William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
The tone of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set by the theme of madness and deception. The death of Hamlet’s father and the appearance of his ghost to his son sets into motion a series of events that end in leads to the near total destruction of the Danish court. No one proves to be safe from the pervasive nature of their own guilt, real or imagine, as the character’s fall victim to Hamlet’s madness and the king’s deception.
Revenge and fear, in particular, play central roles in the eventual conclusions of the play, as it provides a vehicle for the concepts of madness and deceit, as well as the bloody and darkening shadow that falls upon Denmark itself. Even before he sees his father’s ghost among the castle walls, the seeds of suspicion and disgust have already grown to fruition within Hamlet’s mind. All that is needed to touch off this dark depression into full-blown action is a spark. This spark comes in the form of the deceased king, who gives voice to his son’s suspicions.
It’s interesting, given the full blown form that Hamlet’s madness later takes, to consider that the conversation between father and ghost may have been a delusion. Though it’s hard to write off the apparition itself as false, since it is the guards who first see the ghost walking silently, the conversation between father and son is private and serves to provide justification for Hamlet’s later actions. In this way, it’s possible that this conversation was simply the beginning point for Hamlet’s growing insanity. From this first act, the other events fall in quick succession as though predicted.
Death becomes a central almost fated result of the lethal mixture of Hamlet’s growing insanity and the guilt of the king There is a fine line between Hamlet’s realities and his delusions, as shown in the truth of his uncle’s deceit. It’s important that the tragedy of Hamlet begins and ends with death, providing a full-circle to the King’s murder of his brother and Hamlet’s own revenue and death. This is due in part to the larger significance of death both as an ending and a beginning. The tragedy of Hamlet itself begins and ends with death while the dead themselves provide witnesses.
It’s important to note that even as the death should be released by the chain of events, they are not allowed to truly rest. From Hamlet’s father the king, to Ophelia’s drowned memory, they are allowed little reprieve. Instead their deaths act as cataclysms for more tragedy and death. It is Ophelia and Polonius’s deaths that cause Laertes to meet his death at the end of Hamlet’s poison-tipped blade. Connected to the idea of revenge, the dead are fuel to the fire and darkness that seep into the minds and actions of all involved.
Given the heavy presence of death, it is no wonder that the images of darkness and the adjective “black” is repeated throughout the book. It seems to be almost an eternal night in Hamlet’s Denmark. There is no comfort. There is no hope, only sadness and death. Revenge, madness, and pride are connected in Hamlet through their common dark designs and darker endings. The need for revenge, which is bred from Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost and eventually drives his madness, is not justice. This revenge is part duty, part self-preservation.
Hamlet is lost in his new role in his family, with his mother’s marriage to his uncle and the usurpation of the crown from Hamlet’s own head. In taking action against his uncle, Hamlet is defending the honor of his family and attempting to reclaim his own self which has been lost (I. iv. ll. 21). With the new developments, Denmark itself has become a prison (II. ii. ll. 241), and he is a prisoner to the awareness of his position and the growing need to exact revenge. It is important to make the distinction between the two, revenge and justice.
Hamlet is seeking to right the wrong of his father’s death, at first through revelation but then when this fails through violence. There is not the sense that Hamlet expects to escape his own death in the process of exacting revenge but at the same time there is the maddened sense of invincibility about him. He hopes to regain part of himself in destroying his uncle, however, he is already lost to his own fear and insanity. The concept of blood is important throughout the play, both in literal form in showing the brutality of Hamlet’s actions, and as representative of family.
The physical presnece of blood is seen throughout the play in the deaths of even those who do end in bloodshed, like Ophelia;. The final scene in Act V is the bloodiest, with the deaths of Laertes and Hamlet, the wounding of the King, and the poisoning of the Queen. That final scene is also a good example of the power of blood, in the family sense, as Hamlet finally gains resolution in the deception of his uncle and his mother’s marriage and Laertes himself is able to avenge his sister and father.
However, the concept of family goes much farther back in the play, to the very beginning with the first appearance of the dead king, still linked to his son and the tragedy of his blood, who himself is heard by Hamlet to call for revenge. For Hamlet, the concept of blood is perhaps the most sensitive and the core root to his own madness. A chief source of hurt pride for Hamlet is the marriage of his widowed mother to his uncle. In Hamlet’s eyes, not only has the new king usurped the role of his dead (murdered) brother but he has also taken over his brother’s position in the Queen’s bed.
This is not a difficult idea to understand; Hamlet obviously feels a strong loyalty to his father and to the idea of his own succession. However, Hamlet’s constant condemnation of the King and Queen’s marriage being “incestuous” shows more about Hamlet than his mother, who is constantly condemned by her son for the marriage. The king is Hamlet’s paternal uncle and therefore, unrelated to the Queen except through the marriage of his deceased brother, Hamlet’s uncle. Therefore there is no real incest going on between the newly married couple but rather a joining of past and present.
Instead Hamlet is showing an intolerance to change, that when divorced of his uncle’s treachery, is not quite as damning. However, true to the form of the play, the marriage has been built upon the dark deeds of the King. Their marriage is a deceptive continuity, the Queen herself innocent to the dark deeds of the King. She is not wholly innocent, as she ignorantly believes in the innocence of the new King. While she obviously loves her son, in sensing and fearing Hamlet’s growing restlessness and insanity, she does in a manner turn away from him.
Seeing only death in her son’s countenance, it is understandable that she would ally herself with the calm presence of the new king. However, there is something of a resolution between mother and son. When the queen drinks the poison, the King has prepared for Hamlet, she joins the ranks of the innocent dead. Like Ophelia, the Queen becomes a kind of martyr to the ulterior motives of royal ascendency and the revenge of her only son. Though the King may have had larger ideas of their marriage, the Queen’s tragedy seems to be a belief in hope.
In remarrying she is hoping to continue her life and in Hamlet she sees hope for her love and affection, even as he rejects her. Without the morality of justice, Hamlet’s revenge fails to provide any resolution. While death is certainly an end and a recurrent theme throughout the play, the persistence and skewed senses of madness prevent the carnage of the Danish court from representing an absolute ending. Instead, there simply seems to be no one else to truly die, no one else to suffer within this narrative of tragedy.
Hamlet’s madness had acted in a way to bring about the complete destruction of all he’d ever held dear, it spent not only the resolve of it’s master but everything which it touched. The court of Denmark is withered but no longer a prison to Hamlet as he can depart in death as he was never able to in life. Though Hamlet finds his revenge and his end, he does not find true peace. Fueled by his own depression and anxiety, the injured pride of a fallen son, Hamlet instead creates a cycle of violence and fear which in the end even he falls prey to.