Throughout the play, Hamlet often contradicts himself. He seems to balance the virtues of “playing a role”, with being true to himself. Further proof of these conflicting personas are demonstrated by his actions and inactions. The ambiguity noted here, lies in two conflicting mannerisms displayed by the young Hamlet: One that is perfectly calm and rational; and another which displays madness. These conflicting behaviors are related within Hamlet’s internal struggle-to kill Claudius for revenge of his fathers’ murder; or act responsibly, and await further proof of Claudius’ guilt.
Throughout the play, Hamlet teeters on the brink of insanity induced by his actions, or inactions. Hamlet’s sanity is clarified, in the first act, by statements and feelings expressed within his dialogue. When asked about his depressed appearance and demeanor by Gertrude, Hamlet replies, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems” (1037, line 76).
This relates the idea that Hamlet is ‘what he appears to be’. Later, he clearly makes a statement about his mental health when he commits himself to avenge his father’s murder. This quote allows the reader to follow Hamlet’s train of thought in regards to his role as student, mourning son, and Prince to the throne:”I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain” (1054, line 100). Hamlet is stating his utmost commitment to nothing short of revenge of his fathers’ death. At this juncture in the play, there is little doubt about his state of mind, or intentions. However, the next act belies Hamlet’s sanity and reason.
In act two, Hamlet appears again, although it now becomes apparent he has lost the conviction he demonstrated earlier-to complete his destiny as prescribed by the ghost of his father. During this act, Hamlet spends most of his time reading and talking with Polonius, Guildenstern, Rosencrantz, and the players. Not until the very end of this second act, does Hamlet refer to his filial duty to avenge his father. Instead of carrying out the destiny described by his fathers spirit-role of the vengeful son-Hamlet exhibits insane behaviors.
This is illustrated by his statements to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I know not-lost my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises. . . ” (1071, line 282).
Hamlet then admits he is merely feigning insanity with, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (1073, line 350). Admitting he is only acting “mad”, implies he is secure with his plot. Hamlet also seems to portray a willingness to accept this plight with, “. .
. for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. . .
” (1070, line 241). In this instance, Hamlet is stating that behavior shapes reality. In act two, Hamlet is again prompted towards vengeance-this time by a poignant speech delivered by one of the players. Hamlet responds to this dialogue with, “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? What would he do Had he motive and cue for passion That I have?” (1078, line 515).
In this complement to this player’s acting ability, Hamlet is saying that if he were such an actor he would have killed Claudius by now. Therein, lies the struggle between acting, and actual vengeance, that persists throughout the play until the very end. At this moment, Hamlet avows to avenge his father, “I should ha’ fatted all the region kites With this slave’s offal. Bloody, bawdy villain! O, vengeance! What an ass am I! This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murdered, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell. . .
” (1079, line 535). Again, Hamlet is questioning not only his sanity, but his role in life. He also questions the purpose of his role-madness or vengeful son? He had already pledged revenge, but again acquiesces, “Must like a whore unpack my heart with words And fall a-cursing, like a very drab, A scullion!” (1079, line 542). Hence, Hamlet (always wanted to say that!), is now berating role playing, although he now realizes he may provide proof of Claudius’ guilt through role playing by the players. Hamlet then devises a plan to use the players to condemn Claudius via a play, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (1080, line 561).
Before the play is performed, Hamlet has an intercourse with Ophelia, and offers some prophetic statements, “To be, or not to be. . . “. Clearly, in this most famous Shakespeare soliloquy, Hamlet displays thoughts of self that questions the worth of living.
Moreover, Hamlet recognizes the importance of his affections towards Ophelia, and in regards to Ophelia’s beauty, Hamlet states “That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty” (1083, line 108). Clearly, Hamlet is saying that indeed, Ophelia can be honest and fair, however; it is virtually impossible to link these two traits, since ‘fairness’ is an outward trait, while ‘honesty’ is an inward trait. He further states “A, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd that the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness” (1083, line 112). Thus, Hamlet is stating that the inner and outer self cannot be linked, yet acting or role playing, transforms ones inner self to match the exterior show.
In this sense, Hamlet would not have any problems taking action, if only he was able to act the part. Hamlet then contradicts himself again when he states “God hath given you one face, and you go make yourselves another” (1084, line 140). He states that appearance is paramount, but chastises women for changing it. These passages further Hamlet’s ambiguous nature-he seems to support role playing at one moment, then denounce it the next. It also becomes clear that when Hamlet is in support of role playing, he seems primed for vengeance. While supporting role playing, he says “It hath made me mad.
