Hamlet Symbols and Motifs
by William Shakespeare

Ears and Hearing

A major motif in Hamlet is the idea that words cannot be trusted, but can corrupt an individual’s thinking or actions as they enter through the ears. Claudius poisons the old king by pouring the poison into the king’s ear, and his primary skill is manipulating others with lies that they hear from him. Hamlet uses the image of ears and hearing multiple times in urging his mother to repent of marrying Claudius, and he tells Horatio, “I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb.” Of his father’s murder, he notes that “the whole ear of Denmark” is “rankly abused.”


The theme of incest is never played out explicitly in Hamlet, but it arises nevertheless in three primary relationships: Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet and Gertrude, and Laertes and Ophelia. Claudius and Gertrude were brother- and sister-in-law before they married; while the relationship may not be incestuous in a legal sense, it seems to be in a moral one. Hamlet’s fixation on Gertrude’s sex life with Claudius also seems to point toward a repressed incestuous desire in Hamlet himself.

Meanwhile, Laertes’ advice to Ophelia does not read as altogether innocent; his language is sexually explicit and he, like Hamlet with Gertrude, seems far too interested in what Ophelia gets up to in the bedroom. Laertes’ leaping into Ophelia’s grave to hold her in his arms may also indicate a feeling for her that is not entirely brotherly.

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