Discuss Hamlet's internal and external conflicts. Provide quotes to support your answer.

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lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A list of Hamlet's external conflicts is relatively easy to generate.  He has conflicts of some sort with nearly every character on the list except his good friend, Horatio.  The internal conflicts are a bit more complex and subtle.

Here is quick list of what is creating his conflict with each of the characters.  You can find quotes to illustrate the conflict by reviewing the scenes where those characters interact with Hamlet.

  • Claudius -- the man who killed Hamlet's father and very quickly married his mother, making his uncle his father.  Hamlet is very disgusted by the marriage and finding out the truth of the murder from the ghost makes them mortal enemies.
  • Gertrude -- his mother's quick remarriage to Hamlet's uncle is appalling to Hamlet's sense of morality and dignity.  He eventually confronts her with what he perceives to be all her wrongdoings at the end of Act 3.
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -- his supposed childhood friends who are only at court at the request of the King and are actually serving as spies for Claudius.  Even when they are confronted about their motives, they lie to Hamlet.
  • Polonius -- courtier to King Claudius and father to Ophelia, he is always trying to spy on Hamlet and he has so little faith in Hamlet that he commands his daughter to break things off with Hamlet.
  • Ophelia -- the girlfriend of Hamlet who breaks up with him because her father tells her to.  Later she seems to betray Hamlet by lying to him about where her father is when Hamlet suspects that he is actually spying on their conversation.
  • King Hamlet -- his arrival as a ghost who then tells the story of how Claudius murdered him is both awful and dangerous.  Hamlet knows that ghosts may only be the devil in the disguise of a loved one who is trying to damn his soul, so he must prove that the ghost is telling the truth.
  • Laertes -- after Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, Laertes' father, Laertes is out for vengeance and plots together with Claudius to bring about the death of Hamlet in a fixed sword fight.

As for his internal conflicts:

  • Hamlet is torn between thoughts of suicide and God's commands against such an act.
  • Hamlet wants to fulfill his father's command for justice yet has a hard time acting swiftly because he feels he must have proof.
  • Hamlet is torn between thinking and action.  The "To be or not be soliloquy" is essential to this point, but it is a theme that runs throughout the play.
  • Hamlet wants to think he can control everything in his life, but comes to realize that all he really do is be ready -- "the readiness is all."
favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Initially, Hamlet conflicts with Claudius and Gertrude as a result of their marriage, which came so soon after the death of his father. When Claudius calls Hamlet his "son," Hamlet says to himself, "A little more than kin and less than kind" (1.2.64, 1.2.65). Claudius is Hamlet's uncle, and now his stepfather, and Hamlet is less than enthused about this new relationship. His line indicates that he feels there are too many ties of kinship between them now. Further, when his mother, Gertrude, presses him regarding the fact that Hamlet is still mourning his father's death, he takes issue with the fact that she is not, and he says that he may show all the signs of still grieving,

But [he has] that which passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of owe. (1.2.85-86)

In other words, he may appear to be in mourning, but, more importantly, he feels more grief than he could ever show on the outside. He seems to imply that Gertrude may have seemed to grieve on the outside when her husband died, but her hasty remarriage proves that she didn't really feel her grief too deeply.

Later, after Hamlet has met and spoken with his father's ghost, his conflict with Claudius changes: he now blames his uncle/stepfather for his father's murder. When the acting troupe arrives, he lands on a plan to have them act out a play similar to old Hamlet's death. He says, "The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" (2.2.583–584). Hamlet thinks that Claudius will provide a sign of a guilty conscience when he sees this play, if he truly is guilty.

Hamlet's major internal conflict has to do with his lack of action since learning of his father's murder from the ghost. He marvels at the actor who can feign his grief and resolve so compellingly while Hamlet has done relatively little to avenge his own real-life father. He says,

Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing—no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat as made? Am I a coward? . . .
it cannot be
But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal. (2.2.542–557)

He feels that he is a coward because he's done nothing yet to address his father's murder. He thinks that all he's done is mope around without even making plans for revenge. He wants to be a good son and be brave, but he doesn't feel as though he's been very loyal to his father.