April 13, 2013
Hamlet Character Analysis
Generally, the way we understand characters in a work of literature depends on the way that we perceive them. Frequently, Hamlet is seen as a very complex character who never really tells how much he truly knows. Many readers may come away from the story with a sense that they don't really know everything about Hamlet as a character, nor that they know all that he does. Hamlet spends nearly the entirety of the play attempting to avenge his father's death, yet he contradicts himself often and misdirects his innermost feelings. He finds himself angry, depressed, brooding, yet also enthusiastic and happy. He can be suicidal because he detests his fate, yet he also accepts the fact that he has to take life head on. Hamlet is dedicated, yet frequently contradicts himself, misdirects his feelings for others, acts rashly and foolishly based on emotion, and also does not act at all in other situations. Readers are left to decipher Hamlet on their own, without much guidance from Shakespeare, and many scholars can agree that Hamlet may be one of the most complex characters in playwrite history. Hamlet is kind and caring, while also acting as a troubled youth who causes many deaths and a lot of trouble. Hamlet's contradictory actions ultimately lead to him putting a strain on the relationships he has with other characters in the story. While Hamlet claims to love Ophelia, he also exhibits a vast amount of cruelty towards her. He treats her mostly as though she did something awful to him, when quite the contrary is true. Hamlet also treats his mother with hostility and a sort of heartlessness. Hamlet questions her innocence and even claims that she is a bad mother at one point in the play, but also feels affection and love towards her, which he neglects to show in the play. And although Hamlet is frequently in an emotionless depression, he also spends much of his time in a state of manic emotion. He lashes out at his mother and Ophelia, and actually stabs and kills Polonius by accident while in a fit of rage. Hamlet spends much of his time thinking and reflecting, yet this time he doesn't think at all and ends up accidentally murdering an innocent character who, though convinced Hamlet was mad, committed no foul towards Hamlet. Hamlet does not seem to be able to make up his mind throughout the play, and frequently goes from one extreme to another in his thinking and actions. Hamlet often times finds himself impulsive and driven by his emotions; one of the best examples of this being when he stabs Polonius through a curtain in his mother's bedroom without even the consideration of checking who it may be. Once the ghost of his father appears and tells Hamlet his secret, Hamlet says that he will “wipe away all trivial fond records,/All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past/…And thy commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of my brain,/Unmix’d with baser matter” (I.v.836-842), and though he is unhappy to accept such responsibility, Hamlet also knows that he was “born to set [the circumstances of his father’s death] right” (I.v.944). Once Hamlet has committed himself to avenging his father's death, he seems to change in a way that causes other characters to become confused and to struggle to relate to him in the ways that they once did. Hamlet develops a sort of obsessive pessimism, which becomes a large part of his character as the play goes on. In a conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet swears that the world is a “foul and pestilent/congregation of vapors” (II.ii.1337) and that Denmark is a sort of tormenting prison to him. This pessimism also affects his relationship with his mother. Hamlet begins to regard her in such a sarcastic and demeaning way that she finally asks “What have I done, that thou darest/wag thy tongue/In noise so rude against me?” (III.iv.2429-2430). Many Hamlet's interactions with other characters become snappy, short, and sarcastic, which causes the reader to expect that his perceptions will become clouded with this pessimism and dark tone. Much of the action on Hamlet's park during the play takes place inside Hamlet's mind as he reflects on the events which take place in the play. In both the soliloquy in Act II and the soliloquy in Act IV, Hamlet compares himself to other characters, and uses both these comparisons to put himself down for choosing to not carry out his actions in various situations. “Is it not monstrous that this player here,/But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,/Could force his soul so to his own conceit” (II.ii.1624-1626) Hamlet says, actually angry at himself for being so emotionless compared to a character who is only acting in a play. Hamlet doesn't understand how he can be so emotionless in a real-life situation, when an actor can become more emotional while reading a simple piece of writing in the presence of an audience. In Act IV, scene four, Hamlet says “...Led by a delicate and tender