Hamlet: How does Shakespeare build up to the climax in the final scene?
Although Shakespeare wrote many plays, one would not be criticised for saying that Hamlet is his most famous. Based on the true story of Amleth, Prince of Jutland, Hamlet tells the story of a young boy in turmoil after he suspects that his Uncle murdered his father to marry his mother and become king. Although the play is full of drama, the climax of the play is the final scene (Act 5 Scene 2) which Shakespeare has built up to in a number of different ways.
The character development of Hamlet is one of the most important ways he built up to the climax. At the start of the play Hamlet is very shy and moody. The King has noticed, as he says “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” (Act 1 Scene 2) The only outward sign of the person he will become is when he says “A little more kin, and less than kind!” after the King says that Hamlet is his son (Act 1 Scene 2) Although this could just show that Hamlet is more outgoing and cheeky than he seems, it also shows a deep mistrust and dislike for Claudius right at the start of the play, before Hamlet even knows that he killed his father. This shows an intelligence and understanding of character, but it could also show a deep mistrust for people. Shakespeare has cleverly used these layers of meaning to make the audience wonder just exactly what Hamlet is really like. After Hamlet talks with the Ghost, Ophelia is telling Polonius what he did when he came to see her. Ophelia says
“He took me by the wrist and held me hard/ Then goes he to the length of all his arm/ And with his other hand thus o’er his brow/ He falls to such/ As ‘a would draw it” (Act 2 Scene 1)
The audience would be shocked by Hamlet hitting Ophelia. They may suspect that he has feelings for her, as he has already taken his feelings out on his mother who he loves. Yet they do know that Ophelia has done nothing wrong, so they may be confused as to why he has hit her. They may become very interested in what Hamlet will do next. When Hamlet is speaking to Polonious and calling him a “fishmonger” (Act 2 Scene 2) he has started to come out of his shell, and is no longer wary of the effect his words may have. Of course, Hamlet being cheeky to Polonious could also mean that he is deeply suspicious of Polonious and his true intentions, so Shakespeare has cleverly shown how intelligent Hamlet really is. He has done this especially by his use of language. The word “fishmonger” could either mean someone who is like pond life or someone who was being nosy, i.e. “fishing” about in Hamlet’s business.
A very important character development is in Act 3 Scene 1, with Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. In this soliloquy he is speaking about suicide, for example “and by a sleep to say we end/ The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ that flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wished” which basically means “If I die I’ll not have to suffer heartache and all the thousands of bad things that happen to living people. It’s some amazing that I want to have” Later on in that soliloquy he says “To sleep-perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ when we have shuffled off this mortal coil” which means “If death is just a sleep, what dreams will we have?” or “Will I be in Heaven or hell?” This is not the first time he has thought about this, as in Act 1 Scene 2 he has a soliloquy where he says “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/ his cannon against self-slaughter” which means “God says it’s wrong to kill yourself, so if I do what punishment will I have?” This may shock the audience, because Hamlet has become so depressed he is thinking of taking his own life. In this time period, it was considered wrong to take your own life as people were religious and thought that God should decide when it was your time to die, which was why murder was thought of as such a bad thing. Also, the idea of suicide is surrounded in philosophical questions: if a person doesn’t want to live, should that have to? What happens after death? Do heaven and hell exist? The fact that he is talking about Heaven and Hell shows that he is wondering if he has been “good” or “bad” through his life, which may make the audience wonder how “bad” he really is and how “bad” he is yet to be. This is building up to the climax as the audience is in suspense as to whether what he will do that is “bad” and what he will do that is “good”.
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Later, in Act 3 Scene 1 Hamlet is speaking to Ophelia. He is using very poetic language but insulting her, i.e. “Ha ha! Are you honest?” and “You should not have believed me. For virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not” This may make the audience dislike Hamlet because they know he loves Ophelia and she has done nothing wrong. He is simply being mean to take his temper out on her, and this is a development because the “old Hamlet” would have been nice to her despite his foul mood, and is showing that Hamlet is becoming less considerate. This may have something to do with Hamlet going mad, because it’s usually mad men who hurt the ones they love for no apparent reason. This is building up to Hamlet’s madness later, and building up the climax of because he’s mad he may do something exiting or terrible, and the audience will want to know what.
