Hamlet, a Masterful Mistake
Hamlet, a Masterful Mistake
How well can a person know himself? Or, who can confidently and honestly proclaim that he perfectly knows his characters and personalities? Though not known as a philosopher or a psychologist, Williams Shakespeare seems to address this issue in his legendary work. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is arguably one of the best known English literatures in history. Despite the fact that many people acknowledge the play for its well written plot with different themes such as vengeance or justice, some scholars seriously disagree. In fact, “Samuel Johnson characterizes Shakespeare’s plots as ‘often so loosely formed … and so carelessly pursued’ ” (qtd. in Kumamoto 202). Furthermore, the article, Hamlet the Actor, indicates that, “Nothing happens in Hamlet, as anyone who has read the play will know” (Pearce 1). Then, “T.S. Eliot singles out Hamlet as ‘puzzling, and disquieting,’ due to, among its faults, ‘superfluous and inconsistent scenes’ ” (qtd. in Kumamoto 202).
According to Brian Pearce, “Most of the significant action of the play takes place before the play begins, or takes place off stage or occurs in the final scene” (1). It is true that the death of Hamlet’s father, which is main reason for all the chaos, is not included in any of the scenes. The suicide of Ophelia, which triggers Laertes’ plan to kill Hamlet, happens off stage. Finally, most readers have trouble to understand the protagonist’s emotions and thoughts. Hamlet constantly changes his decision, becomes mad in one scene and comes back to normal in another. It even seems like, “Shakespeare had not found the adequate way of expressing the emotion that Hamlet feels” (Pearce 1). Therefore, T.S. Eliot declares that, “The play is most certainly and artistic failure” (2).
However, there is one aspect in the story that keeps the spotlight on. Some critics point out that, “Coriolanus … with Anthony and Cleopatra [is] Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success” (T.S. Eliot 2) because the protagonists have a clear mind and personalities for the audiences to follow. On the other hand, others qualify Hamlet as a success for the intricate personality of the protagonist. Brian Pearce wrote:
It seems that whatever positive quality we attribute to Hamlet, the opposite is also true. If we say that he is a gentleman in his treatment of Laertes, then we also have to point to his misogyny in relation to Ophelia and Gertrude. If he seems to epitomize values of friendship in relation to Horatio, then he also seems remarkably alone and isolated. If he appears judicious, then he also appears rash and even brutal. In the late 1950s andl960s it became fashionable to see Hamlet as a political figure, a James Dean figure, a rebel with or without a cause, yet Hamlet also appears curiously uninterested in politics. It is as if the character is itself a contradiction. (3)
Hamlet, as many will agree, has an identity crisis. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, an identity crisis is a psychosocial state or condition of disorientation and role confusion occurring especially in adolescents as a result of conflicting internal and external experiences, pressures, and expectations and often producing acute anxiety. It is clear that Hamlet has conflicting internal and external experiences. The expectations from the Royal Court of Denmark, the unthinkable experiences with the ghost of his father requesting him to revenge on Claudius, the pressure to accept his mother’s marriage with his uncle, and the stress to accept Claudius as the new king are some of the conflicts that Hamlet is going through. T.S. Eliot simply concludes that the Danish prince is in madness. He describes the protagonist’s emotions as, “The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object” (4). “In the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action” (Eliot 4). The author indicates that such emotions are only found during adolescence and not during full adulthood. As far as he can see, “We should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself” (Eliot 4).
In some ways, it is very easy to argue the insanity of Hamlet. The unfortunate prince seems to have very little control of his emotions. In fact, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet admits it himself and says that, “In my heart there was a kind of fighting/ that would not let me sleep” (5.2. lines 4-5). This lack of control leads the character to swings between his moods throughout the play. In the relationship with his mother, Hamlet just cannot fully settle to make up his mind. At first it seem like he believes in his mother’s purity and goodness. But, in later scenes he mocks the Queen by calling her, “The queen, your husband’s brother’s wife” (3.4. 15). He then reminds himself of her love and mourns for her death. Similarly, Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia is easily destroyed by the constant unstableness in the prince’s attitude. For instance, when Hamlet realizes that Ophelia is acting only for the success of Polonius’s plan, he quickly and bitterly denies that he ever loved her. “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so / inoculate our old stock, but we shall relish of it. I loved / you not” (3.1.117-19). At this point, the man seems to be truly cruel but these harsh words are later contrasted at Ophelia’s funeral. There the poor prince confesses, “I loved Ophelia, forty thousand brothers / could not with all their quantity of love / make up my sum” (5.1.252-54).
