Shakespeare's Hamlet is a play rife with moral dilemmas. Religious codes often clash with desires and instinctual feelings in the minds of the characters, calling into question which courses of action are truly the righteous paths. In Hamlet's case, such conundrums are debilitating and cause a frustrating, eventually fatal lack of action. Indeed, the absence of moral clarity in the play is arguably the root of most of the tragedy that is played out in the final scenes. Because of this, the issues in Hamlet provide an excellent basis from which to delve into an exploration of how religion motivates human actions. The characters' dilemmas concerning two great moral questions, suicide and murder, demonstrate the centrality of this motivation, both within the confines of the play and within the larger scope of human society.
The central reason for the play's eminence is the character of Hamlet. His brooding, erratic nature has been analyzed by many of the most famous thinkers and artists of the past four centuries. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described him as a poet - a sensitive man who is too weak to deal with the political pressures of Denmark. Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud viewed Hamlet in terms of an “Oedipus complex,” an overwhelming sexual desire for his mother. This complex is usually associated with the wish to kill one’s father and sleep with one’s mother. Freud points out that Hamlet's uncle has usurped his father's rightful place, and therefore has replaced his father as the man who must die. However, Freud is careful to note that Hamlet represents modern man precisely because he does not kill Claudius in order to sleep with his mother, but rather kills him to revenge his father’s death. Political interpretations of Hamlet also abound, in which Hamlet stands for the spirit of political resistance, or represents a challenge to a corrupt regime. Stephen Greenblatt, the editor of the Norton Edition of Shakespeare, views these interpretive attempts of Hamlet as mirrors for the interpretation within the play itself - many of the characters who have to deal with Hamlet, including Polonius , Claudius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern , also develop theories to explain his behavior, none of which really succeeds in doing so. Indeed, nothing sure can be said about Hamlet except that it has been a perennial occasion for brilliant minds to explore some of the unanswerable questions of human existence.