The next development is in the next scene where he is being seemingly polite, yet giving the impression of a madman. He tells his family and family friends that Ophelia is beautiful (“Here’s metal more attractive”) and then teases her by saying
“Shall I lie in your lap?” “No, my lord” “I mean, my head upon your lap” “Ay, my lord” “Do you think I meant country matters?”
He is almost flirting with her, which is obviously affection Ophelia because she loves him. His language is very poetic like it was when he was insulting her, but now it is not needed to sweeten the blow of an insult so it is slightly less poetic. She is calling him “my lord” which shows that she has respect for him. By using the word “country” he is almost saying “We’re better than those in the country Ophelia, we’re grander and worth more than them” which will flatter her and make her feel good about herself. The audience will either think he has gone mad or think that he is becoming cunning in the way he is dealing with others. Either way, it is developing his character in a way that will build up to the climax of the play.
After the players have acted The Mousetrap later in this scene, Hamlet is left alone and starts to speak about the way he will talk to his mother about Claudius. He says “Let me be cruel, not unnatural. I will speak daggers to her, but use none” The word “cruel” shows that Hamlet knows he is being nasty and not kind to his mother, but doesn’t really care. “Unnatural” shows that he is justifying the way he is speaking to his mother, saying that it is natural to be angry at someone if they have done what his mother has done. The word “daggers” give the impression of a weapon, which Shakespeare has made Hamlet use because one uses a weapon to harm someone, and Hamlet wants to use his words to hurt his mother. It’s also a very fierce sounding word, which will make Hamlet’s words sound fiercer. By saying this he is showing that he thinks that his mother is wrong and he is very angry with her, but not angry enough to kill her and he still loves her. This is a development as he has started to plan who he is going to kill and who he isn’t, which shows that he has become calculating and is now prepared to kill which, Hamlet earlier in the play may not have been able to.
Later in this scene again, Hamlet is about to murder Claudius but sees he is praying. He says “Now might I do it pay, now ‘a is a-praying/And now I’ll do’t. And so ‘a goes to heaven/And so I am revenged. That would be scanned/A villain kills my father, and for that/ I, his sole son, do this same villain send/ To heaven”
This shows that Hamlet doesn’t just want to avenge his father, he wants to get revenge and wants to hurt Claudius. The build up to the climax in this is that the audience are beginning to eagerly anticipate just how Hamlet will get revenge on Claudius. He has developed into a character more scheming than before. In Act 3 Scene 4, Hamlet becomes enraged and Gertrude fears he might murder her (“What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?”) This shows that Hamlet is now more open than he was at the beginning about showing his emotions, and his emotion at the moment is fury. It also shows that Gertrude is very weak. When Hamlet kills Polonious, he says “Thou retched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!” He has developed into a character that shows no remorse for others at all. Also, this is the first murder. Hamlet has switched from a character only thinking about murder to a character capable of committing it. Many people often dream of killing people they don’t like, (the phrase “I’ll kill you” is often used in temper) but now that Hamlet is actually capable of committing the murder he has become much darker than the average man. The play changes tone, and becomes far more dangerous than before. Now Hamlet can commit murder, the audience want to know when his next murder will be. Hamlet later becomes so disgraceful that in Act 5 Scene 1 he says he would fight Laertes at his sister’s funeral (“I will fight with him upon this theme”) This is a truly horrible way to behave, and shows that Hamlet has become so ruthless he no longer feels about decency or respect. If he has no feelings of decency and respect, he can kill whenever and wherever he wants. Seen as though he is desperate to kill Claudius, now he has no decency or respect the murder could happen at anytime and anyplace. The tension of when and where will it happen is a fantastic build up to the final climax.
In the final scene, Act 5 Scene 2 he is talking to Horatio with no feelings of guilt or remorse for killing his friends, i.e. “They are not near my conscience” He is, in fact, boasting about killing his friends by going into lots of unnecessary detail about what he did. This is when the development of Hamlet is complete: he has turned from a innocent and slightly awkward boy into a ruthless and cunning man. This builds up to the climax as the climax of the play is where Hamlet is fully developed.
