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Hamlet as a Character:

Hamlet is an enigma. No matter how many ways critics examine him, no absolute truth
emerges. Hamlet breathes with the multiple dimensions of a living human being, and everyone
understands him in a personal way. Hamlet's challenge to Guildenstern rings true for everyone
who seeks to know him: "You would pluck out the heart of my mystery." None of us ever really
does.

The conundrum that is Hamlet stems from the fact that every time we look at him, he is different.
In understanding literary characters, just as in understanding real people, our perceptions
depend on what we bring to the investigation. Hamlet is so complete a character that, like an old
friend or relative, our relationship to him changes each time we visit him, and he never ceases
to surprise us. Therein lies the secret to the enduring love affair audiences have with him. They
never tire of the intrigue.

The paradox of Hamlet's nature draws people to the character. He is at once the consummate
iconoclast, in self-imposed exile from Elsinore Society, while, at the same time, he is the
adulated champion of Denmark — the people's hero. He has no friends left, but Horatio loves
him unconditionally. He is angry, dejected, depressed, and brooding; he is manic, elated,
enthusiastic, and energetic. He is dark and suicidal, a man who loathes himself and his fate.
Yet, at the same time, he is an existential thinker who accepts that he must deal with life on its
own terms, that he must choose to meet it head on. "We defy augury. There is special
providence in the fall of a sparrow."

Hamlet not only participates in his life, but astutely observes it as well. He recognizes the decay
of the Danish society (represented by his Uncle Claudius), but also understands that he can
blame no social ills on just one person. He remains aware of the ironies that constitute human
endeavor, and he savors them. Though he says, "Man delights not me," the contradictions that
characterize us all intrigue him. "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel,
in apprehension how like a god!"

As astutely as he observes the world around him, Hamlet also keenly critiques himself. In his
soliloquys he upbraids himself for his failure to act as well as for his propensity for words.

Hamlet is infuriatingly adept at twisting and manipulating words. He confuses his so-called
friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — whom he trusts as he "would adders fang'd" — with
his dissertations on ambition, turning their observations around so that they seem to admire
beggars more than their King. And he leads them on a merry chase in search of Polonius' body.
He openly mocks the dottering Polonius with his word plays, which elude the old man's
understanding. He continually spars with Claudius, who recognizes the danger of Hamlet's wit
but is never smart enough to defend himself against it.

Words are Hamlet's constant companions, his weapons, and his defenses. In Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are Dead, a play that was later adapted into a film, playwright and
screenplaywright Tom Stoppard imagines the various wordplays in Hamlet as games. In one
scene, his characters play a set of tennis where words serve as balls and rackets. Hamlet is
certainly the Pete Sampras of wordplay.
Hamlet as a revenge tragedy:

Audiences watching Hamlet at the time it was first performed would recognize the play as

belonging to a particular genre: they didn’t have a name for it, but modern scholars call it

“revenge tragedy.” In a revenge tragedy the hero has suffered a great wrong, usually the murder

of someone he loves, and the plot is driven by his desire for revenge. At the end of the play, the

hero murders the person who has wronged him, and typically the hero also dies. The first really

popular revenge tragedy was The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. It was written more than a

decade before Hamlet, and it was still being performed when Hamlet was first staged.

Shakespeare’s audiences would have noticed that Hamlet borrows several features from Kyd’s

play, including a vengeful ghost, a play-within-a-play and a hero who goes mad. But rather than

simply repeating the familiar conventions of the revenge tragedy, Hamlet subverts many of the

tropes to question both the genre of revenge tragedy, as well as the nature of revenge itself.

Hamlet turns revenge tragedy on its head by taking away the usual obstacles to the hero’s

vengeance. In a typical revenge tragedy like The Spanish Tragedy, the hero faces two obstacles:

to find out who the murderers are, and then to get himself into a position where he can kill them.

In Hamlet, the hero learns the identity of his father’s murderer at the end of Act I, and he’s in a

position to kill Claudius from the very beginning. No character thwarts him in his desire for

revenge, and, living in the same palace as his nemesis, he has many chances to enact his plot.

