What is Hamlet's purpose in the play?

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Hamlet's purpose, ostensibly, is to exact vengeance for the murder of his father. That, of course, is the short answer to your question.

The long answer is that in looking for a clear-cut purpose either on the part of Hamlet , the other characters, or Shakespeare himself, we are...

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Hamlet's purpose, ostensibly, is to exact vengeance for the murder of his father. That, of course, is the short answer to your question.

The long answer is that in looking for a clear-cut purpose either on the part of Hamlet, the other characters, or Shakespeare himself, we are perhaps somewhat missing the point. As in Shakespeare's other tragedies, a major theme of Hamlet, in my view, is the randomness and unpredictability of people and of "life," if by the latter we mean the events that swirl around us on a daily basis and create the "tensions" and "complications" of our world.

Hamlet's thoughts and behavior are chaotic. In acting as he does, his immediate goal is usually held to be that of convincing others he is insane as a cover for carrying out his revenge plan. For me, however, it's always been difficult to believe a man would behave towards Ophelia or towards his mother as Hamlet does solely for this reason—or for this reason at all, for that matter. A kind of rage exists within Hamlet against the establishment and against the existing order of things. His abusiveness to women is partly a case of displaced aggression, and I would suggest partly actual misogyny. Though his purpose in having the players stage The Murder of Gonzago is to elicit a reaction from Claudius that will reveal his guilt, Hamlet also wants to create as much general havoc and embarrassment as possible. He makes crude comments to Ophelia and other cryptic statements intended to throw Claudius and the whole court into confusion:

I eat o' the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feed capons so.

But by our lady, he must build churches! else suffer not thinking on with the hobby-horse, whose epitaph is "For oh, for oh, the hobby-horse is forgot!

Wormwood, wormwood.

It is not only his disgust with Claudius and the courtiers Hamlet is expressing, but his sense of the meaninglessness of life. When he kills Polonius by accident, Hamlet does not seem even to care very much that the old man is dead at his hands. In the graveyard scene, Hamlet's wordplay with the gravedigger is strangely comical and reveals an indifference to the gravity of the whole plot in which he has embroiled himself and others. He makes observations about life and about people which express universal truths—as Shakespeare's characters always do—but which also show him as a skeptic, a rebel, and a kind of anarchist as well.

If there is any actual "purpose" behind his actions, it may be a subconscious one, revealed in these seemingly random qualities shown by Hamlet in incidental episodes and stretches of dialogue. Hamlet does not want to avenge his father's death so much as to show that all, or most, of the "respectable" people around him are false and hypocritical. Three hundred and fifty years later, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is a latter-day incarnation of the same rebellious spirit as Hamlet's. Like Holden, Hamlet sees all these "phonies" and observes the truth about them, though in a context of violence and misplaced rage in which he destroys those unfortunate enough to get in his way—both the guilty and the innocent—and destroys himself as well.

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Hamlet's role in the play is to serve as its tragic hero, an otherwise good man who—as a result of his tragic flaw—meets his ruin by the play's end. Hamlet's character ultimately conveys the idea that inaction can be as bad as rash action. When he learns of his father's murder, he does little to actually remedy the injustice as it seems that he feels so compelled to overthink and dwell on possibilities. He decides to act like he's gone mad, though it is unclear precisely what purpose this action will serve in terms of avenging his father. When the actors come, he decides to employ them to ascertain his uncle's guilt, though we get no sense that he had some plan to do so prior to their arrival. The only time he acts really decisively to kill his uncle is when he accidentally kills Polonius instead in Gertrude's bedroom, and this rash action creates a whole slew of new problems involving Ophelia and Laertes, Polonius's children. Hamlet's inability to act reasonably leads to his downfall.

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The first step when analyzing any character's purpose in a play, is to have a clear grasp of the play's structural base, so that the character might be seen as filling a necessary role within that structure.  Hamlet is a tragedy, and, as such, requires a tragic hero who suffers from a flaw that is the instrument of his own demise.  Most tragic heroes recognize their flaw as the reason for their own demise, rather than blaming it on outside events.

Hamlet's purpose is to serve as the play's tragic hero, and his flaw is his own hesitation, his inclination to analyze and consider to excess, rather than react and take action to kill Claudius immediately.  This flaw sets in motion the complications, the events that come out of Hamlet's inability to act swiftly and directly against Claudius, most notably, the death of Polonius.  From this death comes the madness and death of Ophelia; the anger and action-oriented reaction of Laertes (a foil to the inaction of Hamlet at the murder of his own father); and the banishment of Hamlet and deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; not to mention the final bloodbath that ensues from the duel instigated by Laertes and Claudius -- all in response to Polonius' death.

Of course, Hamlet's inaction also assists in the tension and suspense created in the play.  When will he finally rise up and strike?  The audience is able to wonder this throughout the play.

So, Hamlet's purpose is to serve as the tragic hero of the play, his inaction (and the act of murdering Polonius) creating a major portion of the play's complications and tension.  For more on Hamlet's purpose in the play, please consult the links below.

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