How does Hamlet being witty ("a little more than kin, and less than kind..."), scholarly (ability to rewrite/connect the play to his father and Claudius), and philosophical ("to be or not to be...") make him a fascinating character, regardless of his indecisiveness?
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The student’s question – how does Hamlet’s wit, intelligence, and contemplative nature make him fascinating despite his indecisiveness – contains within itself the key to its own answer. William Shakespeare, as we know well, was a fascinating figure himself (assuming, of course, that he existed in the form in which we traditionally read and study his voluminous works), his plays filled with examples of wit, intelligence, and philosophical disquisition. Whether the character is Macbeth, Romeo, Shylock, Brutus, or Hamlet, Shakespeare’s characterizations are invariably complex and multifaceted. It is the latter of that group, however, that best captures the playwright’s ability to construct a complicated and emotionally wounded figure. Romeo may be haunted by his pursuit of the girl he will never have, and Macbeth might be the instrument of his own demise (with more than a little assistance from his spouse), but the young Danish prince is literally haunted by the ghost of his deceased father and is thrust by circumstances into a level of palace intrigue the likes of which could only be conjured in the mind of William Shakespeare. Hamlet is determined to exact justice from the murder of his father by Claudius, his uncle, who has taken for his wife his predecessor’s widow, Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude. It’s all rather confusing, but not far removed from the realities of the politics of the time. It is Hamlet’s plan to expose the deceit, however, that provides the play its most intriguing element. Hamlet conspires to have his uncle, Claudius, observe a play – and this is not the only time Shakespeare inserts a play within a play – in which the actors reproduce the murder of Hamlet’s late father. Act II, then, ends with the young prince contemplating his plan:
I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
“The play’s the thing,” indeed. Shakespeare knew of what he wrote. Hamlet has feigned mental illness, brilliantly subverting the attempts of his “friends,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to ascertain his true state of mind. It is early in the next act, however, that we are exposed to the depth of this troubled young man’s wounded soul. Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, of course, is precisely the one cited by the student, which occurs in Act III, Scene I:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”
Hamlet is mentally exhausted. He not only mourns his father’s death, but is informed by the ghost of his father of the true nature of the former king’s demise. This is a lot of weight for the prince to carry on his shoulders, and he is uncertain, despite having conceptualized and set into motion his plan to expose the truth of his father’s death, whether he can continue to live with this emotional baggage.
Shakespeare, as noted above, incorporated into Hamlet (full title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) the full reservoir of literary devices at his disposal. Even the most tragic of his plays include instances of comedic relief, whether it is Juliet’s elderly nurse, or Hamlet’s aforementioned friends as well as the titular character himself. It is Hamlet’s emotional complexity, however, that makes him a riveting, or fascinating figure. Not for nothing is the above cited soliloquy such an important part of our contemporary lexicon. Hamlet is fascinating for the emotional turmoil to which he is subjected by an apparition upon which he stumbles and that reveals itself to be the spirit of his late father. His destiny is set when he his commanded by this ghost to avenge his father’s death, the true nature of which had heretofore remained unknown to the presumably naïve young prince (“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” commands the spirit, in reference to the late king of Denmark).
Whether one views Hamlet as fascinating is entirely subjective. One need not view Shakespeare’s character as such. If one does conclude, however, that this character is fascinating – and many of us do subscribe to that characterization – then it is a product of the very characteristics cited by the student in the question. The humor Hamlet displays is but a byproduct of his eternally troubled mind. What makes him most interesting is his tormented soul, and his intensely-felt desire to close his eyes and let the realities that confront him disappear from his vision.
Sorry, I meant fascinating, not fantastic. Here are the quotes to help illustrate what I mean by the traits:
1.) Witty — "A little less than kin, and less than kind"
2.) Scholarly — "You could, for a need, study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines which I would set down and insert in ’t, could you not?"
3.) Philosophical — "To be or not to be" soliloquy
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