The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a worldwide known play by William Shakespeare that combines such essential topics as deceit, revenge, madness, family issues, and death. It highlights such timeless themes as love, friendship, insanity, and the destruction of personality that remain relevant even today. Being a protagonist and a tragic hero of the play, Hamlet fights his inner demons and tries to revenge his father's murder. Through his complex personality, Shakespeare reveals the most important philosophical themes. The controversial character of Hamlet combines such irreconcilable traits as intelligence and hesitation, kindness and desire for revenge, madness and the ability to think before making decisions. The philosophical nature of Hamlet hesitates when he wants to do the justice and at the same time suffers from indecisiveness and madness. The most debated point of the entire play becomes Hamlet's sanity, though it is clear by the end that his 'insanity' is a rouse behind which he hides his plans. This paper expands on the topic of the madness and indecisiveness of the main character. It also analyzes Shakespeare’s tragedy from different sides. It examines the historical background, the religious as well as psychological aspects of the play.
Criticism of William Shakespeare’s play mainly includes the discussions of the principal character Hamlet who is very controversial personality indeed. While reading the tragedy, the question emerges whether his thoughts are real or feigned. Hamlet is a great philosopher and moralizer. He is not an actor who plays the particular role or pretends. Hamlet is the most remarkable for the ingenuity, originality, and unstudied development of character.
Who is Hamlet Indeed?
The character of Hamlet is a genius. His personality is not strong; he is lacking great willpower. But he is strong in his power of thought and feeling. Hamlet is young and full of enthusiasm. He is playing with the destiny and the circumstances.
Hamlet is very complex personality. While reading the tragedy, the question arises involuntarily. What Hamlet is true? Like every person, he is different: thoughtful and melancholy, sometimes full of envious mists rising in his head, and sometimes someone who is "the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office, or the spurns which patient merit of the unworthy takes." From time to time, sadness clings to his heart like a malady; he sees evil hovering near him like a spectre; his thoughts have forced out his powers of action; his bitterness of soul makes him careless of consequences. Hamlet is true in each of its manifestation, in every thought or action.
The play starts with Hamlet’s arrival at Denmark where he learns about his father’s death. This tragic news has changed his life completely. Hamlet takes the death close to his heart and mourns over his father for a long time. The protagonist understands that the world around him is not perfect. Since his father’s death, he starts to look at people and their actions from a different point of view and his whole worldview undergoes a dramatic transition from innocence to maleficence. Moreover, the tension increases when he learns about his mother’s marriage with his uncle Claudius, who became the new king of Denmark. Such news shocks Hamlet and indicates the beginning of his “insanity”. The feelings of devastation and betrayal pursue him. He cannot understand how Gertrude could overcome her husband’s death and grief so quickly and easily and marry her spouse’s brother and a killer. Hamlet considers her mother’s actions as something unnatural, sinful and vile. She has become a traitor in his eyes.
Hamlet’s worldview goes upside down, and the situation deteriorates when he discovers the reason of his father’s death. When talking with his father’s ghost he learns that the serpent that has killed his father now wears his crown. Hamlet is not ready to hear and to realize such news. The prince becomes desperate and cynical when he understands that his uncle Claudius has killed his brother. He wonders how he has been able to commit such violent and cold-blooded murder. He calls him a villain and promises his father to take revenge on Claudius. Hamlet realizes that he lives in the world full of hypocrisy, deceit, and intrigues. Being a moralizer and perfectionist, Hamlet becomes fed up with the imperfections of human beings.
When speaking of the family ties, they are against nature. Hamlet considers his mother Gertrude guilty of betrayal and incest and cannot forgive her. Moreover, the principal character of the story blames and loathes Claudius, who has taken his father’s throne by murder. Hamlet thinks that Claudius will never be able to replace his noble father, especially because his reign begins with murder and incest. All these factors contribute to the prince’s depressed state.
It is clear that Hamlet is dissatisfied with human nature and cannot live the same life as he did before. Hamlet is a philosopher who takes closely to his heart people’s drawbacks and imperfections. It is hard for such sensitive and emotional personality to accept the bitter truth about the death of a loved one. Hamlet knows that he shall react, but at the same time he is not sure what to do next. He promises his father to take revenge and to restore justice in his kingdom, but Hamlet is not an ordinary character. He is a humanist who values such things as kindness, honesty, and justice. He views things from the standpoint of moral and human intelligence. He is a kind of a nobleman, making it difficult to implement the idea of revenge.
