ ‘did he really see his father’s spirit,’ or simply ‘what is happening.’ Some viewers might even think that Hamlet is truly going mad.
The framework of Hamlet is similar to the deduction method of reasoning: theory, hypothesis, observation, and confirmation (Trochim n.d.). The ghost’s appearance presents a theory or a guess, while his confession is a hypothesis, something one can prove. The scene with the group of traveling actors mimicking the murder arranged by Hamlet is a test or an observation, while Claudius’s reaction is a confirmation. Nozen et al. (2021, 1094) argue that Hamlet and Holmes are both geniuses and have similar backgrounds, being well-educated and coming “from a well-to-do family.” Moreover, both heroes have a side-kick friend: Horatio and Watson, a scholar and a doctor (Nozen et al. 2021). Also, they have an arch-nemesis, Laertes and Moriarty, and both die during their last showdown. The common cases in the 19th-20th century detective fiction and Hamlet does not end here, and the topic deserves more research and a complete comparative analysis between works.
Of course, Hamlet is so much more than a detective or crime fiction, provoking numerous philosophical and psychoanalytical studies and disputes. However, one cannot argue that the play affected both the genre and the subgenre as authors were well versed in Shakespeare’s work and drew inspiration from his plays. As a result, Hamlet can be identified as a Renaissance detective about an amateur but educated investigator driven by revenge who has to give up on his life to achieve it.
Nozen, SeyedehZahra, Hamlet Isaxanli, and Bahman Amani. 2021. “From Hamlet to Holmes: Literary Detective Tradition”. Linguistics and Culture Review, 5(S1): 1087-1099. Web.
Shakespeare, William. n.d. Hamlet. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles, eds. Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library. Web.
Trochim, William M. K. n.d. “Deduction & Induction”. Conjoint. Web.