Essay, Research Paper: Hamlet

Literature: Shakespeare

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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. Hamlet’s
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 Hamlet’s 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 father’s tragic death and his mother’s
quick remarriage are more than Hamlet’s 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
on’t; frailty, thy name is woman– A little month, or ere those shoes were
old With which she followed my poor father’s body Like Niobe, all tears, why,
she– O god, a beast that wants discourse of reason Would have mourned
longer–married with my uncle, My father’s 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 cope with
reality because of his philosophical beliefs causes Hamlet’s 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 Hamlet’s 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. I’ll
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 Hamlet’s
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 Hamlet’s 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 Polonius’s 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 Hamlet’s deliberations about revenge and his fear that the
Ghost was sent by the devil, the reader might wonder – what is happening to
Hamlet? Hamlet’s 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’s corpse serves as evidence that he accepted himself as the true
avenger of his father’s 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 is’t 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. Hamlet’s
philosophical nature wins. Hamlet’s different states of mind are essential to
the play. Through those changes Shakespeare shows the reader the birth, growth,
and demise of Hamlet’s 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 Hamlet’s 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, a world in which he can only hope for perfection, but never achieve
it.

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