I mentioned in the above paragraph about Gertrude. Throughout the play she has two personas: fierce and dependant woman who is disloyal to her husband and shy, innocent woman who has been tricked into marrying an evil man. At the start she is the first persona, encouraging Hamlet to stop grieving for his father (“Cast thy nighted colour off” Act 1 Scene 2) This will make the audience feel cross with her, and may even make them wonder whether she ought to be punished in some way as well as Claudius. She also has this persona when she is telling Hamlet off, but when he says “Where you may see the inmost part of you” she thinks he is going to kill her (he actually was talking about seeing inside her soul) and the persona drops and she becomes weak and scared, crying out for help. Later in this scene she is totally on Hamlet’s side, saying “What shall I do?” when he tells about his plan. This persona switch ties in with a recurring theme in the play that all is not what it seems, i.e. Claudius being so kind in the final scene, Hamlet being insane, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pretending to be Hamlet’s friends. The fact that nothing is what it seems builds up the tension of the audience finding out This builds up to the climax because Gertrude is finally on Hamlet’s side (“The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet”) and the audience wonder what will happen to her, and will she be punished for betraying Hamlet’s father or will her saying she’ll do what Hamlet wants to be done.
There is irony in the fact that Claudius murdered so he could marry the Queen, but because of him she dies. Claudius does not seem to truly love her because in the final scene although he says “Gertrude, do not drink” when she is about to drink poison, he does not try to persuade her to stop anymore. The Queen was really one of the innocent people in the play, because although she was disloyal to her first husband she did not murder (although there are hints that she was adulterous to her husband with Claudius) When the Queen dies, the truth about Claudius is known. This ties into some of Shakespeare’s other plays, such as Romeo and Juliet and Othello where the main characters have died so that what the main characters were fighting for can be seen. In all of these plays it’s fair to say that it was not morally right that the characters should have to die, and Shakespeare has carried on this theme in this play.
I mentioned that Hamlet was linked to Romeo and Juliet in that the innocent had to die for the truth to be known, but there are also other similarities. For example, Hamlet and Romeo are some of the only unmarried males in Shakespeare’s plays. But also there seem to be similarities in the families in both: the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet, and Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet and Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes in Hamlet. In both there are two families in close proximity which have two of their children in love. The difference is, in Hamlet one family is accepting of the love whilst the other isn’t. But the feuding families are like the feuding “teams” in Hamlet: Polonius, Claudius and Laertes in one team, Hamlet and Horatio the other with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia and Gertrude in neither one or the other. His intention was to show that in life, there are teams and they will gang up on you whether they’re in your family or not. There are people who are friends to both teams (Ophelia, Gertrude) as well, but his main intention was that there will be many casualties from both teams and the impartial people. He’s showing that gang fights aren’t good things to do, and also building up the tension of “Which gang will win?” and “Who will the casualties be?”
There are other literary traditions that Shakespeare likes to use: for example, ghosts. In both Macbeth and Hamlet, ghosts of murdered people come back to visit those alive, albeit for different reasons. In both of these plays, the person seeing the ghost either is or is pretending to be insane. Shakespeare also likes to use magic in his plays, for example the Witches in Macbeth and the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Finally, in his tragedies he likes having the main characters die at the end, for example Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. The effect of this is that if the audience have seen any other of his plays, they will kind of know what to expect and there will be a build up to the climax as the audience wonders when the death will happen and why it will happen.
I mentioned that Hamlet is like Romeo and Juliet, with Hamlet as Romeo. This of course means that Ophelia is Juliet, and she has been used effectively to build up to the climax. Women especially may have high emotion when they regard Ophelia: apart from Gertrude who as I said is not quite a “good guy” but not quite a “bad guy” she is the only female in the play, and therefore women could become quite attached to her. Throughout the play Hamlet has been very cruel and fickle towards Ophelia, toying with her emotions. In Act 3 Scene 1 he attacks her, yet he asks if he can “lay in her lap” (i.e. have sex with her) in Act 3 Scene 2. He insults her constantly, yet speaks in a very poetic and beautiful way when around her, presumably to make her fall in love with him. Plus, although this is not Hamlet’s fault, she is in turmoil because her father and brother have warned her off him, yet his mother speaks of how she hopes Ophelia and Hamlet will marry. The women in the audience will automatically feel empathetic because many of them will have felt something like this before. The teenagers and girls will feel sympathetic because they will have seen this happen and can imagine how awful it must be to feel like this. When Hamlet kills her father and Ophelia goes mad, the entire audience will feel sorrow because Ophelia has never done anything to deserve this: she has obeyed her father, been good to Hamlet, been polite to the Queen and not plotted or planned anything against anyone and yet she has to endure something as upsetting as this. This builds up to the climax as if someone as good as Ophelia is getting hurt, what will happen to the “bad” characters at the end of the play? The build up is the tension when the audience wonders what will happen and when. When Ophelia dies it will change the tone of the play immediately to misery as she is the most likeable character in the play and the audience will feel gloom at her death.
