Analyse the ways in which Shakespeare uses the dramatic monologue to trace the development of Hamlet’s character
Throughout the course of the play we see Hamlet go through a variety of character developments. These have been particularly pronounced in the four soliloquies that we have studied, as we can judge the changes between his different states of mind more clearly.
The first soliloquy appears in Act 1, Scene 2, shortly after the death of Hamlet’s father and the remarriage of his mother to his uncle. In this scene we see Hamlet trying to grasp control of his situation however not really succeeding in his attempts. On the surface Hamlet appears to have accepted the situation but from the first few lines of the monologue we can tell that his mind is still in turmoil and that he is struggling for acceptance, ‘O, that this too too solid flesh’ to ‘O God! God!’ Shakespeare’s use of metaphor also gives the impression that Hamlet is not entirely content with the situation, as he would lead others to believe. The use of phrases such as ‘solid flesh would melt’, ‘thaw’ and ‘dew’ indicate that Hamlet feels as though his emotions are frozen, most likely from shock about the situation he has found himself in where he no longer feels trusting of his own family. This use of an extended metaphor by Shakespeare could also mean that Hamlet wishes his body was made of snow or ice and so he could physically disappear. Hamlet appears to be feeling in a manic, desperate, despondent state of mind in this soliloquy, as is shown when Hamlet says, ‘Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!’ The fact that suicide was even being considered as an option by Hamlet signifies the dark place that he is in following the recent events of the play, as suicide was considered a sin in the late Elizabethan era when the play is set. Shakespeare also writes using a list in this soliloquy: ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.’ This emphasises what is being said and Hamlet’s state of mind at this stage of the play. The words used in the list are also particularly influential in determining Hamlet’s mental state as Shakespeare adopts emotive language. The list presents the fact that Hamlet is tired of pretending (‘weary’); his life seems to have gone rotten (‘stale’); he feels tired of living (‘flat’); and he has nothing to live for (‘unprofitable’). Although Hamlet reveals his true feelings in the soliloquy, he persists in refusing to disclose them to anyone else and in putting a masked face out to the world- acting, a common theme which recurs throughout the entire play. This presents Hamlet’s character as being determined and not wanting to offload his worries to others. Hamlet is also vehemently disgusted at his mother’s marriage to Claudius and so cannot even bring himself to express anything about the nuptials, referring to it simply at ‘this’. This vague term could suggest his disgust at what his mother has done and therefore cannot even speak it. This also represents the stubborn side of his character, and his refusal to accept things that he does not like. In this soliloquy, hamlet is feeling a mixture of anger and sadness that his father’s deep love for his mother was not reciprocated: ‘Hyperion to a satyr’ to ‘Heaven and earth!’ He is also torn as to whether his mother married Claudius for love, through fear of persuasion, or simply to maintain her high social status as Queen in the court, as women were not considered important on their own account at the point in history in which the play is set. The contrasting comparison in the phrase ‘Hyperion to a satyr’ also proves Hamlet’s disgust at his mother, as a satyr is a half-man half-goat creature that represents lechery. These negative views towards women have a resulting effect on Ophelia further through the play. Towards the end of the soliloquy Hamlet views himself as a hypocrite, due to the fact that he is about to rejoin the play and so has to put back on his mask, ‘But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.’ Hamlet is being especially hard on himself because he has just accused his mother of being a hypocrite and he does not want to be like his mother after what she has done. One of the subtler techniques that Shakespeare uses to let the audience know that Hamlet is no longer in control is the irregular iambic pentameter. There are moments in the soliloquy when the blank verse becomes irregular, suggesting that although Hamlet may feel as though he is acting calmly, subconsciously his mind is slipping.
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The second soliloquy harbours feelings much the same as the first: desperation, anger and turbulence of mind. We can also tell that Hamlet is confused at this point in the play, as the soliloquy is littered with rhetorical questions, especially in the section, ‘Am I a coward?’ to ‘Who does me this?’ Hamlet knows the answers to these questions, but is afraid to confront the truth. Shakespeare also uses the irregular iambic pentameter in this soliloquy to show the points where Hamlet stumbles over his thoughts. The emotions in this soliloquy are heightened and extreme, as Hamlet tortures himself by saying what he thinks he ought to do, ‘Had he the motive’ to ‘yet I’. He is full of self loathing as he compares himself to the actor and he is wanting, because he does nothing. Hamlet thinks in this second speech that because he is a man of inaction he has become dull and all of the words he uses to describe himself are negative, ‘rascal’, ‘muddy’, ‘rogue’ and ‘peasant slave’. Shakespeare also uses alliteration and lists in this soliloquy, combining both these techniques in the phrase ‘bloody, bawdy villain’. The alliteration provides emphasis for the words and the fact that Hamlet still cannot refer to Claudius by name at this point in the play, maybe the reason partly being because he feels that by dehumanising him, it will make him easier to kill. Another example of Shakespeare’s use of a list is in the phrase, ‘remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindles villain!’ This also emphasises all the negative words that Hamlet is calling Claudius, again along with the fact that he cannot refer to him by name. Towards the end of the soliloquy, Hamlet starts to become unsure of himself, as he starts to make excuses to support why he should not kill Claudius. This can be seen in ‘I’ll tent him to the quick’ to ‘abuses to damn me’ when he is trying to convince himself that the ghost he saw was the devil, when his first opinion was that ‘it was an honest ghost’. The last two lines of the monologue are a rhyming couplet which shows that Hamlet once again feels ready to put back on his mask and go out to face the world.
