Hamlet, the Antihero
Roll no: 131201
I Semester MA English
St. Joseph’s College, Devagiri, Calicut-8
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by Shakespeare has always been subjected to various interpretations by critics of all ages. Often Hamlet is hailed as the ‘tragic hero’ of the play. In this paper, I argue that Hamlet is not the hero, but the ‘antihero’ of the play. The concept of ‘tragic hero’ by Aristotle and the modern definitions of ‘Antihero’ are examined in detail to study the character of Hamlet. This paper projects Hamlet as a demented son, a draconian lover and a tyrant prince.
DEMENTED, DRACONIAN TYRANT:
HAMLET THE ANTIHERO
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a work that constantly undergoes ‘postmortem’ by critics. A number of enigmatic questions are raised even today on Hamlet. Hamlet is the “Mona Lisa” of Literature (Eliot 24). Was there a ghost or was it a delusion of Hamlet? If Hamlet trusts the ghost, why did he delay the murder? Or was there a delay? Is incest towards his mother that made him insolent? Or is he insane? Did he love Ophelia? Was he a misogynist? The play baffles us at various levels. Hamlet is often hailed as “tragic hero.” Is he? Or is he the antihero who caused a series of death? This is the question that this paper put forward.
An antihero is defined as a ‘non-hero’ or the antithesis of a hero of the old fashioned kind who was capable of heroic deeds, who was dashing, strong, brave and resourceful. (Cuddon 42) The negative aspects may include a violent nature or a tendency to use coarse language. An anti-hero can be described as pragmatic, inconsiderate, greedy, rebellious, cowardly, insubordinate, reluctant, and morally suspect. Aristotle defined the tragic hero as a character of noble stature and has greatness. This should be readily evident in the play. The character must occupy a "high" status position but must also embody nobility and virtue as part of his/her innate character. He should be a man standing between two extremes. Not too good that he isn’t vulnerable to mistakes nor too bad that he is cursed. Though the tragic hero is pre-eminently great, he/she is not perfect. The hero's downfall, therefore, is partially her/his own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate. In fact, the tragedy is usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the hero's lack of perfection, hamartia(tragic flaw). The hero's misfortunate is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime. The fall is not pure loss. There is some increase in awareness (anagnorisis), some gain in self-knowledge, some discovery on the part of the tragic hero. Because of undeserved suffering of character it arouse feeling of pity and fear in the audience leading to catharsis. (Abrams 315) Hamlet certainly isn’t a hero in this play. He exhibits many of his weaknesses that contradict other characters in the play. A hero is person who shows great courage through his actions. But Hamlet is seen as a coward, an insane uncertain about his own actions, self centered and he sacrifices other characters lives to benefit his chance of getting revenge with Claudius. He never repents on murdering Polonius and Laertes. He stabs Gertrude with his dagger of words and is the cause for Ophelia’s tragic death. According to D.G. James, Hamlet is a man caught in ethical and metaphysical uncertainties. (qtd. in Knights 64) Hamlet, the protagonist of the play is a brave, thoughtful, intelligent prince and is a loyal son to his father. According to A.C. Bradley, ‘Hamlet is highly intellectual by nature and reflective by habit. He may even be called, in a popular sense, philosophic’. (35) His revenge attitude towards Claudius, hatred towards Gertrude and Ophelia seems reasonable for the reader as the play progress. Close reading the play, Hamlet is melancholic, bitter, and cynical, full of hatred for his uncle’s scheming and disgust for his mother’s sexuality in the course of the play. He is particularly drawn to difficult questions or questions that cannot be answered with any certainty. Faced with evidence that his uncle murdered his father, evidence that any other character in a play would believe, Hamlet becomes obsessed with proving his uncle’s guilt before trying to act. The standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is simply unacceptable to him. He is equally plagued with questions about the afterlife, about the wisdom of suicide, about what happens to bodies after they die. He is extremely disappointed with his mother for marrying his uncle so quickly, and he repudiates Ophelia, a woman he once claimed to love, in the harshest terms. His words often indicate his disgust with and distrust of women in general. At a number of points in the play, he contemplates his own death and even the option of suicide. But, despite all of the things with which Hamlet professes dissatisfaction, it is remarkable that the prince and heir apparent of Denmark should think about these problems only in personal and philosophical terms. He spends relatively little time thinking about the threats to Denmark’s national security from without or the threats to its stability from within. At times even the sanity of Hamlet is questioned. Hamlet himself is masked under madness. Hamlet’s madness is a mask to cover his real self and his real plan. In his mad delusions he hurts countless people with his verbal attacks. Hamlet is egocentric. Ivan Turgenev in his Hamlet and Don Quixote relates the central attitudes of Hamlet to his egoism. “Hamlet is, beyond all things else, analysis and egoism, skepticism personified. He lives only to himself. He is an egoist, and such can have no faith in himself; for no man have faith save in that which is outside self and above self. None the less Hamlet clings tenaciously to this “I,” this self in which he has no faith. It is a centre to which he constantly returns because he finds that in this world there is nothing to which he can cleave with all his soul. A skeptic, Hamlet is preoccupied with his own personality; but he ponders its strategical situation, not its duties.”