The question of why Hamlet does not immediately avenge his father's death is probably the best-known critical problem in Shakespeare studies. The most obvious reply to this inquiry is that if the Danish prince moved at once upon the Ghost's report of foul "murther" and killed Claudius straightaway, then there would be no further story for Shakespeare to tell after the start of the play's second act. From this simplistic (if valid) standpoint, Hamlet's delay is essential to the tragedy's narrative progression. More important, while there is plenty of action in Hamlet (a stage work in which all of the major characters suffer untimely deaths), the play's plot is plainly subordinate to the tandem development of Hamlet's character and certain philosophical themes such as the knotty issues of mortality and chance. Absent his deferral of action, there would be no need for Hamlet to grow into his role as "scourge and minister," and no dramatic occasions at hand for his (and our) consideration of the deeper issues that Shakespeare poses in this tragedy.
A second response to this question challenges its underlying premises. It proceeds from the counter-assertion that Hamlet does, in fact, act forcefully long before the play's final act. By Act V, Hamlet has invented the "mousetrap" of the play-within-a-play, slain Polonius and dragged his corpse away, persuaded the off-stage pirates to release him from captivity, and cleverly arranged the demise of his erstwhile schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Moreover, after being told about the appearance of Ur-Hamlet's apparition on the walks of Elsinore Castle, Hamlet says to Horatio that he will speak with his father's ghost "though hell itself should gape/And bid me to hold my peace" (I, ii. ll.244-245). Indeed, Hamlet casts aside the fears of Horatio and Marcellus about what awaits him when the Ghost beckons, and orders them to unhand him so that he can speak face-to-face with this awesome, fear-provoking figure. These prior acts are not those of a passive or timid soul.
Nevertheless, neither of these pat answers is sufficient to overcome our sense that Hamlet wavers in carrying out the commission laid upon him by the Ghost. Not only does his excuse for not killing the king while he is at prayer ring hollow, Claudius's death in Act V is not the outcome of a truly deliberate act, but a seemingly chance occurrence brought about by circumstances that Hamlet's enemies have contrived....
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Exploring Hamlet's Hesitation
Perhaps one of the most perplexing problems a modern audience may have with Shakespeare's Hamlet is the obvious question: what takes him so long to act on the Ghost's request for revenge? The obvious but simple answer is that if he did not take his time, we would have 'Hamlet: The Short Story' instead of 'Hamlet: The Classic Play'. There are, however, valid reasons for Hamlet's slow behaviour. Among them are his public role in the monarchy of Denmark, his education, and the environment of Elsinore.
Hamlet is first and foremost the Prince of Denmark. There are no brothers or sisters, and he is the popular, well-liked son of an equally popular and well-liked King and Queen. Not unlike the royal families of today, the royals of Elsinore have two lives—a public one and a private one, both of which are very much interlinked. Their lives as a whole are really not their own, yet their privacy is apparently a sacrifice they are willing to make to render service to Denmark. Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, had done much to ensure that Denmark was well protected. His untimely death was marked by intense mourning at the court, as well it should have been for a man of his position.
However, Gertrude's marriage to Claudius before a month of mourning had passed could be interpreted as a breach of protocol. This is why in the opening scenes, Claudius goes to such lengths to calm and soothe the concerns of the court. When Hamlet returns to the court from school in Wittenburg, Germany, it is impossible that he can escape what awaits him.
The tenants of this castle include the King's minister, Polonius, and his family, Laertes and Ophelia, as well as a coterie of government officials (Cornelius and Voltemand), guards (Marcellus and Bernardo and their companies), and courtiers (Osric, for example). In this environment, to have even a small amount of privacy is almost impossible since there is always someone somewhere. Such a transgression as the apparently unprovoked murder of a royal minister would open all sorts of questions for Claudius that he may be able to answer.
Even Hamlet's private life is of public concern, especially when it comes to his selection of a wife. Laertes tells Ophelia in no uncertain terms that her relationship with Hamlet is fruitless:
Perhaps he loves you now,
And no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will; but you must fear,
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Is Hamlet Sane?
With the coming of Freudian theory in the first half of this century and the subsequent emergence of psychoanalytically-oriented literary criticism in the 1960s, the question of Hamlet's underlying sanity has become a major issue in the interpretation of Hamlet. While related concern with the Prince's inability to take action had already directed scholarly attention toward the uncertainty of Hamlet's mental state, modern psychological views of the play have challenged his sanity at a deeper, sub-conscious level, typically citing self-destructive and, most pointedly, sexual drives to explain his behavior, his words, and the mental processes beneath them. In a play with undertones of incest and heavy doses of sexual word-play, critics using diverse psychoanalytical approaches to Hamlet have generated new (and sometimes plausible) readings of Shakespeare's best-know tragedy. But even if we forego this maze, the issue of Hamlet's basic sanity is worth re-examining from a modern perspective.
