Lorraine Balint--- Intro. to Literature---Dec. 15, 2003
4.) "Hamlet is real because he actively and amazingly inhabits so many diverse, interconnecting, potentially contradictory contexts." Discuss his evolution during the story through interpretation of his soliloquies.
Indeed, Hamlet is a standout in this cast of characters, almost all of whom engage in complex, contradictory behaviors, and, amongst whom, only one small group is openly play-acting. His uncle, Claudius commits royal fratricide, then must carry on as though all his subsequent actions, including marrying his brother's widow, is for the good of the country, which about to be attacked and needs a strong united front---even if it also means plotting against his nephew. Hamlet's mother Gertrude has gone from grieving widow to contented bride in record time, yet never seems insincere about her feelings throughout; perhaps she always had a soft spot for her brother-in-law, or maybe it's an extension of her duty to the kingdom. She is torn between her love for her new husband and her son.
Polonius, Claudius's head councillor, is the perfect courtier, and is as inconsistent in his parental devotions as he is insincere at court, radiating trust when he distrusts, flatters when he really has contempt--- yet is a pawn of the King. Shame-ridden Ophelia is fatally torn between desires to be Polonius's ideal daughter and Laertes's ideal sister, and frustrated longing to be permanently united with her royal lover Hamlet, and is used and abused by the people she loves most. Laertes is a hypocrite, lecturing his sister about her morals, then going on to dissipation in France. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not quite as insincere as Polonius--- they think they are really helping the King AND Hamlet--- but like Polonius, they are Claudius's dupes, and, also like him, they will end up dead for their trouble. The only characters who seem 100% sincere and trustworthy are Horatio and the guards.
However, unlike "Othello" which was secondarily about the title character and primarily about the machinations against him by the play's villain, "Hamlet" IS mainly about the lead character, who engineers and attempts to control the series of events himself, albeit reluctantly.
Hamlet starts out as a rather naive, unworldly student prince who has hero-worshipped his father and idolized his mother, until the former's death, and the latter's seemingly shocking marriage to the dead king's brother. It's shocking to Hamlet, anyway. The rest of the court, even his best friend Horatio, seems to accept this rapid change in regime, and doesn't even question that Claudius has inherited the crown ahead of his nephew, unless there was a different law of succession in Denmark, or, for whatever reason, the 30-year-old Hamlet had been judged incompetent to rule.
Though in his prime and, up until this time, rather sheltered, Hamlet already has the air of a disillusioned man-of-the-world, which his late sorrows have exacerbated into thoughts of suicide: "O, that tis too too sullied flesh would melt,/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!/ Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!" This is to be a recurrent theme.
This first soliloquy expresses Hamlet's sense of powerlessness at what has just transpired--- his simple misery at losing BOTH parents: the beloved, strong father, who was also his role model of the ideal husband; and his gentle mother, who now divides her loyalties and love between her serious, studious son and her new, sexier, rowdier "satyr" of a husband. Hamlet complains that he must, at this point, contain his festering, frustrated anger at this "incestuous" marriage.
(In the rest of Europe, many such royal marriages took place, with religious and legal dispensation, but recall that Tudor England was rocked by dispute over the validity of Henry VIII's marriage to HIS widowed sister-in-law, and his next marriage to the mother of Shakespeare's Queen, Elizabeth. This was a theme Shakespeare explored in several of his dramas, including, of course, his own version of the story of Henry VIII.)
During the interim between this landmark speech and the next, Hamlet "interviews" his father's ghost, and agrees to avenge Old Hamlet's death by killing Claudius, who has murdered him to gain the throne and Gertrude. However, young Hamlet isn't about to jump in head first---- he needs to ascertain whether this vision was merely the result of his wishful thinking. In the meantime, to throw Claudius, his leading councillor Polonius, and the duped courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, off his tail, Hamlet plays at going slightly mad, which may end up being a self-fulfilling role. He also begins his fatal alienation of Ophelia.
The second soliloquy, "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I !" occurs
after Hamlet has met with the traveling actors. He bemoans the fact that the actors
can force themselves to greater passion over their fictional problems than he can
over the prospect of avenging his father. With good reason, of course; Hamlet had
been a student and a lover and a friend, not a fighter or killer. He is further
impeded by his religious and ethical concerns. His head games haven't gotten him
the confirmation of the ghost's accusations, nor have they made the King any less
Plus, the same fear that keeps Hamlet from suicide, keeps him from killing, and killing a blood relative at that, who, up until his marriage to the widowed Queen, may simply have seemed to be a typical, light-minded prince, whose presence the too-solemn nephew tolerated for his noble father's sake. After all, as Hamlet reasons, "The spirit I have seen/ May be the devil, and the devil hath power/ T' assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,/ Out of my weakness and melancholy..... /Abuses me to damn me." Hamlet, having had active involvement with an itinerant acting troupe now visiting the palace, knows the power of good theater; he will have the players re-enact his father's murder, to gauge his uncle's reaction, and thus "catch the conscience of the King.".
The third soliloquy, "To be, or not to be", in just the next scene, again takes up Hamlet's internal debate over suicide. It seems that every time he has made a decision about revenge, these doubts rise to plague him. "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/ and by opposing, end them.... 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."
