Why is Hamlet still relevant to our studies regardless of the centuries that have passed since its production? Is it worthy in continuing to be a critical study? The reinterpretation that Shakespeare created of Hamlet was based on a number of previous plays including the 12th century Danish Amleth, both these plays are situated around the main theme of being revenge tragedies. The prime aspect of why Hamlet will continue to be relevant as a critical study is due to the themes that the play is centralised around such as existentialism, corruption and illusion vs. eality.
These universal themes engage audiences of any society, even four centuries later, creating a timeless classic. The literary devices utilised within the play, such as the iambic pentameter, antithetical language and word play create an engaging atmosphere which captures the imagination of any audience making it worthy of a critical study. The ambiguity, open ended, and unanswered questions that Shakespeare utilises leaves the audience open to interpretation, thus allowing the play to relate to the specific context to which it is being viewed and studied.
This makes it worthy of a critical study as a personal response is erected and the audience is emotionally involved with the play as they find common grounds with the universality of themes and notions presented. This can be seen through differing productions of Hamlet such as Damien Ryans play and Tony Richardsons film, which are directed to sustain an audiences engagement regardless of the context.
Shakespeare uses techniques such as metatheatre and a mouse-trap to further engage the audience and reflect on himself respectively as the audience can see that both Shakespeare and Hamlet use the theatricality of the play to withdraw emotion from their selected audience. Through these techniques and thematic concerns, along with the central plot, it is shown why Hamlet is worthy of critical study.
Act I Scene V of Hamlet serves as a key scene in the play as it is when Hamlet is commanded by the ghost to revenge his “foul and most unnatural murder. ” In this scene Hamlet is told that Claudius is to blame for the death of his father and the ghost exhorts Hamlet to seek revenge, telling him that Claudius has corrupted Denmark and corrupted Gertrude, having taken her from the pure love of her first marriage and seduced her in the foul lust of their incestuous union.
Corruption is exposed within this scene due to the focus that the ghost sets on Gertrude and her domestic affairs rather than the political state that Denmark is undergoing. The ghost has exposed himself to Hamlet for the first and last time as the audience is told, and rather than focusing on the political state of the country as the honourable king would do, the ghost insists on complaining about his beloved Gertrude marrying his brother, the ghost even says “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be a couch for luxury and damned incest”.
This represents corruption as the audience would have expectations of the original king to have a higher concentration for the future of his country rather than the scandalous affairs of his widow. An act of corruption is also exposed to the audience when Hamlet learns that Claudius, the machiavellian character, has performed the shocking act of killing a king also known as regicide, the ghost explains Claudius to be “the serpent which did sting thy fathers life now wears his crown” which presents the contextual view of regicide, as he portrays him in a negative manner.
Contextually, the Elizabethans watching the play would have found these acts of treason completely taboo and unacceptable emphasising the density of corruption in the scene and even to this day, such acts of treason have a severe penalty as they are completely deplorable. Through this we can see the significance of the situation and how it relates to any context making it worthy of a critical study. In two contrasting productions of Hamlet, the ghost is presented in two opposing views entirely.
In Damian Ryan’s production, the ghost is introduced to the audience in a ripped up, run down trench coat, he is barefoot and wrapped in a rope. The ghost is presented to us as exhausted and weak, contrary to the king that he was before. Damian Ryan choses to portray the ghost in a modest way in comparison to the way he dressed when he was king. The use of these costume and props may serve as a representation of the after life to the audience in explaining that after death, it does not matter whether a man dies a king or a peasant, in the after life all will be the same.
The lighting that is used during this scene is spotlight focusing directly on the ghost himself making him the main point of interest yet sometimes it was clearly seen that the light would travel both in front and behind him representing the purgatory state that the ghost was in as he was in a phase of in-between where the ghost had not entirely crossed over yet. Through the lighting this was portrayed to the audience, showing the lighting and film techniques create representations of what idea may be desired to be presented.
In contrast to this, in the Tony Richardson adaptation of Hamlet, the ghost is not even seen by the audience. What can be assumed though, is that the ghost appeared in armour as Horatio states “yes, my lord, he wore his beaver up. ” the ghost being presented in armour opposes the ghost in Damian Ryan’s production as in the film, this representation may present the king as a symbol of authority even after his death.
We are also told that the ghost is wearing the same armour the king wore during the last battle he fought against Fortinbras, this presents symbolism as the king is shown as a influential character, not presented as weak because of purgatory. Taking into consideration that the king set the play into motion therefore the audience is aware of the influence he carries. A film technique that was used in Tony Richardsons production was the absence of the kings figure. Although the audience was aware of his presence, we are never exposed to him.