Hamlet’s only real obstacle is in his head: he is uncertain what he should believe and how he

should act. By making the obstacles to Hamlet’s revenge internal, Shakespeare introduces

philosophical questions to the revenge tragedy which had not appeared in the genre before.

Can we believe the evidence of our eyes? Is revenge justified? Can we predict the

consequences of our actions? What happens when we die?

While Hamlet, being a tragedy, is generally seen as a very serious play, in some ways it seems

to make fun of the revenge tragedies that came before it. When Hamlet cries “Remorseless,

treacherous, lecherous, kindless Villain! / O, vengeance!” (II.ii.) he sounds like a sillier version of

Hieronimo, the hero of The Spanish Tragedy. The play-within-a-play staged in Act III, Scene 2 is a

parody of a revenge tragedy: its rhymes would have made it sound absurdly old-fashioned to an
audience in Shakespeare’s time. With the character of Laertes, Shakespeare pokes fun at the

traditional heroes of revenge tragedy. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes is ready to rush to his revenge,

but Claudius is easily able to manipulate him and Laertes ends up begging forgiveness from the

man he wanted to murder. By making traditional revenge tragedies look ridiculous,

Shakespeare shows us that the troubling philosophical doubt of Hamlet is more realistic than the

passion and fury of plays like The Spanish Tragedy.

After Hamlet, the genre of revenge tragedy would never be taken entirely seriously again. Later

revenge tragedies follow Hamlet in using humor, especially humor at the expense of the revenge

tragedy genre itself. The best-known revenge tragedy written after Hamlet is The Revenger’s

Tragedy, by Thomas Middleton, which was first performed in 1606. Despite its title, The

Revenger’s Tragedy is as much a black comedy as a revenge tragedy. Its violence is deliberately

over-the-top and its plot absurdly complicated. Middleton was also influenced by Hamlet’s

philosophical questions. Where Hamlet doubted the morality of seeking revenge, Middleton’s

hero Vindice is openly immoral in pursuing his: by the end of the play Vindice is more a villain

than a hero. Modern action movies also owe a great deal to Hamlet’s comic take on the revenge

plot. Movies like Kill Bill and John Wick share with Hamlet and The Revenger’s Tragedy amoral

heroes and complex revenge plots ending in comically gory action sequences.

Hamlet's Madness:
Throughout the play, Hamlet displays many characteristics indicative of madness. At the
beginning of the play, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father. Seeing a ghost could indicate
that he is already mad. His father’s ghost tells him that he was murdered by Claudius, which
drives Hamlet to want to seek revenge. This causes him to display erratic behavior, indicating
that he has become mad with his desire to avenge his father’s death. He also becomes quite
melancholic over the death and murder of his father and begins to question life as a result.
While Hamlet feels the need to avenge his father’s death, he also worries that the ghost may
actually “be a devil who will betray his soul,” rather than the actual ghost of his father (Frye, 12).
This makes Hamlet confused as to what he should actually do in response to seeing the ghost
and drives him further into madness.
Hamlet had a chance to kill Claudius early in the play while Claudius was praying, but decided
that, if he were killed while praying, that Claudius’s soul would go to Heaven. Hamlet decided
that a better revenge would be to wait until some other time to kill him to prevent his soul from
going to Heaven. The longer Hamlet waits to exact his revenge, the further he descends into
madness and melancholy. A prime example of Hamlet’s melancholic state is his famous “To be,
or not to be” monologue in Act 3, Scene 1. In this monologue, Hamlet seems to be having an
existential crisis as he contemplates the meaning of life and death and whether or not he would
be better off to take his own life. His madness and melancholy has driven him to the point
wanting to commit suicide.
Hamlet’s madness likely stems from an actual mental illness, most likely a depressive illness.
Hamlet admits to suffering from melancholy. The death of his father only worsened a preexisting
condition. Throughout the play, Hamlet displays pessimistic thoughts and negativity. He is
unable to cope with his perceived responsibility to his father and is driven further into a state of
depression (Shaw).
Hamlet’s madness and his quest for revenge ultimately resulted in his death. This quest for
revenge resulted in not only his own death, but in the deaths of many other characters in the
play as well, including his mother, Gertrude, who drinks the poison that was meant for him. His
need for revenge against the man who murdered his father ended in the further destruction of
his own family.