Through Hamlet’s hesitations and uncertainty, the author reveals the significant themes of the play: inner conflict and indecisiveness, as well as revenge. Thus, the protagonist of the tragedy suffers from inner conflict. On the one hand, Hamlet knows that he made promise to his father to take vengeance upon his uncle. On the other hand, being an intelligent person, the prince is not sure whether it is right to fight with the evil using the same cruel methods. Furthermore, he thinks that the death of Claudius will not necessarily change something. Hamlet realizes that he already leaves in a hypocritical and superficial society, so it will be hard to fight with its imperfections. Hamlet cannot decide what is the best solution to the problem. His famous monologue “To be or not to be” is the best way to demonstrate his inner struggle.
These contradictions are Hamlet’s number one concern. From his soliloquy it is evident that the protagonist of the play contemplates whether it is better to live or to die. He does not know whether he should assume measures or leave everything as it is. For one part, he thinks that he needs to take an action and restore justice in his kingdom. For the other part, Hamlet feels no strength to change something in the world which is full of imperfections. Hamlet feels lost as he cannot discern the right decision. He even thinks that is better to die rather than try to fight. So, here lies the tragedy of the play – the tragedy of intellect and nobleness.
Is Hamlet Truly Insane?
The question of Hamlet’s mental health is debatable. This issue has divided the readers of Shakespeare’s tragedy into two different schools. One of them advocated a pretended, and the other one a real madness. There are many arguments for and against Hamlet’s insanity. Many critics support a thought that he is insane as there are many of his actions explain his madness. Hamlet speaks like insane when he learns about his father’s death. Hamlet’s behavior throughout the play, especially towards Ophelia, is very unstable. When he fights with Laertes, he claims that he loves Ophelia with all his heart, but when she returns his letters and presents, Hamlet tells that he has never loved her. It shows that his mood changes abruptly throughout the play. He jumps aboard a pirate ship as well as he jumps into Ophelia's grave and fights with Laertes in her grave. Moreover, he has killed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern even though it has not been his revenge plan. Nobody else but he sees his father's ghost in his mother's room. During this scene he finally shows his madness, because his mother does not see the ghost. He has outbreaks of violence towards his mother. Hamlet tells Laertes that he has killed Polonius in a "fit of madness". He does not tell anyone where Polonius’s body is.
However, there are still many arguments against Hamlet’s madness. He warns his friend Horatio not to be surprised if he sees that Hamlet behaves in a strange way as he will just play his role. These words speak for themselves. Hamlet behaves like mad only in the presence of other characters. It means that his insanity is feigned, and he is a perfect actor whose madness reveals itself when he is on public. Hamlet behaves irrationally with Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. When his friends surround him, Hamlet behaves naturally and rationally. Claudius argues that Hamlet's actions are undoubtedly strange, but they do not look like true madness. Polonius claims that Hamlet's words have a background and a reason behind them, that all his actions are logical. Hamlet's feigned madness contrasts with Ophelia's real madness. Hamlet tells his mother that he is "mad in craft". He knows that his mental health is in order and never doubts his control over psyche.
Hamlet becomes “insane” when his obsession with the idea of revenge rises in his head. The conflict inside his head is increasing when his innocence dies out. Hamlet wants the revenge, the release, and the justice; however, his young mind still clings to the kindness preventing him from his plans. Then his internal conflict increases, he inclines to the idea of revenge and starts forgetting about his friends, family, and other close people. All his thoughts are about the revenge. Hamlet cannot think about anything else but only about the realization of his bloody plan.
Hamlet’s violent behavior and harshness are incomprehensible for others. Most people in Denmark, as well as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, are sure that the prince becomes completely mad. Gertrude claims that her son is insane, so his mental health comes into a question. Hamlet’s behavior and attitude to people has changed after learning the truth about his father’s death. He is angry at their lack of concern over the king's ignoble death. In a talk with Ophelia the prince claims that he has never had feelings towards her. He calls her selfish and says the best fate for her is to go to the nunnery. In such a way, he justifies his terrible and harsh treatment of her. He claims that there will be no more marriages in his kingdom. It is evident that Ophelia believes that Hamlet has gone insane. Hamlet seems quite adept at shifting the attention from himself to those around him and in so doing further convinces them of his insanity. By pointing out the flaws of others, acting strangely or wrongly towards them and refusing to entertain any notions or reflections about himself, he convinces them of his insanity. They perceive from his behavior that he believes he is mentally healthy, and that crazy people never know they are crazy, so their conclusion is that he has gone mad.
The same opinion holds Claudius, who wants to send Hamlet to England away from Denmark. Claudius is afraid of Hamlet and his possible revenge. He thinks that the young prince may destroy his image of a noble king. Claudius knows that Hamlet suspects something and does not want him to hinder his ruling. That is why he wants to get rid of his nephew and in such a way to secure himself to the throne. Towards this point, he states that “I like him not, nor stands it safe with us / To let his madness range”. Claudius supposes that Hamlet may be insane and is afraid that his nephew’s madness and suspicious thoughts may destroy his new life.
