Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy Hamlet has endured the tests of time and successfully lived on till our present era due to its exploration of prominent themes and core values which appeal to the human condition and resonate deeply in the contemporary world. Hamlet is open to a myriad of interpretations by a wide range of audiences which may transform throughout the examination of the play and thereby compels the viewer to reflect on its various aspects. Hamlet’s character, the nature of his madness, and Hamlet’s love for Ophelia are three facets of the play where my response has changed and developed.
One’s understanding of Hamlet’s character is highly susceptible to alterations as the play progresses. Initially, Hamlet’s period of deliberation and was perceived as cowardice, moral fastidiousness and over-intellectualisation to the point of apathy. An insight into Hamlet’s character through his second soliloquy where he concedes to his humiliating rhetorical question- “Am I a coward” by admonishing himself for being “pigeon-livered and lack gall” and failing to take action against “oppression”.
Hamlet’s obsession with upholding morality at the expense of purging evil is further enhanced in his third soliloquy where he states “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all”. This “conscience” prevents him from assembling the courage and determination to commence battle with Claudius despite knowing that he is a “smiling damned villain”. However, with increasing knowledge of the Elizabethan Christian context, previous perceptions of Hamlet as a weak and indecisive character have been eclipsed.
Firstly, the ghost of Hamlet’s father may have been “a spirit of health, or goblin damned” attempting to lure him into committing regicide and Shakespeare’s inclusion of superstitious elements influenced by the Elizabethan context ensures that such doubts and precautions are legitimate. The Christian context of the play accounts for Hamlet’s failure to seize revenge in the prayer scene which incorporates use of dramatic irony.
Hamlet believes that to murder Claudius when he “is a-praying” would be “hire and salary, not revenge” as he will ascend to heaven whilst his father languishes in purgatory and prefers to take action when he is performing “some act that has no relish of salvation in’t”. This would ensure that the villain cannot be saved. Hamlet also organises the play within the play where he is determined to “catch the conscience of the King” and this verifies that he is neither cowardly nor inactive but suggests that his actions assume a form of refined subtlety rather than brutality.
In his final soliloquy, the statement- “from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” also illustrates how Hamlet is capable of throwing off the shackles of irresolution and tackle his tormentor with vengeance when “the readiness is all”. Moreover, Hamlet’s belief that an immediate revenge against Claudius will be perceived as political ambition and thereby extinguish any hope of restoring morality in Denmark may also have been a reason for his deliberation.
This explanation is justified in the final scene as Hamlet forbids Horatio to follow him in death so he may draw his “breath in pain” and “report me and cause aright to the unsatisfied” to ensure that his legacy is not a tarnished reputation as a seeker of personal aggrandisement-“wounded name” but a status as a hero who pursued justice and has overcome corruption. The interpretation of the nature of Hamlet’s madness has also undergone significant transformation.
Hamlet’s adoption of an “antic disposition” which he ingeniously uses to avoid suspicion coupled with Polonius’ detection of a disconcerting wit behind the irony Hamlet’s savage insults of him as a “fishmonger” who prostitute or “loose” his daughter Ophelia- “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”, demonstrates a methodical and systematic logic behind Hamlet’s disguise. In spite of this, Hamlet’s paroxysm of anger in which he murders a spying Polonius was interpreted as a re-direction of his murderous impulses towards Gertrude where he was unable to suppress his uncontrollable rage, verging on madness.
However, Hamlet’s description of Polonius as a “wretched, rash and intruding fool” who acquiesced Claudius’ ascension to the throne, volunteers himself as a spy and uses Ophelia as a decoy to expose Hamlet’s guise demonstrates that Polonius is truly corrupt and justifies Hamlet’s decision to kill him. In addition, Hamlet’s remark that he mistakenly took Polonius “for thy better”- Claudius, reveals that behind his action was not homicidal fury but rather, a conscious decision to capitalise on the opportunity to seek revenge.
Furthermore, clear proof of Hamlet’s sanity can be seen in his “continual practice” of sword play since Laertes “went into France” which reflects on his constant preparation and plotting for revenge to the extent where he “shall win at the odds” and prevail evil. Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is another aspect of the play where my response has changed and developed. In Hamlet’s first soliloquy, his angered cry- “frailty, thy name is woman” reflects his prejudice and disillusion towards all women who are personified as weak and corrupted after condemning Gertrude for her sexual hypocrisy.
This preconceived distrust which Hamlet holds of women is only consolidated when Ophelia succumbs to pressures from her father Polonius urging her to break off ties with Hamlet- “I shall obey, my Lord”. Hamlet’s encounter with Ophelia after his third soliloquy presents the complexities regarding his affection for her. Hamlet’s satirical verbal lashings at Ophelia expressing his misogynistic contempt for the “wantonness” and “ignorance” of women along with his declaration- “I loved you not” reflects his seemingly implacable loathing towards her.
However, Claudius’ insightful observation that Hamlet’s behaviour “was not like madness” significantly transformed this initial view. Hamlet’s taunting of Ophelia- “Get thee to a nunnery” which is presented in a ruthless and condescending tone is in actuality, a manifestation of his love for her where she is advised to flee the temptations and wickedness of the world capable of tainting her chastity. Moreover, Hamlet’s emergence at Ophelia’s funeral in the graveyard scene where he declares passionately through use of hyperbole that his love for her exceeded that of “forty thousand brothers” verifies the sincerity of his true feelings.
The pretence of madness and indifference which Hamlet assumes under his “antic disposition” was insufficient in suppressing the maelstrom of emotions he felt at the death of “dear Ophelia”. As such, the examinations and reflections on the three aspects of Hamlet’s character, the nature of his madness and his love for Ophelia in the play during the process of critical study has resulted in significant change and development in my responses towards the play.