Examine critically the character of Hamlet as revealed through his soliloquies.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is considered to be one of the greatest playwrights of the 16th century and ‘Hamlet’ was one of his immortal tragedies that has created most critical and public opinion. His plays offer timeless messages but his attitudes and beliefs are all Elizabethan. All his plays dealt with themes that man could relate to anytime, in any age. That is why Shakespeare’s plays are said to be “not of an age, but for all time”.
The protagonist of the play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has a very complex character. He was a scholar prince, and a very meditative and philosophical one. He loved to read, and was planning to pursue further education but fate had different plans for him. He was thrust in a situation, which required immediate action, which he knew he was incapable of. He couldn’t be a man of action, which the situation demanded, and that was the heart f the tragedy. To top all that was his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle, which had a psychological effect on him and wounded him emotionally. His disgust for his mother’s hasty marriage is clearly seen with his direct reference to sex when he says, “As if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on.” Hamlet himself admits that fate had chosen the wrong person to take revenge as he was aware of his incapabilities and knew what his problem was. “O, cursed spite, That I was ever born to set it right!” Hamlet is seen as a character that evolves in front of the audiences’ eyes, as they realize that the Hamlet in the beginning of the play is not the same person at the end. In the beginning, Hamlet questions a lot and reflects upon his every move and action. But at the end of the play in the last scene, we see that Hamlet’s procrastination and hesitation is all gone. He reacts quickly when he realizes that his mother had been poisoned, and he ends Claudius life. If Hamlet had been a man of action, the tragedy would never have occurred but he had a philosophical bent of mind. He always analyzed the rightness and the consequences of the action. He went a bit too far, by not only thinking about the consequences of this world but the next world as well. All his decisions were subject to scrutiny. Hamlet is also seen to be a very shy character, because although he was a prince, he hated being the centre of too much attention. He states himself as being “too much in the sun”.
A lot about Hamlet is revealed through his soliloquies. A soliloquy is a dramatic device, which Shakespeare used to make his characters reveal their innermost thoughts. It was directed t the audience, only for them to know what the character felt about situations around him. In his soliloquy, Hamlet packs adjectives to show his dejection and disillusionment. The soliloquy starts with a supposition, “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew”. Hamlet is clearly seen as an escapist as he wants to run away from his duties and responsibilities. Here, he again gives the audience the impression that he is aware of his flaw. His wish to commit suicide is expressed clearly, but he knows he can’t do so as it goes against the laws of God. “That the Everlasting had not fixed his cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” Life has become a very futile excersise for him, where nothing seems to be holding his interest anymore. It has becomes very colourless and meaningless. We notice all this when he says, “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of the world!” His self-criticism becomes more obvious to the reader when he says in another soliloquy, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” He puts himself in the lowest rank of the social order, amongst the peasants and the farmers. He admits to the audience that he is a coward by saying, “Why, what an ass am I!” Hamlet seems to know exactly what his problem is, as he himself admits that he does nothing but “unpack my heart with words”. The audience by now is well aware of Hamlet’s desire to end his life, but later Hamlet questions his very existence by asking, “To be, or not to be-that is the question”. That is the existential question that is yet to be answered. Once more, we see Hamlet as an escapist as he wants to opt out of life instead of avenging his father’s death. He also asks, “Must I remember?” so we see that for Hamlet, oblivion is better than remembrance because for him, to remember is to grieve. He wonders whether it is wiser to remain unaware, unconscious, blind and deaf to what is happening around him. He shows a sensitive awareness of life. His soul-searching gives rise to a lot of conflicting questions and instead of facing them and finding a solution, he wants to give up his life. He is aware that man has to suffer manifold problems and be victimized by fortune (“the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’), but he is also aware that death is a “consummation devoutly to be wished”. He wishes to sleep that is the metaphor of death, but he also dreads “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil”. The Human existence is compared to a mechanism that is infested with sorrows. Hamlet also contemplates life after death and seeks to find an answer. He finally comes to this result that it is better to “bear those ills” we have now “than to fly to others that we know not of”. Life is painful and that is a known reality. But life after death is an unknown reality, an “undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns”. The “dread of something after death” makes it better to “grunt and sweat under a weary life”. In the end Hamlet opts to live because “conscience does make cowards of us all;” and resolution slowly fades away as it “is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” and great enterprises “lose the name of action”. The natural desire for revenge is drained out by too much thought. In this speech, time is personified as something hurting and torturing man as Hamlet says, “the whips and scorns of time”. Even resolution and determination is personified to have a “native hue”. Suggestions of death echo throughout Hamlet’s speeches, and his death-wish colours his talk and after this speech the audience realize that Hamlet is indeed, incapable of action.
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The Elizabethan/Tudor concept of the Divine Right of Kings is also reflected in Hamlet’s soliloquies. This concept is the belief that the king of a state is God’s appointed and that killing of a king would have unnatural consequences on the whole state. The Elizabethans believed that life was lived in an order and killing a king was a crime against the social order. A king’s decisions and whatever happened to him would have an indirect effect on the state. This idea is reflected in Hamlet’s speech when he compares the world, mainly Denmark, to an “unweeded garden that grows no seed” because he feels that there is a reversal of things where inferiority is valued. “Things gross and rank in nature possess it merely.” Hamlet says this in reference to Claudius being the king, ‘possessing’ the kingdom. The Tudor concept of the Divine right of Kings is seen here because according to the belief, the King isn’t an individual- he represents the whole state and the actions of a King would eventually affect his kingdom. Hamlet seems to be starkly aware of that fact too, because he states that Claudius marriage to his mother will “not, nor it cannot come to good”. Incest is a cardinal sin and no good will come out of it when the monarch himself is guilty of it and that’s why, according to Hamlet, Denmark is ‘diseased’.
