Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman

Hamlet, it is frequently observed by critics, is a deeply "problematic" play. This, I think, is actually to its advantage. The below list is in the service of a larger node that I am preparing; it will argue, in part, that one of the surprising strengths of the play derives from the fact that it puts its audience through the experience of self-contradiction -- without ever alerting that audience to the fact of that experience.

A partial list of contradictions in the play follows; I plan to expand this node over time.

EDIT: The below list may seem at first to be a loose collection of adverse criticisms. They are not. Again, a large part of my thesis will ultimately be that, in Whitman's words, Hamlet presses its audience into the experience of "containing multitudes."


1. Hamlet's oft-quoted observation that death is "the undiscovered country / From which no traveller returns" does not square with the fact that he has been visited, three acts beforehand, by the ghost of his father.

2. During that visit, the Ghost asks Hamlet to revenge his "foul and unnatural murder." Revenge is a fundamentally un-Christian act, since it is the opposite of turning the other cheek. Immediately after the Ghost provides this command, however, he insists that Hamlet "leave [his] mother to heaven"1.

3. The Ghost tells Hamlet that it cannot reveal the "secrets of [its] prison-house" immediately after partially revealing them.

4. Hamlet seems to invent the idea of staging a play that mimics the murder of his father after giving instructions to the First Player to stage exactly such a play.

5. An audience accepts both of the incompatible facts that Claudius would become king by virtue of his blood relation to King Hamlet and, later, that Laertes could become king because of popular support (here it seems that Shakespeare is toying with the fact that Denmark was an elected monarchy, a seemingly non-sequitorial form of government).

6. Gertrude accepts the idea that Hamlet is "author" of his own exile; earlier in the Closet scene, she acknowledges that Claudius had planned Hamlet's removal much earlier. Similarly, Hamlet is the one that introduces the idea that he is to be sent to England in this scene and then later expresses (possibly mock) surprise to Claudius that he is to be sent away.

7. Claudius expresses need to "countenance and excuse" the murder of Polonius, then later explains that one of the reasons that he didn't send Hamlet to England earlier was the general population's love for him -- a love that "dip[s] all his faults in their affection" and "converts his gyves to graces."

8. In the same scene, Hamlet moves from saying that the wars between Poland and Norway are "th'impostume of much wealth and peace" to saying that "rightly to be great / is not to stir without great argument / but greatly to find quarrel in a straw / when honour's at the stake."

9. Hamlet first claims a firm, morally relativistic position that "there is nothing good or bad / but thinking makes it so" but then asserts blanketly that "there's a divinity that shapes our ends."

10. Ophelia is treated as a suicide although there is no evidence that she deliberately killed herself; when Laertes confronts the priest, he never questions that she is a suicide, just the priest's heartless rigidity.

11. In the same scene where Claudius notes that "of Hamlet our dear brother's death / The memory be green", he also upbraids his nephew for persisting in "obstinate condolement" over the former king.

12. In the play's third scene an audience is invited to fault Polonius for his too- stubborn and too-callous rejection of Ophelia’s insistences that Hamlet loves her. Throughout the remainder of the play, however, it is frequently invited to fault him for stubbornly holding the opposite view -- that frustrated love for Ophelia is the only possible motivational factor behind Hamlet’s madness2.

13. Hamlet expresses admiration both for Horatio’s cool, rational self-control and for the First Player’s ability to force himself, through a very different kind of self-control, into a heated passion1

14. Hamlet also tells Ophelia that he once did, but no longer does, have feelings for her; later he follows Laertes into her grave while shrieking that he loved her definitively and that “forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum.”
1. See Booth, Stephen 1969. 'On The Value of Hamlet.' Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, ed. Norman Rabkin. New York

2. Polonius’ brief self-reproach for excessive “jealousy” in the concluding lines of 2.1 is potential proof against this argument. However, this speech is finished after six and a half lines and it concludes with a self-justifying generalization that undercuts much of its apologetic thrust. Moreover, the entire speech is likely to seem parenthetical to an audience, since it occurs while the play is focused on Ophelia’s report of Hamlet’s behavior. Not only this, but at this point the audience is confident that the Ghost’s reappearance is the major source for Hamlet’s misbehavior. It is therefore likely to receive Polonius’ overconfident deduc-tion that Ophelia’s refusal of Hamlet “hath made him mad” in a comic register that colors the rest of Polonius’ lines in the scene. Shakespeare thus seems to divert audience focus from the inconsistencies of Polonius’ opinions to the constancy of his ridiculous habits of speech even as he presents Polonius in the process of changing his mind.

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