In the tragedy of Hamlet, William Shakespeare dramatizes the revenge Prince Hamlet must enact upon the Claudius, his uncle, for the murder of his father, King Hamlet. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet during the Elizabethan Era, however it contains many elements and values of postmodernism. As a concept in late 20th century movement in art, literature, architecture, and criticism, postmodernism challenges the modernism. It stems from a recognition that the mind constructs reality to understand its own personal reality and particular. Postmodernism denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of any kind of truth which will explain everything for everybody— a characteristic of the ‘modern mind.
” In Hamlet, Shakespeare utilizes and incorporates many postmodern literary elements, namely metafiction and fragmentation, and beliefs, such as relativism in truth, to explore the human condition and suggest that one cannot truly distinguish between appearances, falsehoods, and reality.
Shakespeare, much like postmodern writers, integrates magic realism in his work to further emphasize the indistinguishability of appearances and reality as well as the relativism in truths.
As a literary technique of postmodernism, magical or magic realism introduces fantastic or impossible elements into an otherwise realistic narrative. Magical realism often includes the presence of dead characters, fluidity of time, extremely complicated plots, myths and fairy tales within the narrative, or dreams occurring in normal life. One can observe magic realism through Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, for he returns as a ghost after Claudius murdered him. Hamlet feigns madness throughout the play, but his madness seems more genuine as he becomes more obsessed over his search for the truth in his father’s murder.
Hamlet appears to possess no doubt in the existence of his father’s ghost. However, one can interpret it as a possible hallucination or conjuring of his imagination. For instance, Hamlet sees the apparition of his father after murdering Polonius in front of Gertrude. He tries to describe the ghost, but she sees nothing, believing him as mad and exclaiming that “this is the very coinage of your brain (3.4.139).” Not only does the appearance of the ghost seem ambiguous, but also Hamlet’s sanity; he views the ghost as reality but Gertrude sees it as a sign of Hamlet’s insanity. This ambiguity conveys the relativity of one’s perception of reality, and blurs the line between the realistic fiction of Hamlet and the supernatural. The tragedy utilizes the minor postmodern literary device of magic realism to respond to and depict the enigmas of truths and reality.
Shakespeare utilizes metafiction, one of the most important postmodern literary elements, within the play of Hamlet to commentate on theater itself and express self-reflection. Metafiction makes the artificiality of writing apparent to the reader, such as deliberately preventing the usual suspension of disbelief, or drawing attention to literary conventions. Thus, the work becomes self-conscious and self-reflexive as well as explicitly aware of their own status as texts. It judges its own creation, meaning that the line between fiction and criticism become indistinct. In postmodern literature, the text often refers more to itself than to any outer reality. The audience can observe metafiction in act 3, scene 2 as Hamlet interacts with the actors who arrived to perform a play. He begins to give criticism and advice, such as not to over-exaggerate because, in theaters, actors must “hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” or not to perform poorly or else it would “make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve (3.2.20-24).” Additionally in act 3, scene 2, Hamlet sets up the mousetrap play to determine the guilt of the king. In the scene, Hamlet frequently commentates throughout the performance of the Mousetrap. The dumb-show contrasts with Shakespeare’s proses and dialogue due to its monotonous rhymes, conventionality, repetitions, and plain rhetoric, and in many depictions of the play in films and theater, the Mousetrap often feels artificial. The dumb-show offers a literal rather than a symbolic representation of the action following the play, since it mirrors the actual plot. Here, the audience becomes aware that the characters of Hamlet —a play— watch a play, thus breaking their immersion and weakening the relationship between the audience and play. One can hypothesize that Shakespeare used these scenes and the character Hamlet to insert his thoughts on theater and acting, on what defines proper or good theater, and shows his contempt for his contemporaries. The play becomes self-referential and aware that it —a play— contains commentary on theater and the audience, in turn, becomes aware of this commentary. Moreover, one should note the dramatic importance of staging the dumb-show so that it stops before the end, for it informs the audience of the full plot without revealing the ending. Through metafiction, he commentates on other dramas and plays of his time, opening critical discourse to theater as a genre and an artform. Overall, narratively, Hamlet uses the Mousetrap to judge Claudius’s guilt, however, on a more metafictional level, Shakespeare uses it to force the reader to reevaluate drama, question the relationship between fiction and reality, and analyze the construct and methods of storytelling.