In Hamlet’s last soliloquy we see how mentally stressed out Hamlet is, as everything around him reminds him of his “dull revenge”. Every situation reminds him of his dilemma, for instance the gathering of an army by Fortinbras for an invaluable piece of land. Hamlet compares himself with Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, who is impulsive and doesn’t hesitate before fighting. Hamlet seeks to get inspiration from Fortinbras, but the philosophical turn of mind runs so deep that he doesn’t change. The sensitivity is woven in his nature. Fortinbras doesn’t think twice before waging a war against Denmark and that too, for a small piece of land that Hamlet describes as an “eggshell” and a “straw”. But even these become significant when honour is at stake and this is what Hamlet admires is Fortinbras. Fortinbras is a decisive man of action who will carve out his destiny, while Hamlet would remain a puppet in the hands of fate swayed by the thoughts of the after-life. Fortinbras assembles and army but he has no actual purpose, but Hamlet has got a cause and yet, he is unable to do anything. Hamlet had a “father killed, a mother stained” whereas Fortinbras found “quarrel in a straw”. Fortinbras defies death and danger for an “eggshell” but Hamlet is continuously plagued by thoughts of the other world. But, at the end of the soliloquy, we see that Hamlet does try to change his attitude, as he says, “O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” After this soliloquy, the audience can’t help but to compare these two characters, as there are striking contrasts between the two. The audience is always included in the protagonist’s thoughts, through the soliloquies. Through these soliloquies we come to know that Hamlet is more of a scholar rather than a prince. Apart from Fortinbras, there are other characters too, that clash with Hamlet’s character. One of them is Laertes, brother of Ophelia. Laertes is Hamlet’s foil, foe and eventually killer. In the beginning we see that Laertes character is totally opposite to that of Hamlet’s. Laertes wanted to enjoy life to the fullest. He was a carefree man of the world. He wanted to go to France to enjoy life unlike Hamlet, who wanted to go to Wittenberg to complete his studies. It seems to the audience that Laertes came to Denmark only to attend the coronation and to show his loyalty to the new King. Other than that, when Laertes comes to Denmark he only disrupts the life of idleness because when he returned, his only aim was to avenge his father’s death.
Hamlet’s character is contrasting to Horatio’s character as well. Horatio is Hamlet’s model. Both the men were childhood friends but both of them differed a lot in their thoughts and temperament. Horatio was the ideal man amongst the four young men. He was a contrast to fickle, superficial people who are influenced by every wind of change because he was very stoic in his approach. His reaction towards everything was the same. He didn’t overreact to success or failure. He could maintain a balance between this head and heart. In the beginning, we see that Horatio is a sceptic; he doesn’t believe in the supernatural. This was unlike Hamlet who was a meditative prince. Horatio also had a calmness of mind that Hamlet didn’t. The only thing common in these two men was the fact that both of them subjected everything to close analysis, although Horatio never jumps to conclusions.
For Hamlet, his mother stands as an example of all womankind, and because of her shameful act, he loses faith in all women. His mother’s betrayal of hi father’s memory had caused Hamlet to compare all women. He felt deceived not only by his mother but by Ophelia too because she fails Hamlet when Hamlet needed her the most. The loss of faith in one woman leads to the loss of faith in all women. His loss of faith is seen when he says, “Frailty, thy name is woman”. He says this as he had been exposed Gertrude’s tendency o change feelings. He compares his mother to Niobe, who is the perfect example for deep mourning, when she was mourning for his father. But later, after marrying Claudius, Hamlet states that “a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer”.
The language used by Hamlet for his soliloquies is high and complicated, as there are too many riddles. This is because of two reasons. One because he is a prince of philosophy, and another, the complex situation he is caught in makes his speeches charged with emotion. But throughout the play, we see the change in Hamlet’s language as it becomes more and more colored with sexual innuendos. Hamlet’s language becomes increasingly bawdy as the play progresses. It becomes more and more vulgar and suggestive and gets punctuated with sexual flavor. One example of this is when he talks about his mother’s hasty marriage, he says “O, most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!”. He also makes a direct reference to sex when he says, “she would hang on him as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on”. Hamlet’s speeches were mostly charged with suggestions and they become more emotionally charged. Hamlet’s talks are weighed down with his views of the world. His philosophy reflects his views of the world. His speeches were also charged with cynicism and this cynicism was particularly directed at Denmark and its people. Every word Hamlet utters is weighed down with sarcasm, cynicism and bitterness.
Hamlet’s main problems are procrastination and vacillation. In modern terms, some people may also call Hamlet as being obsessive. Some may also state that Hamlet may be suffering from psychonuerosis- a state of mind where a person is unduly driven or prevented by the unconscious thought of his mind and Shakespeare has skillfully presented this condition with remarkable insight. Hamlet is a round character who evolves in front of the audience’s eyes. The Hamlet seen at the end of the play is not the same Hamlet we see in the beginning. Hamlet can be seen as an ordinary man in pursuit of revenge that he puts off for too long. He is what modern psychoanalysts would call maniac depressive-a term for people who show disgust for themselves and for the world. ‘Hamlet’ was a touching story, of a man, incapable of action and caught in the vortex of philosophical ramblings and in the end, the audience sympathized with the protagonist, who had every quality worthy of a man, but was cursed with one flaw.