The Impossibility of Certainty in Hamlet
“Doubt is that state of mind where the questioner faces no single answer nor the lack of one, but rather a choice between a pair of alternatives.” – Harry Levin in The Question of Hamlet
It is appropriate that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is regarded as the Bard’s greatest dramatic enigma, for misunderstanding is the unavoidable condition of Hamlet’s quest for certainties. Not only is Hamlet bewildered by puzzling visions and by commands seemingly incapable of fulfillment, but he is also the victim of misinterpretation by those around him. The dying Hamlet urges the honest Horatio to “report me and my cause aright To the unsatisfied”, because none of the characters except for Horatio have caught more than a glimpse of Hamlet’s true situation (V. ii.371-372). We as an observing audience, hearing the inner thoughts and secret plots of almost every significant character, should remember that we know vastly more than the play’s characters. In Hamlet, we cannot pretend that we are unaware of what happens next or how it all comes out. This is Shakespeare’s richest source of dramatic irony. However, the characters are faced with rival options: to revenge or not to revenge, whether a Ghost comes from heaven or from hell. It is this doubt, this hesitancy in the face of two possibilities, that is central to Hamlet at every level.
Hamlet is a play of misunderstanding and impediment. Its central theme is the elusiveness of knowledge and certainty.
From the very first scene, the play establishes uncertainty through the interrogative dialogue between Barnado, Francisco, Marcellus, and Horatio: Barnardo: Who’s there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself
Barnardo: Say, what, is Horatio there?
Horatio: A piece of him.
Having established a mood of fear and uncertainty, the apparition of the Ghost causes Horatio to declare “It harrows me with fear and wonder” (I.i.51). This antithetical placement of words heightens the paranormal and eerie setting of the play. The “portentous” Ghost acts as an omen for what is to come (I.i.121).
The seemingly extravagant monologue where Claudius appeals to his subjects to accept the validity of his marriage to Gertrude hints that the new King is putting on a façade. Claudius uses many oxymoronic phrases to try and reconcile the death of Old Hamlet and Claudius’ subsequent marriage to Gertrude such as, “With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage” (I.ii.12). This rhythmically balanced but significantly dissonant sentence serves to highlight that there is something suspect and “Rotten” in the state of Denmark. Claudius further enforces the idea that nothing can really be trusted.
Similarly, the relationship between the actions and internal thought processes of human beings is evident in the scheming Polonius. Polonius is also a man with little integrity capable of great deceit. He tells his son Laertes, “To thine own self be true” (I.iii.84). But later Polonius enlists Reynaldo to spy on his son, stating, “Your bait of falsehood take this Carp of truth” (II.i.70). This metaphor and the oxymoronic placement of “falsehood” and “truth” exemplify the presence of duality in the play. He dismisses Reynaldo saying, “You have me, Have you not?” (II.i.75). The uncertainty and lack of trust within the play is reflected in the chiastic syntax of this sentence. Polonius is distrusting of his own servant.
The allusions to ancient Greece and Rome throughout Hamlet further support the ideas of duality and deception. Hamlet, in a simile, compares his father to Claudius like “Hyperion to a Satyr” (I.ii.144). Hamlet later has the Players recite lines referring to the “ominous horse” of Troy (II.ii.479). Polonius makes a reference to Brutus’ betrayal of Julius Caesar (III.ii.109-110). All three of these references contribute to the duality and deception evident in the play. A Satyr is only half a man, the Trojan horse...
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