Last Updated on November 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 860
Extended Character Analysis
Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, the son of the recently deceased King Hamlet, and the protagonist of the play. He returns to Denmark from the University of Wittenberg in the wake of his father’s death. He is disgusted by his mother Gertrude’s marriage to his uncle Claudius, which happened very soon after his father’s death. Hamlet idolizes his father and, even before learning of his murder, mourns him in what others view as excessive. He is educated, brooding, and prone to overthinking. He uses soliloquies to belittle other characters, express moral truths, externalize internal conflicts, and give readers a glimpse into his mind.
After returning home from university for his father’s funeral, Hamlet finds himself disgusted by the incestuous, by Elizabethan standards, marriage between his widowed mother and his uncle Claudius. He is openly hostile towards Claudius, constantly drawing comparisons between his uncle and his deceased father. When the ghost of his father appears and tells Hamlet to seek revenge, Hamlet is dismayed to hear about the murder but also admits to having suspected it. He vows to avenge his father, but he has some doubts about the veracity of the ghost’s claims.
In the process of trying to prove Claudius’s guilt, Hamlet ruins most of his relationships. Fearful that his plans might be exposed, he feigns madness in an effort to keep suspicion at bay. However, given that only Horatio understands his act, Hamlet is left without any other allies. Hamlet’s single-minded pursuit of revenge against Claudius leaves him disillusioned with others. Ultimately he is betrayed, at least in his mind, by Gertrude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Hamlet views Claudius as such a villain that he is unable to trust anyone who might be associated with him. Instead, Hamlet ineffectually rants about the fickle nature of humans and bemoans his own cowardice at both exacting revenge and facing the unknowns of death.
Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his indecisiveness, which has spawned a number of theories about his inability to kill Claudius until the very last moment. One interpretation is that Hamlet has doubts about the veracity of the ghost’s claims—doubts which are often read as rooted in religious conflict. Though Hamlet is set prior to the Protestant Reformation, Elizabethan England was in the midst of the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism. Hamlet himself questions whether the ghost is truly his father returned from Purgatory, as Catholic theology would suggest, or whether it is a devil in disguise, as Protestant theology would suggest. The point of the play within the play in act III, scene II is to prove Claudius’s guilt so that Hamlet can known for certain whether his revenge is justified. However, after getting the necessary proof, Hamlet is unable to exact his vengeance. In act III, scene III, he refuses to kill Claudius while the man prays so as not to send his soul to heaven. Hamlet’s refusal leads many to seek out alternative explanations for Hamlet’s inaction.
Another reading positions Hamlet as a morally conflicted character who is torn between two different callings. One the one hand, he has been tasked with exacting revenge for his father. On the other hand, Christianity, the dominant religion in 14th- and 15th-century Denmark, calls on its followers to avoid murder and revenge, instead leaving matters of justice to God’s judgement. By reading Hamlet’s conflict as religious in nature, his suicidal ideation stands out because Christian doctrine bars him from obtaining any form of relief. Not only can he not exact the revenge that he longs to, but he also cannot end his own life without barring himself from salvation.
By yet another reading, Hamlet’s isolation is to blame for his inaction. After learning that Claudius murdered King Hamlet, Hamlet is unable to trust anyone in the castle aside from Horatio, because he has no way of ascertaining who might betray him to Claudius. His isolation prevents him from acquiring allies or spreading the news of Claudius’s treachery. Just as he fears sending Claudius to heaven by killing him while he prays, Hamlet may also fear making a martyr of Claudius. Regicide is a serious crime, and if Hamlet were unable to prove that Claudius killed King Hamlet, then Hamlet himself could become a object of fear and animosity amongst the people of Denmark. This reading is supported by his insistence in act V, scene II that Horatio remain alive in order to clear his “wounded name,” something that the dying Hamlet will not have the chance to do.
Hamlet is an enigmatic character, alternatingly introspective and impulsive. He ultimately accomplishes what the ghost tasks him with, but at the cost of his own life and the lives of six others. Unlike most Elizabethan revenge tragedies, Hamlet does not end on a triumphant note. There is no final confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius, nor is there any sense of vindication for the ghost. Instead, Horatio is left to lament a senseless bloodbath. Revenge winds up feeling almost meaningless, accomplished as a final desperate act in the face of death.
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