Hamlet Tragedy Hamlet (c. 1600) is perhaps the most famous of all the tragedies created by William Shakespeare. The main character Hamlet — may be the most complex and controversial character any playwright has ever placed onstage. Hamlets erratic behavior poses a question: is he being rational in his acts and sacrificing himself for the “greater good” or is he simply mad? How and why does Hamlet move from one state of mind to the other? What significance does this have for the play? Throughout the play Hamlet goes through several different stages of life, constantly being in a tortured mental state, caught between love, grief, and vengeance. His different states of mind are the result of his controversial personality and his ability to objectively analyze any situation. Over the centuries there have been a multitude of different explanations for Hamlet’s behavior.
One of the views is that Hamlet is simply a victim of circumstances; the other presents him as a beautiful but ineffectual soul who lacked the willpower to avenge his father. Hamlet can also be viewed as something close to a manic-depressive whose melancholy moods, as his failure to take revenge continues, deepened into self-contempt. His disturbing gift of laughing at his own grief as well as at the shortcomings of the world in general also contributes to the complexity of his character. His laughter strengthens the plot, by becoming one of the qualities of his mind that enable him to avoid his mission and postpone his revenge. The reader can see that Shakespeare meant to create Hamlet to be such a complicated character. Hamlet is a person of exceptional intelligence and sensitivity, raised to occupy a high station in life and then suddenly confronted with a violent and terrifying situation in which he must take drastic action.
He admits that he is not ready for this task: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (1.5.188-89). At this point Hamlets mind is torn apart by the controversy of vengeance. It’s hardly surprising to find him veering between extremes of behavior, hesitating, demanding proof, and looking for the most appropriate way to carry out his task. The Ghost appears before Hamlet at a very disturbing time in his life — his fathers tragic death and his mothers quick remarriage are more than Hamlets mind can bear.
The reader can easily find justification for this point of view, especially in Hamlet’s own soliloquies. Early in the play Hamlet manifests his anger: Let me not think ont; frailty, thy name is woman A little month, or ere those shoes were old With which she followed my poor fathers body Like Niobe, all tears, why, she O god, a beast that wants discourse of reason Would have mourned longermarried with my uncle, My fathers brother, but no more like my father Than I to Hercules. Within a month, Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, She married. O, most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! It is not, nor it cannot come to good. (1.2.146-58) Linked to the theme of revenge is the great question of Hamlet’s inner meditations: Is there a point to life at all? Do humans suffer in this harsh world for a purpose, or simply because they are afraid to find out what may lie beyond it? Is there a higher power, and how does one seek its guidance? Hamlet’s anguish is caused by his effort to link even the most trivial event to the order of the universe. His inability to coop with reality because of his philosophical beliefs causes Hamlets state of mind to constantly change. His dilemma is in his unsuccessful attempts to create a tangible bond between his passion, which would spur him to immediate vengeance, and reason, which is God-given, and which would soothe Hamlets action with sensible judgment.
Hamlet is trapped between two worlds: the ideal world that he created in his head and the existing reality. Worst of all however, is that he realizes that the weakness of his mind prevents him from acting: “Why, then tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2. 253-54). Another point worth mentioning is the effect that the concept of revenge has on Hamlet. This powerful demand is countered in Hamlet’s mind by three questions: Is revenge a good or an evil act? Is Claudius truly guilty and so to be punished? Is it Hamlet’s responsibility to punish him? The fact that Hamlet is a thinking as well as a feeling person, conscious of the good and bad points in every step he takes, makes the act of revenge particularly painful for him. Revenge is not Christian, and Hamlet is a Christian prince; it is not rational, and Hamlet is a philosopher; it is not gentle, and Hamlet is a gentleman. Hamlet does not approach his task in an unquestioning, mechanical way. He has doubts about it, as any of us might if asked to do the same thing. It releases violent emotions in him, the intensity of which shocks and unbalances him.
Both Marcellus and Horatio fear that the Ghost may be an evil spirit intending to damn or destroy Hamlet. Hamlet himself seems to toy with this idea at times; however, he accepts the ghost’s story, at first cautiously and then unquestioningly after the Play Scene: I know my course. The spirit that I have seen May be a devil, and the devil hath power T assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps Out of my weakness and my melancholy, As he is very potent with such spirits, Abuses me to damn me. Ill have grounds More relative than this. (2.2. 610-16) Yet again Hamlet is reminded of his own conflicting impulses and of his inability to feel sufficient desire for revenge or sufficient grief over his father’s death.
Although Hamlets mind is still possessed by doubts, he suppresses them and makes a first definite decision to act. It becomes clear that Hamlet constantly battles the fear that the idea of revenge is inspired by his own deranged mind, and therefore by carrying it out he would be committing a sin. By the end of the play however, there is no question that the ghost was speaking the truth. Whether its advice was good and heaven-sent, however, is unclear, considering the death and destruction to which its desire for revenge has led. It is also important to point out yet another controversy of Hamlets character — the cruel and barbaric aspects of his behavior– his mental badgering of Ophelia, his reason for refusing to kill Claudius at prayer, and most of all the coldhearted and possibly unjust way he has dealt with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. All those scenes suggest that Hamlet is himself a crude and unpleasant character, and his poetic speeches merely sugarcoat the bitter pill.
On the other hand, the emotional violence of his scene with Ophelia is often explained by suggesting that Hamlet knows their meeting is being watched by the King and Polonius. The murder of Polonius, though perhaps an excessive punishment for his eavesdropping, is the inevitable outgrowth of his spying on behalf of the King. However, Hamlet does not think that murdering Polonius is enough of a punishment he also hides his body. When the King questions Hamlet about the whereabouts of Poloniuss body, Hamlet replies: “In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him I th other place yourself.
But if indeed you find him not within this month, you shall nose as you go up the stairs into the lobby” (4.3. 33-7). Naturally Hamlet realizes that by denying Polonius the proper Christian burial, he denies him the possibility of going to heaven. Remembering Hamlets deliberations about revenge and his fear that the Ghost was sent by the devil, the reader might wonder what is happening to Hamlet? Hamlets state of mind changes yet again he becomes ruthless. At that point it is clear that Hamlet is ready to kill Claudius, since he does not hesitate even for a moment when he kills Polonius. His sacrilegious playing with Polonius corpse serves as evidence that he accepted himself as the true avenger of his fathers death.
Similarly, Hamlet’s execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is warranted by their willingness to serve Claudius. Hamlet justifies his actions, saying essentially that his friends got caught in the middle, between him and Claudius; that their “own insinuation” (5.2. 59) has brought about their defeat. In the end of the play Hamlet says: “There is special providence in fall of a sparrow. If it be now, tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.
Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what ist to leave betimes? Let be” (5.2. 220-5). Hamlet expresses his belief in fate whatever is meant to be will come sooner or later. Perhaps he feels that he is destined to die, or he might feel confident enough to win. With the full acceptance of the idea of revenge came the acceptance of fate. Hamlets philosophical nature wins.
Hamlets different states of mind are essential to the play. Through those changes Shakespeare shows the reader the birth, growth and demise of Hamlets character. From the beginning Hamlet faces several questions — he must decide whether to avenge his father or not, and if so, how. Those are not easy questions. By showing Hamlets uncertainty and inability to make a decision throughout the play Shakespeare makes him so human that the reader starts to wonder whether Hamlet did actually exist.
Also Shakespeare shows the reader that for a man with Hamlet’s ideals the world is out of joint with itself, in which he can only hope for perfection, but never achieve it.