Hamlet One of the most unique elements of the Hamlet character is that he is so human. Many types of readers can identify with him. Hamlet is imperfect, and he is fretful. Hamlet has human properties, and it is his humanity that I intend to explore. Indeed it is these human qualities and imperfections that make his story so tragic. Another tragic part of the play is the plays irony.
Irony is an important tool in the hands of the playwright to achieve both comical and/or dramatic effect. There is usually little reason for a tragedy to be funny, so Shakespeare has used this tool to add more tragedy to the play. I will investigate the nature of this irony. Also, I will investigate the types of conflict that play a major part in the play and the relationships between Hamlet and the two people who have been closest to him; Ophelia and the Ghost. Hamlet cannot share his strong feelings and emotions with his mother or his girlfriend.
While his mother is literally sleeping with the enemy, Ophelia has chosen the side of Claudius because of her father, Polonius. It is especially difficult for Hamlet to talk to Ophelia. The only other woman in his life, Gertrude, has betrayed his father by marrying Claudius. Hamlet may be obsessed with the idea that all women are evil, yet he really does love Ophelia, because when he finds out Ophelia has died, he cries out, “I lov’d Ophelia; forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum.”(Act V, Scene 1) The ghost provides Hamlet with a dilemma. In Shakespeare’s plays, supernatural characters are not always to be trusted; think of the three witches in MacBeth, who are instrumental in his downfall.
Hamlet does not know whether the ghost is telling the truth or not. If Hamlet had killed Claudius solely on the ghost’s advice, he would certainly have been tried and put to death himself. There would probably have been a war to choose the new king. Being the humanitarian that he is, and taking account of his responsibilities as a prince and future king, Hamlet most likely would want to avoid civil war. Even though Claudius is a murderer, and probably not as noble a king as Hamlet’s father was, he is still a king. He brings order to Denmark.
Hamlet does not wish to plunge his country into chaos. He realizes that this will happen when he kills Claudius. Hamlet is unable to combine the spiritual world (in the form of his father’s ghost) with the tangible, every-day world that surrounds him. There is much irony throughout this play. One occurrence of irony I found particularly striking was the fact that Hamlet effectively maneuvers himself into the same position as Claudius.
Claudius had attacked and killed a man who did not have the opportunity to defend himself, but when Hamlet kills Polonius, is he not guilty of the same? It is intriguing that both Claudius and Hamlet have killed fathers. It is interesting to see how these two completely different characters deal with this problem in different ways. Other interesting parallels I found are the numerous deaths by poison. Hamlet’s father was murdered by Claudius with poison. In the final act, the queen is the first to be poisoned, by drinking from Hamlet’s cup. Then, Hamlet is wounded by the poisoned tip of Laertes’ sword.
When they change swords, Hamlet gets the upper hand and Laertes is poisoned. When the queen dies, Laertes explains all to Hamlet, before he dies. Hamlet then kills Claudius before dying himself. It is ironic that, as Claudius is poisoned because of his own plotting, he had already signed his own death warrant when he killed Hamlet’s father, the first tragic action of the play. There are only three people in this play who don’t die by poisoning: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet their deaths in England, after being outsmarted by Hamlet.
The third is Ophelia, who is drowned. There are three types of conflict I can identify in the play: ‘man versus man’, ‘man versus nature’ and ‘man versus himself’. Hamlet’s fight with Laertes in Ophelia’s grave and the subsequent duel would both easily classify as ‘man versus man’ conflicts. Man also struggles with nature in this play, most notably in the form of Ophelia’s drowning and Hamlet’s crossing the sea to England – although the latter conflict plays more of a background role. The ‘man versus himself’ conflict is most directly exposed in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, where he is wrestling with his conscience.
The realization he comes to in this soliloquy is that we are afraid to kill ourselves because we do not know what is to be found after death. Another ‘man versus himself’ conflict is Claudius’ inability to pray. He cannot really justify his past deeds. For him this is actually another step into darkness. Hamlet may be a thinking man; however, this does not mean he actually likes to think.
Although he might have liked to think in the time preceding the play, when the time has come for him to take action, he cannot because of this urge to contemplate. His capacity of thinking becomes a handicap rather than an advantage. And this is not even the most painful or tragic part of the Hamlet character. The biggest problem is that he is aware of this. Not only is he incapable of acting without thinking, he knows that this is the case, which makes the burden even heavier. Hamlet cannot face reality. It is already a traumatic experience for him when he has to believe the words of the ghost, and actually the ghost’s demanding him to act on this information is too much for him.
Hamlet is however, a man of decision. But he is also contemplative. He needs to think in order to justify his actions, and his intellectual characteristics are the major difference between Claudius and himself. Hamlet is very aware of the relationship between action and reaction and realizes that he has to proceed very carefully. In the play, Claudius is the decisive character, and the man of action.
He takes the first action, the action that sets the story in motion – the poisoning of Hamlet’s father. He also instigates the final action, the poisoning of the blades and the cup; an action that will backfire and cause his own death. In the play, there seems to be a constant shift of action, where only one party can act at any time. These two parties are of course Hamlet and Claudius. When Claudius has taken the action that secures him the throne, he allows Hamlet to become the man of action.
But Hamlet procrastinates. The only action Hamlet takes is staging the play, which seems more to serve the purpose to establish that Claudius is indeed guilty of his father’s murder. He does this for himself and for Horatio. Then he proceeds to kill the eavesdropping Polonius. Hamlet is given the chance to avenge ”this foul and most unnatural murder” when he sees Claudius praying.
Hamlet, being a Christian prince, cannot bring himself to kill Claudius while he is praying, as this would secure his place in heaven. Hamlet wants to make sure Claudius will suffer in the afterlife, just as his father did. Hamlet leaves just before Claudius gets up, declaring he cannot pray; “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (Claudius, Act III, Scene 3). Had Hamlet known Claudius was unable to pray, then he could have had his revenge right then and there, instead of waiting until the end, and taking everyone else with him. Most of the other characters would probably have acted much quicker than Hamlet if they were in his position.
Imagine Polonius in the situation Hamlet found himself in. He would not procrastinate as much. It would have most likely been off with the head of the murderer! Any other character in the play would not have stayed as quiet as Hamlet does (confiding only in his best friend, and even keeping the truth from his mother until the end of Act III). Although not every one of them might have come to killing Claudius. But Hamlet does not seem to do anything.
Again, he thinks too much. But why? Hamlet is self-conscious, while the majority of characters that surround him are not. This explains why he feels inhibited to act. Hamlet resembles a real person more than any other character in the play, which might be another reason why he still remains a subject of discussion, and why the play remains so popular. Hamlet is one of the most interesting characters in English fiction because we can identify with him, and understand, although not always agree with his actions. Hamlet is also set apart by his elusiveness. Many of the characters in the play can be categorized within minutes of their introduction. I’m not calling them caricatures, but there is definitely a caricature-like side to some of them. The pompous Polonius and the deceitful and thick-headed Guildenstern and Rozencrantz come to my mind.
However, this does not hold true for some other characters, such as Laertes and Ophelia. The character of Hamlet refuses categorization. Interesting with regard to this is his love of theater. He is particularly interested in the idea that things may seem different from what they really are, just like the people that surround him. His mother is no longer his father’s wife, but his uncle’s, his girlfriend is no longer there for him, and Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are no longer his friends.
Also, he is aware that he will have to disguise himself and his real motives and goals in order to attain them – this is why he fakes his madness. It is not until he picks up Yorick’s skull in the beginning of Act V that he finds out what is real and what not. In the end, when the truth is revealed and everyone’s “masks” are removed, death is all that is to be found.