This raises further ambiguity over the reality of the ghost presenting the idea of illusion and reality. An intricate web of illusions vs reality is also depicted in this scene as the notion of a ghost or apparition appearing to someone was not a complete surprise during the Elizabethan era, but during this context, a spiritual form appearing could mean several distinct ideas. When a ghost appeared, people believed it could either be an angry spirit seeking revenge, a devil in disguise as a trustworthy figure or simply a projection of one’s imagination.
However Hamlet seems to be surprised at the sight of his passed father standing before him but why is this? Ambiguity is raised in this scene as the audience questions whether the ghost is Hamlets imagination or the real spirit of King Hamlet reaching out to his son. Due to the Elizabethan audience that the play was originally written for, a religious view must be taken into consideration, the main religions circling at the time were the Protestants, who believed ghosts were a figment of imagination and the Catholics who believed they were real spirits.
The ambiguity of this scene is left in question as we know from Horatio, Bernardo and Francisco that the ghost was real and not simply Hamlets imagination because the ghost had appeared to them, in contrast to the ghost being invisible to Hamlets mother later in the play. This all depicts illusion vs reality as the audience is left questioning what is real and what isn’t leaving the unanswered questions open to be interpreted. Therefore, building a personal response to the reality of the ghost, making it worthy of a critical study.
A literary device employed by Shakespeare in the scene is the iambic pentameter, throughout the play the audience learns that through the presentation of a characters speech, the interest or the state of mind can be easily depicted by Shakespeare’s device. When a character is speaking in prose, they are completely engaged in the conversation and the rhythmic flow creates a certain interest with both the audience and the character they are conversing with.
In this scene, the ghost clearly speaks to Hamlet in prose, this is due to the notion that what the ghost is confiding in Hamlet is clearly important and the use of the iambic pentameter creates a flow of interest so that both the audience, and Hamlet are engaged in what is being spoken. Contrary to this, Hamlet replies in single sentences such as “Murder! “, although this does not necessarily mean that Hamlet is disinterested, it could present the idea that Hamlet’s mind is too preoccupied with gathering the many thoughts that the ghost has presented.
From this literary device, it is clearly illustrated that Hamlet is clearly slightly confused and shocked, trying to process his thoughts. Although the audience is not told this, a personal response would suggest this idea as the ambiguity that is presented. Through this personal response it is clearly shown that Hamlet will continue to be worthy of a critical study. This point in the play can be considered the pivotal event and sets the main plot into notion, also developing the main character of Hamlet as the ambiguity created between the contrasting themes of illusion and reality.
It is directly after this scene that Hamlet starts to feign madness in the play and although the audience is well aware of the reality that Hamlet is merely alluding everyone into believing he is mad, the characters in the play start to question his sanity. This shows Hamlet to be an enigmatic character as there is always more to him than the characters in the play can figure out. Hamlet is presented as overly analytical and indecisive during the attempts to avenge the death of his father.
Throughout the play, Hamlet is always held back by his consideration of religion, beliefs and the notion of doubt regarding the honesty of the ghost. A view into the mindset of Hamlet is presented though his thoughts and actions as we can see the existentialist character build within him. We see him often think about the afterlife and questioning the quality of someone’s afterlife according to his moment of death, we even see Hamlet contemplate suicide. “The everlasting had not fix’d his cannon gainst self-slaughter” shows the struggle within Hamlet as he despises his life’s conditions of the moment and wishes he could end it.
The character Hamlet is aware of morals and knows that suicide would lead to hell, therefore he would rather live in “an unweeded garden” rather than suffer the consequences. Another way the audience is exposed to why Hamlet is a person of morals is due to the desire to avenge his father, although this is carried out by a recurring impossibility. Yet, when Hamlet returns from his uncompleted trip to England, we can see the character more determined on Claudius’s death than any other part of the play, he realises he must serve action.
Hamlet presents a serious intent to end his inaction and indecisiveness when he proclaims “O, from this time forth my thoughts be bloody ore be nothing worth” explaining to the audience that his main focus will be revenge on Claudius to avenge his father. Although Hamlet is portrayed as the anti-hero in the play, and the audience create a personal response of frustration at his inaction and over thinking, he is eventually successful in overcoming the in-action and finally seeking what was asked of him by his father. Hamlet becomes aware that the indecisiveness is due to a lack of self determination and starts focusing solely on revenge.
Courtney from Study Moose
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