Essay, Research Paper: Hamlet

Shakespeare: Hamlet

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In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the protagonist exhibits a puzzling,
duplicitous nature. Hamlet contradicts himself throughout the play. He endorses
both the virtues of acting a role and that of being true to one's self. He
further supports both of these conflicting endorsements with his actions. This
ambiguity is demonstrated by his alleged madness, for he does behave madly,only
to become perfectly calm and rational an instant later. These inconsistencies
are related with the internal dilemmas he faces. He struggles with the issue of
revenging his father's death-vowing to kill Claudius and then backing out,
several times. Upon this point Hamlet stammers through the play. The reason for
this teetering is directly related to his inability to form a solid opinion
about role playing. This difficulty is not present, however, at the start of the
play. In the first act, Hamlet appears to be very straightforward in his actions
and inner state. When questioned by Gertrude about his melancholy appearance,
Hamlet says, "Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not 'seems.' (1.2.76). This
is to say "I am what I appear to be." Later In Act I, Hamlet makes a
clear statement about his state when he commits himself to revenge. In this
statement the play makes an easy to follow shift. This shift consists of Hamlet
giving up the role of a student and mourning son. Hamlet says, "I'll wipe
away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall
live Within the book and volume of my brain" (1.5.99-103). Hamlet is
declaring that he will be committed to nothing else but the revenge of his
father's death. There is no confusion about Hamlet's character. He has said
earlier that he is what he appears to be, and there is no reason to doubt it. In
the next act,however, Hamlet's status and intentions suddenly, and with out
demonstrated reason, become mired in confusion. When Hamlet appears again in act
two, it seems that he has lost the conviction that was present earlier. He has
yet to take up the part assigned to him by the ghost. He spends the act walking
around, reading, talking with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the
players. It is not until the very end of the act that he even mentions
vengeance. If he had any of the conviction shown earlier he would have been
working on his vengeance. So, instead of playing the part of vengeful son, or
dropping the issue entirely, he hangs out in the middle, pretending to be mad.
This is shown when he says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "I know not-lost
all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise" (2.2.298-299). Later he tells
them that he is just feigning madness when he says, "I am but mad
north-north-west, when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a
handsaw"(2.2.380-381). Admitting so blatantly that he is only feigning
madness would imply that he is comfortable with it. He also seems to be
generally comfortable with acting This is evidenct when he says, "there is
nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" (2.2.251-252). Hamlet
is saying that behavior shapes reality. It is puzzling that, at this point,
Hamlet is comfortable with acting, but not with the role that he said he would
play earlier. If he is to play a role, why not the one that his father gave him?
When the players come in a short wile later his attitude changes. Hamlet is
prompted to vengeance, again, by the moving speech that is given by one of the
players. About this speech he says, "Whatis Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do Had he motive and cue for passion
That I have? "(2.2.561-564) In this praise of this players ability to act,
Hamlet is saying that, if he were such an actor, he would have killed Claudius
by now. This link between vengeance and acting that is present here is what
Hamlet struggles with until very near the end. He is then moved to swear that he
should kill Claudius when he says, " I should have fatted all the region
kites With this slave is off. Bloody, bawdy villain! O, vengeance! Why, what an
ass am I?' (2.2.581-585) He makes this big buildup of what he should have done
and how he will be revenged and he shoots it down in the next line. This passage
is the model of Hamlet's cognitive dissonance. After all of this swearing and
support of the value of acting and words, he backs out of it again. He can't
decide whether or not to play the role. Words are further condemned when he
says, "Must, like a whore, unpack my hart with Words" (2.2.587). So,
he is now condemning role playing. Being caught in the middle, he decides that
he needs more proof of the Kings guilt when he says, "The play is the thing
/ Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" (2.2.606-607). Before the
mouse trap is to be played, Hamlet runs into Ophelia and makes some telling
statements. Upon the issue of Opheliais beauty, Hamlet says, "That if you
be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty"
(3.1.109-110). He is saying that Ophelia can be honest and fair, but that,
honesty being an inward trait, and fairness being an outward trait, cannot be
linked. He goes on further to say that "Ay, truly, for the power of beauty
will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd that the force of
honesty can translate beauty into his likeness" (3.1.13-15) So not only can
the inner and outer self not be linked, but acting, or the show or exterior,
will transform one's inner self to match the exterior show. He says this just
after denying that words and acting are important. By what he says here, if he
would only act the part he wouldn't have a problem taking action. Then, he
contradicts himself, yet again, when he says "God hath given you one face,
and you go make yourselves Another"(3.1.146-147). He had just said that
appearance is all and now chastises women for changing it. He is bouncing back
and forth between supporting acting and denouncing it. Whenever he is in support
of acting, he is also ready for vengeance. When he swings back to support acting
again he says, "It hath made me mad. I say we will have no more marriages.
