Example research essay topic: The History Behind Shakespeare Writing Hamlet – 1,073 words

The most influential writer in all of English
literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564
to a successful middle-class glove-maker in
Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended
grammar school, but his formal education proceeded
no further. In 1582 he married an older woman,
Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her.
Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled
to London to work as an actor and playwright.
Public and critical success quickly followed, and
Shakespeare eventually became the most popular
playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe
Theater. His career bridged the reigns of
Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled
1603-1625), and he was a favorite of both
monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s
company the greatest possible compliment by
bestowing upon its members the title of King’s
Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to
Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of
fifty-two.

At the time of Shakespeare’s death,
literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his
works as timeless. Shakespeare’s works were
collected and printed in various editions in the
century following his death, and by the early
eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest
poet ever to write in English was well
established. The unprecedented admiration garnered
by his works led to a fierce curiosity about
Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical
information has left many details of Shakespeare’s
personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people
have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare’s
plays were really written by someone else-Francis
Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most
popular candidates-but the support for this claim
is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory
is not taken seriously by many scholars. In the
absence of credible evidence to the contrary,
Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the
thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his
name. The legacy of this body of work is immense.
A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have
transcended even the category of brilliance,
becoming so influential as to profoundly affect
the course of Western literature and culture ever
after.

Written during the first part of the
seventeenth century (probably in 1600 or 1601),
Hamlet was probably first performed in July 1602.
It was first published in printed form in 1603 and
appeared in an enlarged edition in 1604. As was
common practice during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, Shakespeare borrowed for
his plays ideas and stories from earlier literary
works. He could have taken the story of Hamlet
from several possible sources, including a
twelfth-century Latin history of Denmark compiled
by Saxo Grammaticus and a prose work by the French
writer Franois de Belleforest, entitled Histoires
Tragiques. The raw material that Shakespeare
appropriated in writing Hamlet is the story of a
Danish prince whose uncle murders the prince’s
father, marries his mother, and claims the throne.
The prince pretends to be feeble-minded to throw
his uncle off guard, then manages to kill his
uncle in revenge. Shakespeare changed the emphasis
of this story entirely, making his Hamlet a
philosophically-minded prince who delays taking
action because his knowledge of his uncle’s crime
is so uncertain. Shakespeare went far beyond
making uncertainty a personal quirk of Hamlet’s,
introducing a number of important ambiguities into
the play that even the audience cannot resolve
with certainty.

For instance, whether Hamlet’s
mother, Gertrude, shares in Claudius’s guilt;
whether Hamlet continues to love Ophelia even as
he spurns her, in Act III; whether Ophelia’s death
is suicide or accident; whether the ghost offers
reliable knowledge, or seeks to deceive and tempt
Hamlet; and, perhaps most importantly, whether
Hamlet would be morally justified in taking
revenge on his uncle. Shakespeare makes it clear
that the stakes riding on some of these questions
are enormous-the actions of these characters bring
disaster upon an entire kingdom. At the play’s end
it is not even clear whether justice has been
achieved. By modifying his source materials in
this way, Shakespeare was able to take an
unremarkable revenge story and make it resonate
with the most fundamental themes and problems of
the Renaissance. The Renaissance is a vast
cultural phenomenon that began in 15th-century
Italy with the recovery of classical Greek and
Latin texts that had been lost to the Middle Ages.
The scholars who enthusiastically rediscovered
these classical texts were motivated by an
educational and political ideal called (in Latin)
humanitas-the idea that all of the capabilities
and virtues peculiar to human beings should be
studied and developed to their furthest extent.
Renaissance humanism, as this movement is now
called, generated a new interest in human
experience, and also an enormous optimism about
the potential scope of human understanding.
Hamlet’s famous speech in Act II, “What a piece of
work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite
in faculty, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in
apprehension how like a god-the beauty of the
world, the paragon of animals!” (II.ii.293-297) is
directly based upon one of the major texts of the
Italian humanists, Pico della Mirandola’s Oration
on the Dignity of Man. For the humanists, the
purpose of cultivating reason was to lead to a
better understanding of how to act, and their
fondest hope was that the coordination of action
and understanding would lead to great benefits for
society as a whole.

As the Renaissance spread to
other countries in the 16th and 17th Centuries,
however, a more skeptical strain of humanism
developed, stressing the limitations of human
understanding. For example, the 16th-century
French humanist, Michel de Montaigne, was no less
interested in studying human experiences than the
earlier humanists were, but he maintained that the
world of experience was a world of appearances,
and that human beings could never hope to see past
those appearances into the “realities” that lie
behind them. This is the world in which
Shakespeare places his characters. Hamlet is faced
with the difficult task of correcting an injustice
that he can never have sufficient knowledge of-a
dilemma that is by no means unique, or even
uncommon. And while Hamlet is fond of pointing out
questions that cannot be answered because they
concern supernatural and metaphysical matters, the
play as a whole chiefly demonstrates the
difficulty of knowing the truth about other
people-their guilt or innocence, their
motivations, their feelings, their relative states
of sanity or insanity. The world of other people
is a world of appearances, and Hamlet is,
fundamentally, a play about the difficulty of
living in that world..

Research essay sample on The History Behind Shakespeare Writing Hamlet