Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ remains at the pinnacle of high culture texts and the cannon as one of the most iconic texts in the modern world. ‘Hamlet’ is a deeply philosophical in which grapples with metaphysical questions- existential in nature that underpins the human ethos. It is through the highly charged language, textual integrity and use of meta-theatrical techniques that ensure the play’s modernity and continuing resonance in society through multiple perspectives.
Hamlet is a revenge tragedy play that reveals the conflicting social paradigms of patriarchal Elizabethan society in transition, wherein the forces of reformation and renaissance were usurping the older world of medieval feudalism and hierarchy. The play also reflects the concerns of a society that questioned their social roles particularly the divine and moral standards of the church and crown.
The play captures the spirit of inquiry through its opening question “who’s there? revealing the play’s search for identity and truth- both literal and metaphorical- in which Hamlet drives at the moral centre of the play. ‘Hamlet’ is essentially a grand narrative that follows the strictly controlled linear revenge tragedian format with Prince Hamlet as the avenging ‘tragic hero’. His role is indeed profound and equivocal; he questions the nature of freewill whilst seeking affirmation through the ‘ghost’ to avenge his father’s murder. Yet it is by Hamlet’s pivotal flaws of hesitancy and uncertainty that he authors his own downfall and those innocents around him.
Shakespeare reflects the conflicting values of his context through Hamlet’s statement “o cursed spite that I was ever born to set it right” he is torn between conflicting notions of medieval paganism and vengeance opposed to Christian humanism that demanded restraint and rationality. Yet it is through Hamlet’s melancholy and his questioning of humanity that the play becomes highly philosophical and personal drawing audiences in with the beauty of poetic language.
Perspectives of ‘Hamlet’ such as Kenneth Brannagh’s 1996 film production and Marion Pot’s 2008 Bell Shakespeare theatre production demonstrate the play’s continuing iconic status in society and its seamless ability to be re-appropriated into new contexts and perspectives. Brannagh’s perspective of Hamlet is traditional, yet he stresses the conflict between truth and appearance through his stage design. The film depicts C19th castle of Elsinore, resplendent in its colourful pageantry, overpowering pristine white and extravagant costuming.
Brannagh’s implementation of secret hallways, mirrors and Hamlet’s dark clothing is juxtaposed to this lavish world that metaphorically reveals the entrenched and pervasive corruption that underlie this facade. Shakespeare stresses this notion through use of recurring extended metaphor in the ‘rank’, ‘vile’ and ‘un-weeded garden’. This conflict between truth and appearance is illuminated in Act 3 Scene 2 via the ‘play within the play’.
The ‘acting on all levels’ in this scene causes the play to become highly reflexive and meta-theatrical, audiences are alerted to its constructed nature as “twere a mirror up to nature” yet also cautioning audiences over the “masks” that are constructed by people to disguise truth. The scene’s reflexive and modernist techniques allow us to contemplate upon the nature of ‘appearances’ demonstrating the iconic relevancy of the play. Brendan Cowell’s depiction of Hamlet in Pot’s Sydney production is that seemingly of a highly intellectual yet rebellious C21st college student.
Cowell plays the role ironically subverting the worlds of adults through wit, puns and sarcasm that draws audiences into the play’s self described “comedic and cathartic nature”. Pott’s perspective of ‘Hamlet’ invokes a feeling of moral malaise through stage design. The use of worn dated clothing and seemingly dark decaying walls that seep water- hinting at underlying corruption and subverting the ‘cleansing’ connotations of water. The presence of a large dominating spiral staircase gives the play a ‘subterranean’ and ‘stygian’ atmosphere that effectively alerts audiences towards looming mortality and hidden truth.
In Act 2 Scene 2 Hamlet reflects upon the majesty of man- “oh what piece of work is man”- yet this is ironically juxtaposed to his own self disillusionment. Shakespeare’s movement from iambic pentameter to prose reflects Hamlet’s own loss of mirth; whilst also demonstrating the power of Shakespeare’s use of textual integrity to allow audiences to sympathise and connect to Hamlet. Hamlet’s paradoxical nature is revealed through evocative imagery concerning the goodness of humanity how “like an angel” yet this is subverted by Hamlet’s melancholy in his role as the avenger.
Shakespeare juxtaposes this speech to his most iconic soliloquy ‘to be or not to be’ in Act 3 Sc 1; the balanced opening thesis demonstrates our fear of the eternal mystery beyond death as opposed to the continuance of the hardships in life. The poetic and transcendent nature of Shakespeare’s language is demonstrated through his iconic sustained metaphor of death as the “undiscovered country… “. This metaphor gives death a normality yet we are forever cautioned away by its eternal mystery.
The soliloquy is highly evocative, subverting deaths connotations by giving it a tantalising quality through its ability to give us “sleep, perchance dream”. The speech causes audiences to reflect upon death, challenging our perceptions of life, whilst demonstrating Hamlet’s frustration at his own inaction and weakness that ironically drive the philosophical nature of the play. Shakespeare’s mediation on mortality continues in Act 5 Sc 1 which employs use of black humour and satire to subvert death’s connotations whilst providing comedic relief through the gravediggers banter.
Hamlet’s monologue with Yorrick’s skull illuminates the finality and inexorable nature of mortality. The scene moves from satire and comedy to increasing seriousness with dramatic irony at Hamlet’s lack of knowledge of Ophelia’s death. The scene is juxtaposed to the entry of the coffin, taking on a deeper poignancy as it illuminates the irony of Hamlet’s ‘feigned’ insanity as opposed to Ophelia’s ‘true madness’ that resulted in her tragic demise causing audiences to reflect upon the nature of existence and fate.
Ultimately Shakespeare affirms the existence of destiny at the end of the play through Hamlet’s statement “there is a divinity that shapes our ends”, coming down upon the religious paradigms of his day. ‘Hamlet’ is a play challenges and questions our conventional paradigms and beliefs through Shakespeare’s mastery of literary technique, textual integrity and Hamlet’s contemplations. As a result the play examines universal concerns of humanity ensuring the play’s continuing iconic status in society.
Courtney from Study Moose
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