I say we will have no more marriages. Those that are married already-all but one-shall live” (1084, line 144). The ‘one’ Hamlet refers to is undoubtedly Claudius-which supports the link of vengeance and role playing. The next scene alludes to similar conflicts, but much more subtly. In this scene, while Hamlet is advising the player on how his lines should be read, he says “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” (1086, line 15). If only Hamlet would follow his own advice, would his conflict be subdued.
This illustrates the inconsistency within Hamlet, since he maintains separation between word and actions, while advocating that others should not. Hamlet then appraises Horatio for his objectivity and consistency. He also compliments Horatio for being true to himself, not being a role player with, “Give me that man That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart, As I do thee” (1088, line 63). At this point, Hamlet has decided he wants Horatio to watch Claudius at the play.
Hamlet remains uncertain as to his uncle’s guilt; moreover, he needs proof. He wants the proof from someone he admires and trusts. Hamlet says to Horatio “Observe mine uncle. If his occulted guilt Do not itself unkernnel on one speech, It is a damned ghost we have seen” (1088, line 72). The proof that Hamlet requires does not defer from the role that he is supposed to play.
It becomes intriguing that Hamlet’s uncle is to be judged upon how he acts during the play. If Claudius is a consummate actor and does not reveal his guilt, his life will be spared. Yet, Claudius is a poor actor, and when he rises during the play Hamlet reacts with “What, frighted with false fire?” (1094, line 245). It is as if Hamlet is saying ‘it’s only a play, it is not real’. Hamlet does mention something to this effect with his previous lines “Your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not” (1093, line 221). This proof drives Hamlet to more words, this time referring to killing, “Now I could drink hot blood” (1097, line 356).
Again, Hamlet associates these actions with that of a role, in this instance, the role of Nero, “The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom” (1098, line 360). Again later, Hamlet talks himself out of character and does not kill Claudius. He ‘puts it off’ until later days and states “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed, At game a-swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation in ‘t-Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be damned and black” (1101, line 88). Hamlet is awaiting Claudius to fit the part of the villain. His action is virtually paralyzed whenever something or someone does not fit the part. Hamlet needs his revenge to be dramatic, so that he can finally get into his role and play it out.
After Hamlet backs out of killing Claudius, he says to his mother “O shame, where is thy blush?” (1104, line 85). Here, he is voicing his displeasure for his mother not only marrying his uncle, but for not being true to herself. Again, Hamlet is contradicting himself. He has been-throughout the first two-thirds of this play-ambiguous and untrue to himself. At this juncture, he is still uncertain as to how to proceed.
Hamlet is caught in his inner turmoil of acting out his role, and objectivity. Finally, Hamlet’s thoughts and actions are placed in order, and he makes the decision to uphold the destiny his father had proclaimed. Hamlet makes this momentous decision while watching the soldiers going off to battle, “The imminent death of twenty thousand men That for fantasy and a trick of fame, Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, Which is not tomb enough and continent To hide the slain? O, from this time forth My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” (1116, line 62). Hamlet reasons that these soldiers fight and die simply because that is there fate-regardless if the plot of land is insignificant. He realizes what his role is.
Hence, he does not falter in his conviction upon his return from England, and fully embraces his role. Upon his confrontation with Laertes, he says “This is I, Hamlet the Dane” (1138, line 236)–meaning the true King of Denmark. This action by Hamlet is appropriate for someone as wronged as he was. In his reaction to Ophelia’s death, Hamlet again displays behavior that reinforces his role. She was his true love interest, and perhaps loved her more than her brother.
This is illustrated by Hamlet’s statement “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not with all their quantity of love Make up my sum” (1139, line 251). Hamlet concedes that he should have loved her, but did not. Had Hamlet truly loved Ophelia, he would not have treated her so harshly. Hamlet is now committed to role playing, and portraying love for her at this time, fits the role.
In the remaining scenes of this play, Hamlet is steadfast in his role. He has but moments to relate to Horatio his tale of escape, before he is challenged by Laertes. Hamlet is left without options, in regards to Laertes’ challenge-he must defend his honor. Hamlet enters this match, but more importantly, accepts the role of his destiny-to kill Claudius, and avenge the death of his father. Survival in this play is based on one’s ability to role play.
Polonius was unable to adhere to his role of adviser, and attempted to convince Claudius that Hamlet was enamored with his daughter. This led Polonius to spy on Hamlet, and since he was not successful in that venture, it cost him his life. Ophelia obviously was unable to bear the burden of her father’s death, and that her true love was the one who had killed him. This resulted in her obvious delve into insanity, which resulted in her death. Claudius was unable to successfully conceal his guilt, thus Hamlet had the proof he needed to confront him. Yet, the irony of Shakespeare’s tragedy lies within the main character.
If Hamlet had acted as the ghost of his father had initially ordained, no one except Claudius would have perished. Therefore, Hamlet merely verged on the brink of madness-spurned by his quest for the truth, that lies within us all.Bibliography: