Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has remained the most perplexing, as well as the most popular, of William Shakespeare’s tragedies. Whether considered as literature, philosophy, or drama, its artistic stature is universally admitted. To explain the reasons for its excellence in a few words, however, is a daunting task. Apart from the matchless artistry of its language, the play’s appeal rests in large measure on the character of Hamlet himself. Called upon to avenge his father’s murder, he is compelled to face problems of duty, morality, and ethics that have been human concerns through the ages. The play has tantalized critics with what has become known as the Hamlet mystery, that of Hamlet’s complex behavior, most notably his indecision and his reluctance to act.
Freudian critics have located Hamlet’s motivation in the psychodynamic triad of the father-mother-son relationship. According to this view, Hamlet is disturbed and eventually deranged by his Oedipal jealousy of the uncle who has done what, Freud claimed, all sons long to do themselves. Other critics have taken the more conventional tack of identifying as Hamlet’s tragic flaw the lack of courage or moral resolution. In this view, Hamlet’s indecision is a sign of moral ambivalence that he overcomes too late.
Both of these views presuppose a precise discovery of Hamlet’s motivation. However, Renaissance drama is not generally a drama of motivation, either by psychological character or moral predetermination. Rather, the Renaissance tendency is to present characters with well-delineated moral and ethical dispositions who are faced with dilemmas. It is the outcome of these conflicts, the consequences rather than the process, that normally holds center stage. What Shakespeare presents in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is an agonizing confrontation between the will of a good and intelligent man and the uncongenial role—that of avenger—that fate calls upon him to play.
The role of avenger is a familiar one in Renaissance drama. In the opening description of Hamlet as bereft by the death of his father and distressed by his mother’s hasty marriage, Shakespeare creates an ideal candidate to assume such a role. Hamlet’s despondency need not be Oedipal to explain the extremity of his grief. His father, whom he deeply loved and admired, is recently deceased, and he himself seems to have been robbed of his birthright. Shakespeare points to Hamlet’s shock at Gertrude’s disrespect to the memory of his father, rather than his love for his mother, as the source of his distress. Hamlet’s suspicion is reinforced by the ghostly visitation and the revelation of murder.
If Hamlet had simply proceeded to act out the avenger role assigned to him, the play would have lacked the moral and theological complexity that provides its special fascination. Hamlet has, after all, been a student of theology at Wittenberg, and his knowledge complicates the situation. His accusation of incest is not an adolescent excess but an accurate theological description of a marriage between a widow and her dead husband’s brother. Moreover, Hamlet’s theological accomplishments do more than exacerbate his feelings. For the ordinary avenger, the commission from the ghost of a murdered father would be more than enough, but Hamlet is aware of the unreliability of otherworldly apparitions and consequently reluctant to heed the ghost’s injunction to perform an action that to him seems objectively evil. In addition, the fear that his father was murdered in a state of sin and is condemned to hell not only increases Hamlet’s sense of injustice but also, paradoxically, casts further doubt on the reliability of the ghost’s exhortation, for the ghost may be an infernal spirit goading him to sin.
Hamlet’s indecision is therefore not an indication of weakness but the result of his complex understanding of the moral dilemma with which he is faced. He is unwilling to act unjustly, yet he is afraid that he is failing to exact a deserved retribution. He debates the murky issue until he becomes unsure whether his own behavior is caused by moral scruple or cowardice. His ruminations stand in sharp contrast with the cynicism of Claudius and the verbose moral platitudes of Polonius, just as the play stands in sharp contrast with the moral simplicity of the ordinary revenge tragedy. Through Hamlet’s intelligence, Shakespeare transformed a stock situation into a unique internal conflict.
Hamlet believes that he must have greater certitude of Claudius’s guilt if he is to take action. The device of the play within a play provides greater assurance that Claudius is suffering from a guilty conscience, but it simultaneously sharpens Hamlet’s anguish. Seeing a re-creation of his father’s death and Claudius’s response stiffens Hamlet’s resolve to act, but once again he hesitates when he sees Claudius in prayer. Hamlet’s inaction in this scene is not the result of cowardice or even of a perception of moral ambiguity but rather of the very thoroughness of his commitment: Having once decided on revenge, he wants to destroy his uncle body and soul. It is ironic that Hamlet is thwarted this time by the combination of theological insight with the extreme ferocity of his vengeful intention. After he leaves Claudius in prayer, the irony of the scene is intensified, for Claudius reveals to the audience that he has not been praying successfully and was not in a state of grace after all.
That Hamlet loses his mental stability is arguable from his behavior toward Ophelia and his subsequent meanderings. Circumstance has forced upon the prince a role whose enormity has overwhelmed the fine emotional and intellectual balance of a sensitive, well-educated man. Gradually, he is shown regaining control of himself and arming himself with a cold determination to do what he has decided is the just thing. Even then, it is only in the carnage of the concluding scenes that Hamlet finally carries out his intention. Having concluded that “the readiness is all,” he strikes his uncle only after he has discovered Claudius’s final scheme to kill him.
The arrival of Fortinbras, who has been lurking in the background throughout the play, superficially seems to indicate that a new, more direct and courageous order will prevail in the place of the evil of Claudius and the weakness of Hamlet. Fortinbras’ superiority is only superficial, however. He brings stasis and stability back to a disordered kingdom but does not have the self-consciousness and moral sensitivity that destroy and redeem Hamlet.
Gerald Else has interpreted Aristotle’s notion of catharsis to be not a purging of the emotions but a purging of the moral horror, pity, and fear ordinarily associated with them. If that is so, then Hamlet, by the conflict of his ethical will with his role, has purged the avenger of his bloodthirstiness and turned the stock figure into a self-conscious hero in moral conflict.