In the play Hamlet, what are Hamlet's external conflict and internal conflict?

In Hamlet, Hamlet's external and internal conflicts are embodied in his uncle, Claudius. Hamlet's external conflict with Claudius merges with Hamlet's inner conflict when Hamlet vows to avenge Claudius's murder of his father. Hamlet's external and internal conflicts with Claudius drive the play forward until Hamlet resolves both levels of conflict by killing Claudius at the end of the play.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When Hamlet first appears in act 1, scene 2 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, he's obviously troubled, but it's not until his rambling soliloquy midway through the scene that the audience is made aware of what is truly troubling him.

Hamlet makes it clear in the earlier part of the scene...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

When Hamlet first appears in act 1, scene 2 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, he's obviously troubled, but it's not until his rambling soliloquy midway through the scene that the audience is made aware of what is truly troubling him.

Hamlet makes it clear in the earlier part of the scene that he's grieving his father's death. Hamlet's uncle, Claudius (now king), and his mother, Gertrude (now married to Claudius), aren't happy with the extent to which Hamlet is displaying his grief, but Hamlet pretty much ignores them about that.

Claudius and Gertrude ask Hamlet to stay in Denmark rather than return to school in Wittenberg—Claudius wants to keep an eye on Hamlet, and Gertrude simply misses him—and Hamlet acquiesces to their request without objection.

What's clear, too, is that Hamlet doesn't like his uncle, although the nature of the conflict isn't made clear until Hamlet's soliloquy.

In his soliloquy, Hamlet starts with the usual questioning of his existence—essentially, "why was I born, and maybe I should just kill myself"—which he revisits periodically during the play, but the primary focus of the soliloquy is what Hamlet perceives as his mother's "incestuous" marriage to Claudius. Hamlet might not have liked Claudius very much anyway, but Claudius's marriage to his mother simply exacerbates any ill feelings that Hamlet has for Claudius.

Hamlet's soliloquy shows, however, that even though he dislikes Claudius, at that point in the play Hamlet is more upset with his mother and that he holds his mother more responsible than Claudius for the marriage. Hamlet knows that he can't do anything about the marriage, and he decides to keep his thoughts and feelings about his mother to himself.

HAMLET. It is not, nor it cannot come to, good.
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue! (act 1, scene 2, lines 161–162)

Once the ghost of Hamlet's father tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him, however, Hamlet's conflict with Claudius intensifies and becomes the focus of his existence, while Hamlet's conflict with his mother seems to dissipate entirely.

The inner conflict for Hamlet is not "To be, or not to be"—because he already decided not to kill himself in the first soliloquy—but "should I or shouldn't I?" Should he avenge his father's murder by killing Claudius or not? Hamlet's external conflict with Claudius, that he basically doesn't like him, becomes Hamlet's inner conflict because he vows to avenge his father's death.

Hamlet resolves this conflict by finding reasons to do nothing. He questions the veracity of the ghost and decides he needs more proof of Claudius's guilt.

HAMLET. The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil; and the devil hath power
T' 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. (act 2, scene 2, lines 593–600)

Hamlet has a perfect opportunity to kill Claudius while he's praying, but the fact that Claudius is praying gives Hamlet a perfect excuse not to kill him.

HAMLET. Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge! (act 3, scene 3, lines 76–81)

Hamlet's external and internal conflicts with Claudius are resolved concurrently at the end of the play but by the circumstances of the moment, not by Hamlet's intentional fulfillment of his vow to avenge his father's death. Hamlet is overwhelmed by emotion at his mother's death and his own impending death, and Hamlet strikes out at Claudius, killing him.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hamlet's main conflicts, both externally and internally, stem from the death of his father, King Hamlet, by his uncle Claudius.  When, in Act I, the ghost of his father appears to his son, asking him to avenge his murder, Hamlet's life becomes rife with conflict and Hamlet's dilemma becomes the focal point of the entire play.

As a man of great thought, Hamlet's hesitates after his first reaction to the words of the ghost.  For, he is reluctant to commit murder himself, knowing that "time is out of joint" and many other problems can ensue from his commission of a crime himself.  And so, Hamlet begins his insistent existential debate within himself: To be, or not to be...."  This debate develops into Hamlet's loss of will to involve himself in worldly affairs: 

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!/Fie on't, ah, fie, 'tis an unweeded garden/That grows to see.  Thing rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely (I,ii,133-136).

Because of Hamlet's ensuing melancholy, his inaction and disastisfaction with others aggrandizes and he perceives all others against him.  He accuses Polonius as well as his daughter, whom he loves. of treachery; he trusts no one.  His mother he describes as a villain:

O most pernicious woman!/O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!...That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain./At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark (I,v,105-109).

 In the end, of course, Hamlet does resolve his external conflict with Claudius (who has convinced Laertes to take his side) by accepting the challenge to duel Laertes. However, the greatest change in character is effected in Act V in Hamlet's assertion that he is "Hamlet the Dane" (V,i,227).  Then, in the subsequent graveyard scene a new Hamlet emerges, a Hamlet ready for action no matter how it be directed by divine will or chance:  "Why, I will fight with him upon this theme/Until my eyelids will no longer wag"(V,i,238-239). 

A most complex character, Hamlet is all the more fascinating as he undergoes such a dramatic character change.  Small wonder that "Hamlet" is Shakespeare's most popular play.


Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hamlet's external conflict develops because of his uncle and mother wanting him to stop moping about over his father's death.  Also, there are the conflicts brought to the fore by Fortinbras and his moves upon Denmark.  He also has conflict because of the marriage of his mother to his uncle.  Another external conflict is that he has been asked not to go back to university.  Also, he encounters external conflicts that his own actions bring down upon himself and others: his murder of Polonius, Ophelia's rejection of his love, the fatal duel with Laertes.

Most of the conflict in the play is a result of the internal conflict that Hamlet has over his repugnance with his mother's marriage, his knowledge's of his uncle's treason, and his hesitation to go against his religious beliefs and his mother in the face of his quest for revenge. 

Internally, he despises his mother for getting married so fast to the brother who murdered his father.  Once the Ghost informs him of the murder, for the rest of the play, Hamlet struggles internally between wanting more sound proof of Claudius's guilt so as to avoid regicide and his desire to kill him.  This internal conflict leads to a lot of the external conflicts that Hamlet has to face throughout the rest of the play.

The internal and external conflicts are closely intertwined in this play.  It is mostly a play about the journey of a tortured soul to find peace with his duty to his murdered father and King through action.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team