What’s Up With Hamlet?

I can’t figure Hamlet out.  The character, I mean, not the play. His behavior is so confusing, you sometimes have to wonder just what Shakespeare was smoking.

At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is dejected, tearful, and cloaked in black. This isn’t unreasonable. He’s lost his father, and seems to be pointedly contrasting himself with his mother and somewhat defiantly so. Alone in the next scene, however,he appears to be depressed and even suicidal.

But, we also learn that “oft of late” he’s been courting Ophelia, and there’s no indication he’s given that up during the past two months. Then the ghost appears, and he promises swift revenge. He tells Horatio that he’s going to feign madness, and appears before both Ophelia and Polonius in such a guise.

(There’s a different problem with respect to Ophelia here, as well.  She tells her father that she’s returned all of Hamlet’s letters to him (II.i) but we don’t see this happen until the following act (III.i). It might help if some scenes were swapped. She also claims that he’s a perfect courtier, scholar, swordsman, etc., so that also gives lie to the idea that he’s been wishy-washy or moody his entire life.)

Next, he meets his college pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and seems to be more or less himself with them, though guarded once he realizes that Claudius has brought them to Denmark. He gets all excited about the traveling players, but right after that, he’s back to being suicidal, “To be, or not to be.”

Then he’s gung ho for the players again, and puts in motion the plot to “catch the conscience of the king.” Ostensibly, this is to test the ghost’s story, but he already said back in I.v that he knows it to be “an honest ghost.”  If that’s true, what’s the point of the play withing in the play?

He’s a bit manic during the “Mousetrap” scene, but that fits with him pretending to be crazy. After that, he’s got the evidence from Claudius’s reaction that he’s guilty, so what does Hamlet do? He messes with Polonius once more and goes off to see his mother. As he’s doing so, he comes across the king and has the perfect opportunity to revenge his father…and doesn’t do it because Claudius is on his knees praying and Hamlet’s afraid he’ll go to heaven.

Does Shakespeare really expect us to think Hamlet believes Claudius is sorry for his actions? No, because we hear Claudius attempt to confess and he fails. So why should we believe Hamlet thinks so?

Off he goes to Gertrude and gives her a good dressing down, stabbing the spying Polonius in the meanwhile. The ghost shows up and says WTF, dude, why are you wasting time here, avenge me.

Unfortunately, now that he’s killed Polonius, the king has the perfect excuse to send Hamlet away to England, but during that trip, he’s no shrinking violet, he rewrites the orders that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying, sending them to their deaths, boards a pirate ship and skips off with the pirates back to Denmark.

Back on land, Hamlet meets up with Horatio, and they chance on Ophelia’s funeral whereupon Hamlet gets into a fight with her brother about which of them loved her most. Finally, despite knowing that the king was trying to have him executed, he agrees to a fencing match with Laertes set up by the king, which Horatio warns him (correctly) means certain death.

Now some of these mood changes are explicable. If you go back to the original story, Amleth, Prince of Denmark, it’s clear that the whole feigning madness thing makes sense, though Amleth is aware he’s under suspicion, which is why he’s acting crazy.  And he does a good job of it, too; smearing his face with dirt, randomly flinging himself to the ground, etc.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet doesn’t start acting crazy because of a suspicious encounter with Claudius, but does it after his encounter with the ghost. Now you can argue that Hamlet knows he’s under suspicion when the king won’t let him go back to school, and that’s not unreasonable, but Shakespeare is sort of burying the lede there, if nothing else.

Hamlet’s behavior to Ophelia can be explained, but it requires the shuffling of scenes to make sense. Since Shakespeare never wrote anything down, we can’t be sure if it was his fault that the scenes are out of place or someone else’s.

Then there’s the whole action/inaction issue. You might allow him his reason for not killing Claudius at prayer, but given his behavior after being sent to England, he’s certainly active in dispatching his two (relatively innocent) friends and falling in with the pirates.

Finally, he’s never acted really stupid before, but he certainly does in agreeing to the duel. Since Shakespeare goes out of his way to hint that Laertes could have raised a popular army to overthrow Claudius, why couldn’t Hamlet have gone that route? We know that Claudius was afraid of how popular Hamlet is with the people, that’s why he was sent to England instead of being charged with the murder of Polonius.

It’s still a great play, and full of great lines, but I’m not sure Shakespeare was thinking his character through.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting problems here, Heretic. I am not convinced that Shakespeare had not thought the character through, but I agree that there are some problems. Good luck with the MFA!

  2. Oh, I’m sure W.S. did think about it, and I’m sure some of the problems are due to information that has been lost over time…for instance the whole issue of Hamlet’s age. Though the text has him at 30 given the gravedigger’s speech, I think he’s intended to be younger, as is argued here: http://princehamlet.com/chapter_1.html

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