Hamlet is a play highly regarded for its meticulous insight into the mind of a protagonist. It portrays the tragic hero, Hamlet, through his apparent breakdown and eventual demise. This breakdown – although very complex – can be explained as caused by, and as parallel to the disorder of the society surrounding him in the play.
As the play progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Hamlet’s failing is his constant procrastination, reflection, and his inability to act spontaneously. The character of Hamlet seems in this way to contrast almost every other character in the play; the characters that surround Hamlet (barring perhaps Horatio) to an extent work on impulse, emotion and instinct. Hamlet rationalises all decisions, and even depends on others to decide for him (for example act III, scene II, Hamlet depends on Horatio’s rational opinion). While we would usually regard it as a beneficial quality – especially in Hamlet’s situation – that he reflects, and thinks before acting, it is easy to feel that this rationalisation is essentially the root of almost all tragedy in the play. Without it, Hamlet would have swiftly acted to take revenge on Claudius, and the superfluous, preventable deaths in the play would not have occurred; Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude and Hamlet himself could have lived. As Fortinbras says: ‘What feast is toward in thine eternal cell That thou so many princes at a shot So bloodily hast struck?’ He is addressing ‘O proud death’, and it seems almost naïve of him to suggest that the acts passed were ones caused by something other than human error. The entire play has been Hamlet’s strife to battle the human weaknesses: jealousy, gluttony, malice, resentment. The great tragedy of the play is that so many lives are lost for an apparent nothing; the tribulation of Hamlet and others in the play may seem a little less in vain if goodness had in some way overcome these human faults, but to claim that this conflict and the result of it were matters of fate, or something similar, is to trivialise and belittle the whole conflict of the play.
Act II, scene II, Hamlet is left alone, and speaks his soliloquy ‘Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ Hamlet curses himself of his ‘unpregnant’ manner; having just seen a player perform a piece, who cried as he spoke, and who showed great passion for fictional words, Hamlet exclaims “What would he do, Had he the motive and the cue for passion That I have?” – the player has no reason to be so passionate and emotive, and Hamlet has great reason (“for a king, Upon whose property and most dear life A damned defeat was made”) to do so, and yet he acts as a ‘John-a-dreams’ – a daydreamer – absent from any apparent effective passion in his actions. This whole argument in itself is an example of Hamlet’s constant reflection and procrastination. Instead of taking action, accepting his own criticisms, he is again being introspective, and analysing his own failures. In this way, Hamlet’s mental state can be linked back to the society of the play. Hamlet’s wistful and contemplative manner means that he is persistently evaluating himself and his actions against others, and their actions. Even if Hamlet may muster some passion, he will not allow himself to be ruled by it. In this case, Hamlet is contrasting himself with the player, and while we could say that it is possible Hamlet is correct in criticising himself on this point, it is still true that the player is exceptionally passionate, and therefore Hamlet’s comparison too extreme to be fair.
Conscience is a great subtle theme in Hamlet the play. Hamlet’s desire for revenge is linked very closely with his conscience; from the very first act, Hamlet has sworn revenge on Claudius, yet it takes five more acts, and six more deaths for him to truly act on his word – this is all due to his conscience.
There are two ways of considering Hamlet’s conscience. One is that his inability to act has its roots in his own overdeveloped conscience, and that his reflective nature is also overdeveloped. The alternate way of considering it, however, is that the characters about Hamlet are those with underdeveloped consciences, or lack some moral fibre. In modern day society, it is indeed true that someone held so highly as a figurehead as a king is, would not consider the murder of another man as so slightly as Claudius does – ‘seek for thy noble father in the dust. Thou know’st ‘tis common, all that lives must die’. It is also true that a modern day society would not forget and pass off the death of a King and remarriage of a queen as quickly as the society in the play does: ‘O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason Would have mourned longer’. Assuming that the latter perception on the play is the correct one, parallels between Hamlet’s mental state, and the disorder of society can be explained quite simply. The society of the play (excluding Hamlet, and again possibly Horatio) commits and witnesses immoral or questionable events without any – or with very little – reflection or consideration for moral and ethical matter. Characters act and think in ways that should provoke their consciences, but which do not. The society of the play is passing from immoral event to immoral event without understanding or consideration, while Hamlet must understand and consider all. In this way, the missing conscience of the people surrounding Hamlet is present in him.
‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ Marcellus says in Act I. This symbol of rot and disease is a significant one throughout the play. Marcellus may be referring to the ghost of Hamlet, or the impending threat of Norway, but the symbolism of the statement is perfect for the disorder and chaos that Claudius has brought with him to the throne. Hamlet’s soliloquies are riddled with disease imagery, particularly following conflict or encounter with Claudius: ‘Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear’; ‘Is sicklied o’er’; ‘takes off the rose From the fair forehead of an innocent love And sets a blister there’; Hamlet’s obsession with disease and rot is his obsession with the sin of Claudius – the sin of Denmark’s new king is infectious like a disease, and is spreading through his people. The unpunished sin of Claudius as king is the rot in the state of Denmark, and this rot will degrade the beautiful souls of men like Hamlet’s to nothing but dust ‘stopping a bunghole’ (act 5 sc. I). Hamlet’s obsession also is due to his father’s death; the late, former king describes to his son in Act 1 that he was murdered with the ‘leperous distilment’ poured into his ear, which caused ‘vile and loathsome crust’ to appear over his body – images of death and disease that Hamlet Jr. clearly does not forget.
Despite all of this, it can be argued that the madness of Hamlet is in fact not matched by the disorder of the society in the play, and even that Hamlet is not mad at all. It is very unclear throughout the play whether Hamlet’s madness is actual, or is a disposition simply only assumed. During his encounter with the ghost of his father, he explains to Horatio that he will ally himself with the ‘stranger’, ‘As I perchance hereafter shall think meet To put an antic disposition on’ That is, Hamlet will attempt to feign his own madness in public, to disguise his attempts for revenge. In the following scenes, it is clear that Hamlet is indeed simply faking his madness. Despite his apparent unstable behaviour in public, his soliloquies are insightful and logical. However, gradually we begin to lose faith in Hamlet. Gradually, his behaviour seems to show his apparently assumed madness becoming real. His actions in public and private begin to grow out of proportion; act 3 sc. iv, Hamlet’s meeting with his mother becomes almost frighteningly passionate: what Gertrude has done ‘Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose From the fair forehead of an innocent love And sets a blister there’ Gertrude’s re-marriage and adultery, Hamlet says, insults virtue, and brands her a harlot; the blister on the forehead is likely a reference to the branding of prostitutes.
Hamlet becomes extremely graphic in what he says when he speaks to his mother; “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, Stewed by corruption honeying and making love Over the nasty sty.” He makes references to Gertrude and Claudius’ adultery graphic enough to be bordering on the mentally incestuous. During the conflict with Gertrude, Hamlet acts on impulse and murders Polonius. Any character must be mentally corrupted in some severe way even to consider killing a man, and Hamlet is positively different from the other characters in the play. Hamlet would ordinarily procrastinate and consider deeply even the smallest decision; Hamlet here clearly has a completely different mentality from the one we saw towards the beginning of the play, and this suggests his mental degradation.
Our growing doubt in hamlet’s mental stability causes us to disbelieve him when he shows us that he is feigning his madness. To Polonius, Hamlet says “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” He is subtly hinting that his madness is conditional – his madness is as temporary as the direction of the wind – but he is clearly in a confused and disturbed state, and that translates to us as instability or madness. Hamlet believes himself that he is feigning his madness, or perhaps he wishes it enough to lie to himself, but it seems clear that somewhere in the duration of the play that he has lost some kind of mental integrity.
Further exploration of aspects of tragedy in Hamlet:
From the very beginning of the play, Hamlet’s suffering is evident. We get the impression that Hamlet suffers from great grief; grief caused by not only the death of his father, but also the remarriage of his mother to Claudius (Hamlet Sr.’s brother) soon after his death. This is not only an impression, we learn. In Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet suffers enough to part announce it in public: “But I have that within which passes show – These but the trappings and the suits of woe.” Hamlet is dressed in dark suit of ‘nighted colour’, and he claims (in front of the entire hall) that although he may look woeful as he is, what he wears is merely the ‘trappings’ and ‘suits’ of woe; what lies underneath is far worse. This rather dramatic comment is made in the opening scenes, even before Hamlet witnesses his father’s ghost, and learns that Claudius murdered his father.
We can also learn a lot about what Hamlet feels from Hamlet’s soliloquies; in public Hamlet is often very reserved about speaking his true mind, and tends to put on a false disposition (“But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue”). Hamlet’s first soliloquy in the play tells us a lot; Hamlet’s sorrow is so extreme that even the thought of suicide is one that Hamlet considers “that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.”; Interestingly, we also learn from this soliloquy that the main cause of Hamlet’s despair is the act of his mother marrying Claudius, and not actually the death of his father; Hamlet also considers this (or, his) world, and ‘unweeded garden’, where the weeds of life (people, events; all of life’s parts) grow untamed, into something vile.
