Hamlet’s Characterisation Essay
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The aspect of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that is most interesting to me is the playwright’s intimate depiction of Hamlet’s daily struggle againt the world. Through soliloquies and characterisation, we see that Hamlet’s world is a cold, political one, unreceptive to his grief, and this fundamental incompatibility is ultimately what creates and drives the play’s great drama behind his struggle, his murderous plot, uncertainty, and finally his thoughtful, accepting resolve at the end of the play.
Early in the play we see this great incompatibility between Hamlet and his society emerging, as he, stricken with grief, is surrounded by cold political plotters.
Shakespeare revels in his use of irony, as Claudius utters the oxymoron “lawful espials”, and Polonius, evangelising that “this above all else: to thine own self be true”, endeavours with “this bait of falsehood” to “by indirections find directions out” and thus “take this carp of truth”.
Hamlet continues this tradition of fish-related metaphors in accusing Polonius of being a “fishmonger”, a claim which reflects his own struggle to comprehend how cold and contriving his society is.
Hamlet even wonders how “a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer” than his mother, Gertrude, the “pernicious woman” whose “salt of most unrighteous tears” falls from merely “galled eyes”.
That she could be “like Niobe” is a twisted classical allusion which adds to the sentiment of tension which Hamlet feels against his society, which, in the disillusioned wake of his grief, he has found is superficial and immoral, especially as “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”, while “virtue itself of vice must beg” and “rank corruption…mining within…infects unseen”. Thus this great tension forms an integral part of the early part of the play and drives the drama which underlies Hamlet’s characterisation, and his struggle to find where he belongs in this morally void society.
Hamlet’s soililoquy at the end of Act II reveals how this tension has acted upon his soul. He questions his own sanity, asking if it is, in fact, the “pleasing shape” of the devil, which “abuses me to damn me”. This particular tension between Hamlet and his world is what reveals several important character elements in Hamlet. That the Player could invoke such passion in such a superficial “fiction”, and “for Hecuba” at that, while Hamlet sits statically racked with indecision, is reflective of the superficiality which frustrates him and drives him to see imself as a “dull and muddy-mettled rascal”. It drives him inwards to consider what kind of person he is, and how best to resolve the tension which has evolved as a result of his society’s immorality. Yet as the soliloquy changes tone dramatically, and marked by Hamlet’s cry of “Oh, vengeance! ”, the apostrophic appeal to Nemesis herself reveals an early attempt to break free from these chains of indecision and uncertainty set upon him due to his struggle.
Thus the tension between him and his immoral peers is what ultimately produces this first change of heart, from “pigeon-livered” to the successful invocation of the mythical figure, the “rugged Pyrrhus”, out to “drink hot blood”, whom he struggled to portray and rehearse earlier in the scene. That the tension is so central to this first episode of self-realisation, and subsequent ascents to personal conviction, reflects how truly crucial his struggle and journey towards self-understanding is to Hamlet’s textual integrity.
Hamlet’s obsession with death, beginning with the Act III soliloquy not long after, is another seeming affliction brought on by this grievous tension with the world around our hero. That the world could so easily forget a human life, and that this life was that of a king, brings on a deep sense of aporia for the young prince, as he struggles to reconcile the significance of life with the great ease with which it is forgotten when lost.
His turn to “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil” forms part of the plaintive introspection revealed by this soliloquy as he searches for truth, away from the “pangs of disprized love” for which he was informed that “to persever in obstinate condolement is…unmanly grief”. His obsession with death throughout the play and in this soliloquy is hence marked as a decided escape from the constant tension with his society and its many unknowable uncertainties, as portrayed by a play whose opening line is “who’s there! ”.
Death plays the role of the only certain, pure truth, as symbolised by the memento mori of Act V, the skull held in Hamlet’s hand which in all its graspable physicality and feeble perishability becomes a source of finality, and certainty for the young prince. His tension with society is characterised by great inaction and uncertain angst, but in death, all souls return to absolute dust. Whether they bear the “pate of a politician” or the “skull of a lawyer” is insignificant in this regard, for “e’en so”, even the great Alexander “looked o’ this fashion i’th’earth”.
He finds great solace in the promise of this finality away from the contrarious moods of his “comrades”. This characterises the self-reckoning which ultimately leads him to his final resolvel and faith by which he stands ready to once more face his society and his fate, whatever it may be. With this sentiment he remarks “there is Providence in the fall of a sparrow…let be”. Lastly, Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship with the world reveal analogous tensions which manifest in different ways and provide interesting insights into the dramatic consequences of this tension.
Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship is torn apart by Polonius’ meddling. Hamlet’s proclamation that “frailty, thy name is woman! ” foreshadows the way that we soon see Ophelia being influenced to a great extent by her filial, obedient devotion to Polonius, so much so that, struggling to reconcile her personal integrity and her duty to her family, she descends into her own madness, “divided from herself and her fair judgment, without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts”.
Polonius, the “fishmonger”, tells her that her love is that of “a green girl”, and her submission to such worldly expectations is what begets her destruction. Yet even in her insanity she finds a resolve which, though markedly more frenzied, mirrors Hamlet’s own. Her flowers are each symbols of denouncement of the court’s treacherous figures, whose “rue with a difference” Ophelia insists they must acknowledge for their most distressing actions.
There is thus a great tension which arises out of the persistent degradation of the lovers’ relationship, and their final destruction at the hands of Laertes for Hamlet, and in the river for Ophelia. These elements are undeniably integral elements of the play which drive its enduring drama and converge to form a crucial part of Hamlet’s textual integrity. Thus we can see that the tension of the world, manipulative, cold and immoral, as it acts on the fundamentally honest, if perhaps naive prince, is the source of the great drama which underpins Hamlet’s struggle through the play to pit his own psyche against that of his peers.
This tension time and time again proves to be central to a true consideration and understanding of Hamlet’s episodes of character evolution which sees him descend into the murky depths of his world’s uncertainty. It is only with the realisation and grasping of truth, whether he finds this in the finality of death or the power of fate, that Hamlet ascends once more to the safe anchorage of sanity and resolve, and finds the courage and conviction needed to face his society once more, and finally his death.