Whether Hamlet, the prince of Denmark and protagonist of William Shakespeare’s play, is too hard on himself is a matter of perspective. As Hamlet begins and following the first appearance of the ghost of the young prince’s recently deceased father, King Hamlet, the newly-crowned king, Prince Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, and the prince’s mother, newly-remarried-to-the-new-king, are discussing the prince’s melancholy state. In act 1, scene 2, Hamlet is engaged with Claudius and Gertrude, his mother. Both “parents” lament Hamlet’s continued mourning of his father’s death, Claudius asking, “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” and Gertrude commenting:
Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off, And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark. Do not forever with thy vailèd lids Seek for thy noble father in the dust. Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity.
To King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, Hamlet has failed to accept his father’s death and get on with his life. To them, the conspiring (the audience will learn) king and his strangely acclimated mother (recently widowed but already remarried to her late husband’s brother), King Hamlet’s death is in the past and the imperative of governing a kingdom is of paramount importance. The period of official mourning is over, and the citizenry must look to the future. Hamlet, however, remains disconsolate, and his mournful demeanor is wearing on the king and queen. The depth of Hamlet’s sadness and hopelessness is apparent in his repeated references to suicide, as in that same scene in act 1 following the king and queen’s departure and Hamlet’s reflections on the futility of life measured against the sin of taking one’s own life:
O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God, God, How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world!
And, of course, in act 3, scene 1, Shakespeare has this tragic figure make one of the English language’s most famous and solemn monologue’s, in which the prince again contemplates committing suicide:
To be or not to be—that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—No more—and by a sleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, . . .
This is pretty serious stuff. Hamlet is in the depths of despair and, having by now been exposed by his late father’s ghost to the truth behind the dead king’s demise, has been compelled to contemplate the extent of the depravity permeating the kingdom’s soul. He is, indeed, hard on himself. Whether he is too hard, however, requires more thought. When the play begins, it has been a mere two months since the death of King Hamlet. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, has just wed Claudius, a figure not even remotely to Hamlet’s liking even without knowledge of his uncle’s responsibility for his father’s death.
Consider the situation: a young, emotionally damaged man mourning his father’s untimely death only two months after that death. In many modern cultures, a period of mourning can extend to a full year, and this was Hamlet’s beloved father. It is all a matter of perspective. To feel suicidal under these circumstances is tragic, and many people condemn suicide as an unjustifiable waste of human life under any circumstance. To a troubled young man having only recently lost his father and now witnessing his mother’s marriage to his uncle who, Hamlet learns, was responsible for his father’s death, the emotional burden would, it would seem, be too much to bear.
One can argue that Hamlet is being too hard on himself the above notwithstanding. He has been raised, as a prince, to one day rule a kingdom. His inconsolable demeanor, even before learning the facts of his father’s death, would appear excessive to many observers. A more noble attitude given his stature would be to stand tall, accept, maybe even avenge, his father’s death, and act the part of a king himself. He has, after all, been denied the crown due to Claudius’s machinations, and a conduct more becoming a potential force with which to be reckoned would be less tragic and more heroic. Even the way he plans his revenge, including the somewhat cryptic use of a theatrical production to embarrass and indict Claudius, is indirect and a little weak. Killing the wrong man—Hamlet stabs Polonius to death thinking that he is killing Claudius—is a little pathetic, although Hamlet does, ultimately, acquit himself quite well in his duel with Laertes and subsequent stabbing of Claudius.
Whether one concludes that Hamlet is too hard on himself is dependent upon one’s perception of the proper period of mourning and of the morality of suicide. Again, two months is hardly excessive with respect to an appropriate period of mourning for the death of one’s father. Hamlet is, however, too hard on himself in that he has allowed himself to become a rather pathetic figure, giving up on life during the exact period when he should be emerging as a more dominant figure in his own right. Rather than rise to the occasion, he has instead withered away, developing a mission—avenging his father’s murder—only following the revelation of Claudius’s role in King Hamlet’s death. All in all, Hamlet was too hard on himself.