Thus, many still hold the view that Hamlet should have been king, and Hamlet himself probably feels unfairly treated in that matter and consequently we sympathise with him. Claudius however keeps drawing our attention to the issue. He says to Hamlet, “You are the most immediate to our throne”.
This could be to placate Hamlet in his time of grief, as well as to placate the people, knowing well that Hamlet has their support. The use of ‘our’ could be identified as a means to involve the people of Denmark in his statement, making them feel in union with him in support of Hamlet, but could also be argued to simply be Claudius’ employment of the royal “we”.
Nevertheless, Claudius brings to mind the issue of succession through his speech, and makes us pity Hamlet more.
Hamlet appears to feel alone and isolated in the play. Not only does he grieve alone, but he seems to be isolated from everyone else due to certain factors, and we thus sympathise with him even more.
Hamlet is a scholar, and we are aware that he goes to school in Wittenberg. He has only returned to Denmark following the death of his father, and wishes to return to Wittenberg, but is compelled by Claudius and Gertrude into staying. Claudius says, “It is most retrograde to our desire” that Hamlet return to Wittenberg, employing again the royal “we”.
Hamlet therefore, though already perturbed by the events in Denmark such as his mother’s marriage, is forced to remain where he does not really want to be, and amongst people who, being less scholarly, may not see things from the same point of view as he does.
He expresses these feelings of isolation through his soliloquies, such as where he says “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
The use of his soliloquies help us understand his point of view, and the use of lists in this excerpt places emphasis on how isolated and different he feels from the rest of the world. The punctuation of the sentence with an exclamation mark further relays Hamlet’s frustration at the world. The people whom Hamlet considered his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, spy on him, indicating the extent of his isolation.
As a result of Hamlet’s intelligence, he always seems to be a step ahead of the other characters. He knows and understands what they are thinking, and their likely reactions to situations. He seems almost perfectly knowledgeable of Polonius in particular, and makes Polonius believe that he is mad out of love for his daughter, such that even when he refers to Polonius as a fishmonger, he also adds, “Have you a daughter?” He is thus able to successfully deceive them that he is mad whilst he seeks to carry out his revenge on Claudius. However, his intelligence further stresses his isolation as he is on a different playing field from the other characters.
We also sympathise with Hamlet as events are beyond his control because of the role played by the supernatural, that is, the ghost. He is suddenly thrust into a situation which he has no control of by the ghost’s injunction for him to revenge. When the ghost of his father instructs him to avenge his death, Hamlet is driven by a sense of duty to do it rather than a want to do so out of his own will, although he is not, ab inicio, cordial towards Claudius as can be deduced from his intuitive feelings in the statement, “O my prophetic soul!/ My uncle?” His use of a rhetorical question could be interpreted to mean that it was a situation he had already been contemplating.
The evocative language which is employed by the ghost in speaking to Hamlet also urges him to take action in such a way that he is compelled to avenge his father’s death. The ghost refers to Claudius in an unhealthy, animalistic manner, calling him, “that incestuous, that adulterate beast.” The ghost further describes his suffering in purgatory with the imagery of a “prison house” and stating that he is “doomed for a certain term to walk the night” and in the day to “fast in fires.” The alliteration in the last phrase places emphasis on the suffering which he is going through and makes Hamlet pity his father so much that he is urged to revenge.
The ghost also gives Hamlet orders, instructing him to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” thus introducing the idea that Hamlet’s father was in fact murdered by Claudius, and hauntingly states, “Remember me.” The manner in which Hamlet’s father was killed by Claudius, being “cut off in the blossom of…sin” also makes Hamlet not want to just ensure that he kills Claudius, but does so when Claudius is in the height of his sinful ways, thus placing even more pressure on Hamlet.
These factors all spur Hamlet to action, as he is trapped in a situation which is beyond his control. It seems as though Hamlet was determined to end up in the situation, it is his fate, and he cannot help it. This is reminiscent of other Shakespearean works where fate plays a great role such as in Romeo and Juliet where the “star-crossed lovers” are fated to die and Antony and Cleopatra where there is a constant reference to fate. All of these contribute to the feeling of sympathy which we have for Hamlet.
Being a philosophical scholar, as can be deduced from his soliloquies, makes the situation even more difficult for Hamlet. As philosophers do, he begins to reflect and question. He contemplates suicide, asking himself whether it is better “To be or not to be”. This debate which he has with himself is intensified with the use of such hendiadys as “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and “whips and scorns of time” He questions the validity of the ghost’s words- for what if the ghost is nothing but an illusion?
It could be argued that Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo also saw the ghost, but did they ever hear the ghost actually speak? Hamlet thus seeks to find proof and evidence of what the ghost has said, and this only means that his revenge is slowed down. He plans a ‘play within a play’ called the Murder of Gonzago about which he says, “The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
Through the technique of a rhyming couplet, Hamlet brings to light his yearn for proof that he may then effectively carry out his revenge. Hamlet also questions his mother’s involvement in his father’s death as he cannot be sure what went on. Another major issue is Hamlet’s religion. Hamlet is Protestant, having studied at Wittenberg (the same university which Martin Luther the religious reformist and founder of Protestantism also attended), and should thus be anti-revenge, more so anti-murder. However, he is asked by his father’s ghost to carry out an action which contradicts his religious beliefs.
This is an issue which would have sparked disapproval among the Elizabethan audience who, being mainly religious, were also anti-revenge and anti-murder. These factors result in Hamlet’s vacillation, and Hamlet is thus an untypical tragic hero. Rather than move to action, he hesitated for a long time, doing nothing as he later professes, “How all occasions do inform against me,/ and spur my dull revenge.” These various issues which are beyond Hamlet’s control and yet influence his revenge, make us sympathise with him greatly as he can do little about them.
Whilst in search of proof, Hamlet also has to struggle to disguise himself lest anyone should learn of his purpose to avenge his father’s death and prevent him from doing so. Hamlet thus pretends to be mad so as to carry out his plans effectively, and is thus disguising the reality with an appearance of madness. This brings in the thematically significant issue of “Appearance versus Reality.” Michel de Montaigne, a 16th century French philosopher, holds the view that the world which we know of is in fact a world of appearances, and human beings could never hope to see past those experiences into the ‘realities’ that lie behind them.
This idea stems from Plato’s philosophy, and Shakespeare works on this view by placing his characters in this world of appearances. Hamlet, in avenging his father’s death, is trying to correct an injustice which he can never properly have full knowledge of. Even if he gets proof from Claudius’ reaction to the Murder of Gonzago, how much will that tell him of the actual situation and all that happened? Thus, living in the world of appearances is a difficult world, just as the experiences faced by Hamlet are difficult. Understanding this amplifies the sympathy which we have for Hamlet.
Through the first two Acts of the play, Shakespeare thus seeks to evoke great sympathy in the audience for Hamlet. Although Hamlet may not necessarily be the most endearing character, especially when considering his attitude towards Polonius and his later treatment of Ophelia, Shakespeare employs various techniques which enable us to see and understand Hamlet’s character better, and consequently feel sorry for him. Hamlet is confined in a situation which he neither fully brought upon himself, nor can he help, and thus we pity him greatly.
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