prince, whose spirit, with divine ambition puff'd, makes mouths at the invisible event, exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death, and danger dare, even for an eggshell.” (2837-2842). He is speaking in admiration of Fortinbras. He admires Fortinbras's bravery and commitment to his actions, which is something that Hamlet has a hard time doing in many situations, the most prominent being the matter of his father's death. Even after Hamlet has become face to face with evidence that Claudius murdered his father, the concept of having no reasonable doubt simply isn't enough for him. Rather than simply accusing Claudius of the crime, Hamlet devises a complex plan designed to reveal Claudius's guilt. “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” (II.ii.1679-1680). Hamlet obsesses over the way the members of the play portray their role, and tells them “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you…./Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand,/for/in the very torrent, tempest, and…/the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness” (III.ii.1883;1885-1889). Still, Hamlet's supposed only dedication to putting the play on stage didn't quite seem straightforward, adding to his complexity. After spending an extensive amount of time trying to trick Claudius into admitting to the murder, Hamlet becomes even more depressed, emotionless, and detached. This is what drives him to doubt himself and curse himself for his lack of action. After these soliloquys, Hamlet resolves to find out the truth about the world around him, as well as the truth about himself. He doesn't seem to accomplish either of these, which reinforces his lack of action behind his thoughts and resolutions. Hamlet frequently directs his inward feelings of anger, depression, and disgust towards many of the other characters in the play. This ultimately destroys not only his relationship with these characters, but also destroys their mental well-being. Beneath his cruel and cynical words to his mother, Hamlet also has a desire to show her affection and comfort her. Yet all his tenderness and love seem to have disappeared behind his depression and anger. Hamlet's soliloquy about his mother, “Frailty, thy name is woman!-/A little month, or ere those shoes were old/With which she followed my poor father's body/Like Niobe, all tears- why she, even she/(O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason/Would have mourn'd longer) married with my uncle;/My father's brother, but no more like my father/Than I to Hercules” (I.ii.350-356) is clearly a reference to his disgust and anger about his mother's incestuous relationship with his uncle. The actions of Claudius and Gertrude cause Hamlet to turn on Ophelia, despite her innocence. Rather than simply ignoring Ophelia, Hamlet uses his words as daggers to destroy her. All his feelings of rage and thoughts of Gertrude's betrayal are all directed towards Ophelia, and it is only after she is dead that he recognizes his true love for her by saying “I lov'd Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/Could not (with all their quantity of love)/Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” (V.i.3613-3615) upon the discovery of her grave site. Hamlet shows that he is both heartless and innocent at the same time. At this point, Claudius exclaims that Hamlet is mad, an accusation based upon Hamlet's previous brutal treatment towards Ophelia. Hamlet changes drastically and rapidly throughout the play, and spends much of his time depressed, detached, and angry. He destroys many of the relationships he has with other characters and ultimately ends up alone because he has a hard time directing and managing his emotions, when he has them. Hamlet directs anger for his mother at Ophelia, while directing anger for Claudius at his mother and suppressing his affectionate feelings for his mother. He spends more time thinking about acting and how to trick Claudius into a confession for his father's murder that he becomes angry at himself for not acting, and begins to compare himself to other characters in a demeaning manner. After everything is all said and done, Hamlet never does bring Claudius to justice for the murder of his father, but instead merely commits a mass murder of many characters, most of which die via poisoning, at the end of the play during his duel with Laertes. Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark." Open Source Shakespeare. George Mason University, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2013 "The Story of Hamlet in Hamlet." 123HelpMe.com. 14 Apr 2013<http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=7798>. Mabillard, Amanda. Introduction to Hamlet. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (19 Apr. 2013) "Hamlet." SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
Smith, Nicole. "Full Character Analysis of Hamlet." Article Myriad. Article Myriad, 06 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.