He ponders that people crave long lives, which are filled with all manner of suffering, because they fear "The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns.... Thus conscience makes cowards of us all...." Though he's not really sure what lies beyond death, Hamlet has communicated with SOME kind of spirit who has lost his own chance for Heaven, and would rather not take the chance that there IS a Hell for suicides. He continues his strange sparring with Ophelia while her father and Claudius spy on the couple; he convinces HER that he's mad--- ironically, though he rambles on about suicide, it is the unhappy girl who will soon do it.
By the fourth soliloquy, Hamlet has had confirmation, and is set on the fatal course. "Now I could drink hot blood/ And do such bitter business as the day/ would quake to look on." Well, not quite--- he hears Claudius at prayer, and decides he can't do it then, because this King's spirit would end up in Heaven, while the old King's is still earthbound.
However, when Hamlet later confronts his mother and hears someone behind the curtain, he no longer has any hesitation at blindly running the person through. Unfortunately for him, and even more for Ophelia, it's Polonius. It's all downhill from there, as the King, now on the alert, counterplots, until all the major characters are dead, save for Horatio, who is prevented by Hamlet from sharing his fate. Though Hamlet does die with the satisfaction of having finally killed his uncle, one might question whether this last-minute salvation of his friend is enough to save his soul from the same fate as his own father's, struck down without making peace with his God, and condemned to haunt Elsinore until... whenever. (But if Hamlet and his father haunt together, perhaps that's enough for him.)
Hamlet is real in the sense that he is a well-rounded character--- unlike, say, Othello and Iago, he is not either mostly good or mostly bad. Different events do bring out different elements of his personality. He is repulsed by what has happened to his family, but equally repulsed by what he is asked to do to avenge the wrong. Still, after his first, inadvertant murder (for which he's sorry, but not very), he gets into the spirit, calmly sending the obsequious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the death that he would have suffered, had his uncle's plan been successful. He learns, after years of ignoring the realities of Royal intrigue, to play the game at the expense of every genuine virtue he has been taught, every genuine feeling he has ever experienced.
Hamlet confuses and hurts Ophelia, whose only crimes are being born female--- his anger at his mother having exploded into general misogyny--- and being a daughter of the King's smarmy lackey. He wrongly assumes that, like her father, she is a willing, knowing decoy, or pawn of Claudius's. He repeatedly tells her to "Get to a nunnery", which, in the Protestant England of Shakespeare's time, were rumored to be like brothels. His killing of Polonius (who had also emotionally abused her) sends Ophelia over the edge of insanity. Yet, at her paltry funeral, the best that could be had because of her suicide, for which partly to blame, Hamlet declared that "Forty Thousand brothers/ Could not with all their quantity of love/ Make up my sum."
Still, for all his obnoxious behavior in his quest for vengeance, Hamlet has poignant moments. His grief for his father DOES become obsessive, as his Uncle Claudius predicted, but up until the killing of Polonius, and the berating of Gertrude, it is easy to sympathize with Hamlet's profound sense of loss--- it's still quite fresh, after all. Though he seems to us rather old to need it (perhaps making Hamlet aged 30 was a mjor miscalculation of Shakespeare's--- in many ways the prince seems younger than that) Hamlet apparently still desired his father's wise counsel and affection.
Hamlet's relationship with his mother, however, sets a new low for the Oedipus complex. It is possible that he would have been angry no matter WHOM his widowed mother married, or even WHEN, because he believed sexuality to be inappropriate for an "old woman", and had been disturbed by what he perceived as her insatiability even when his father was still alive. Yet, though Hamlet was 30, Gertrude might not have been past her early 40's, since teenaged marriage and maternity for royalty were customary in Europe and elsewhere until modern times. It's just possible he secretly feared his mother would bear Claudius a child, a rival heir to the throne. There was an even more plausible possiblity, that Claudius, having attained the throne without opposition, would eventually rid himself, not only of Hamlet, but of of Gertrude, and marry a younger woman, with NO further obstacle to establish his own dynasty.
Hamlet's fondness for Horatio was the only untainted relationship he had left, though WHY did he trust just this one young man? His supportive fellow student is a commoner, seemingly without ambition, dishonesty, or an axe to grind, almost a cipher, compared to those around him. Horatio was brave, he was virtuous, he was devoted, but in his devotion, was also used by Hamlet, to a certain extent, not the best recommendation for his bland, rather unrealistic character.
Hamlet's hesitancy makes him a more complex character--- unlike "Othello", where the central conflict is built up in the first few scenes, the prince's will to do the deed evolves through the course of very long acts. His patience is contrasted with Norway's young Prince Fortinbras, who has to be RESTRAINED from avenging HIS father's defeat and death. Unlike Othello, who, with surprisingly little prompting, is, all too soon, agitating for bloody vengeance, Hamlet refuses to act immediately on suspicious impulse. He needs a solid reason to proceed against an enemy. His ability to make and carry out decisions depends on a balance between opportunity and morality. Indeed, the manner in which he finally gets his revenge is pure serendipity, a case of having to seize the moment, because, thanks to Claudius's successful plot to poison him, there WON'T be another chance--- with his mother and lover dead, and dying himself, the prince has absolutely nothing left to lose. However, in the end, after all the contemplation of suicide, Hamlet doesn't REALLY want to die--- though he's become an even MORE melancholy Dane, he realizes that he will be leaving unfinished earthly business that will impact his country.