(qtd. in Knights 65) . Critics often points ‘Procrastination’ as the character flaw of Hamlet. The question of the delay proceeds to the underlying character flaws which degrades him from the status of tragic hero. From the play it is evident that Hamlet is unsure about the existence of Ghost and whether to trust the spirit. This is one of the reasons for the delay. Hamlet is one who keeps Christian moral values. There's a famous passage in the Christian Bible, "Avenge not yourselves… vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord." (Rom.xii:19)Hamlet is also the notion of the old, pagan revenge code that says when someone kills your father; you have to get your revenge on. This contradicts in Hamlet himself. This may be another reason for the delay. The basic premise of the play is revenge. Is this revenge genuine when Hamlet himself is unsure about the verity of the Ghost? It can be a delusion as Hamlet is obsessed with the death of his father and more than that, obsessed with his mother’s re-marriage. Considering the authenticity of his father’s Ghost, why does he delay the murder? Ernest Jones in his psychoanalytic reading of the text states that Hamlet does suffer from an Oedipus Complex. (107)If this is true, then Claudius has done what Hamlet wants to do: kill King Hamlet (senior), and sleep with Gertrude. Hamlet can't kill Claudius, because secretly, he wants to be Claudius. He kills Claudius only after the death of Gertrude. “Haunted” by “ghost”, moon struck with incest Hamlet spurns everything and everyone around him except Horatio. He is not even loyal to his father, or the “ghost.” “The end result will be the result of one’s own actions and deeds." This saying can be used to describe Hamlet's end result. Even though Hamlet is very brave, but when it come to revealing the truth, he is one of the biggest cowered. In his first soliloquy, he tells us he wishes his "too, too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into dew" and that the world seems "weary, stale, flat," like an "unweeded garden.” (I.ii.133-139). Alone, Hamlet exclaims that he wishes he could die, that he could evaporate and cease to exist. He wishes bitterly that God had not made suicide a sin. The world is painful to live in, but, within the Christian framework of the play, if one commits suicide to end that pain, one damns oneself to eternal suffering in hell. The question of the moral validity of suicide in an unbearably painful world will haunt the rest of the play; it reaches the height of its urgency in the most famous line in all of English literature: “To be, or not to be: that is the question” (III.i.64). Hamlet is definitely a coward, who cannot confront adverse situation. Hamlet is seriously angry with his mother—especially her sex life. Here's what Hamlet says in his first soliloquy after he tells us he wants his "flesh" to "melt." That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month–
Let me not think on 't—Frailty, thy name is woman! (I.ii.140-150) Analyzing the character of Gertrude, she is a shallow, weak woman who seeks affection and status more urgently than moral rectitude or truth. But her actions show her love towards Hamlet. Rebecca Smith quotes that the traditional depiction of Gertrude is a false one. Her words and actions creates the image of soft, obedient, dependent, unimaginative woman who is caught miserably between ‘mighty opposites’, her ‘heart cleft in twain’ by divided loyalties to husband and son.( 80) His conversation with Gertrude in Act III, scene iv in her chamber is shocking. Hamlet accosts her with an almost violent intensity and declares his intention to make her fully aware of the profundity of her ‘sin’. He urges his mother to repent choosing Claudius over his own father. More specifically, he repeatedly demands that she avoid Claudius’s bed. At this point the Freud’s ‘Oedipus Complex’ defines that that Hamlet harbors an unconscious desire to sexually enjoy his mother. (Barry, 101)Gertrude is passive weak and submissive like Ophelia. Hamlet obeys the ghost “leaving her to heaven” (I.v.93) But his taunts and innuendos has literally killed her. "I loved you not."(III.i.129) Does Hamlet means what he says to Ophelia? He says that he did love her once but that he doesn’t love her now. There are several problems with concluding that Hamlet says the opposite of what he means in order to appear lunatic. For one thing, if he really does love her, this is unnecessarily self-destructive behavior. Shakespeare also never includes Ophelia in any of Hamlet’s soliloquies, which are his most dramatic moments. When her father orders her to quit seeing Hamlet, she agrees —"I shall obey my Lord" (I.iii.145). Later, when Polonius uses her as bait to spy on Hamlet for King Claudius, she does exactly what she's told as they suspect madness in Hamlet. As long as she's unmarried, she lives by her father's rules. (If she were to marry, she'd then have to live by her husband's rules.) Essentially, Ophelia has no control over her body, her relationships, or her choices. Hamlet seems to suspect that Ophelia is helping her dad spy on him, and he accuses her (and all women) of being a "breeder of sinners" and orders Ophelia to a "nunnery." (III.i.131-132)Literally he calls her a prostitute. He says that if Ophelia were to marry, she'd turn her husband into a "monster," because she would inevitably cheat on him (III.i.150). Hamlet defines Ophelia by her sexuality. Ophelia seems pretty crushed by all this. In Act III, scene ii, while the players begin to enact the play in full, Hamlet keeps up a running commentary on the characters and their actions, and continues to tease Ophelia with oblique sexual references. His only questionable behavior in this scene arises in his crude comments to Ophelia, which show him capable of real cruelty. His misogyny has crossed rational bounds, and his every comment is laced with sexual innuendo. For instance, she comments, “You are keen, my lord, you are keen,” complimenting him on his sharp intellect, and he replies, “It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge” (III.ii.272-273) When she goes mad, she sings a bawdy song about a maiden who is tricked into losing her virginity with a false promise of marriage, part of the reason why many literary critics see Ophelia's madness as a result of patriarchal pressure and abuse. At the grave, grief-stricken and outraged, Hamlet bursts out, declaring in agonized fury his own love for Ophelia. He leaps into the grave and fights with Laertes, saying that “forty thousand brothers / could not, with all their quantity of love, / make up my sum”. Hamlet cries that he would do things for Ophelia that Laertes could not dream of—he would eat a crocodile for her, he would be buried alive with her. (V.i.285-295) Interestingly, Hamlet never expresses a sense of guilt over Ophelia’s death, which he indirectly caused through his murder of Polonius. The lamentation of Hamlet is a ‘show off’’ to vindicate himself from this ‘indirect’ murder of Ophelia. Quoting Johnson, it is ‘useless and wanton cruelty’. (qtd in Patrick 114)The character of Ophelia's main purpose in the play is primarily symbolic. She is symbolic of "woman", "feminine passivity" and "love". She is merely a pawn for all the men in the play to use to their advantage. Through her, the reader is able to discover Hamlet's attitude towards women. She also provides a clearer view of Hamlet's thoughts. She is seen as a simple girl, but not extremely deep or intelligent. The use of coarse language, hard words, and the churlish and misogynic attitude of the “noble” prince under the mask of insanity unbolts the draconian ‘lover’ in Hamlet. ‘The question of the relative morality of Hamlet and Claudius reflects the ultimate problem of this play’.(qtd. in Edwards 28) From the play Claudius is good at politics and managing people. Claudius doesn't make a bad king, minus the brother-killing-thing; Hamlet may have actually made the worst king ever. Knight, in his essay, “The Embassy of Death” portrays the Denmark of Claudius and Gertrude as a healthy, contented, smoothly-running community. Claudius has flaws which make him the antagonist of the play; but, Claudius is an efficient administrator, and he has sensible ideas letting memories of the past impede the promise of the future .Hamlet by contrast, is a figure of nihilism and death. He has communed with the dead, and been instructed never to let the past be forgotten. As a ‘sickle soul commanded to heal’ he is in fact a poison in the veins of the community. ‘Hamlet is an element of evil in the state if Denmark’, a living death in the midst of life’. He is an alien at the court, ‘inhuman’- or superhuman… a creature of another world’. (110-111)The people of Denmark had expectations on Hamlet, the Prince. Bradley says that though he has been disappointed of the throne everyone shows him respect; and he is the favorite of the people, who are not given to worship philosophers. ( 13) But he was never concerned about the people. In Act III, scene iv, he justifies the accidental murder of Polonius. When he sees Polonius’s corpse, Hamlet interprets his misdeed within the terms of retribution, punishment, and vengeance: “Heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with this, and this with me” (157–158). Though Hamlet has not achieved his vengeance upon Claudius, he believes that God has used him as a tool of vengeance to punish Polonius’s sins and punish Hamlet’s sins by staining his soul with the murder. His sensitive, reflective nature—the trait that constantly interfered with his ability to take revenge on Claudius—now disappears in the wake of its violent opposite: a rash, murderous explosion of activity. Hamlet leaps to the conclusion that Claudius is behind the arras, or else he simply lashes out thoughtlessly. In any case, Hamlet’s moral superiority to Claudius is now thrown into question. He has killed Polonius just as Claudius killed Hamlet’s father, the only differences being that Hamlet’s murder was not premeditated and was not committed out of jealousy or ambition. Hamlet also eases his conscience with the fact that Polonius was dishonestly spying on Hamlet at the moment when he was killed. But the result of Hamlet’s deed is very similar to that of Claudius’s: Laertes and Ophelia have lost a father, just as Hamlet himself did. Hamlet is directly or indirectly responsible for a series of death; characters dropped one after other; Polonius, Ophelia, his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius and himself. Hamlet, “The Prince of Denmark” has left Denmark in a worse state. If he was loyal to his father, if he was responsible for his people, he wouldn’t have left his country in the hands of foreigners. The entire country has become scapegoat for the revenge. On the assumption that the revelation of the ghost was true, he should have either trusted or ignored the spirit. Rather he himself is unsure about his actions. Hamlet becomes a ‘tyrant’ prince who sacrifices others lives for his sake. Hamlet is not standing between two extremes. It is his egoism, incest and his demented thoughts that rule him. He has become a slave of enigmatic thoughts and unwanted actions. Hamlet draws sympathy from the reader when he feels the pain of losing his father along with the burden and obstacles in avenging his murder. But the detail analysis of his character shows that Hamlet deserves the punishment in all aspects. He himself is responsible for his downfall. So I conclude that he is not a tragic hero, but the antihero, responsible for terrors and deaths in the play. The play Hamlet doesn’t succeed in portraying a tragic-hero. I agree to Eliot that, ‘In Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art’. (26)
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