There is a distinct division of opinion among the other characters of the play about Hamlet's sanity and the split is along gender lines. Ophelia (Act II, scene i.) and Gertrude (Act III, scene iv.) both state that Hamlet is "mad," Ophelia reporting his dishevelment to her father, the Queen being unable to see or hear her son's final exchange with the Ghost of her husband. The major male characters, on the other hand, see with Polonius (II, ii.) that there is "method" in Hamlet's "madness," that his insanity is a surface mask to shield him as he plans the darker purpose of revenge.
Since Hamlet is understandably disturbed by the sudden death of his father and his mother's hasty marriage to his uncle, King Claudius, the abnormality of his behavior is to some extent also understandable. Hamlet is naturally withdrawn, dark, and morose in the wake of these traumatic events. And, by the same token, he gives vent to his abject mood with lines like "How (weary), stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seems to me all the uses of this world!" (I, ii., ll.133-134). His self-exile and his self-reproach are essentially normal reactions to a series of events that he must avenge at his dead father's grave command but without further direction against a powerful adversary in the guilty King.
Moreover, Hamlet plainly does use the guise of madness toward tactical ends. He keeps Claudius, Polonius, and the other males of the play (Rosencrantz...
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The Ghost: Is He Really Hamlet's Father?
Since the first staging of Hamlet, the very name of Ophelia has become nearly synonymous with that form of female madness that was once termed "melancholia" and marked by a nostalgic state of depression, a dissociation from reality, and a self-destructive drive. Not only does Shakespeare's Ophelia display all of these symptoms, the change that we see in her is shocking. Prior to her re-appearance as a mad woman in Act IV, scene v, Ophelia is first presented in Act I, scene iii in a carefully balanced exchange with her brother, Laertes. She then proves herself to be a sensible daughter to Polonius, agreeing to end her budding romance with Prince Hamlet. The cause of Ophelia's transformation appears to lie in the play's central Act III: at its start, Ophelia is brutalized by Hamlet's cutting, lewd rejection and by its end, her father Polonius has been incidentally killed by her former lover. These are powerful traumatic blows, and the gist of mad Ophelia's ditties and ramblings about lost love and death underscores their mutual confusion in her distracted mind. But Shakespeare did not create the character of Ophelia to serve as a clinical case study in female dementia; there is more to her madness than lost love and a father's death can explain.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare reminds us that Ophelia and Hamlet were lovers before its opening act. In her first exchange with Polonius, Ophelia says of Hamlet "He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders/Of his affection to me" (I, iii., ll.99-100). The fact of Hamlet's one-time affection for Ophelia is ironically affirmed in the rejection scene that begins Act III. And, finally, at her burying ground, as he grapples with Laertes, Hamlet declares, "I lov'd Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/Could not with all their quantity of love/Make up my sum" (V, i., ll.269-271). But Shakespeare never shows us the two as lovers and the only direct reflection of their romance appears in a love letter poem written by Hamlet in which he entreats Ophelia to "never doubt I love you" (II, ii., l.119). The words of this piece and the sentiment it conveys, however, are oddly trite and banal, especially in light of the verbal facility that a deep Hamlet has already disclosed in Act I. Moreover, in his first soliloquy (I, ii), Hamlet proclaims "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (l.146). The woman that Hamlet has in mind is, of course, his mother Gertrude, and her "frailty" lies in her hasty widow's marriage to...
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Hamlet is not the only Shakespeare play to feature the appearance of an apparition or ghost. Great Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus at Sardis, a procession of eleven ghosts curse Richard III before the battle of Bosworth Field, the spirit of Banquo haunts Macbeth at his banquet. But none of these effigies has the presence or the dramatic function that Shakespeare imparts to the ghost of Hamlet's father. It is through the ghost of Ur-Hamlet that the Danish Prince (and the audience) learns of the "foul and most unnatural murther" committed by Claudius. One of the stage roles that Shakespeare himself is believed to have performed on occasion, the Ghost of Hamlet speaks at length, appears in four scenes, and establishes the basic dramatic problem as the need to exact revenge against Claudius. "'Tis very strange," Hamlet remarks to Horatio when his constant friend tells him about the spectral figure who walks the castle's walls at night. While all of the other ghosts who materialize in the Bard's plays can be dismissed as emanations of a "villain's" guilty conscious, the ghost of Hamlet is seen (and heard) by several characters who have had no part in his death and is not seen by a character, the Ghost's widow, Queen Gertrude, whom we might expect to harbor guilty feelings. Given the ways in which the Ghost of Hamlet differs from his peers in other Shakespeare tragedies, we are virtually invited by Shakespeare to contemplate "what" and "who" he is.