Hamlet's Antic Disposition:/ Reality of madness:


There is much evidence in the play that Hamlet deliberately feigned fits of madness in order to
confuse and disconcert the king and his attendants. His avowed intention to act "strange or odd"
and to "put an antic disposition on" 1 (I. v. 170, 172) is not the only indication. The latter phrase,
which is of doubtful interpretation, should be taken in its context and in connection with his other
remarks that bear on the same question. To his old friend, Guildenstem, he intimates that "his
uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived," and that he is only "mad north-north-west." (II. ii.
360.) But the intimation seems to mean nothing to the dull ears of his old school-fellow. His only
comment is given later when he advises that Hamlet's is "a crafty madness." (III. i. 8.)

When completing with Horatio the arrangements for the play, and just before the entrance of the
court party, Hamlet says, "I must be idle." (III. ii. 85.) This evidently is a declaration of his
intention to be "foolish," as Schmidt has explained the word. 2 Then to his mother in the Closet
Scene, he distinctly refers to the belief held by some about the court that he is mad, and
assures her that he is intentionally acting the part of madness in order to attain his object:

"I essentially am not in madness,


But mad in craft."
(III. iv. 187-8.)
This pretense of madness Shakespeare borrowed from the earlier versions of the story. The fact
that he has made it appear like real madness to many critics today only goes to show the
wideness of his knowledge and the greatness of his dramatic skill.

In the play the only persons who regard Hamlet as really mad are the king and his henchmen,
and even these are troubled with many doubts. Polonius is the first to declare him mad, and he
thinks it is because Ophelia has repelled his love. He therefore reports to the king that "Your
noble son is mad" (II. ii. 92), and records the various stages leading to his so-called madness
(II. ii. 145-150). No sooner, however, has he reached this conviction than Hamlet's clever toying
with the old gentleman leads him to admit that "Though this be madness, yet there is method
in't." (II. ii.203-4.)

Though it suits the king's purpose to accept this pronouncement of Polonius, he is never quite
convinced of its truth. His instructions to his henchmen, "Get from him why he puts on this
confusion" (II. i. 2), imply that he understands it as pretence and not real lunacy. He soon
admits that Hamlet's actions and words do not indicate madness but melancholy:
"What he spake, though it lack'd form a little.
Was not like madness."
(III. i. 163-4.)
But it serves his wicked purpose to declare him a madman, and to make this the excuse for
getting rid of him by sending him to England. In this as in everything the king is insincere, and
seeks not the truth but his own personal ends.

Ophelia's view that Hamlet has gone mad for love of her is of no value on the point. She is
herself, rather than Hamlet, "Like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh." (III. i. 158.) The
poor distracted girl is no judge of lunacy, and knows little of real sanity. She cannot enter into
the depth of his mind, and cannot understand that it is her own conduct that is strange and
incoherent.

There need he no doubt, then, that Hamlet's madness was really feigned. He saw much to be
gained by it, and to this end he did many things that the persons of the drama must construe as
madness. His avowed intention was to throw them off the track. To understand the madness as
real is to make of the play a mad-house tragedy that could have no meaning for the very sane
Englishmen for whom Shakespeare wrote. There is dramatic value in such madness as Lear's,
for the play traces the causes of his madness, and the influences that restore him. Lear's
madness had its roots in his moral and spiritual defects, and the cure was his moral
regeneration. But no such dramatic value can be assigned to Hamlet's madness. Shakespeare
never makes of his dramas mere exhibitions of human experience, wise or otherwise, but they
are all studies in the spiritual life of man. His dramas are always elaborate attempts to get a
meaning out of life, not attempts to show either its mystery, or its inconsequence, or its
madness. If Hamlet were thought of as truly mad, then his entrances and his exits could convey
no meaning to sane persons, except the lesson to avoid insanity. But it needs no drama to
teach that.