What does the "Am I a coward? Who calls me 'villain'?" soliloquy from Hamlet mean?
It is significant that Hamlet himself does not understand why he cannot take action against Claudius. Hamlet's problem, as Coleridge and many other critics have suggested, would seem to be that he is too intellectual. In order to kill the King, Hamlet would have to be in a murderous rage, and his addiction to thinking prevents him from being in touch with his feelings. (Carl Jung in his book Psychological Types emphasizes that thinking and feeling are antithetical conscious functions.) Hamlet compares himself unfavorably with the actor who finds it so easy to work up strong emotions about Queen Hecuba, a woman who died thousands of years ago--if she ever really existed at all. (At the same time, this comparison makes Hamlet seem like a real person and the actor only a character in a play.) Whenever Hamlet does take direct violent action in the play, it is always on a sudden impulse, before he has time to think.
When Hamlet asks, "Am I a coward?" and the other questions that follow immediately thereafter in this soliloquy, the actor is probably confronting the audience, especially the men standing in the pit. No doubt they would be intimidated, because of the illusion that they are being challenged by a real prince, who is probably keeping one hand on his sword-handle while he asks, "Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?" etc. Hamlet is answering his own questions by confronting a whole crowd of sometimes unruly men, none of whom would dare to accept his challenge. No, he is definitely not a coward, but he cannot understand why he can't act against Claudius as he knows he should.
In Hamlet Shakespeare uses soliloquys to expose Hamet's inner thoughts and feelings to the audience.
In this particular soliloquy, Hamlet is struggling with his own hesitation to avenge his father by killing his uncle. It makes no sense to him that he should have such a hard time committing the act. He wishes someone would "tweak [his] nose" and "pull out [his] beard and blow it in [his] face" for not acting immediately.
Hamlet's hesitation to kill Claudius is a major theme in the play and it is often highlighted against Claudius's decisive character. It also plays into the discussion of Hamlet's feigned lunacy. The entire play he struggles to kill Claudius but has no trouble murdering Polonius in cold blood. Does this make Hamlet crazy? There have been many readings and theories made that center around Hamlet, his self-deprecating soliloquys, and their relationship to his sanity.
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Hamlet is angry at the fact that he cannot take action against Claudius even though he is aware of all the information. He waits up until the last act to finally kill Claudius and even then there is a chance that Claudius had no idea why he was killed. At this moment, he is expressing his inner turmoil he is experiencing and his anger at the inaction he has done.
The soliloquy is a literary form that is similar to a monologue. While soliloquy represents a discourse that unveils the speaker's thoughts, the monologue is addressed to an audience. In a play, the soliloquy is meant to stress out the character's internal state and it can be received by the audience as a speech within the character addresses to himself or herself.
In "Hamlet" play, Act II, Scene 2, you can find the meaning of the literary device soliloquy: "Am I a coward? Who calls me a villain?.."
In a play, the word villain describes the evil character. The villain's actions are usually intended to go against the hero's actions and the complexity of profile of villain character is usually at the same level with the complexity of hero's profile.
Since the short excerpt provided represents a passage from "Hamlet", by William Shakespeare, you can see in Hamlet character, all along the play, the traits that create both profiles, hero and the villain.