The process of establishing whether the ghost of Hamlet is real and is really the Prince's father unfolds in stages. In the first phase, it is Hamlet's steady ally Horatio who serves as our guide to how real the Ghost may be. Marcellus tells us that an "apparition" has been afoot two times prior to the start of the play's action and then says to Barnardo that "Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy, /And will not let belief take hold on him" (I, i., ll.23-24). Horatio's skeptical resolve is blasted asunder when the Ghost appears "in the same figure like the King that's dead." (I, i., l.41). Although the Ghost refuses to speak with him, after this initial encounter, Horatio allows that it harrows him with "fear and wonder" (I, i., l.45). When Barnardo then asks him, "Is not this something more than fantasy?" (I, i., l.55), the levelheaded Horatio admits that he now believes that the Ghost is more than a figment, having seen it with his own eyes.
Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo then try to...
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To Thine Own Self Be True: An Analysis
In Act I, scene iii of Hamlet, the character of Polonius prepares his son Laertes for travel abroad with a speech (ll.55-81) in which he directs the youth to commit a "few precepts to memory." Among these percepts is the now-familiar adage "neither a borrower nor a lender be" (l.75) and the dictum: "This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou cans't not be false to any man "(ll.78-80). The occasion of the speech has been established in advance, for in the previous scene, Polonius has told the King and Queen that he has granted his son permission to extend his studies in France. This seems to be an eminently reasonable decision by a father concerned with his son's welfare and the moralisms that comprise the speech in question sound good. Indeed, the phrase "To thine own self be true" remains in widespread circulation today, having resounded through the ages in such literary works as Henrik Ibsen's play Brand. But when we take it at more than face value, there is less here than meets the ear, for we are left with the question of what "to thine own self be true" actually means.
Hamlet is a work in which words and acts are often at odds with each other, and in trying to discern what Polonius's most famous bit of advice to his son means, we must turn to their speaker and to his actions. The next time that Polonius appears on stage in Act II, scene i, we realize that he is not merely a concerned father, but a domestic plotter who does not trust his beloved Laertes to follow the precepts that he sets forth for him. Instead, Polonius dispatches his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes while the youth is in Paris. The royal counselor does not simply direct Reynaldo to keep an eye on Laertes. Instead, he orchestrates tactics that will enable his parental emissary to ingratiate himself with those "Danskers" in Paris that are part of Laertes's circle. He tells Reynaldo to impute "forgeries" on Laertes's character that are not heavy enough to slander the youth's reputation but common enough to serve as probes. He even supplies Reynaldo with a script, coaching him to bring up the subject of Laertes by saying "I know the gentleman, I saw him yesterday, or th' other day . . ." (II, i., l.53). From this we can immediately glean that Polonius is something of a hypocrite: on the surface, he extends trust to Laertes and to the boy's willingness to act according to the platitudes of the "to...
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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
At the conclusion of Hamlet, as the Prince, Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude all lie dead, an ambassador from England arrives on the scene with the blunt report that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" (V, ii., l.371). The inclusion of this news seems like deliberate overkill on Shakespeare's part, for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are relatively minor characters and we have already been led to surmise from Hamlet's report to Horatio that his duplicitous school chums have been sent to their death as an artifact of the Prince's ruse. The phrase itself would serve as the title of modern playwright Tom Stoppard's black comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), in which the two characters are resurrected as innocents confronting death in a situation that they do no begin to understand. Other than as material for a future playwright, the question naturally arises: why did Shakespeare insert these tandem characters into Hamlet?
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear together (as they do throughout the entire play) first in Act II, scene ii, having been summoned to court by their King and Queen, Claudius and Gertrude. They are identified as long-time friends of the Danish Prince by the Queen, who says that she knows of no other two men living to whom her son "more adheres" (II, ii., l.21). They are warmly greeted by Claudius who presents them with a twofold task: to cheer his morose stepson and to discover the source of Hamlet's discontent. Shortly thereafter, they are reunited with the Prince, who greets them as "excellent good friends," and inquires about how they each are (II, ii., l.224). Their replies are indistinguishable, each claiming to be as "indifferent children," happy in not being over happy, Guildenstern saying that "On Fortune's (cap) we are not the very button," with Hamlet adding that nor are they the "soles" of Fortune's shoe. When they reappear in the same scene, Hamlet slyly reveals his knowledge that they have been summoned to court by the King to spy on him; his companions admit that they have come back to court at Claudius's behest but do not acknowledge the function that they have agreed to perform for the King. In the very next scene of the play, they report back to Claudius. They tell the King that they have not been able to find out much of value from their conversations with Hamlet, and that they directed his attention to a company of actors that they met along the road to Elsinore....
