In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, is the title character a "sweet prince" or "an arrant knave"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the title character more often presents himself as an “arrant knave” than as a “sweet prince.” The phrase “arrant knave” – which is used twice in the play – might be defined as referring to a rotten scoundrel (see eNotes links below). Certainly this is how acts or presents himself throughout much of the work. Whether he really is fundamentally an “arrant knave” or is just pretending to be one is, of course, another and very interesting question. Horatio, whose judgment seems good, certainly seems to regard Hamlet as a sweet prince, and so does Ophelia, whose opinion also seems trustworthy. Nevertheless, Hamlet’s behavior during much of the play seems deliberately knavish. Consider, for instance, the following examples:

  • Hamlet speaks disrespectfully and provocatively to many other characters, including Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and various others.
  • Hamlet considers murdering Claudius in cold blood while the latter is praying – behavior that would have seemed knavish and heinous in the eyes of many contemporary Christians.
  • Hamlet later treats his own mother with such vehemence that she assumes he intends to kill her.
  • Hamlet impulsively stabs Polonius as the latter hides behind an arras; he thus kills the old man.
  • Hamlet deceptively arranges for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old friends of his, when he suspects them of treacherous behavior.
  • Hamlet’s killing of Polonius drives Ophelia mad; it never seems to occur to Hamlet, when he is wittily disposing of Polonius’s body, that Ophelia might be traumatized by the death of her father.

In short, anyone who wants to argue that Hamlet is a genuinely knavish character has plenty of evidence with which to make that case. Many critics have, in fact, seen Hamlet more as a villain than as a hero, largely because his behavior so often violates the Christian teachings of the era. It is possible, of course, to argue that Hamlet was originally a sweet prince who then became a genuinely knavish villain under the influence of extraordinary events, but who, by the end of the play, has begun to become a sweet prince once again and dies with his original character restored.

According to this latter view, then, Horatio's words in the last scene of the play, spoken immediately after Hamlet dies, should not be read ironically but should be taken at full face value:

Horatio. Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, 
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

 

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