Hamlet and the Motif of Thought

Topics: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Characters in Hamlet Pages: 11 (4393 words) Published: January 9, 2002
"If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If't be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy."

Hamlet's self-description in his apology to Laertes, delivered in the appropriately distanced and divided third-person, explicitly fingers the greatest antagonist of the play‹consciousness. The obligatory cultural baggage that comes along with Hamlet heeds little attention to the incestuous Claudius while focusing entirely on the gloomy Dane's legendary melancholia and his resulting revenge delays. As Laurence Olivier introduced his 1948 film version, "This is the tragedy of a man who couldn't make up his mind." By tracking the leitmotif of "thought" throughout the play, I will examine the conflicts that preclude Hamlet from unified decisions that lead to action. Shakespeare is not content, however, with the simple notion of thought as a mere signifier of the battle between the mind and the body. The real clash is a conflict of consciousness, of Hamlet's oscillations between infinite abstraction and shackled solipsism, between recognition of the heroic ideal and of his limited means, between the methodical mishmash of sanity and the total chaos of insanity. I repeat "between" not only for anaphoric effect, but to suggest Shakespeare's conception of thought; that is, a set of perspectivally-splintered realities which can be resolutely conflated, for better or worse, only by the mediating hand of action. Any discussion of Hamlet, a work steeped in contradictions and doubles, necessitates inquiry into passages concerning opposition to thought, namely those of the corporeal. And, as Shakespeare engages the imagination of his audience primarily through metaphor, I will use "thought" as a catapult to critique sections that are relevant to my argument. The chief definition of "thought" revolves around the basic concept of the mental process: "The action or process of thinking; mental action or activity in general, esp. that of the intellect; exercise of the mental faculty; formation and arrangement of ideas in the mind" (OED, 1a). A further subset of definitions can be catalogued into a Manichean vision of positives and negatives and which equally apply to Hamlet's central consideration of consciousness as a blessing or a curse. There is a stress on thought's potentiality which fits with Hamlet's obsession with the infinitude of man: "Conception, imagination, fancy" (OED, 4c). But following this comes the negative view of thought as quasi-action, a direct link to Hamlet's stall tactics: "The entertaining of some project in the mind; the idea or notion of doing something, as contemplated or entertained in the mind; hence, intention, purpose, design; esp. an imperfect or half-formed intention; with negative expressed or implied = not the least intention or notion of doing something" (OED, 4d). Similarly, the past neutral sense of "Remembrance, Œmind'" (OED, 5e) is countered by the negative anticipatory connotation of: "Anxiety or distress of mind; solicitude; grief, sorrow, trouble, care, vexation" (OED, 5a). This current of duality is important to keep in mind as we explore its ramifications in Hamlet, one of Shakespeare's most ambiguous texts. Hamlet's troubles lie within the gulf that separates God from Man, or at least in what is godly from what is beastly in man. His distaste for the "swinish" (I.iv.19) disposition of man is obvious in his denunciation of all things corporeal and elevation of the divine. His self-destructive impulses are verbalized in the first lines of his first soliloquy: "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew" (I.ii.129-130). Harold Jenkins, in the Arden Hamlet, proposes that "to become dew is to die" (187), but dew, with its seemingly magical overnight birth and lack of history, embodies the...

Cited: Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).
Franco Moretti, Modern Epic (New York: Verso, 1996).
Marjorie Nicolson, "The Breaking of the Circle" (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1950).
William Shakespeare, The Arden Shakespeare: Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (England: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1982).
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