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Minor Characters and the Number Three
According to Colin Wilson, author of The Occult, some people believe that numbers have an influence on human affairs. It is well known that the Elizabethans were more superstitious than most, and the influence of numbers can readily be seen in Shakespeare's Hamlet. There are two women (Gertrude and Ophelia), two uncles (Claudius and Norway), and six countries (Denmark, England, France, Germany, Norway, and Poland), the result of two times three. The number three itself is a major, though often neglected, motif of the play. Wilson comments on its significance:
Three: the number of versatility and plenty; traditionally lucky ('three times lucky'); people with the number three are gay, charming, adaptable, talented, lucky, but inclined to be 'other directed', living too much for the approval and liking of other people.1
A close analysis of Hamlet reveals how very appropriate this description is for Shakespeare's play.
When the play first opens, we meet two of the three soldiers that will appear on stage, Marcellus and Bernardo. These two men form an important bridge in the play between the common people outside Elsinore who are affected by the happenings within the castle, and the people within Elsinore's walls. They are the observers of 'unnatural' events and the episodes caused by the politicians, and it is Marcellus who observes 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark' (1.5.90). As members of the guard, they must adapt to the changing from the reign of King Hamlet who had taken them into a war against Norway and the new king, Claudius, who is preparing to defend Denmark from invasion by Norway. By the play's end, it is they who have escaped the carnage, but not the invasion. They must adapt once more at the end of the play to the new Norwegian king, Fortinbras.
The third soldier is the Captain of Fortinbras' army, who voices the mission of the Norwegian army as Hamlet is being escorted to England by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He tells the Prince that the army goes to fight for a piece of land in Poland that is not worth very much except in terms of honour. Metaphorically, this is an encapsulation of Hamlet's problem: his assassination of Claudius is not worth very much except to him as revenge for his father's murder. It is a domestic problem, not a political one. In the Captain's case and Hamlet's such a tiny action can still have...
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To See or Not to See: Fortinbras in Two Film Productions of Hamlet
Shakespeare's most famous play, Hamlet, exists in three versions known as the First Quarto published in 1603, the Second Quarto published in 1604, and the text in the First Folio (1623). All three versions differ from each other, and are often combined to make what editors call a conflated text. The version that is taught in many schools and used by most performance people is the conflated version of Hamlet that has 3760 lines.
Of the film versions now available on videotape, two have been demonstrated to be more popular than any of the others: Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 version with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, and Kenneth Branagh's effort with himself and Julie Christie. As with the texts of Hamlet, there are many differences between the two films, but perhaps the most significant is that Zeffirelli omits the character of Fortinbras, and Branagh keeps him. Shakespeare clearly felt that Fortinbras' influence was necessary to the thematic threads of the play, and possibly reinforces this importance in the character's name and development beyond the traditional sources. The name Fortinbras has its root in two Latin words: fort meaning strong, and bras meaning arms. Horatio answers Marcellus' questions about what is going in Elsinore by relating the story of the battle between old King Hamlet and old Fortinbras. The emphasis throughout Horatio's story of the single combat between two mature, experienced men is on the legality and contractual nature of the arrangement. By contrast,
. . . young Fortinbras
Of unimproved mettle hot and full . . .
has resorted to raising an illegal army without commission in Norway. He has made 'the levies,/ The lists, and full proportions' (1.2.31-32) for this army without his uncle's knowledge or permission. According to Horatio, Fortinbras 'sharked up' (1.2.98) this army, and Shakespeare invokes the image of a ruthless sea predator attacking swiftly and killing silently to help us visualise this man. Fortinbras is a proactive personality who will fight for what he considers an honourable cause, a view confirmed by an inactive Hamlet:
. . . Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at stake.
Although Shakespeare only devotes sixty...
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Hamlet and Macbeth: A Comparison
The purpose of this paper is to discuss two of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, Hamlet and Macbeth, to compare the themes, characters, and the conclusion of each play, and to focus in particular upon the concept of evil as it is treated by Shakespeare in each play. Each play primarily concerns the downfall of a man who has the potential for greatness, but finds himself caught in a web of evil woven by others. In the case of Macbeth, we have a man led by greed, an uncontrollable appetite for power, and the urging of an insane wife, who in the course of the play, turns from a noble man into a monster. Hamlet, on the other hand, is led to his end by a desire for revenge which he allows to go out of control, and by the continued contact with his mother, whose part in his father's death haunts him.
