Hamlet is a revenge tragedy of Elizabethan drama, written in about 1602 by William Shakespeare. It is based on the Historia Danica (1200) by Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian who wrote it in Latin. Later, an Italian version by Bandello, translated into French by Belleforest in his Cent Histoires Tragiques, was rendered into English in 1608 (Greenan, 83). In Shakespeare’s play, the death of Old King Hamlet triggers different actions in its major characters; especially Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and to a lesser extent Polonius and Ophelia. These actions are disastrous not only to Denmark as a political entity; but also lead to the deaths of the all the play’s characters, except for Horatio.
In Act I Scene 5, the Ghost explains to Hamlet, how Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, murdered his father and that he wants Hamlet to avenge his death (I.v.38-90). The Ghost is directly linked to the majority of the play’s themes. For example, he introduces the darkness of evil prevalent in Denmark and in its court, when he says: “A serpent stung me, so the whole ear of Denmark is a forged process of my death rankly abused: but know thou noble youth, the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown.” (I.v.35-39); and “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be a couch for luxury and damned incest. But howsoever thou pursues this act, taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught; leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her.” (I.v.82-88). As a result of this evil, Hamlet suffers greatly when he learns of his mother’s rushed marriage: “…a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer—married with my uncle, my father’s brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules: within a month, …she married. O most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets…” (I.ii.150-156). According to Jones, Hamlet’s successfully repressed covetousness for his father and lure to his mother is readdressed by Gertrude’s remarriage to Claudius, this also results in maternal loss as is apparent from Hamlet’s first soliloquy (Hull.uk). According to Adelman, the son needs ‘to make his own identity …in the presence of the wife/mother’, whose ‘chief crime is her uncontrolled sexuality’ which becomes an object of disgust for her son (Hull.uk). A partial translation into modern English of the first soliloquy is given by Rubinstein and Partridge, which throws immense light on the sexuality underlying it: “ How weary, stale [prostitute], flat [to copulate], and unprofitable seem [to fornicate, with additional pun on ‘seam’: filth] to me all the uses [sexual enjoyment] of this world! Fie on’t, ah fie [dung], ‘tis an unweeded garden [womb] that grows [becomes pregnant] to seed [semen], things [male sex] rank [in heat] and gross [lewd] in nature [female sex] possess it [sexually] merely [‘merrily’, lecherously].” (Hull.uk). Furthermore, Hamlet is dominated by disgust for his mother’s sexuality to an exaggeration; which according to T. S. Eliot is “a feeling which he cannot understand… remains to poison life and construct action.” (Bartleby.com). Additionally, the ‘increase’ of Gertrude’s voracious ‘appetite’ triggers the shift from a comforting ‘her’ to an angst-ridden ‘she’ (Hull.uk). However, there is a stronger incestuous desire in the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude, his mother; as is apparent in the following: “My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time and makes as healthful music”. (III. iv. 161-162). Because of this tendency, psychologists have concluded that Hamlet must have suffered from an Oedipus complex (pinkmonkey.com). According to the renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, all males possess this tendency, which is marked by a desire to kill their fathers and marry their mothers; as occurs in the earlier Greek play of Oedipus the king. In fact, Hamlet urges Gertrude not to have intercourse with Claudius at all; and even to curb her sexual desires entirely, when he says: “Good night. But not go to my uncle’s bed. Assume a virtue if you have not… Refrain and that shall lend a kind of easiness to the next abstinence,” (III. iv. 180-188). Additionally, the Ghost is indirectly related to the theme of Hamlet’s procrastination, which is considered his chief weakness. This weakness was copied from Thomas Kyd’s earlier play Spanish Tragedy; who also wrote a play named Ur-Hamlet (Wikipedia.org). After the Ghost’s visit, in a few weeks, Hamlet’s indecision led to doubt, and more absolute proof was needed. This was acquired as a result of the play on the ‘murder of Gonzago’ (III. ii. 175-265): in Act III, scene i, the King displays his guilt to the audience of the crime committed; and after the interlude he delivers these self-condemning words: “O, my offence is rank: it smells to heaven; it hath the primal eldest curse upon it, a brother’s murder.”(III. iii. 40-42). Later, Hamlet lets his thoughts talk him out of killing Claudius while the King prays; and instead decides to avenge his father’s death: “…when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed, …or about some act that has no relish of salvation in it then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, … ” (III, iv, 95-97).
