Ambiguity In Hamlet

What are some of the major ambiguities in Hamlet?

Shakespeare's Hamlet

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Throughout Shakespeare's Hamlet, the prince of Denmark exists in a state of perpetual ambiguity.  For, what he decides in one scene becomes doubtful to him in the next. And, this doubt is expressed in his soliloquies, which propel the play's action.

1. In fact, Hamlet's indecision is established from his first soliloquy in Act I:

O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (1.2.132-137)

2. In Act II, having departed from his father's ghost convinced of his purpose, Hamlet is again overcome with doubt:

The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil; and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness, and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. (2.2.600-05.)

3. In his third soliloquy, as Hamlet awaits the outcome of his plan "to catch the conscience of the king,"  he turns his doubt to existential matters, debating--more rationally than in his previous soliloquies--the problematic state of existence, wondering if one must endure the sorrows of life or end them with a death, that is itself ambiguous.  For, is it "a dreamless sleep," or is there spiritual retribution for one's act of ending life? 

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come(3.1.73-75)

4. Successful in his ploy to catch the conscience of King Claudius. Elated that he has caught Claudius in his deceit in the first part of his soliloquy, Hamlet again suffers from his spiritual ambiguity, doubting whether he can be the hypocrite well enough to draw a confession from his mother

O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.
Let me be cruel, not unnatural;
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent! (3.2.375-382)

5.  After Hamlet has convinced himself that he is "prepared to drink hot blood" (3.2.374), in the scene, however, he is, once again, overcome with his perpetual doubt in the subsequent scene as he fears that by killing Claudius he will send him to heaven as a martyr:

But in our circumstance and course of thought,(85) 
               'tis heavy with him; and am I then revenged, 
               To take him in the purging of his soul, 
               When he is fit and seasoned for his passage? (3.3.85-                                                                                       88)

6. Even as Hamlet finally accepts the idea of revenging his father's death, he is yet wrought with his self-doubt and ambiguity of purpose:

Now, whether it be
                Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
                Of thinking too precisely on the event—
                A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom
                And ever three parts coward—I do not know(4.4.41-45)

Because of Hamlet's own paralyzing habit of "thinking too precisely on th'event" (4.4.41), he generates his spiritual ambiguity which effects his indecision and doubt throughout what one critic calls Shakespeare's "testament to life."