In the tragedy of Macbeth, the theme of evil is introduced and sustained by the witches, and by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth himself becomes a victim of the impulses within him which lead him to consult these vile creatures, and to believe in the power of evil rather than the power of good. The tragedy here is that Macbeth possesses a potential for goodness and nobility which he is led to deny; he is an imaginative man, with a mind which could have been turned to creative governing, but which is instead filled with dreams of ghosts, and of his victims. Macbeth "is a doomed man before he even commits his crime. He knows it, and the witches know it. It is what gives to this tragedy its deep and appalling quality. Macbeth does not go to hell; he starts there."1
On the other hand, the evil in Hamlet is one which develops in the course of the play, for in the very beginning Hamlet himself is not a man capable of the murder of Polonius nor of his mother and the king. Thus the evil here is not yet a reality for the audience of this play when it begins; the witches in Macbeth do not function in the same way as does the elder Hamlet's ghost. The ghost tempts Hamlet to revenge, but not to ambition or to power; the revenge itself need not be the source of evil, for according to the beliefs of the day, the murder of a rightful ruler could justly be revenged by his son. Thus, while the two plays have similar auras surrounding the evil events which transpire (mysterious doings at night, witches and ghosts), they stem in conception from two very different approaches to the problem of evil. Perhaps the...
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The Theme of Pretense in Shakespeare's Hamlet
First published in a 1952 issue of The Yale Review, Maynard Mack's essay "The World of Hamlet" remains one of the most widely-cited explications of that Shakespearean tragedy. As Mack observes, Hamlet is the most "elusive" of Shakespeare's works, for the dramatic world that the Bard created in this play is "a world of riddles" that are not conclusively answered by its end and, in fact, appear to have been deliberately intended to create doubt in the eyes of the viewer (1952/1964, p.45). Mack identifies three salient attributes that pervade the "world" which Shakespeare created in Hamlet; its mysteriousness, its stress on the "playing" or pasts, and, most relevant to this essays’ particular concerns, "the problematic nature of reality and the relation of reality to appearance" (p.48). In Hamlet "things" are often not what they appear to be on the surface. This is most evident in the kingship of Claudius, who seems to be a competent and legitimate sovereign, but who is, at bottom, the murderer of his own brother. It is also apparent in Hamlet's feigned madness and the other forms of duplicity and deceit that move the plot forward. But as we shall proceed to explain in the analysis at hand, the contrast between "reality" and "illusion" is more than a matter of individuals being ignorant of the machinations of other characters. As Mack argued some fifty years ago, the play is essentially about "seeming" and "appearance" as an inherent dimension of human experience.
In Act I, scene ii, Hamlet appears as a sullen figure lurking in the background of the court. His withdrawn demeanor is understandable given that his father died just two months earlier. Nevertheless, his mother, Queen Gertrude, asks her son why he cannot accept ur-Hamlet's death as a natural occurrence that must arise for all mortals, questioning, "Why seems it so particular with thee?" To this, the Danish prince replies:
Seems, madam? Nay, it is, I know not seems.
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black. . . .
Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed, seem,
For they are action that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show—
These but the trappings and suits of woe.
(I, ii., ll.76-86)
In this, the first extended...
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Analysis of Act Five of Shakespeare's Hamlet
Shakespeare's Hamlet was first published in 1603, although it had been performed prior to that date. Today, it remains perhaps the best known play in the English language. The story is set in Denmark. The title character, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is ". . . himself . . . almost more of a satirist than a philosopher".1 Indeed, despite the play's undeniable status as a tragedy, its satirical and comedic elements often threaten to take precedence over the more sober, weighty considerations encountered within. Nearly every character of note dies, a kingdom changes hands, the fate of many rides in the balance. Furthermore, the reader cannot help but be somehow concerned (whether attracted or repelled, of course, is a matter of personal taste and interpretation) with the activities of the prince and how they effect those around him. "Hamlet is one of those plays in which the central character so occupies the attention that it is attractive to investigate the symbolic relationship of the other characters to him".2
Yet, part of Shakespeare's strength and attraction as a writer has always been the ability to draw believable, interesting characters of lesser rank in the proceedings, as well as providing them with dialogue and action which is simultaneously illuminating and propulsive (in terms of deepening and directing the plot). "The words of Shakespeare . . . have in them all shades of . . . meaning. Beyond this joy . . . there is the added joy of character. . . . no writer . . . has touched the depth and height of character as . . . William Shakespeare".3 This is apparent even so late in Hamlet as the Fifth Act (the last), where the courtier Osric and the gravediggers (or clowns) are introduced. These characters contribute, in their separate ways, to bringing about the conclusion of the drama, while reinforcing its central themes through their activities and speeches. At this seemingly late juncture in the play's progress, Shakespeare manipulates these characters so that their presence is far more meaningful to the play's final development than might ordinarily be expected by a cursory examination of their purported functions.
