What idea does Shakespeare develop regarding the individual in the midst of conflict in the play Hamlet?

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I think Shakespeare develops the idea of the individual in the midst of conflict through Hamlet’s thoughts and words. This play is as much, if not more, about Hamlet ’s existential debates with himself as it is the actual plot. Hamlet is not just in the midst of a...

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I think Shakespeare develops the idea of the individual in the midst of conflict through Hamlet’s thoughts and words. This play is as much, if not more, about Hamlet’s existential debates with himself as it is the actual plot. Hamlet is not just in the midst of a conflict in the world: in Denmark. He is also faced with his own mental conflicts about how to act. I don’t think you can single out just one idea that Shakespeare develops with regard to an individual in conflict.

One idea is that the intelligent individual will expend a lot of time and effort contemplating a conflict. Hamlet constantly defers killing Claudius because he wants to carry it out in the most dramatic way. But he also defers because he constantly considers the moral and philosophical implications. In Act III, Scene 3, he intends to kill Claudius but stops because the king is praying. Hamlet reasons that this will send the king to heaven.

In the “To be or not to be” speech, Hamlet goes so far as to consider suicide as an alternative to the revenge plot. He goes on to question if there is an afterlife and he really is in deep philosophical territory here because he is so intent on doing the right thing. Hamlet’s outward madness and rudeness toward Ophelia is an act to allow him the time and space to think deeply about what he has to do.

This idea that Shakespeare develops is that an intelligent, caring individual will exhaustingly analyze a conflict in order to make a decision on how to act. Conversely, a thoughtless person would probably have just killed Claudius right away. The reader might find this a more desirable and justifiable act, but the play is just as much about the mentality of the individual as he faces conflict. In fact, this play is about what Hamlet thinks more than what actually occurs. Most of the frequently quoted lines are from soliloquies because these lines are the most profound. These lines convey what it means to be human and that the choices we make should be seriously and morally considered.

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Concerning Shakespeare's Hamlet, you can think of characters dealing with conflict in order to analyze what ideas are revealed concerning a person in the midst of conflict.

First, Hamlet is in the midst of conflict for the entire play.  Some say that Hamlet is a moral and incorruptible person in conflict with a world that is immoral and corruptible.  He reacts with melancholy, despair, anger, thought, reason, and finally action. 

Others in the play are involved in conflicts, too.  How does Laertes handle conflict after his father is killed?  How does Ophelia deal with conflict after Hamlet rejects her?  How does she handle the difference between what her father orders her to do, concerning Hamlet, and what she would like to do?  How does Fortinbras handle conflict?  Claudius?  Gertrude?

If you make notes on the ways these characters handle conflict, you will be able to analyze what the play reveals about characters in conflict, and organize your thoughts on the subject.  For instance, Laertes unthinkingly forces his way into the king's presence and goes after the king.  The king, of course, is not responsible for Polonius's death.  Laertes then allows himself to be manipulated by Claudius into committing treachery.  His method of handling conflict is very much opposite of Hamlet's.  Outlining the different methods of handling conflict shown by the different characters, will help you get a handle on the issue. 

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