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Hamlet as a Machiavellian Character

By amnnasir1 Mar 10, 2013 1252 Words
Amn Nasir
15020192
Saeed Ghazi
Introduction to Literature
LITR 100
30th December 2011

In his play “Hamlet-The prince of Denmark”, Shakespeare gives literature one of its most complex and enigmatic characters: Prince Hamlet. His greatness and complexity lies in the fact that he is a multidimensional character, who has a plethora of facets to him. He seems to possess contradictory characteristics, which often pull him in opposite directions and thus determine the course of his action. Hamlet embodies a struggle within him, between a side that wants to unleash the fury of his father’s murder and depart from the path of moral righteousness to avenge his dead father, and the side that represents his moral sense that inhibits his action due to the fear of its eternal consequences. The fragmentation within Hamlet’s personality is clear from the fact that it reflects the personalities of the other characters in the play. As Marjorie Garber says in her book ‘Shakespeare after all’: “The technique of “splitting”, producing several versions of a character type split into component aspects, is one of the most effective devices of Hamlet, and will culminate in Hamlet’s dying recognition that all his rivals and friends are in some ways aspects of himself.” Thus, while on one hand, some aspects of Hamlet’s character are reminiscent of his foe, Claudius, a cunning strategist, on the other hand, there is a Horatio within him, who possesses the faculty to distinguish between right and wrong, and is thus the voice of moral righteousness. This is mirrored in the inner dichotomy that Hamlet has to deal with, that of Hamlet, the ruthless strategist who is capable of employing deceit and Hamlet, the human, with an inclination against any evil, damnable act. This essay will prove how Hamlet possesses the characteristics of a Machiavellian hero yet his conscience prevents this side of him from completely manifesting his personality and these conflicting forces within him display a synthesis in the final act of the play. Niccolo Machiavelli, in his book “Il Principe”, provides a series of maxims on political philosophy, delineating the characteristics that an effective prince must strive to embody. According to him, a Prince cannot always be virtuous and good, as certain circumstances and shifting winds of fortune may often require for him to side with evil, and to indulge in actions that go against humanity. In such circumstances, the prince, according to Machiavelli, must employ political shrewdness and “learn how not to be good”(Machiavelli, Ch. XV). This is further explained by his theory of ‘Fox and Lion’: “You have to be a fox in order to be wary of traps, and a lion to overawe the wolves.” The Machiavellian side of Hamlet can be seen in light of this theory. Hamlet displays the characteristics of the quintessential Machiavellian fox: Cunning, cautiousness and deceit. Often described as one of the most brilliant literary characters that ever existed, Hamlet indeed possesses a remarkable sense of judgment, outwitting his rivals on several occasions. It is evident that he is well versed in in the art of deception, when he decides to don a mask of insanity and puts up an “antic disposition” ” [I.v.172], to fool the court and Claudius into believing that grief has driven him to madness. His extraordinary skills as a strategist are further illustrated by how he orchestrates Claudius’s confession by organizing the performance of “The Mousetrap”. He gives attention to every intricate detail of the play, ensuring that the players can rival the act put up by King Claudius, in order to expose his crime, as Hamlet puts it: “ The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”[III.ii.600-601] Hamlet’s resolve to avenge his father’s cold-blooded murder does not blur his judgment and he exercises caution and prudence as described by Machiavelli: “He ought to proceed cautiously, moderating his conduct with prudence, allowing neither overconfidence to make him careless, nor excess suspicion to make him intolerable.”[Machiavelli, Ch. XVII]. In order to ensure that he does not act rashly, he choses to first see for himself whether or not Claudius is indeed guilty, rather than blindly following the ghost’s orders and killing him as he is unsure of the ghost being a “spirit of health or goblin damned”[I.iv.5] Yet, while on one hand Hamlet the Machiavell strategizes and cunningly ensnares Claudius in his delicately laid trap, on the other hand, he also grapples with the voice of his conscience. This internal battle within him is depicted in his second soliloquy, wherein he faces emotional upheaval at not being able to exact cold, calculating revenge, something that the conscientious being within him has an aversion to. However, the cunning Machiavelli hero within him also looks through Claudius’s feigned disposition and realizes that he is nothing but a “Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain”[II.ii.1655] Thus, this constant struggle within him is the reason behind his self-censuring and self-condemnation, whereby he calls himself a coward for not avenging his father even though he knows about Claudius’s true nature. Machiavelli describes a true prince as one who “ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty”. [Machiavelli, Ch.XVII]. For him, a successful prince should not hesitate to use cruelty as a device for self-preservation and for the furthering of his and his state’s interests. This is characteristic of the ‘Lion’, who must be strong and act suddenly and ruthlessly. The lion within Hamlet first rears its head in the nunnery scene, when Hamlet, still feigning madness and aware that his conversation is being spied upon, ruthlessly attacks Ophelia. He accuses her of being a “breeder of sinners”[III.i.9] and blatantly denies having ever loved her. Thus, in order to maintain his ‘antic disposition’, he is willing to crush Ophelia’s spirit, and this factors towards her insanity. The cold, calculating Hamlet, who believes that the ends justify all means, makes his presence felt in the closet scene, where he brazenly murders Polonius, which Gertrude describes as a “rash and bloody deed”. In true spirit of the Machiavellian hero, Hamlet feels no remorse for his actions, as is illustrated by his final words to Polonius: “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! I took thee for thy better: take thy fortune, thou find’st to be too busy is some danger.”[III.iv.30-32] The Machiavellian Lion, however, cannot completely dominate Hamlet. His conscience, once again, interferes with his plans to attain vengeance. He is unable to carry out the sudden and ruthless actions encouraged by Machiavelli, when it comes to killing Claudius, despite having extracted a confession from him. In his soliloquy in Act III scene ii, Hamlet, thrilled by the success of his plan to prove Claudius’s guilt, and determined to fulfill the ghost’s command, says: “Now could I drink hot blood, and do such bitter business as the day.”[III.ii.382-383]. While this clearly demonstrates the determined, resolute Lion within Hamlet, when the time comes to act like the predatory beast, Hamlet hesitates. He has an opportunity to kill Claudius as he prays in his private chambers, yet he uses the excuse of not wanting to send the murderer to heaven by killing him during prayer, as a justification for not going through with the murder. This inaction can be explained in terms of the clash between the opposing forces of the Lion and his conscience, which draws him away from premeditated murder. |

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