Long before the written word there existed in the human consciousness a belief of the power of prophecy in that period of time immediately preceding death. Its origin can perhaps be traced to the generally assumed "fact" that the soul becomes divine in proportion...
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Character Analysis of Horatio
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is dominated by the complex, absorbing character of its primary figure, that being the young prince Hamlet. There is scarcely a single scene in the play in which Hamlet does not greatly determine the course of the action either by his forceful presence or, in his absence, by the preoccupation of Claudius and his cohorts as they plot to remove Hamlet as the major obstacle blocking the functioning of their regime. Keeping this fact in mind one must be exceedingly careful not to neglect the importance of the other characters, both principal and minor, in the play. In some cases their development as unique personalities, with identities separate and distinct from the purposes to which they are put by the dominant characters in the play, is not successfully accomplished, nor is it absolutely necessary that they are all seen as complete characters in order for the play to be a literary success. For example, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Marcellus and Bernardo are not exhibited as full blown personalities and it is not imperative that the reader know that much about their characters. Such is not the case with Horatio. Horatio is one of the major characters in the play and because of his central position as the personal confidant of Hamlet he appears frequently throughout the play and consequently we get to know him quite well.
In a play it is not always an easy task to reveal to the audience the inner workings of each of the characters. There are established and repeatedly successful ways of making the audience intimate with the personality of a character. However, not all of these literary techniques can be used on each and every character. For example, Hamlet reveals a great deal of himself during his introspective forays which reveal themselves to the audience in his numerous soliloquies. He is a troubled character beset with tremendous challenges and as such he is allowed to unburden himself by constant soul searching and the author, utilizing the appropriate literary style, lets the audience glimpse the inner workings of the mind of this person. Horatio is not afforded the opportunity to so reveal himself. And yet he still emerges as a well rounded person, although certainly not as fully revealed as is Hamlet, the King, or Polonius. The problem of developing the character or personality of a supporting player is succinctly summarized by the Shakespearean critic Granville-Barker:
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Staging for Shakespeare's Hamlet: Act II, Scene ii, Lines 85-221
Act II, scene ii is set simply in "a room in the castle." As Claudius and Gertrude greet some of their guests—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the ambassadors from Norway—the room should be elegant and comfortable. As the set and costuming for this production is particularly understated, the room is suggested through the draping of five large swatches of diaphanous material—three violet and two grey (as opposed to the setting of the state room which is hung with many, multi-colored swatches of material). Two of these swatches—one violet and one grey—are draped across the length of the stage ceiling, while the remaining swatches are draped from the ceiling to the floor at several different points to suggest walls. A simple sofa/loveseat in grey is located downstage-right (and angled towards upcenter) and a large grey chair is located nearby, upcenter of the sofa. As the scene opens (at line 85) Gertrude and Claudius are standing immediately stage-right of center, watching as Voltimand and Cornelius depart downstage-left. Polonius is standing a little upstage-left, waiting to speak with Gertrude and Claudius.
Gertrude is tall and stately-looking but her smoldering sexuality somehow reinforces her regal quality. Her speech is measured and she weights individual words for effect. She is wearing a simple and form-fitting, floor-length gown in deep purple. Her long hair is drawn back from her face, up into a sleek silver crown, and then falls down her back. Claudius is also tall and stately—together he and Gertrude make an attractive pair, almost seeming to merge as one. They share the same physical coloring, which is particularly offset by the identical material and similar cuts of their costumes. In fact, during their time together on stage they often are touching one another, or standing with their arms about each other. Overall, Claudius' attitude is wary. Though he is very controlled in both speech and movement, one always has the sense that his temper, were he to demonstrate it, would be devastatingly violent. He wears a floor-length robe—in the same material as Gertrude's—open over a tunic belted with a long silver rope. He wears a more substantial crown than Gertrude's, also in silver.
Polonius wears a royal blue, floor-length robe belted at the waist with a rope in navy blue. He cuts a much less imposing figure than either Claudius or Gertrude—smaller in height, slighter in build, and less striking in...