According to historical interpretations, it is melancholy that guide Hamlet’s hesitation. Several treatises were written during Elizabethan times about this malady. The primary characteristics of melancholy are: sadness, fear, doubt, despair, and procrastination with additional sarcastic humor. Hamlet displays all these traits: he is extremely sad over the death of his father and hasty remarriage of his mother; he is fearful and distrusting of the Ghost; he procrastinates about taking revenge on Claudius; and falls into despair over his inaction to the point of contemplating suicide, this also occurs from the incomplete detachment from the mother (Hull.uk). In Act III, scene I, Hamlet delivers his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy: “to be or not to be—that is the question: whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—no more and by sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to—‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream.” (III. i. 64-73). He also jests sardonically with people he dislikes, like Polonius. In short, his mood alters between depression and elation (pinkmonkey.com). Although he does not commit suicide, Ophelia, his beloved, does, after Hamlet accidentally kills her father; Laertes describes it thus: “ And so have I a noble father lost, a sister driven into desperate terms, …but my revenge will come.” (IV. vii. 28-31). In 1917, Freud published his essay called Mourning and melancholia in which he identifies its symptoms as: “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.” (Freud, 252).
Another negative aspect of Hamlet’s personality has to do with misogyny, a hatred of women or womanhood. This occurs throughout the play, but is more apparent when Hamlet learns of his mother’s marriage to Claudius, in the beginning of the play. This hatred stems from a connection between female sexuality and moral corruption; which leads him to reject Ophelia’s love and to call his mother incestuous.
Claudius, Hamlet’s major antagonist, is a manipulating, lustful, conniving king; whose only interest is to gain and maintain his political power at all costs. In Act V, scene ii, we see his craftiness when he arranges to have Hamlet killed in a duel with Laertes, who wants to avenge his father’s death, and so Laertes says: “…but in my terms of honor… I have a voice and precedent of peace to keep my name ungored.” (V. ii. 261-265). In this duel, he allows Laertes to use the sharpened sword and the poisoned blade, but also insists on the poisoned goblet; which Gertrude accidentally drinks. This in turn, directs Hamlet’s resolution on killing Claudius and he stabs him, before he himself dies, ending the play. Then, Fortinbras, another avenger of his father’s death assumes power in the name of Norway; granting the end of Denmark as an independent country. Claudius also admonishes Hamlet of continued grief or mourning over the death of his father, but saying that excessive mourning is morally corrupt and even against God when he says: “But to persevere in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubbornness, ‘tis unmanly grief, it shows a will most incorrect to heaven, a heat unfortified, a mind impatient, and understanding simple and unschooled; fie, its a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, a fault to nature,” (I.ii.92-102).
The uncertainty of life in general is personified in Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Countless questions are not answered in the play about her: Was she romantically involved with Claudius before her husband’s murder? Was she an accomplice in her husband’s murder? Is she a victim or an accomplished manipulator of men? Does she intentionally betray Hamlet? (Shakespeare ‘Introduction’, 13) Each one of these speculations can lead to numerous controversies. Hamlet’s disgust with Gertrude’s moral corruption and women in general is expressed in his first soliloquy thus: “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (I. ii. 150).
A stark contrast to the personality of Gertrude is that of Ophelia, whom both her father and Hamlet manipulate. In an effort to find a reason for Hamlet’s madness, Polonius suggests to Claudius that his daughter’s love has made him mad: “And then I prescripts gave her, that he should lock herself from his resort, admit no messengers, receive no tokens; which done, she took the fruits of my advice, and, he, repelled …fell…into the madness wherein now he raves…” (II. ii. 151-159). First, Ophelia rejects Hamlet’s advances after her father says to her that Hamlet’s love may not be honest. Then, she meets Hamlet at her father’s insistence, in which she is utterly rejected by him and he tells her to be ‘off to a nunnery!’ She commits suicide after her father is accidentally killed by Hamlet.
A third avenger of his father’s death is Laertes, Polonius’ son. He is a man of quick action in stark contrast to Hamlet’s highly procrastinating behavior. Before he goes to France, he warns his sister, Ophelia, that Hamlet’s love for her may not be honest or authentic: “For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favor, hold it a fashion and a toy in blood, a violet in the youth of primy nature, forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting, the perfume and suppliance of a minute, no more.” (I. iii. 6-11). His father is accidentally killed by Hamlet, while talking to Gertrude, since Polonius was eavesdropping behind the curtains, and Hamlet mistakes him for Claudius. As mentioned earlier, he becomes a pawn of Claudius’ machinations to kill Hamlet; and is killed by Hamlet in a duel.
Hamlet is a revenge play in which each of its major characters reacts differently to the death of Old King Hamlet. By fulfilling his revenge, Hamlet ironically destroys his family while upholding his father’s honor. On the other hand, Laertes becomes a supporter of the evil Claudius and causes much destruction. In the end, only Fortinbras accomplishes his father’s dreams by becoming Denmark’s conqueror in the name of Norway.
essay written by me for a university literature class in 2004 about characterization in Hamlet by Shakespeare