Hamlet Essay

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William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play primarily about the protagonist’s struggle to discover absolute certainty within a world plunged into instability. While Hamlet is reflective of the ideologies and contextual values which were of integral importance within the Elizabethan period, his dramatic exploration of this struggle continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. Through the use of dramatic techniques, Shakespeare explores the moral ambiguity and uncertainty existing within the kingdom as a consequence of the disruption to the Elizabethan Chain of Being, utilising Hamlet’s contemplative character as a medium to illuminate the tension between Christian doctrine and the philosophy of Humanism that began to emerge during the Renaissance. Ultimately, it is Hamlet’s contemplative nature and the prevailing conflict between Pagan superstition and Renaissance scepticism that delays his revenge, creating a dramatic suspense that has continued to enthral audiences for centuries. Despite its Elizabethan origins, the play explores various existential concerns, evident through Hamlet’s intricate introspections on the complexities of life and death, reflecting timeless and enduring concerns equally relevant to the contemporary audience. Although considered a revenge tragedy, it is the protagonist’s failure to achieve revenge and restore order that binds the play in a unity of ambiguity and moral uncertainty. To begin, the uncertainty and moral ambiguity that envelops Elsinore as a consequence of the disruption to the great Chain of Being and the murder of King Hamlet is foreshadowed within the opening scene. Shakespeare’s use of truncated sentences in the dark and somewhat frightening opening scene when Bernardo asks “who’s there?” highlights the sense of moral ambiguity that has begun to infect the kingdom under Claudius’ illegitimate rule. This scene would resonate amongst an Elizabethan audience as it reflected the prevailing shifts of power as the current Queen’s reign was approaching its end. This instability is made evident in the Kenneth Branagh production where the scene in which Hamlet confronts the ghost displays the ground splitting open. Moreover, Hamlet’s response to the marriage of his “uncle-father and aunt-mother” heightens this sense of moral ambiguity, emphasising the subversion of the Elizabethan social order. Here, Shakespeare’s use of the motif of incest would position the Elizabethan to recognise the chaos and instability manifested within the kingdom as the incestuous relationship between Claudius and Gertrude illuminates the corruption present within the royal family. Furthermore, it is amidst this chaos and uncertainty that Hamlet is confronted with the task of restoring order and avenging his father’s ‘most unnatural murder’ foreshadowing the ambiguity pervaded throughout the play. While Hamlet’s challenge in restoring order is uniquely Elizabethan, the political and moral instability he is subject to is equally relevant to a contemporary audience beset with continual shifts in political power. The moral ambiguity pervaded throughout the play is sustained even as it translates from an Elizabethan to a contemporary audience. Furthermore, the characterisation of Hamlet and his feigned madness heightens the ambiguity present within the play and the Elizabethan era. Hamlet puts on an ‘antic disposition’ in order to ascertain the truth about Claudius and allows himself the freedom to explore deeper questions about the nature of humanity. This is evident within his soliloquy in Act 2 scene 2 where he critiques his inability to take significant action. Hamlet’s contention that he is “Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, And can say nothing” emphasises his ability to critically think, reflecting the moral and intellectual speculations that were beginning to gain traction in the Enlightenment of the Renaissance. However, such moral speculations, while embodying the concerns of the time, are...
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