Ironically, however, it is this obscure character that leads other critics to consider Hamlet as a master piece. “Hamlet’s character, in contrast, is indefinable and this reason Hamlet can be played in an infinite number of ways” (Pearce 2). Unlike any other characters created by Shakespeare, Hamlet does not have any underlying logic in his behaviors. Many indicate that the English writer tries to illustrate the uncertainties of human nature through Hamlet’s madness. The protagonist has so much maybe too much going on in such a short period of time that he cannot think about all the problems. As a result, he lets himself carried away by his emotions and it is in human nature that emotions change all the time.
Since, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Prince of Denmark as a play, it is only fair to judge it in a theater. Once on stage, Hamlet’s identity crisis is what really enriches the play. According to Helen Vendler:
Only ”Hamlet,” of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, is ruled by a single lyric consciousness. The Macbeths are two; Hal and Falstaff are two; Antony and Cleopatra are two; Desdemona, Othello and Iago are a triad; and ”Lear” is full of doubles and triads. Hamlet has no sibling, wife or lieutenant jointly pursuing revenge with him: his reflective loneliness and his lyric status elicit his soliloquies. Hamlet is always at the center: all the other figures in the play are there to provoke, to repudiate, to interrupt his brilliant cascades of language.
Unlike many other plays, everything is set focus on the protagonist, Hamlet, and the entire story only builds on depending on his reactions. Audiences can soon realize that the pace and the mood of the story are never constant. As a result, although it seems like Hamlet is crazy and does not even know what he is doing, in reality, he is the one in control of all events and actions.
Brian Pearce agrees with Michael Pennington and describes Hamlet as a “blank sheet” (2) He then quotes Harley Granville-Barker’s Prefaces to Shakespeare to support his point:
A large part of the technical achievement of Hamlet lies in the bringing home his intimate griefs so directly to us. In whatever actor’s guise we see him he is Hamlet, yet the appeal is as genuine as if the man before us were making it in his own person. But the actor does not lose himself in the character he plays. On the contrary, he not only presents it under his own aspect, he lends it his own emotions too, and he must repass the thought of which it is built through the sieve of his own mind. He dissects it and then reconstructs it in terms of his own personality. He realizes himself in Hamlet (Pearce 2).
The interesting fact about Hamlet the character is that it is never the same. Different actors will always interpret Hamlet in different ways. Maybe that is what Shakespeare wants to see happen with his character on a stage. “Hamlet is very much the actor’s play” (Pearce 4).
The Shakespearian protagonist is hard to define. Every time decides on something, he later doubts it. For example, he at first wanted to revenge his father but later on was not sure if he really should commit murder. Also his feelings are always in contradiction. For example, the poor son is uncertain about how he feels toward his mother. In some ways, he is not killing her too only because his father’s ghost claimed her innocent. To conclude, Hamlet does not really have a personality. He is a “blank sheet- he becomes the actor that is playing him” (Pearce 2). “Each actor can bring his own personality, emotions and intuitions to the role … It’s as if Hamlet is an Everyman figure” (Pearce 2).
Numerous debates are still going on about the classical play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. To some, Hamlet’s insanity is due to William Shakespeare’s ignorance and an unquestionable mistake. To others, the protagonist’s identity crisis is a masterful creation by the English writer. It is unfortunate that today William Shakespeare is not alive to provide a clear answer. As Hamlet states, “To be or not to be, that is the question” (3.1 57). However, in some ways, the debates kept the play alive for different audiences to enjoy. Finally, Hamlet to this day remains a complex character in the centre of perhaps the finest play in the history of the English language.
Eliot, T.S. “Hamlet and His Problems.” Rutgers. 09 Dec. 2007
“Identity Crisis.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. 2006.
Kumamoto, Chikako. “Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Explicator. 2006: 202-205.
Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Wilson Lib., New York, NY. 09 Dec. 2007
Pearce, Brian. “Hamlet, the Actor.” Shakespeare in Southern Africa 2007: 63-69.
Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Wilson Lib., New York, NY. 09 Dec. 2007
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” Arguing Through Literature.
Ed. Judith Ferster. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2005. 583-702.
Vendler, Helen. “Best Poem; Hamlet Alone.” The New York Times 18 Apr. 1999. 09 Dec. 2007