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The Nature of Hamlet's Character
The nature of Hamlet's character may well be the most controversial topic in English literature. Yet the background which frames Hamlet’s character seems too uncomplicated to produce such controversy.
Hamlet’s father has been murdered with malicious premeditation and for the most reprehensible reasons. Not only has his being been defiled in order to attain these ends, but his memory has also been profaned in their coming to pass. Claudius and Gertrude are both complicit in murder; Claudius has violated the divinity of rule by committing treason; and Gertrude has gone against the tenets of custom and the sanctity of the marriage vows by so improperly displaying her lack of grief and allegiance to her husband. Hamlet’s duty then would seem clear and justified. How is it that he fails to take decisive action in the face of such overwhelming provocation?
How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained.
(Act IV, scene iv)
Over this, the controversy rages.
Because his grounds for acting would appear to be many and obvious, some critics have asserted that his failure to act indicates timidity at least, if not outright cowardliness. But Hamlet is never portrayed as being sheepish, for as early as the first scene Horatio describes him as “our valient Hamlet” (Act I, scene i). His lack of action is not natural to his character then, and therefore it must be that there are underlying elements of the basic situation which keep him from taking what would otherwise be a direct course.
There are several of these subtle philosophical contradictions, but before examining then we must realize that from his perspective the grounds which appear so obvious to us are not quite so overt. He cannot take his extreme revenge until he is absolutely certain that his uncle has murdered his father. He is confident that he can always see through appearances to reality but later on he loses confidence in his own insight. His father's ghost seems to suggest his uncle is guilty, but is the ghost an apparation from Heaven, or from Hell?
The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil . . .
I'll have grounds more relative than this.
(Act II, scene ii)
The contrived play which Hamlet hoped would give him this more "relative evidence" seems to convince him of the ghost's validity...
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Hamlet's Delay: An Objective and Subjective Analysis Compared
One of the most perplexing problems of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and certainly one which has received a great deal of critical attention, is the question of why Hamlet delays the killing of Claudius. The Prince eventually succeeds in avenging his father's death, but this occurs only in the play's final scene. Before that point, Hamlet has numerous opportunities to accomplish his task: the prayer scene, for example, in which both characters come face to face alone. Yet Hamlet demurs. On this matter critical opinion is divided into essentially two schools of thought. There are the "objective" critics who view Hamlet's delay as being externally determined: Hamlet does not act because of restraints which exist outside the workings of his own mind. On the other hand, there are the "subjective" critics who attribute Hamlet's delay to internal, i.e. psychological, forces operating within the Prince's mind.
We shall now turn our scrutiny to examination of two explanations of Hamlet's behavior, G. R. Elliott's argument in Scourge and Minister, representing the objective school and Waldeck's essay "Anxiety, Tragedy and Hamlet's Delay" providing a subjective argument. In Scourge and Minister Elliott initiates his explication of Hamlet's delay by asking yet another often overlooked question: Why does Claudius delay in killing Hamlet? Relatively simplistic answers have been offered to satisfy this point. It has been observed that Claudius does not simply execute the troublesome prince because of concessions to Gertrude and because he has just recently ascended to the Danish throne and does not wish to incur the emnity of the populace by killing a royal Dane. However, as Elliott contends, such explanations are far too superficial to explain Claudius' actions. We must recall, Elliott reminds us, that Claudius has succeeded in dispatching Ur-Hamlet in total secrecy and certainly he could have devised a similar clandestine fate for the son. Indeed, throughout the play, "his vicarious and elaborate plotting against Hamlet, while extremely clever . . . stands out otherwise in vivid contrast to the method of his initial crime." Elliott offers a preliminary explanation of Claudius' delay by noting that the new King, for all his faults, has a conscience and is, in fact, revolted by his past deed.
Elliott's analysis does not end here, however, for the critic has an aesthetic answer to the original question of Hamet's delay....
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Analysis of Three Critical Works on Hamlet
I. ANALYSIS OF E.M.W. TILLYARD'S CLASSIFICATION OF HAMLET AS A PROBLEM PLAY
The initial chapter of E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's Problem Plays concerns Hamlet which is usually considered to be a tragedy rather than a problem play. Tillyard uses three vaguely defined processes inherent in tragedy to accomplish this distinction between Hamlet and the remainder of Shakespeare's tragedies. A tragedy, according to Tillyard, is primarily concerned with suffering, and the critic is willing to allow that in this sense Hamlet conforms to the genre. He states, however, that Hamlet lacks "a complication and an enrichment common in much tragedy: that of being to some extent, even a tiny extent, responsible for his own misfortunes"; and here we must make our first objection to Tillyard's analysis, for it is evident that Hamlet is the active agent who willingly accepts the task bestowed upon him, and in the graveyard scene actively exercises his fate, as well as allowing the king time to plot a complex web which eventually ensnares him through his delay.
