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Stephan Amaranath Candidate No. 4204 Centre No.

13156

“Hamlet” has been read by various critics as dramatically presenting a man with a
fatal flaw, a misfit in a treacherous world or a weak revenger. In light of this, and
using the soliloquies as a starting point, examine how an Elizabethan audience
might have understood Hamlet and how that compares with your reading.

Revenge Tragedy was a popular form of 16th/17th Century Drama (Elizabethan


Era). The best known revenge tragedies are Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and
William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy was
one of the most important dramatists in the development of Elizabethan drama.
Hamlet follows almost every aspect of Thomas Kyd’s formula for a revenge tragedy.
Revenge tragedies usually involved vengeance, dread and often darkly comic
violence, which was a traditional structure understood by Elizabethan audiences,
conversely Shakespeare’s Hamlet is unusual in probing this approach, as the
Elizabethan audience were very used to revenge stories full of action, Hamlet
probably went against their expectations. In the Early Modern period (1500 to
1750), revenge changed as people believed personal wrongs were offences against
King and State. On stage, feelings are usually on the side of the avenger who
attracts our attention, capturing our sympathy however during the 16th century a
shift occurred from the Old Testament to the New, the understandings of revenge
as the importance moves from Mosaic Law of previous generations to New
Testament, meaning that only God has the right to exact revenge. According to
Elizabethans, avengers strip themselves of God's protection; from their view,
revenge brought disgrace not honour because it reflected anger, hatred, jealousy,
envy, pride, and ambition.

Shakespeare uses soliloquies, a theatrical device enabling the protagonist Hamlet


to reveal his feelings and thoughts to the audience. A soliloquy is “a speech in
which a person speaks his or her thoughts aloud without addressing anyone.”1
Shakespeare manipulates the audience to see and understand the play through
Hamlet however it doesn’t necessarily mean the audience would sympathise with
him more. The soliloquies therefore make the distinction between Hamlet’s ‘antic
disposition’ and his true nature clearer to the audience however, since the
soliloquies are meant for no other ears than the audience’s they become more
truthful as there are no social barriers dividing any characters on stage. The
audience’s relationship with Hamlet becomes that of a confessor, to which the
protagonist reveals his inner thoughts, therefore ensuring that the distinction
between Hamlet’s true nature and his ‘acting’ around other characters is
emphasised. Hamlet’s character is purposefully lonely and lives in a world of
solitude. The soliloquies are therefore vital for the audience to get to know the
character Hamlet and, according to the revenge tragedy conventions, sympathise
with him and recognise his fatal flaw.

Hamlet’s first soliloquy occurs early in Act I, Scene 2 here Hamlet cannot confide
his feelings in anyone around him. Throughout the soliloquy Hamlet’s feelings
quickly change from one to another. Shakespeare presents a very isolated character
in Hamlet; in Kenneth Branagh’s film version2 someone who stands in a corner still
dressed in black signifying that he is still grieving the death of his father. This is
evident in the use of the soliloquy rather than dialogue with the other characters
on stage.

1
Oxford Dictionary Definition
2
Hamlet (1996) film version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet adapted and directed by Kenneth Branagh.

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Stephan Amaranath Candidate No. 4204 Centre No. 13156

In the beginning of the soliloquy Shakespeare demonstrates a very depressed and


suicidal Hamlet. From the words “gainst self-slaughter” the audience may assume
that Hamlet is contemplating suicide and from his view of the world as “weary,
stale, flat and unprofitable” we can clearly see that he is depressed, seeing a
world around him that appears to be worth nothing. As the soliloquy progresses
Hamlet works himself up into anger. Shakespeare conveys the impression that
Hamlet feels that he must suffer in silence however Roth Steve3 argues that the
audience would have speculated that this would not be the case so Hamlet’s words
are a little ironic. Hamlet’s first soliloquy is important as it gives the audience an
idea of what has happened and how he is reacting to it; Hamlet expresses his
melancholy and his disgust with the state of affairs, as well as expressing despair,
anger and loathing suggesting he is emotional and a thinker.

In Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act II Scene 2 we see Hamlet going through several changes
of mood. These are self-criticism “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I?”
imagining someone’s reaction to real grievance, self-disgust, rage and self-
reproach for his emotional outburst. Shakespeare presents Hamlet as a complex
individual portraying the ability to think about a situation carefully, proving that he
is a rational thinker in most cases, which is actually his flaw. This can also be seen
in his plan to catch the King with the actors’ play. The Act II Scene 2 soliloquy also
shows the audience that Hamlet is capable of feeling emotions like anger and rage.
In this soliloquy Shakespeare allows Hamlet to get rid of a lot of emotion, leading
to the cunning, intelligent Hamlet that devises the plan to catch his uncle; a plan
that a traditional hero would not need as a traditional hero would not require proof
to take revenge; this is one way that Hamlet is presented as a weak revenger.
However, Shakespeare also uses this soliloquy to present Hamlet’s major flaw to
the audience: his procrastination. In the soliloquy Hamlet becomes clearly angry at
his inability to act, it is here Hamlet recognises his flaw. Hamlet’s procrastination
suggests to the audience that he is thinking deeply about the consequences that his
actions might bring. Goethe Johann Wolfgang von4 has argued that it is this that
makes Hamlet one of most identified with character in English Literature.

The soliloquy ends with elation at the thought he will prove his uncle’s guilt. He
decides that a play of his father’s murder will test the words of the spirit that
visited him. Hamlet hopes that the play “…Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the
king.” will give him some confirmation that the Ghost was telling the truth and it
will provoke Claudius into revealing his guilt. Hamlet’s complexity of character is
presented very effectively to an audience in this scene. Hamlet is again presented
as an intellectual in Act III Scene 1; he is seen to be thinking about suicide and life
after death.

“To be or not to be, that is the question…” What Hamlet is asking is ‘is it better to
live or die, to endure suffering or to fight against it?’ The metaphor at the start of
the soliloquy, “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them” is
purposely confused. It captures Hamlet’s emotions of being unable to do the huge
responsibility that has been given to him. Though in this soliloquy, there is no word
about his father, his mother, his uncle, or any plans for revenge; this links to
Shakespeare’s purpose to explore the nature of man.

3
Hamlet as The Christmas Prince: Certain Speculations on Hamlet, the Calendar, Revels, and Misrule.
- Roth Steve. (EMLS 7.3.)
4
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship - Goethe Johann Wolfgang von. The discussion of Hamlet in chapter
XIII is, in the words of Stephen Greenblatt "...what is probably the most influential of all readings of
Hamlet..." (Hamlet in Purgatory, p. 229).

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It seems as if Hamlet has completely forgotten that not long ago the ghost of his
dead father visited him. An Elizabethan audience may believe that Hamlet is a
coward since Hamlet contemplates suicide; they may have thought that Hamlet
saw suicide as a more attractive option than his revenge task. Hamlet looks
forward to death as an end to all emotional and physical pain this is one other way
Hamlet is presented as a weak revenger. Hamlet is worried that if he commits
suicide and “shuffles off this mortal coil” he will not be able to control what comes
after death. He compares death to sleep; when we sleep and dream we are not in
control of our bodies or thoughts. However the argument that Hamlet has with
himself is clear-cut and its conclusion logical that why should we suffer in life when
we could find peace in death because it might not be peace and no one has
returned from death to set the record straight “The undiscovered country from
whose bourn no traveller returns…” therefore we “bear those ills we have”.