Although Ophelia has the purpose of changing the tone, she also is very symbolic of Hamlet’s innocence and purity. She is the only character in the play who hasn’t sinned in someway. Even characters like Polonius (extremely nosy and interfering) and Gertrude (disloyal, incestuous) have some aspect of their personality which is less than perfect. Yet Ophelia’s only defect is her naiveties, which makes her poignant and seem all the more appealing. When Ophelia says
“I shall the good effect of this lesson keep/ As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,/ Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,/ Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven/ whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine/ Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads/ and recks not his own rede”
in response to Laertes warning about Hamlet, she means “I’m listening to what you’re saying, but please don’t tell me to do this when you will do the total opposite. I trust what you’re saying to me” which makes her seem very sweet and intelligent, yet very naïve because she is accepting the lecture without question. When Hamlet treats her unkindly it signifies that Hamlet is being “unkind” to his innocence and purity, when Ophelia goes insane it signifies that his innocence and purity are not the same as they used to be, when Ophelia dies it signifies that the innocence and purity he used to have are now dead and when Hamlet fights with Laertes at Ophelia’s funeral it shows that Hamlet really doesn’t care that the “good” part of him is gone. Shakespeare has done this to subconsciously tell the audience that Hamlet is changing which will build up to the climax as he changes into a person that no longer has innocence and purity, and will now kill and get revenge as he wants. The build up is that the audience knows he will and they are waiting for it to happen.
Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship is an important one, but so is the relationship between Horatio and Hamlet. Horatio finds out about the ghost and immediately wants to tell Hamlet, and when Hamlet has spoken to the Ghost and feels he has offended Horatio he says “I am sorry they offend you heartily” Although at this point of the play it seems like they are best friends, towards the end of the play it seems like Horatio and Hamlet are servant and master, with Hamlet giving long speeches and Horatio saying only “Is’t possible?” and “That is most certain” etc. This could be because Hamlet is a great and worthy person who Horatio respects despite what he has done (which is similar to Banquo respecting Macbeth despite what he has done) but it could also be saying that Hamlet treats his friends like servants. However, it appears to be the former because at the end when Hamlet is dying, Horatio says “Here’s yet some liquor left” and is willing to die for Hamlet. However, Hamlet begs Horatio to stay alive and tell the story. Is this because Hamlet wants Horatio to stay alive, or because he wants Horatio to tell the story so he is not looked upon as a bad person? The friendship has been used in the last scene to show that Hamlet isn’t a bad person, he does have people to grieve for his death. Shakespeare realised that if Horatio was not there, Hamlet would have no-one to grieve for all his loved ones (Gertrude, Ophelia, his father) have been killed and Hamlet is not really a bad person. The response to this is that the audience goes away thinking that Hamlet was right to do what he is, even if beforehand they were having doubts. Shakespeare has done this to make it very clear that Hamlet isn’t just a “main character” in a play, he is the hero and he is the good person in the play.
The final scene is very dramatic, not just because Shakespeare has built up to it but because Shakespeare has used many devices in this too. There is dramatic irony, because the audience knows that Laertes is going to try to kill Hamlet but Hamlet doesn’t know. There’s also irony in the fact that Claudius is cheering on Hamlet and calling him his son but is actually plotting to kill him. The short sentences in the fight also add drama, because the fewer lines there are to say, the more action there is to take their place. When Hamlet discovers that Claudius has killed his mother as well as his father, plus plotted to kill him he goes slightly crazy which adds the drama of “What is he going to do?” When Hamlet finally kills Claudius, it is right at the end of the play so the tension that was there right from the start has built up right until the very end. Even though Hamlet has done so many bad things, Shakespeare has cleverly written it so that Hamlet feels like a close friend to the audience, and like a close friend you can forgive him what he’s done.
It’s using these methods that Shakespeare has built up to the climax. By developing things steadily throughout the play, i.e. Hamlet’s character, the friendship between Horatio and Hamlet, and letting Hamlet loose in the final scene, the climax is just about as climactic as it could be.