Secondly, a tragedy, in Tillyard's opinion, should contain sacrifice, and again the critic must admit that Hamlet conforms to this characteristic. Here it is interesting to note that Tillyard uses three nebulous features to define what he eventually distinguishes as a highly "formal" genre with "clear-cut" processes. Finally, and it is on this point that Tillyard's thesis rests, tragedy should have, in the critic's opinion, an element of renewal or evolved viewpoint on the part of the protagonist. Here Tillyard's argument appears inordinately flimsy for he defines tragedy by what he calls "the usual dramatic means" of fulfilling the function of renewal as "a change of mind in the hero," thus, disallowing unusual and exceptional means of renewal in an undoubtedly unusual and exceptional play.
Our opinion runs directly counter to that of Tillyard, particularly on this point, for Hamlet does indeed contain an element of renewal, in the person of Fortinbras. Indeed, it would be difficult to explain Fortinbras's presence in the work at all if Shakespeare had not intended to parallel the youthful hero with Hamlet. Fortinbras assumes the position of king after Hamlet's demise and represents an extension of the character beyond the grave. We cannot accept Tillyard's narrow and qualified definition of renewal in tragedy, for...
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Hamlet: History, Religion, and Myth
In this essay we will discuss the historical, mythical, and religious content of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and briefly its relationship to the political and social setting of its time and its influence on Western literature. Although it is difficult to separate these into clearly distinguishable and exclusive categories, and perhaps even misleading to do so, we will, for the sake of clearer organization and understanding present them individually. It will be seen that they will overlap and mingle with one another, and hopefully thereby they will in the end be an integrated whole.
The origins of Shakespeare's Hamlet exist both in literature and in human life, in man's psyche, in his myth, his religion, his wishes, dreams, fantasies, and fears. And Hamlet, the character and the play reflect all of these elements. Some critics see these elements of the play as being unified, as fitting into patterns of human behavior which can be explained by theories of psychology or theology, others see these same elements fitting into nothing more than the history and scope of man's experience, explainable by little beyond their own existence, and others see confusion and irremediable conflicts.
The story from which the material for Shakespeare's play comes is an old Icelandic legend recorded by Saxo Grammiticus, a Danish author of the late 12th and early 13th centuries in his Historica Danica. In this tale Hamlet is called Amlethus. It was translated into French in a volume entitled Histoires Tragiques in 1570, and into English in 1608.1 Between these translations and Shakespeare's play however there were at least two other productions of the Hamlet story, and probably more.
Robert Bussel Benedict in The Mystery of Hamlet refers to ". . . a German play on the same subject, which translated is entitled 'Fratricide Punished; or, Prince Hamlet of Denmmark.'"2 Benedict also says that
The German Hamlet, as we know it, is a translation of an old play, preserved in German manuscript bearing the date October 27, 1710, and which is probably a copy, or an adaptation, from a much older manuscript. There is fairly good evidence that this version of Hamlet is a rough and vulgarized adaptation of an English play on the same subject, written some years before the appearance of the Shakespearean Hamlet.3
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Comment on Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" Soliloquy
Shakespeare's Hamlet is one of the most familiar works of Renaissance literature. The drama of this play concerns problems as revealed through an individual family. The problems of society at large are seen through the eyes, actions and thoughts of members of that family. A ruler is holding power, and a great deal of the action is related to questions about the nature of that power. The general theme of the play deals with a society that is, or has already gone to pieces.1
Another theme of the play is that of revenge. Hamlet must avenge his father's death. Revenge is important in Elizabethan thought. From a moral perspective, one can see that revenge has a tendency to perpetuate itself. The typical writer at that time wondered if people had a right to revenge. If they didn't, then people have no recourse to justice. There are certain instances in which revenge is justified in Elizabethan thought. Although Hamlet is not a typical revenge character, the plot in which be operates is a typical revenge-based one. Vengeance corrupts him.
One other theme that pervades this play is that of insanity. The play concerns many of the basic issues of existence. Shakespeare shows how sin corrupts, how this corruption breeds disillusionment, and how this in turn creates a preoccupation with death. When one is constantly thinking about death, then life and lore are destroyed. One psychotherapist has this to say about Hamlet: "Madness is...
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