Over the four hundred years between when Hamlet was written, and now, context
and values have shaped the way it has been interpreted and received, as well as performed. Shakespeare
originally wrote Hamlet in the Greek tradition of tragedy
, where noble
and famous men or heroes take a great fall. The play was hence known on the terms of the time, and the audience will only see what it expects to see. Hamlet reproduced the values of the 17th century
, typifying the ideal man. This happened to be the quintessential renaissance prince
, knowledgeable in literature, the arts and sciences, possessing skills of composition as well as social skills and the strength and courage of a soldier. The people of Shakespeare’s time ignored his madness, his procrastination, and his intellectuality. This might be a suitable analysis today when attention is paid to the plot and the structure of the play instead of to the intellectualising of the central character. Even today there are those who view Hamlet
in this way, suggesting that questions of his madness and hesitation are overemphasised. They assert that Hamlet acted as soon as could be reasonably expected, once he established the king’s guilt and found the opportunity where the king was in a state of sin. They maintain that Hamlet pretended to be mad in order to avert suspicion, as well as allowing him to make callous comments to Claudius
and others. By justifying his actions in this way Hamlet is painted as the archetypal ill-fated hero, a gallant victim for whom life holds nothing but frustration and disenchantment. All in a fleeting passage of time Hamlet experiences the murder of his father and the confession from a supernatural figure that the King’s own brother was his assassin, who then throws himself upon the widow, Hamlet’s mother. He suffers the betrayals by his mother Gertrude
, his beloved Ophelia
, his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
, even Laertes
. To Hamlet it would appear that it is not only the state of Denmark
that is ‘rotten’, it is the entire world.
It was in the 18th century that Hamlet was construed as indecisive, portraying the new ideal of a sensitive hero, owing to novels and romanticism. Here they are concentrating on Hamlet’s introspectiveness and inclination towards contemplation, with the emphasis on his madness. Hamlet berates himself for hesitating to kill Claudius, for “thinking too precisely on the event”. He is implying that people who obsess a lot are the ones who do the least. The reality however is that Hamlet doesn’t have the opportunity to kill the king and then justify his action until the end, when chance provides the opportunity. Heroes of revenge plays from an earlier time perform soliloquies about having to delay, and they criticise themselves for it. But revenge plays call for the revenge to take time and planning, otherwise there would be no play.
When Hamlet is expressing regrets about his uncompleted vengeance, he compares himself unfavorably to Claudius, who has just recited a ridiculous, pretentious speech, and to Fortinbras, who is getting thousands of people killed unwarrantedly. It is no coincidence that both Claudius and Fortinbras are chasing foolish, vain objectives. Hamlet represents anything other than indecisive; he is just contemplative. For Hamlet, his dilemma is not about what decisions he should take but rather whether he will be able to make any decisions at all. It can be said that Hamlet makes no decisions, projecting the image of a romantic, indecisive and idle individual, incapable of action. He has been accused of being snivelling and pathetic, little more than a compulsive talker who is largely gratified by his own words.
He loves to think. He needs to think so as to justify his actions, and this intellectual capacity is the major difference between Claudius and himself. Hamlet is exceptionally aware of the relation between action and reaction and realises that he must proceed very cautiously. His focusing too much on an event drives him to the brink of madness.
It also has to be said that Hamlet, wordy as he is, is extremely active all the same. It is true however that other characters or events force the impetus for his actions upon him. He listens to the ghost even though his friends refuse to, he adopts an uncompromising attitude, or a near defiance with regard to Claudius, he venomously casts off Ophelia, he thwarts one plot after the other designed to expose his plans, he stages for the court a show which is nothing but a snare in which to “catch the conscience of the king”, he confronts his mother in a scene of extreme violence, and he combats Laertes. More violently, he then kills Polonius, his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the king, and is indirectly responsible for the death of Laertes. This is a reasonable effort for someone who, evidently, doesn’t know the meaning of the word action.
The 20th century brings with it the incidence of the Freudian tendency to analyse motivation with psychology. Hamlet is now considered as quite possibly stunted by an Oedipus complex, where his instinctive desires to take his father’s place beside his mother, repressed since infancy, are stirred into such unconscious and powerful activity by Gertrude’s remarriage that he is reduced to a belated adolescent, mad to some extent and ensnared in unfruitful existentialist ruminations.
In 1905, Freud was the first to try and unravel in psychoanalytical terms the riddle existing in Hamlet’s behaviour. According to the Oedipus complex, the personal crisis Hamlet undergoes rouses his repressed incestuous and parricidal desires. The disgust he feels at the remarriage of his mother, as well as the vicious behaviour during their squabble in Gertrude’s bedroom, are signs of the jealousy which he frequently, if unconsciously experiences. Hamlet describes Claudius as a ‘murderer and villain, a slave that is not twentieth part the tithe of your precedent lord’, and is horror-struck at the thought that his mother could feel desire for him.
Hamlet’s dealings towards his mother also somewhat follow the textbook definition of the Oedipus complex. Hamlet may not necessarily want to marry his mother, yet there is a specific amount of sexual energy shared between the two. The association of the idea of sexuality with his mother has been buried since infancy but at the remarriage of his mother, can no longer be obscured from his consciousness. Feelings, which once in his early years were pleasurable, can now only fill him with revulsion owing to his repressions. Freud considered the Oedipus complex in Hamlet to be so strong that he deliberated whether or not to call his idea an Oedipus complex or a "Hamlet" complex.
New theatrical conventions and genres laid the perfect foundation for a complete transformation, a play by Tom Stoppard, to spring into actualization as Existentialism provides philosophical and dramatic context. Some branches of this philosophy saw life as meaningless and vacant, leading to the genre of the Theatre of the Absurd. The emphasis was now after a revived attitude toward religion and world order, on the importance of the individual, and the ordinary man rather than the tragic ‘hero’, the renaissance prince. This is when Tom Stoppard looked at the ordinary people in Shakespeare’s play, and looked at things through their eyes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Another example of Noding your Homework.