Although Hamlet does not say it, we can tell that he is, and feels alone. No other character (barring perhaps Horatio) seems the ability to see through the veil of almost forced ignorance, and truly see what atrocity has truly happened. Not a few months (as Hamlet claims) since the King’s death, and already it seems that the country has forgotten about him; something that seems very unlikely to be genuine – we do get the sense that people are deliberately avoiding the past. Sometimes, it is easy to feel that Hamlet’s ability to see though the truth is in fact a disability to forget, or put to rest things that he should not want to change. While, in the beginning of the play, Hamlet’s reaction to what we assume is his father’s death seems natural, as we progress through the play, it becomes evident that Hamlet’s strife becomes obsessive, and where he was sad about the loss of his father, he becomes infatuated with his mother, and Claudius, in a way clearly not natural.
Act 2, Scene 2 Hamlet claims “I am bit mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” That is, he is subtly imparting the secret that he is not in truth mad, as everyone believes. In various other parts of the play, Hamlet claims (both in soliloquy and to others) that he is not truly mad, and that it is just a guise as an excuse for the way that he acts in his strife to avenge Hamlet Sr. However, as the play progresses we becomes less and less convinced, as Hamlet’s actions become more and more abstract from what we expect. This becomes most clear in his conversation with his mother, after the players have done their piece. Gertrude calls upon Hamlet to speak to him about his actions and how he has his ‘father much offended’. Despite this, the conversation soon turns into Hamlet mercilessly insulting his mother, only after murdering Polonius, and not caring one bit.
Although Hamlet often acts, and reacts, to events and people in ways that may seem unnatural, sometimes it is a lot easier to understand why. For example, Claudius; Hamlet, even from the very beginning of the play, despises Claudius. This is clearly due to Claudius taking the place of his father as king, and as husband to Gertrude, his mother, but it is evident that Claudius himself is something to be disliked. Carousal and wine-drinking, parties and riotous dances; Claudius is far from the ideal king – in fact, Hamlet claims that Claudius is killing Denmark’s reputation (“They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase Soil our addition;”). Claudius is clearly quite a shallow figure in the play – other characters can be contemplative, and sometimes seem slightly pensive. However, this is clearly not the case with Claudius; beyond what we can see on the surface – the drinking, the parties, and the almost feral behaviour – there is really nothing. What he feels or thinks, he seems to say, or else it is not important. To have this character kill your father, then marry your mother, and enjoy all the treasures without comeuppance, would solicit (I feel, at least) a far more extreme reaction than that of Hamlet’s initial response (disregarding Hamlet’s intent to kill Claudius – that is the reaction and will of Hamlet Sr., not Jr.).
Tragedy is infused into this play from the very start. The opening acts introduce us to the current background of the nobility and state of ruling in Denmark: the (from what we can tell, incredible) king is dead, only for his unworthy, corrupt brother to have taken over rule months later, and wed his weak wife. We eventually learn that this great king was in fact brutally murdered by his brother, in order to get the crown.
The play is riddled with tragedy, and not an act goes past without some form of tragic event unfolding. Hamlet himself is an intelligent man, with impressive perspective and depth. Throughout this play, that ability and talent is lost and turned upon him; this is in itself a very tragic transformation, and causes multiple subsequent tragedies. The relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet had clearly been a very affectionate and passionate one. Events within the play caused Hamlet to completely reject Ophelia, and treat her in ways similar to the way he treats his mother (perhaps a reason for her rejection by him is that she is so much like his mother, and hence his treating her like she has done what her mother has also). Tragedy is often defined as something terrible, the happening of which there is no control; events often seem more tragic if there was no control over it happening, and this is what makes the events of Hamlet seem so much more tragic. Almost all of tragic events in Hamlet stem from Claudius’ initial act of killing Hamlet sr., and marrying Gertrude. While this was clearly a conscious decision by Claudius (and therefore, there was control, unlike an event such as a natural disaster), the reaction to these events is by Hamlet, whom cannot have influenced it in any way.
Hamlet becomes an unlikely tragic hero in the play, as he resists the events around him that seem to him clearly unjust and wrong. Although his attempts to put things right involve the murder of Claudius, and eventually develop into the deaths of many others, we as readers still feel that he is the ‘hero’ – he is trying to do right what others are simply ignoring, and to do so he must struggle with, essentially, the downfalls in his own personality, to attempt to achieve it.
The subject of the whole play is Hamlet’s attempt to revenge his father, and his attempts to make right everything that he sees wrong in his mother, and Claudius. Almost all the characters in the play end up dead, guilty or not, and in the end, all that has really changed is that no body is any longer around to feel the sorrow that Hamlet has. It is a real tragedy, as is in life, when good doesn’t end up vanquishing evil, no matter to what lengths was the strife, and what good intentions there were possessed.