What Is the Significance of Hamlet's Soliloquies?

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  • Topic: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Gertrude
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What is the significance of Hamlet’s soliloquies?

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...
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