What do you think is revealed about human nature in William Shakespeare's Hamlet?

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It's important to distinguish between human nature and human behavior. Human nature encompasses the fundamental genetic, anatomical, and physiological traits shared by humans, as well as psychological and behavioral traits, which are the ways in which humans think, feel, and act.

Humans continually adapt to their ever-changing environment, but...

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It's important to distinguish between human nature and human behavior. Human nature encompasses the fundamental genetic, anatomical, and physiological traits shared by humans, as well as psychological and behavioral traits, which are the ways in which humans think, feel, and act.

Humans continually adapt to their ever-changing environment, but humans don't change into something other than humans, or change what makes them human, in order to adapt to changes in their environment.

Humans evolve and change genetically, anatomically, and physiologically only over long periods of time, whereas a person's behavior can change in an instant—often in response to changes in that person's environment but sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Human behavior can be rational, practical, and reasonably predictable, or it can be maddeningly inconsistent, erratic, and, at times, wholly inexplicable.

Hamlet chooses to "put an antic disposition on" (1.5.192), ostensibly to protect himself from Claudius. Why, then, does he put on an antic disposition with Ophelia—who's no threat to him whatsoever—when he appears in her room disheveled and distracted (2.1.87-112) or when he behaves so abysmally to her in the "get thee to a nunnery" scene (3.1)? Why does Hamlet admit, "I did love you once" (3.1.123-124) in that same scene and then seconds later absolutely deny it—"I loved you not" (3.1.127-128)?

Why does Hamlet take the time to reason with himself not to take advantage of the opportunity to kill the praying Claudius in act 3, scene 3, then spontaneously and impulsively stab who he thinks is Claudius through the arras in his mother's bedroom just a few minutes later in act 3, scene 4?

In each instance, something changed, and Hamlet adapted to it. Was it the change in the physical environment, the emotional environment, or both that caused Hamlet to change?

Most of the characters in Hamlet undergo very little change, either moment-to-moment or through the course of the play. Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and just about everybody else in the play are psychologically and behaviorally the same persons at the end of the play as they are at the beginning of the play—aside from the fact that many of them are alive at the beginning of the play and dead at the end.

Ophelia seemingly goes mad and reportedly drowns herself, but it's apparent that Ophelia was damaged psychologically from the start of the play and her behavior simply represents a "pre-existing condition."

Hamlet is different. Hamlet changes, not only throughout the play as a whole but second-by-second, in every environment, and with each character. That's what makes Hamlet so interesting.

Hamlet epitomizes human nature in that he continually adapts to his environment. Hamlet also defies human nature in the speed at which he adapts to his environment and in the breadth and depth of the resulting changes in his character. Hamlet appears to behave irrationally and inconsistently simply because we can't keep up with his changes and adaptations.

Hamlet shows us how human we are because he reveals our individual limitations to us. We can only wish that we could respond and adapt to our environment as quickly and as fundamentally as Hamlet responds and adapts to his.

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There are so many aspects of human nature revealed in Hamlet that it's difficult to know where to begin in answering this question. I would choose to focus on two things: both the irrationality and the unpredictability of people's behavior.

Hamlet's character is a puzzle. He appears a sensitive and brilliant young man who is seething with an inner self-loathing and perhaps a generalized hatred of other people and the world. Most readers and theatergoers would attribute these negative traits to his having been unhinged by his father's murder, driven into a nearly psychotic state. Only such a person, regardless of the ultimate purpose of doing so, would ever think of shamming insanity as he does, and especially of behaving as he does to Ophelia, and later, to his own mother. Some negative critics, most notably T.S. Eliot, have regarded the inconsistencies in Hamlet's character as making no sense dramatically. But Eliot's was definitely a minority opinion. Most of us probably feel reflexively that there is a reality to Hamlet's behavior that transcends any attempt on our part to make rational sense of it, and that Eliot's criticisms completely miss the point of the play.

In Act 3, scene 1, he tells Ophelia "I did love you once," then two sentences later says the opposite, "I loved you not," to which she pathetically responds, "I was the more deceived." He then launches into a stream of abuse which is shocking, especially coming from a man who has just expressed in a soliloquy the most profound meditation on life and death, and the whole human predicament, in the English language. These opposites in Hamlet's actions cannot be reconciled in any kind of rational terms. But this is precisely why he and the play are so realistic. There is a deep, primal irrationality and random unexpectedness about Hamlet himself, and in the entire tragedy as Shakespeare presents it. These are the essence of human nature and life.

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Taking into account that the mise-en-scene in Hamlet is the royal court, the actions and reactions are quite “human” – that is, the everyday weaknesses (avarice, violence for power, lust, etc.) of all humans are represented, and the strengths of human nature – filial pity, loyalty, faith, etc. – actually prevail.  The dramatization of “human nature” was (one of) Shakespeare’s strong points.  Many scholars actually attribute Shakespeare with “inventing” character, that is, with embodying human nature inside the dramatic characters in his plays.  Examples of these human characteristics are anywhere in the play:  Gertrude’s hasty marriage, the loyalty of Horatio, the treachery of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even the kindness of Yorick, who appears as a long-dead jester--all are comments on "human nature." 

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