I once heard, "Hamlet would have been far greater had he been less great…”(my apologies, post is long so I will have to reply to my own post to conclude it.) Hamlets struggle has always struck...
(my apologies, post is long so I will have to reply to my own post to conclude it.)
Hamlets struggle has always struck me as being an intellectual one, where, due to the fact that he clearly has a far greater capacity for reasoning and reflection than anyone else around him, he is constantly at odds with making any resolutions about the mad world he lives in. I have gotten to the point where I see every other character in the work to be (quite arguably based on your definition of the word) inferior to him especially in their ability to see things for how they are. The actions and motivations of the characters, from the good ones even to the “bad” ones to me seem more childlike, shortsighted, or foolish to me than anything resembling real malicious intent. Claudius and Gertrude’s affair seem to me almost like high school jealousy, with the old Hamlet’s demand for revenge seeming just as pointless and juvenile. They are like giggling and quarreling children with no real concept of their actions and no thoughts as to the consequences, who do not question their actions or repent of them until Hamlet himself waves it in their faces. The supporting case likewise, and even Laertes and Fortinbras in whom we can draw many parallels with Hamlet, seem to be rather wanting of depth when compared to our tragic hero. Laertes is a good person, but is so easily manipulated by Claudius that we have to wonder if he really questions anything at all.
I didn't necessarily mean that he was reasonable, I think there's more than enough evidence to show that he was more than rash during many an occasion in the play; sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, stabbing Polonius behind the arras, condemning Ophelia and telling her to become a nun, etc. He had enough fire running through his veins that he did not always choose the more reasonable path. What I did mean though was that more than anyone else he was constantly thinking about things: to the point where his actions were impeded or rather "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." My somewhat rhetorical question (since I hardly think there is a concrete answer) was the following: which is better, to think too much or to think too little?
What I eventually came to feel about the play was that the end result was so far out of the control of the characters that in the end it doesn't really matter. Somewhat related to your wheel motif, I felt that there was this cyclical process that they were all a part of regardless of whether they were a king or knave: in that I mean that the only things we are truly certain of is that we live and we die. Even the greatest of men, who put an inordinate amount of effort into trying to control their fates by thinking everything out carefully, in the end are incapable of escaping the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. As smart as he was, he couldn't see some very simple truths that may have helped him.
Now to go all the way back to my original point, and to get to the question I meant to pose; what is really better in this case, to be as great as Hamlet with all of the craziness that exists even in our everyday lives, or to be less aware and astute of what is going on? Other people here simply had a goal, and accomplished that goal, because there was not much other thought put into it. Hamlet was the one who was walking around constantly analyzing and reasoning, and because of it he was rendered impotent of action. Laertes avenged himself but then died anyway. Fortinbras regained the lands of a father he scarcely knew at the unnecessary cost of thousands of men. Yet Hamlet, who reasoned, and was greater than the rest, was really no better off anyway. It’s truly difficult for me to imagine a situation that could have played out here that wouldn’t have ended up badly one way or another anyway. So perhaps it’s just that, it doesn’t really matter in the end anyway? For even the greatest of men might one day find their remains stopping a beer barrel or covering a hole to keep the wind away.
Fortinbras too, a respectable man in his own right, leads thousands of men to their deaths over an old wound which is rendered even more pointless when he achieves victory only to find that it would have fallen into his lap anyway. Even sweet Ophelia, who certainly loves Hamlet and does not mean to do him harm, is in her own way rankly abused and manipulated by the scheming old men around her. To me, everyone’s actions seem as silly to me as that of the clowns who acted in the play within a play, and the only one who seems smart enough to see just how insanely ridiculous things are is Hamlet. To me, one of the more humorous and entertaining parts of the work is to look at the acted out “insanity” of Hamlet versus the supposed “sanity” of the people around him. He acts crazy and ridiculous to his own purpose of course, but to me it just serves to really show other people for what they were. On a side note, I happen to just allow that the ghost of his father really exists, to me the story makes less sense and is less entertaining and intelligent if Hamlet is just plain crazy. There have been plenty of works with real ghosts, so to me this is just one of them and Hamlet is a brilliant and sane make in an insane situation.