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Before Hamlet I had read three other Shakespeare plays – Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and King Lear. Hamlet is often renowned for being one of the best if not the best of Shakespeare’s plays. At the same time it is a notoriously difficult play to study because of the complex themes and ideas that lie at its heart. Having now read and studied the play in class I feel inclined to say that these very general and stereotypical opinions about Hamlet are ones I share – I found it by far the most interesting and engaging of the four plays I have read.
Equally at times I found getting to grips with the language and concepts a struggle.
Hamlet is such an intriguing play because we, the audience, are given direct access to the thoughts and feelings of the very troubled and emotional protagonist. This access comes primarily through Hamlet’s four soliloquies that are crucial in providing us with some degree of understanding about what Hamlet really thinks, what drives him, and the psychological dilemmas he faces.
Ultimately he is such a truly complex character, that even after studying the soliloquies it is impossible to understand certain aspects of him completely and definitely. I shall now look at the four soliloquies in turn.
The first soliloquy takes place in Act I, Scene ii. In the early part of the scene the audience witnesses a jovial court display in which King Claudius and his new wife Gertrude celebrate their recent marriage. The King and Queen behave as if nothing is out of the ordinary, and their courtiers desperately attempt to create a joyous and relaxed occasion.
Despite the attempts of courtiers, King and Queen, the celebratory atmosphere seems somehow superficial to the audience.
It strongly contrasts with the dark, ghostly atmosphere created in the previous scene, and the idea that Claudius believes in combining the ideas of “mirth in funeral” and “dirge in marriage” is very unnatural – surely it isn’t possible to balance the mourning of a death with the celebration of a marriage? The insincerity of this scene encourages the audience to sympathise with Hamlet, whom we already know is utterly devastated by his father’s death. We anticipate that in the soliloquy itself he will go on to express real and abiding anger for the swiftness of his mother’s marriage to Claudius. The inevitable pain that this hasty and insensitive marriage inflicts on Hamlet gives the reader further reason to sympathise with him.
So by the time Hamlet actually delivers the soliloquy we already have some idea of the rage that must be building inside him – his mother and Claudius have behaved insensitively and provocatively. It is surprising, then, when reading the soliloquy to discover that it is dominated not by anger (although this does feature), but by a longing for his own death. He begins “O that this too, too sallied flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew.” This demonstrates beyond doubt that he wishes he would die – he feels that he is in such a deplorable and unpleasant circumstance that death is the only way in which he can find true respite. He goes on to wish bitterly that God had not made suicide a sin – “O […] that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.”
Hamlet continues to describe his surrounding country of Denmark as an abhorrent and disgusting place. Cleverly he uses natural imagery to describe his feelings that there is an imbalance in nature – “tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely.” Here the simple words ‘rank’ and ‘gross’ are very effective in creating the impression of an awful and truly unpleasant place. The anguish he feels towards his homeland is then transferred to Claudius – he elevates his dead father to the status of “Hyperion” compared to Claudius’s “satyr”. It is only now that Hamlet declares his anger towards his mother and her actions.
It causes him grief simply to thing about it – “Must I remember?” He says, almost agonizingly, “Why, she should hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on?” He then cries aggressively, “Frailty, thy name is woman”. Here, Shakespeare touches upon misogyny, an important motif in the play, for the first time. As Hamlet ends the soliloquy, two words from the final lines linger in the mind of audience – the “wicked” speed of marriage, and the “incestuous” nature of it. Hamlet is accusatory and damning towards Gertrude. His anger and affliction have risen to a climax in these two powerful words – he sees his mother as both wicked and incestuous.
For me, the first soliloquy is the most compelling of the four. It is the first time we see Hamlet alone on the stage, and this soliloquy provides the first insight into his feelings. Hamlet’s ability to express himself both clearly and poetically is remarkable. The language of the first soliloquy is particularly memorable – the “sallied flesh”, the “unweeded garden”, and the “incestuous sheets” are all striking images because of their quite explicit nature – the word “incestuous” seems especially shocking when applied to one’s own mother.
The second soliloquy takes place in Act II, Scene ii. The audience witnesses Claudius and Gertrude summoning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to investigate Hamlet’s unusual behaviour (by spying on him). We also see the arrival of the players and the welcoming response of Hamlet. One of the players gives a speech about the fall of Troy and the death of the Trojan King and Queen. The performance is filled with such emotion and passion that it embitters Hamlet – he is angered by the fact that an actor can portray such feeling about a dead figure who means nothing to him, while Hamlet himself is unable to take action with far more powerful motives (he can’t find the courage to avenge his father). His soliloquy at the end of the scene has an angry and bitter tone.
