Essay, Research Paper: Hamlet Psychology

Shakespeare: Hamlet

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Hamlet dares us, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to "pluck out the
heart of my mystery." This mystery marks the essence of Hamlet's character
as, in spite of our popular psychologies, it ultimately does for all human
personalities. Granting this, we can attempt to chart its origin and outward
manifestations. Ophelia tells us that before the events of the play Hamlet was a
model courtier, soldier and scholar, "The glass of fashion and the mould of
form, / Th' observed of all observers." With the death of his father and
the hasty, incestuous remarriage of his mother to his uncle, however, Hamlet is
thrown into a suicidal frame of mind in which "the uses of this world"
seem to him "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable." Though his faith
in the value of life has been destroyed by this double confrontation with death
and human infidelity, he feels impotent to effect any change in this new
reality: "It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break my heart, for
I must hold my tongue." All he can do in this frustrated state is to lash
out with bitter satire at the evils he sees and then relapse into suicidal
melancholy. It is in this state that he meets the equally mysterious figure of
his father's ghost with its supernatural revelations of murder and adultery and
its injunction upon Hamlet to revenge his father's murder. While this command
gives purpose and direction to Hamlet's hitherto frustrated impulse towards
scourging reform, it also serves to further unsettle his already disturbed
reason. Whether or not the ghost was actually a devil, its effect upon Hamlet
has been diabolic. In the two months after his meeting with the ghost, he
puzzles the court with his assumed madness but does nothing concrete to effect
or further his revenge. His inability to either accept the goodness of life or
act to destroy its evils now begins to trouble him as much as his outward
hysteria and depression does the court. He first condemns his apparent lack of
concentration on his revenge as the sign of a base, cowardly nature. The advent
of a company of players, however, gives him an idea for testing the truth of the
ghost and the guilt of Claudius. He plans to have the players perform a play
which reproduces Claudius' crime and observe Claudius' reaction to it, thereby
dispelling his own doubts as to the proper course of his action. Having
momentarily silenced his shame at his inaction, however, he immediately relapses
into his former state; he meditates upon suicide and then lashes out with
satiric cruelty at Ophelia. The performance of the play is successful in
revealing Claudius' guilt to Hamlet, and Hamlet reacts to this proof with wild
glee. His old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had returned that day to
Elsinore to help further Claudius' investigation into Hamlet's disorder and had
thereby alienated Hamlet's affections, enter with a message from Hamlet's mother
that she wishes to see him immediately. His coming visit with his mother
inspires him with a murderous rage appropriate to the hellish time of night.
Once more in the power of hell, he accidentally comes upon the praying figure of
Claudius but does not take this opportunity for revenge because of the devilish
rationalization that such revenge would not damn Claudius' soul. But the truth
seems to be that Hamlet's murderous rage is misdirected at his mother rather
than at Claudius, even though Hamlet is now fully convinced of his guilt. Coming
to his mother's room with the intent to punish her with verbal daggers for her
unfaithfulness, her unwillingness to listen to him releases his murderous
impulse against her. In a moment of temporary insanity he manages to exercise
enough control to deflect the blow designed for her to the direction of an
unexpected sound, killing the hidden figure of Polonius. In the ensuing scene he
all but forgets the body of Polonius in his urgency to arouse his mother's guilt
for her treatment of his father and injury to his own trust. All he knows is
that his mother's behavior has contributed to wrenching the time "out of
joint" for him, and that he has been fated "to set it right."
Once he is reconciled to his mother, the whole of reality appears to him in a
different light. Where before his will was "most incorrect to heaven,"
the "Everlasting" seeming to be the creator of sterile farces and
imposer of harsh laws, he now can accept heaven's purposes and ally himself with
them as heaven's "scourge and minister." If Hamlet's nausea with life
as well as sex seems to the modern intelligence to have a hidden psychological
basis, Hamlet raises the discussion of his nature to the ultimately more
profound level of religious existential confrontation. Seeing the hand of heaven
in his accidental slaying of Polonius as well as in the exile to England which
will result from it, he is able to accept this turn of events with new
confidence in his ultimate success. Though Hamlet does not appear outwardly
changed, as witnessed by his contemptuous treatment of Polonius' body, continued
obsession with the horror of death and with the obligations of honor, the change
in attitude begun in his mother's room continues to develop while on shipboard
and is responsible for his actions there. Inspired by his restlessness, he
rashly discovers the letter ordering his death, forges a new commission which
substitutes for his death the deaths of Claudius' accomplices, Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, returns the commission unknown, and, in a sea fight with pirates,
manages to free himself from the Danish ship. In all of this he sees
"heaven ordinant" and this teaches him that "There's a divinity
that shapes our ends, / Rough - hew them how we will." Recognizing by this
that humanly conceived plots are doomed to fail, he places himself completely in
the hands of Providence. Nonetheless, his first actions upon his return do not
seem to indicate any real change in his nature from our last view of him in
Denmark. He is still overly sensitive to the decomposition of the body after
death and, in his treatment of Laertes at the funeral he so rudely disrupts, he
still shows a cruel insensitivity to the feelings of anyone he believes to have
wronged him. This insensitivity also extends to his lack of any qualms about his
murders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as was also true of his earlier murder
of Polonius. If Hamlet had once been a model human being disillusioned in life
by the double blows of his father's death and mother's remarriage, his
oversensitivity to these evils of existence has warped his nature into an
equally extreme insensitivity to all those whom he suspects of impurity. He
cruelly torments his mother and Ophelia, bitterly mocks Polonius, Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern and then wantonly kills them without a qualm and with the
attempt, in the last two cases, of ensuring their eternal damnation, and he
refrains from killing Claudius for this same evil reason. In terms of vindictive
cruelty and wanton slaughter, he stands far more condemned for evil than
Claudius and in danger of his own eternal damnation. This warping om a sensi i s
nat re into ane cspable of inhuman evil is perhaps the clearest proof of the
evils of existence, though Hamlet must now be numbered among the evils to be
punished by cosmic justice. But if Hamlet's actions condemn him to death, his
growing perception of reality finally redeems his soul in our eyes. Though
Claudius has planned Hamlet's destruction and Hamlet has proof of this, he has
returned to Denmark without any plan for his revenge, even warning Claudius
rudely of his approach. In "perfect conscience" now about the sin of
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