What are ways in which textual forms and features shape your understanding of Hamlet in Shakespeare's Hamlet?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Indubitably, it is Hamlet's soliloquies which reveal much of the Prince of Denmark's character; it is also Hamlet's soliloquies which advance and stall the action and establish motifs and the multivalent words and images.

  • Soliloquy 1 [1.2] "O, that this too sallied flesh...."

In the first speech, Hamlet's melancholic personality is established as he reveals his true feelings after having spoken to King Claudius in an artificial dialogue of puns and double entendres such as when Gertrude tells Hamlet to cast off his gloom about his father since death is common to all that live. "Ay, madam, it is common," Hamlet replies. in addition, 

The counterpointing between things divine and things earthly or profane is apparent from the opening sentence of the soliloquy, in which Hamlet expresses his anguished sense of being captive to his flesh. (Newell, Alex. The Soliloquies of Hamlet)

An example of this counterpointing is Hamlet's juxtaposition of his father, King Hamlet, as Hyperion, the Titan god of light and honor, with his uncle King Claudius as a satyr, a creature that is half-man, half-beast. Satyrs were often companions to Dionysius, the wine-god, who represents many excesses.

  •  Soliloquy 2 [1.5] "O, all you host of heaven..."

In this soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his disgust for his mother, who so easily married her brother-in-law; this action Hamlet finds disgusting as he perceives it as a form of incest. This speech of Hamlet continues the gloom and antipathy that Hamlet feels. In his final lines, Hamlet reminds himself of his vow to his father, urging himself to action.

  • Soliloquy 3 [2.2.] "Ay, so God buy to you. Now I am alone...."

This soliloquy reveals Hamlet's greatest conflict: He is committed to his vow to avenge his father's death, but he cannot act on it because of his misgivings and fear of committing regicide. He tries to excite his emotions into forcing himself to act, calling himself desparaging terms, but he is too rational. So, he devises a plan to have the itinerant actors stage The Mousetrap, a play that mimics what Hamlet fears has happened. Then, Claudius may reveal himself by his behavior

                               ....The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king (2.2.561-562)

Again Hamlet is determined to act as at the end of his second soliloquy; his actions, then, move the drama forward while continuing the motif of illusion

  • Soliloquy 4 [3.1.] "To be or not to be...."

This famous soliloquy returns him to passive deliberating upon the existential state of man. In things "earthly," Hamlet is enmeshed in brown study of the cowardice of men like himself:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution

Hamlet's overthinking and his ponderous dragging of himself in his despair put him in a "pale cast of thought." 

  • Soliloquy 5 [3.2] "'Tis now, the very witching time..."

Vacillating between thought and action, Hamlet finds himself urging himself to pretend like the plyers; also, he also urges his "tongue and soul" to be "hypocrites" as he feigns violence toward his mother in order to elicit her guilt.

Soliloquy 6 [3.3] "Now might I do it pat,..."

Hamlet is stopped in his purpose when he sees Claudius at prayer; for, he does not wish to make a martyr of him and send Claudius to heaven.

  • Soliloquy 7 [4.4.] "How all occasions...."

Hamlet's reason is conquered by emotion as he is moved by Fortinbras' honor (the divine) and overcome by his vow.