In the end the audience hear “conscience does make cowards of us all…” The
audience realises that Hamlet has decided that thinking stops people from acting
which is certainly true of him. The audience can relate what Hamlet is saying to his
present situation and have an image of him thinking, which is preventing him “the
pale cast of thought…” from committing, not suicide, but the act of revenge
“enterprises of great pitch and moment…”

Hamlet’s final soliloquy in Act IV Scene 4 is similar emotionally for Hamlet to the
soliloquy in Act I Scene 2. Yet Shakespeare gives us a much more penetrating
insight into the processes of Hamlet’s tortured thinking. The audience has seen
that Hamlet has been spurred to commit revenge, but he still hasn’t acted
presenting him as a weak revenger. Hamlet thinks back to “all occasions” where he
had a chance and all those that “informed” him to kill Claudius. The opening of the
soliloquy is to remind the audience of Hamlet’s failure to capitalize on former
opportunities also presenting him as a weak revenger. “I do not know. Why yet I
live to say this…” As with many of Hamlet’s speeches the audience will see this as
ironic and clearly not the case. Hamlet may have the cause, the strength, and the
means to commit the murder asked of him, but if he had the will, then he would
have acted a long time before and would not be in the position he is in now.

Shakespeare also compares Hamlet to his Norwegian counterpart, Fortinbras.


Hamlet compares himself to him and sees a “delicate and tender prince” with
“divine ambition” who is ready to fight for a mere “egg shell”, whereas he can not
take revenge against his uncle. Hamlet realises that the prince of Norway is a fine
example, prepared to face death for something completely useless and he is stuck
where he is wrestling with his conscience. Shakespeare adds the final words “Oh
from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody…” so Hamlet sounds determined.
Still these words are ironic, as the audience have seen so often throughout the
play, Hamlet’s actions contradict his words. This is to show the audience that
Hamlet knows about his missed opportunities and to show his thoughts and the play
are appearing to move towards a bloody conclusion. Here, with the determined
final words of this soliloquy, the audience finally get the idea that Hamlet is going
to act, despite his previous actions. The audience now realise that Hamlet has
finally decided that he is going to kill Claudius.

At this point the audience could draw a parallel between Hamlet and Laertes;
Shakespeare portrays Hamlet in a different light, not as the thinker but more
similar to the typical revenger Laertes, the two characters develop as contrasting
characters. The clear illustration of Hamlet and Laertes’s similarities rests in their
roles as avengers; both display impulsive reactions when angered. Hamlet’s desires

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Stephan Amaranath Candidate No. 4204 Centre No. 13156

are revealed in his words “So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word…” here it is
apparent that Hamlet is angry and ready to seek revenge on his uncle. Similarly,
Laertes reveals his anger against Claudius for the death of his father. Unlike
Hamlet, Laertes literally invades the castle upon receiving news of the death of his
father. Another important aspect is that Laertes is so bent on getting revenge that
he is willing to be damned to Hell. Hamlet, on the other hand believes his soul is
more valuable than instant revenge. Clearly, the only similarity between Hamlet
and Laertes as avengers is their desires are rash in anger, presenting Hamlet as the
weaker revenger and Laertes as the “typical” revenger.

William Hazlitt describes Hamlet as “full of weakness and melancholy”5. The


character is by no means extraordinary simple and is far more complex than any
other Shakespearean tragic hero. Several believe that Hamlet is an intelligent and
witty young man, which can be seen throughout the play in his scenes with
Claudius and the gravedigger for example. Nevertheless, like most of the other
tragic heroes, Hamlet has one central flaw, his procrastination. Eliot, T. S6 argues it
is Hamlet’s inability to act and tendency to over think that eventually leads to his
death. It is of little importance what opinion we form of Hamlet when we first
meet him; he fascinates and mystifies us at the same time. The play is popular
across the world because the central character is somebody to whom few people
can feel unresponsive. For every reader who feels that Hamlet is a coward, there
will be somebody who finds him a hero. This is what Shakespeare has achieved
through Hamlet’s soliloquies, whether that was his intention or not. It is these
speeches that give Hamlet its distinction.

| Word Count: 2,139 |

5
The Character of Hamlet - William Hazlitt (The following biography was originally published in The
Outlines of Literature: English and American. Truman J. Backus. New York: Sheldon and Company,
1897. pp. 90-102.)
6
Hamlet and His Problems, from The Sacred Wood. - Eliot, T. S.

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