Those that are married already-all but one-shall live"(3.1.149-151). The
"one" Hamlet is referring to must be the King. So, it returns to
vengeance and acting going together. In the next scene, the conflicting action
is similar, but less obvious. When Hamlet is advising the player on how his
lines should be read he says, 'Suit the action to the word, the word to the
action" (3.2.17-18). If Hamlet would follow his own advice, he would not
have a conflict. This shows that he is not consistent within himself. Hamlet is
saying that one should not distinguish between word and actions, but he does
maintain this separation. Yet, when Hamlet speaks with Horatio he praises him
for being objective, levelheaded, and for having a consistent character. He is
praising Horatio for being true to himself, not being an actor. Hamlet says,
"Give me that man That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him In my
heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart, As I do thee" (3.2.69-72). Hamlet
is saying this because he wants Horatio to watch the King at the play. He is
unsure of his uncle's guilt, and he wants proof. He wants it from someone who he
thinks is honest throughout. It comes back to acting and vengeance or, in this
case, he has failed in his vengeance and needs Horatio to agree with him. Hamlet
says to Horatio, "Observe mine uncle. If his occulted guilt Do not itself
unkernnel in one speech, It is a dammed ghost we have seen" (3.2.77-80).
Proof, however, does not have any thing to do with the role Hamlet is supposed
to play, but there is more to it than that. The interesting thing is that his
uncle will be judged by how he acts during the play. If the King is a good
actor, and does not show his guilt, he will most likely not be killed. However,
the King is not a good actor and when he rises Hamlet responds with, "What,
frighted with false fire?"(3.2.254). It's as if Hamlet is saying 'it's only
a play, it is not real.' He does say something to this effect a few lines
before: "Your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us
not"(3.2.229-230). This new proof drives Hamlet to use more words. He is
again to talk of killing, and he says, "Now I could drink hot blood"
(3.2.379). He again associates this with a role, that of Nero. "The soul of
Nero enter this firm bosom" (3.2.383). Later, Hamlet again talks himself
out of character and does not kill the King. He puts it off until later and
says, "When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, At gaming, swearing, or
about some act That has no relish of salvation init, Then trip him that his
heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be dammed and black"
(3.3.89-94) He is waiting until Claudius fits the part of a villain. His action
is paralyzed whenever something does not fit the part. He needs his revenge to
be dramatic, so that he may get into it and finally play it out, and it takes
him the next scene and an act to finally do this. After Hamlet backs out of
killing Claudius, Hamlet says to his mother, "O shame, where is thy
blush?"(3.4.72). He is voicing his distaste for Gertrude, not only for
marrying his uncle, but for not being true to herself. Hamlet believes that she
should show some shame for her sins, but she does not. Hamlet is contradicting
himself in this. He has been duplicitous and untrue for two thirds of the play.
At this point, he is still not sure as how he is to proceed. Hamlet is caught in
the middle of acting and objectivity. Hamlet finally gets his act together, and
decides to act the part his father had given him, after he sees the soldiers
going off to war to die. "The imminent death of twenty thousand men
continent To hide the slain. O, from this time forth My thoughts be bloody or be
nothing worth! That, for fantasy and a trick of fame, Go to their graves like
beds, fight for a plot Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, Which is not
tomb enough and Those soldiers fight and die for an insignificant plot of land,
and they do it because they are soldiers, no other reason." (4.4.51-57)
Hamlet realizes that he should do what his role dictates, strictly because it is
his role. He does not falter in his conviction after he returns, and he fully
embraces the act. Upon confronting Laertes, he says "This is I, Hamlet the
Dane" (5.1.53-54). The "Dane", meaning the King. He is claiming
his right to the throne. This is the appropriate action for someone as wronged
as he, albeit late. In reaction to Ophelia's death, he is again behaving as he
should have. She was his love interest, and as such he should have loved her
more than her brother. This is shown when Hamlet says "I loved Ophelia.
Forty thousand brothers /Could not, with their quantity of love,/ Make up my
sum" (5.1.256-258). Hamlet should have loved her, but he did not. Had he
loved her he would not have treated her so poorly earlier. He is now committed
to acting, and loving Ophelia fits the role. In the rest of the play, Hamlet
does not mess around. He barely has time to tell, to Horatio, his story of
escape before he is challenged. He does not refuse the challenge because as
nobility, which he is finally claiming to be, he cannot refuse and keep his
honor. Hamlet goes to the match and, because he has now accepted the role, he
does not hesitate to kill the King when prompted to. It would seem that being a
good actor is paramount to survival in this play. Polonius could not stick to
the role of adviser, and was trying to convince the King that Hamlet was in love
with his daughter. This leads him to spy on Hamlet, and because he could not do
that right either, is killed. Ophelia could not handle the role of mourning for
her father, goes mad and dies as a result. The King could not cover up his
guilt, so Hamlet has the proof he needs to spur him on. Finally, Hamlet: If he
would have acted as the ghost instructed him to in the first place, instead of
flip flopping, would have killed Claudius outright. Had Hamlet been truly
comfortable with acting, Claudius would have been the only causality.
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