In the third soliloquy Hamlet becomes even more melancholic and dejected, as he starts to debate the positives and negatives to living. As he was living in the early seventeenth century, this would have been considered a sin and so he must have been feeling incredibly despondent to have even considered suicide. Shakespeare uses a metaphor in this soliloquy to describe death, as he uses ‘sleep’ as a constant theme throughout. This could possibly be to reduce his fear of death and to make killing Claudius seem like less of a momentous issue. Another metaphor which is used by Shakespeare in this monologue is to compare life to a battle, ‘the slings and arrows’ through to ‘a sea of troubles’. This depicts life as being full of constant struggle and indeed, Shakespeare uses only negative words such as ‘suffer’, ‘heart-ache’ and ‘the thousand natural shocks’ to describe life and this again makes death seem all the more peaceful to Hamlet. The comparison to the battle also means that Hamlet can either be passive or active, which is a choice he has been struggling with throughout the play. The opening line of the soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be’ shows that Hamlet is despairing in life and is willing for it all to end. This would have been seen as a sin in history, because it would mean you had lost your faith in God. Shakespeare also uses a list for the negatives of life from ‘the whips and scorns of time’ to ‘that patient merit of the unworthy takes’. This also shows that Hamlet is now feeling melancholic. Another metaphor that Shakespeare uses is ‘the undiscover’d country’ which is used to describe life after death. This metaphor then continues to say ‘no traveller returns’. This relates to the fact that no one knows what comes after death and shows that Hamlet is clearly wondering about it; this also shows that his state of mind is dejected. Shakespeare also features dramatic irony in the soliloquy; Hamlet has decided to take no action in killing himself, therefore deciding to take action in killing Claudius. Hamlet mentions ‘conscience’ quite a lot in each of the monologues as this is what he believes separates humans from the animals. It is also because he is struggling with his own conscience whilst trying to do what is right. As the play is set at a time where the Elizabethan views of revenge and the Renaissance views of one’s own conscience are coinciding, Hamlet is finding it difficult to choose between which path he thinks he should take, making him distressed. The last word of the soliloquy is ‘action’ which is a common theme throughout the play. This again links into the whole conscience idea and whether or not Hamlet should avenge his father’s murder or not.
The last soliloquy is more reflective and thoughtful than the other three, showing how Hamlet has grown throughout the play. The recurring motif of death as a sleep also appears at the beginning of this monologue. Shakespeare uses the phrase ‘to fust in us unused’ which is Hamlet again referring to himself as being a man of inaction. He is obviously still scared of death, as he refers to it as ‘bestial oblivion’, showing his fear of launching into nothing, but he is prepared to live by his own morals, making way for the rest of the Renaissance period, ‘craven scruple’. Hamlet is aware that he only thinks and never takes action as he says ‘of thinking too precisely on th’ event’ and he is still full of self loathing as he calls himself ‘coward’ again, which he has done repeatedly throughout the soliloquies. For the first time throughout the play, Hamlet looks outside of himself in this soliloquy, ‘to do’t. Example gross as earth exhort me.’ In this monologue, Hamlet looks upon Fortinbras as a role model, as he describes himself as a ‘delicate and tender prince’ and believes him to not be fearful of death. Hamlet then starts to relate the situation back to his own circumstance. As Fortinbras is leading an army to conquer such a small area of land that there would not even be enough room ‘to hide the slain’ for no good reason, Hamlet decides that as he has more reason to kill Claudius he must be a weaker man for not taking action himself. The last two lines of this soliloquy are a sight rhyme, ‘forth’ and ‘worth’. This indicates that although Hamlet is pretending everything is tolerable on the surface, deep down he does not believe this to be the case.
Hamlet appears to have many of the same feelings and thoughts in the span of the four soliloquies and even in his dying words. In his final words, Hamlet says that ‘the rest is silence’, this is again talking about life after death and how no one is allowed to know what comes after death. It also shows that Hamlet is worrying about it right up until the moment he dies. Hamlet’s state of mind is one of melancholy, despair and turbulence throughout the play, although in the fourth soliloquy he becomes more thoughtful and reflective, thinking more outside himself. This shows how he has grown throughout the play as a person, as he is thinking more of his own conscience and what he thinks is right than of the traditional view of the time about his father’s revenge.