The characters of Hamlet, particularly the title character, hold postmodern beliefs concerning with the nature of reality. The relativism and doubt in truth, meaning, and reality strongly characterizes the postmodern movement. Postmodernists view truth as a relative and subjective concept and objective truths cannot exist since they see truth as a construct defined by groups and people trying to attain power and authority. Furthermore, one person’s perception of reality does not always coincide with another person’s perception. Additionally, postmodernists consider facts as worthless because they can change from a moment-to-moment basis or be outright lies. Those two concepts can apply to Hamlet as it plays into the dual motif of appearance and reality. Throughout the tragedy, the characters constantly try to decipher what the other thinks while using their own deception, which contrasts to what those characters purport to think. Hamlet, in particular, tries to figure out the truth and falsehoods surrounding his father’s murder and of the people around him. He attempts to prove reality by feigning the appearance of madness, but the more he uncovers, the less coherent reality seems, causing truth and falsehoods or appearance and reality to become rather indistinguishable. Additionally, Hamlet constantly seems preoccupied with epistemologically posed questions and doubts, characterizing him as the typical modern man. One can observe this questioning in his monologues, such as the “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt…” soliloquy in Act I, scene 2, which gives more acceptance towards his character as a modern man. In this soliloquy, he wishes that God did not forbid suicide or that “self-slaughter” would not prevent him from reaching Heaven. Here, he tries to grasp reality through logocentrism, for he regards words and language as a fundamental expression of an external reality. However, because of his doubts in truth, meaning, and reality, as characterized in postmodernism, even that falls apart. In a way, postmodernism decentralizes religion since postmodernists doubt in any kind of search for meaning; Shakespeare focuses on this decentralization in Hamlet, for the title character constantly questions the existence of nature of God and meaning, as observed in this soliloquy. The audience could also initially observe his preoccupation in epistemological doubt in the dialogue between Hamlet and his mother in Act I scene ii. After Gertrude told him to cast away his mourning clothes and accept and support Claudius as the new king, he responds: “‘Seems,’ madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’/ ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,/ Nor customary suits of solemn black,/ Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,/ No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,/ Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,/ Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,/ That can denote me truly. These indeed ‘seem,’/ For they are actions that a man might play./ But I have that within which passeth show,/ These but the trappings and the suits of woe (Hamlet 1.2.76-86).” He questions cynicism and this helps set the foundation for his doubt on the validity of knowledge, which we see throughout the play. His reply suggests that his grief goes much deeper than what his outward appearance reveals. He warns Gertrude and the audience to not hastily judge his inner turmoil because he cannot express it in any outwardly manner, making an epistemological argument about the accessibility of the minds of others; this further contributes to the duality of appearance of reality and gives credence to the idea that Hamlet incorporates postmodern beliefs. Shakespeare explores the postmodern belief of relativism in truth and reality through the inner epistemological turmoils of Hamlet and the dual motif of appearance and reality.
Although Hamlet contains these elements of postmodernism, the tragedy does not pertain to the postmodern movement. One can interpret Shakespeare as an early postmodernist because of the play; he incorporates irony to discuss serious subjects, addresses the topic of theater through metafiction, and utilizes some postmodern literary techniques. However, Hamlet fails to include certain vital elements of postmodernism, particularly ones that concern with the movement’s values, such as social equity, and literary techniques that center around the manipulation of time or the incorporation of previous literary works, particularly pastiche, intertextuality, and temporal distortion. In conclusion, Hamlet contains many elements of postmodernism, but cannot classify as such. Nonetheless, Shakespeare’s use of specific literary techniques and his exploration of the human condition and universal concepts allows the tragedy to transcend through many movements and eras, including postmodernism, making it a timeless piece of literary work.