From its premiere at the turn of the 17th century, Hamlet has remained Shakespeare's best-known, most-imitated, and most-analyzed play. The character of Hamlet played a critical role in Sigmund Freud's explanation of the Oedipus complex and thus influenced modern psychology.[1] Even within the narrower field of literature, the play's influence has been strong. As Foakes writes, "No other character's name in Shakespeare's plays, and few in literature, have come to embody an attitude to life [...] and been converted into a noun in this way."[2]

Interpretations of Hamlet in Shakespeare's day were very concerned with the play's portrayal of madness. The play was also often portrayed more violently than in later times.[3] The play's contemporary popularity is suggested both by the five quartos that appeared in Shakespeare's lifetime and by frequent contemporary references (though at least some of these could be to the so-called ur-Hamlet).[4] These allusions suggest that by the early Jacobean period the play was famous for the ghost and for its dramatization of melancholy and insanity. The procession of mad courtiers and ladies in Jacobean and Caroline drama frequently appears indebted to Hamlet. Other aspects of the play were also remembered. Looking back on Renaissance drama in 1655, Abraham Wright lauds the humor of the gravedigger's scene, although he suggests that Shakespeare was outdone by Thomas Randolph, whose farcical comedy The Jealous Lovers features both a travesty of Ophelia and a graveyard scene.[5] There is some scholarly speculation that Hamlet may have been censored during this period: see Contexts: Religious below. Theatres were closed under the Puritan Commonwealth, which ran from 1640–1660.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, theatres re-opened. Early interpretations of the play, from the late 17th to early 18th century, typically showed Prince Hamlet as a heroic figure.[citation needed] Critics responded to Hamlet in terms of the same dichotomy that shaped all responses to Shakespeare during the period. On the one hand, Shakespeare was seen as primitive and untutored, both in comparison to later English dramatists such as Fletcher and especially when measured against the neoclassical ideals of art brought back from France with the Restoration. On the other, Shakespeare remained popular not just with mass audiences but even with the very critics made uncomfortable by his ignorance of Aristotle's unities and decorum.

Via Deanya Lattimore Schempp