Hamlet was written at the turn of the seventeenth century and is the first of Shakespeare's great tragedies. It has become the most frequently produced and arguably the best known of all Shakespeare's plays despite being over four hours long in performance. Hamlet marks a turning point in drama, giving a new intensity to the traditions of melodrama and satire but creating an ironic background for tragedy. Tradition has it that Shakespeare himself played the Ghost at the first performance in the Globe theatre.
The play has been praised for weaving together a human consciousness strained to shattering point, whilst retaining a sense of normality in life and continuity. Our deepest nature recognises Hamlet's response to his predicament; character and plot are co-ordinated to reach a universal consciousness. The play shapes and orders that which, close up, appears chaotic and arbitrary.
Hamlet is grouped among Shakespeare's tragedies and is linked to the others by common factors. Following ancient Greek tragedy (see Sophocles's Oedipus Rex etc.) they all concern people of high birth, the fate of whom has historical implications. Further, the setting for the action is remote in time and place, often evoking the supernatural; high language is used by the main protagonist and his circle, and the plot works towards the death of several of the central characters. Ending with a sense of loss and catharsis (the purging of the soul by art), the plays all portray characters in the grip of emotions that transcend social conventions and setting.
The play was written during the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Life at this time was precarious: murder, arrest and disease were a reality of everyday life so the violent deaths in Hamlet were not out of the ordinary (though by its bloody finale are a little more frequent). The royal family in England, as in Hamlet, was the nucleus of society and indeed Elizabeth believed the fate of the country rested on her shoulders. Threats against authority and political power increased in frequency throughout her life, but she was protected by the sense of duty and honour of an impervious national solidarity. Hamlet was born of the refocusing on the individual within this society. It flags the transition between the political climate of the early part of Elizabeth's reign and that of its closing years, the union of the medieval world and the modern world.