He is self-deprecating and highly condemning of Claudius. Throughout the play Hamlet is often very self-critical, and it is at the start of this soliloquy that he delivers arguably the most damning line about himself of all – “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” Despite the anger and passion that are evident in the opening lines, interestingly the soliloquy is very carefully constructed. It is not until the final few lines that Hamlet’s reason gives way, when he says in an explosion of fury and emotion “Fie upon’t foh! / About, my brains.” Prior to this he is considered, and expresses his feelings with a typical poetic clarity. For example, he says the player “would drown the stage with tears / And cleave the general ear with horrid speech […] Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak / Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause / And can say nothing.” This phrase stands out because of its lyrical and fluid feel, and because of the colourful and appealing diction Hamlet deploys. His description of himself as a “dull and muddy-mettled rascal” is especially memorable, because of the distinct alliterative, dental sounds it conjures.
A large part of the soliloquy is dedicated to exploring the nature of performance; how can it be, Hamlet asks, that this player can summon up such apparently genuine feeling for a fiction, for a dream, while I (Hamlet) cannot manage to rally my spirits to action in a just cause? Whilst clearly angry and bitter on the one hand, equally Hamlet shows himself, not for the first time, to be thoughtful and contemplative. It is important to note that questions dominate the soliloquy – “Am I a coward? / Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across, / Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face, / Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i’th’throat / As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?”. It is interesting to see that, despite Hamlet’s eloquence and clarity in expressing his emotions, he seems incapable of explaining or changing his character.
He is able to relate to us expertly how he feels and what he thinks, but exactly why he holds the emotions he does and why he behaves in a particular way is something that even Hamlet himself fails to understand. This is what troubles him – the fact that he is unable to truly get to grips with his own emotional state and complexity is something that causes him a great deal of upset and pain. He is very accusatory in this soliloquy. He asks furiously “Am I a coward? / Who calls me villain”. In other words ‘Who dares to question me?’ He moves on to talk about Claudius in harsh and abusive terms. He describes the King firstly as a “bloody, bawdy villain”, and then as “Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless”. These words are almost onomatopoeic in the way we can imagine the actor playing Hamlet spits them out with disgust. The rhyme of treacherous with lecherous gives an additional sense of repulsion.
Finally, the soliloquy ends as Hamlet declares his plan to “have these players / Play something like the murder of my father” and watch Claudius’s reaction to try and determine whether or not he really murdered the late king. This is a significant moment, because it is the first time that Hamlet has made the decision to take real action – he has made a plan, and seems determined to implement it. Previously he was too hesitant, afraid and indecisive to do anything concerning the avengement of his father. Now it seems as though he is becoming more purposeful and resolute.
Whilst the second soliloquy ends with the suggestion that Hamlet has become more decisive and determined in his quest for revenge, the third soliloquy (which takes place in Act III, Scene i) sees the return of Hamlet’s hesitancy and procrastination. As well as his indecisiveness, a clear attribute of Hamlet throughout is his inconsistency. This inconsistency ties in well with the emotional instability and fragility that is also recurrently evident. In the first act, his main concerns are about death, and in particular, the morality of committing suicide. In the second act, he appears fiercely determined to make Claudius pay for the murder of his (Hamlet’s) father. But in his third soliloquy, all determination seems to have disintegrated. He is, once again, ponderous, philosophical and doubtful of himself and his actions.
This fluctuation in mindset and emotional state is an aspect of Hamlet’s disposition which is very difficult to comprehend. One moment he is desperate to kill the King, the next he is desperate to kill himself. At times he is angry and passionate, while other times he is fearful and depressed. Perhaps the point is that we don’t have to understand his very erratic nature – rather we can simply observe the fact that erraticism has been brought on by the very distressing and unpleasant events that have affected Hamlet during his life. Maybe Shakespeare is simply trying to develop the idea that difficult circumstances can cause people to behave in very strange and unexpected ways – Hamlet’s behaviour can certainly be described as unpredictable. In my opinion this is what the play Hamlet is really about. It is a study of the human condition and the devastating impact that death and betrayal can have on a person.
The third soliloquy is certainly the most famous of the four. The opening line “To be or not to be: that is the question” is one of the best-known lines in English literature. Even today it is a quotation that is constantly re-used and re-cycled in books, speeches, films, even television commercials. I think the reason that this line, rather than any other, is so highly regarded is simply because those ten words can provide a neat summary of Hamlet’s character. He is thoughtful, philosophical and indecisive, and the line reflects this. There is a level ambiguity that surrounds “the question”, and perhaps this also serves to reflect the repeatedly vague and uncertain behaviour and speech of Hamlet throughout. For example, it is unclear later in the play, whether Hamlet’s apparently feigned madness is indeed feigned, or whether he has genuinely lost his sanity.
There are a number of possible interpretations for exactly what it is that the ‘question’ entails. The obvious explanation for “To be or not to be” is, put simply ‘to live or to die’. Certainly Hamlet addresses the issue of death and suicide in this soliloquy – on several occasions he refers death as “sleep”. However, it is also possible that the “question” Hamlet is considering is whether or not to take action against Claudius. Somewhat surprisingly there is still disagreement between editors and critics as to which of the aforementioned possibilities Hamlet is truly referring when he speaks of “the question”. It seems likely that the ambiguity was wholly intentional, in which case Shakespeare would have been pleased at the level of debate that has surrounded this line for such a long time.
