Impossibility of Certainty in Hamlet

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The Impossibility of Certainty in Hamlet

“Doubt is that state of mind where the questioner faces no single answer nor the lack of one, but rather a choice between a pair of alternatives.” – Harry Levin in The Question of Hamlet

It is appropriate that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is regarded as the Bard’s greatest dramatic enigma, for misunderstanding is the unavoidable condition of Hamlet’s quest for certainties. Not only is Hamlet bewildered by puzzling visions and by commands seemingly incapable of fulfillment, but he is also the victim of misinterpretation by those around him. The dying Hamlet urges the honest Horatio to “report me and my cause aright To the unsatisfied”, because none of the characters except for Horatio have caught more than a glimpse of Hamlet’s true situation (V. ii.371-372). We as an observing audience, hearing the inner thoughts and secret plots of almost every significant character, should remember that we know vastly more than the play’s characters. In Hamlet, we cannot pretend that we are unaware of what happens next or how it all comes out. This is Shakespeare’s richest source of dramatic irony. However, the characters are faced with rival options: to revenge or not to revenge, whether a Ghost comes from heaven or from hell. It is this doubt, this hesitancy in the face of two possibilities, that is central to Hamlet at every level. Hamlet is a play of misunderstanding and impediment. Its central theme is the elusiveness of knowledge and certainty. From the very first scene, the play establishes uncertainty through the interrogative dialogue between Barnado, Francisco, Marcellus, and Horatio:
Barnardo: Who’s there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself

Barnardo: Say, what, is Horatio there?
Horatio: A piece of him.
(I.i.1-24)

Having established a mood of fear and uncertainty, the apparition of the Ghost causes Horatio to declare “It harrows me with fear and wonder” (I.i.51). This antithetical



Bibliography: Bevington, David M. Introduction. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet ; a Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968. 1-12. Print. Levin, Harry. "Interrogation, Doubt, Irony: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis." The Question of Hamlet. New York: Oxford UP, 1959. 48+. Print. Weitz, Morris. “Hamlet: Philosophy the Intruder.” Shakespeare, Philosophy, and Literature: Essays. Ed. Morris Weitz and Margaret Collins. New Studies in Aesthetics 10. New York: Lang, 1995. 17-33 Weitz, Morris. Introduction. Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964. Vii-Xiii. Print. West, Rebecca. "A Court and World Infected by the Disease of Corruption." Readings on Hamlet. By Don Nardo. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 1999. 106-11. Print.

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