The only person with whom the protagonist remains honest is his friend Horatio. Thus, in a talk with Horatio, Hamlet admits that he must pretend to be mad in front of other people. It is of particular interest that Claudius questions Hamlet's insanity when he is the very one who needs to be the most convinced. Indeed, Claudius is sure that Hamlet's behavior is not a sign of madness, but of something dark and sinister weighing on his heart, waiting to hatch an evil entity. So, when he sees Claudius and Gertrude, he states, “They are coming to the play. I must be idle”. These words serve as evidence that Hamlet fakes his madness. It is easier for him to accomplish his plan when other people do not take him seriously; in this way his intentions become invisible. The most difficult thing for Hamlet is to lie to his mother. The protagonist still cannot forgive Gertrude. He loves her, but at the same time calls her a betrayer. He is rude towards his mother but feels pity for his rudeness.
At the same time, it is important to mention that all people in the kingdom seem to have forgotten that Hamlet is not an ordinary character; he is wise and intelligent. He is a philosopher who can analyze his thoughts and actions. It is obvious that Hamlet takes his father’s death very hard. He mourns over the king and does not want to take off his black clothes. He is also disappointed with the fact that other people, including his own mother, easily forgot about the noble king. That is why, when Hamlet learns about the reason of his father’s death, he realizes that it is his duty to inflict vengeance upon the betrayer. Indeed, Hamlet is a bit harsh in his judgments and is too overwhelmed with the idea of revenge. He devotes all his energy to this, so it seems that the prince is becoming mad, but in reality, Hamlet knows that only madness can help him to reach his goal in killing Claudius. That is precisely why he fakes his insanity.
Hamlet understands that if Claudius believes that he is insane, he will not take the prince’s actions seriously, giving Hamlet a chance to accomplish his goal. He also understands that he is the only person who can reveal the truth to the public and restore justice in his kingdom. He is still not sure whether he has made the right decision, but realizes that it is his duty to kill the murderer of his father. Hamlet’s state has changed dramatically since his father’s death, and his behavior became totally different. Hamlet used to idealize the world. And now the human nature and people’s actions disappoint him a lot. Hamlet’s whole world has changed, but he has not lost his sanity.
It is evident that Hamlet persuades himself to be cruel towards his mother and to become a hypocrite. He sees no other choice but to lie to her and to fake his madness. Hamlet acts so well that the whole kingdom starts to believe that the prince has gone mad. They say that his behavior is affected by grief and feel pity for Hamlet. In fact, it is worth mentioning that it is beneficial for the protagonist of the play to fake his insanity. Thus, pretending to be insane helps Hamlet to expose real villains, such as Claudius. Hamlet finally makes a decision to kill the murderer of his father. Therefore, it is possible to say that Hamlet pretends to be insane to hide his aim.
As the internal struggle rages, Hamlet suffers from a deepening depression, which is as distinct from insanity as is revenge. The ability to think clearly is still present, which creates the distinction between revenge and depression compared to insanity; Hamlet is depressed and vengeful, but not insane. People have mistaken his depression as signs that he is not thinking clearly, but he is still enough in control of his thoughts and actions to manipulate other people’s perception of him in an effort to enable his plan.
Why does Hamlet Delay so Long in Carrying out his Revenge?
The protagonist fights not only with his villain, but mainly with himself. His monologues, full of hesitation, reflection, and inner feelings, speak about how he struggles with himself, with his inner demons. There can be many variants, why Hamlet cannot quickly decide whether to avenge his uncle or not.
Being a moralist, it takes Hamlet a long time before he finally reaches a decision. His reluctance to take an action makes readers think that he is indecisive and weak. Nevertheless, Hamlet understands that Claudius’s death may not improve anything at all. Moreover, the protagonist understands that to conquer evil he needs to take the path of evil. Being a humanist, it is hard for the protagonist to do it. However, Hamlet has promised the ghost of his father to take revenge upon his villain. Perhaps, he hesitates and has a strong inner conflict between the fear and the promise given to the ghost of his father. But the young prince knows that it is his duty to keep his promise and to kill his father’s murderer. Additionally, he blames his uncle for what is happening in his kingdom. He desires to make it known throughout the whole kingdom that Claudius has killed the noble king. Hamlet hopes that when he reveals the truth and people learn the true story of his father’s death, it may serve as a good lesson for the society and may change something in their minds. That is precisely why during the whole play Hamlet tries to persuade himself that the best decision he can make is to kill his father’s betrayer, and new king, Claudius.
Religion can also be the reason for revenge. Hamlet has some doubts regarding the revenge as he knows that murder is a sin. Shakespeare includes some principles of Christian morality; however, they do not correspond with the principles of revenge tragedy. Hamlet demonstrates the notion of the old, pagan revenge code that says when someone kills your father, you have to take your revenge. Hamlet is a religious hero with a pagan duty. There are justifications and explanations for all Hamlet’s hesitations. Pagan desire for revenge does not coincide with the religious concepts of good.