Following the opening line Hamlet proceeds to weigh the moral ramifications of living and dying. He wonders to himself – is it nobler to suffer the ordeals and difficulties that one experiences while living, or to end all such suffering and enter “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns”?. Presenting suicide as something potentially ‘noble’ is an interesting idea, because suicide is normally considered a thoroughly cowardly and selfish action. Nonetheless, Hamlet suggests that, because of the uncertainty and fear that surrounds death, a degree of courage is required to kill oneself – in this sense perhaps it is possible to associate suicide with nobility.
Hamlets imagines death as “a sleep” and thinks of the peace it might bring. He talks of “The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to”. From this metaphor, Hamlet decides that suicide is the desirable course of action, something that is “devoutly to be wished”. However, he also concludes that the dread of the afterlife leads to excessive moral sensitivity that makes the action impossible – “conscience does make cowards of us all…thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. Here we can see that in this soliloquy alone, there is a great deal of inconsistency in Hamlet’s speech – he seems to lack the conviction to hold a firm belief or opinion about virtually anything. He is constantly changing his mind. He hesitates, he dithers, he falters.
The third soliloquy is a very important part of the play because it connects some of the play’s key themes. In particular it brings together the ideas of suicide and death, and the ideas of thought and action. The soliloquy also reveals a lot about the quality of Hamlet’s mind. On the one hand he has a deeply and fiercely passionate nature. But at the same time he is intensely logical. Actually he uses a lot of impersonal language here – when he questions “To be or not to be” he isn’t really expressing his feelings or thoughts at all; rather he is introducing the philosophical debate in quite general terms. This is evidence of Hamlet’s logical intellect working furiously to try and find a solution to his misery.
In Hamlet’s fourth and final soliloquy he speaks in a typically philosophical manner. The soliloquy takes place in Act IV, Scene iv, after Hamlet is informed by a captain of young Fortinbras’s army that they are about to fight “over a little patch of land / That hath in it no profit but the name”. Hamlet is astonished that a bloody war could be fought over something so insignificant. He marvels that human beings are able to act so violently and purposefully for so little gain, as he says, “Examples gross as earth exhort me – / Witness an army of such mass and charge […] make mouths at the invisible event […] To all that fortune, death and danger dare / Even for an eggshell”. The word “eggshell” is cleverly chosen to emphasise the utterly unimportant and worthless nature of the “patch of land” over which a battle is about to be fought. The implication is that despite its insignificance it is also delicate and fragile – perhaps by the time the two sides have finished fighting the land will be metaphorically smashed, meaning any value it originally held would be lost altogether (making a mockery of the battle).
Hamlet also ponders the very purpose of human existence – he struggles to come to terms with the idea that a loving god would create people with such psychological complexity and such reasoning ability for no apparent purpose – he feels like his mind exists only to rot. He says “Sure he that made us […] gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust unused.” He says he is “A beast – no more” and exists “but to sleep and feed”.
Finally, he considers once more avenging his father. He recognises that he has a lot to gain from seeking his own bloody revenge on Claudius, and that he has delayed and failed to act towards his purpose. He admits to himself that he has failed to accomplish his task, and that this failure is down to his own procrastination and lack of decisiveness. He concludes that from this point onwards, he simply must let his “thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.”
In my response to the play Hamlet I have chosen to focus mainly on the four major soliloquies because I think it is through these soliloquies that we, the audience, connect with and, at times, empathise with the play’s protagonist. It is unusual in any play for the audience to have such intimate access to the thoughts and feelings of a character, and the fact that this is so in Hamlet enables us to form an intimate relationship with him. Hamlet proves to be a highly intelligent person, and this intelligence means he is able to express himself in an organised and articulate fashion. Hamlet is also very troubled. What distinguishes him from other people is perhaps not the extent to which he agonises and obsesses over issues in his life, but the clarity and eloquence with which he is able to express these agonies and obsessions. His character is so intriguing to the audience because he is able to explain his thoughts in such a precise and emotive way.
This encourages sympathy not just because we see the awfulness of his current situation, but also perhaps because we see a little bit of Hamlet in ourselves. I think that Shakespeare suggests that while everyone is emotionally and psychologically complex, very few of us are really able to explain our feelings, and moreover, because of social convention, most people never make any attempt to do so. It is important to understand that the one thing Hamlet is never able to put into words is exactly why he is so disturbed and frustrated at the moral problems he faces, or why he behaves in such an unpredictable and odd manner (he is simply able to marvel at these facts).
However, these are things that perhaps no one can ever truly explain. Human beings are extraordinarily complex creatures. What we know from modern science provides us with only a tiny fraction of the knowledge we would need to truly comprehend some human emotion and behaviour. The Russian writer Dostoevsky said more than 200 years after the death of Shakespeare “Science can’t find answers for the deeper human need”. I think this quotation bears some relevance to Hamlet. Unable to truly satisfy his own psychological needs and desires, Hamlet painfully struggles to find a solution to his troubles. Ultimately he is unable to do so before he meets his own tragic end.
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