How does Historical Context Affect Hamlet’s Behavior?
Hamlet may appear to be a product of the historical context of the Reformation. Its historical context shapes Hamlet’s character. The source material is from a Danish history in which Shakespeare records the ancient legend of Amleth, Price of Denmark. Shakespeare sets Hamlet in the middle or late 1500s, after the Protestant Reformation of 1517. Some details have the historical implication. For example, Shakespeare indicates that King Hamlet is Catholic, as he dies without blessing and is in purgatory. Perhaps, Renaissance crisis has also affected Hamlet’s indecisive behavior. In 1600s, the knowledge about the Earth, geography, and religion was very confusing and uncertain. Hamlet is full of inner conflicts and uncertainty, like the world of that time.
How does Religion Influence Hamlet’s Decision?
An immense responsibility rests on Hamlet to revenge his father’s “foul and most unnatural murder”. When the prince learns about the truth of King Hamlet’s death, the allusion to the most infamous Christian curse placed upon Cain, casts a shadow of disquietude over Hamlet’s fate throughout the play, “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears the crown”.
Religion plays an essential role in the play. The readers can analyze Hamlet’s thoughts and actions through the prism of religion. The political and religious confusions of the Protestant Reformation could influence Hamlet’s hesitations. Perhaps, he did not believe the ghost. Protestants differed from Catholics in some aspects. As the readers may understand from the play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father came from Purgatory, a place inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to Heaven. Purgatory existed in the Roman Catholic doctrine. However, Protestants rejected the existence of Purgatory. Hamlet is Protestant. Hamlet has been living in Denmark where Protestantism is prevailing. He has been studying at the Martin Luther's University of Wittenberg. It meant that the ghost could be not his father’s ghost but a demon from the hell that came to Hamlet with a purpose to make him mad and force him to commit revenge.
Hamlet’s indecisiveness reflects the religious sentiments in the sixteenth century. Murder, suicide, and revenge can hardly combine with such Christian notions of acceptance, Providence, and forgiveness. Maybe, religion is the reason for Hamlet to hesitate. There can be many thoughts. Religion opposes revenge, and it means that Hamlet's soul could be at risk after taking revenge. Hamlet understands that the revenge and the salvation of the soul are irreconcilable.
The readers can see that, despite all the hesitations and uncertainty, Hamlet inclines to the position to take revenge over his uncle. For Hamlet the meaning of revenge becomes clearer: he is to murder Claudius. In addition to the King asking his son to revenge his death, he never directly asks Hamlet to commit a crime, only to revenge the murder. The ghost commands Hamlet to remember him. The Old King’s spirit stimulates Hamlet to commit a murder but not say it directly. The ghost leaves a choice for Hamlet.
In conclusion, Hamlet as one of the most controversial and complex of all Shakespeare’s characters. Hamlet is a philosopher whose head is always full of contradictory thoughts. He can think about possible consequences of all his actions, which characterizes him as an intelligent person. While reading the play, perhaps, every person may recognize himself or herself in Hamlet. He is not ideal; he has not got a single answer to the questions of how to live, of what is right and what is wrong. He always hesitates, but it speaks not about his weakness, but of rationality, ability to think and make as right decision as possible. He takes people’s faults and flaws personally. He is also a humanist and views things from the standpoint of ethics and morality, making it hard for him to take revenge on his uncle. He knows that he should punish the betrayer and in such a way restore justice, but at the same time, he knows that it is not right to fight with evil using the same evil methods. The protagonist of the play suffers from inner struggle and tries to understand whether it is better to assume measures or to leave everything as it is. The themes of revenge and Hamlet’s “insanity” are both the most important topics in the tragedy. Hamlet seems so obsessed with the idea of revenge that many people think of his madness. People may always debate regarding the truthfulness of Hamlet’s insanity. Some people confuse the state of real madness with Hamlet’s feigned insanity. His depression, rude behavior, cruel judgments, and indistinct speech make others think that the prince has gone mad. However, Hamlet fakes his madness because it is easier for him to implement his plan when other people do not take him seriously. So, he pretends to be insane to hide his real aim of murdering Claudius. There are many factors that affect Hamlet’s behavior and increase his hesitation. Taking into account the historical aspect, Hamlet fights with his inner demons all the time. It is possible to compare Hamlet’s uncertainty and hesitation with the uncertainty of the whole world while Renaissance crisis of the sixteenth century. Religion as well as morality plays a significant role in the formation of Hamlet’s character. Hamlet’s dignity, morality, intellect, intrigue and the desire to change the world make him an extraordinary character.