How effectively does Shakespeare introduce the characters and themes of 'Hamlet'?

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AS English Literature: Hamlet- A brief study

Jaffar Al-Rikabi 12 - 2

How effectively does Shakespeare introduce the characters and themes of ‘Hamlet’? (Acts one and two)

“To be or not to be - that is the question” Hamlet famously declaims in the third act of William Shakespeare’s longest drama, and one of the most probing plays ever to be performed on stage. Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ was written around the year 1600 in the final years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who had been the monarch of England for more than forty years and was then in her late sixties. The prospect of Elizabeth’s death and the question of who would succeed her was a subject of grave anxiety at the time, since Elizabeth had no children, and the only person with a legitimate royal claim, James of Scotland, was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and therefore represented a political faction to which Elizabeth was opposed. ‘Hamlet’ and many other Shakespeare plays from this period, unsurprisingly, explore this theme of the transfer of power from one monarch to the next, particularly focusing on the uncertainties, betrayals, and upheaval that accompany such shifts in power, and the general sense of anxiety and fear that surround them. These themes of disorder, dilemma and indecision, madness and revenge and the discrepancy between appearance and reality are mainly explored through the main characters, principally Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia, and through the plot itself. Therefore, the first two acts in this drama are paramount in introducing the characters, and thus also themes, of Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’ for it to be regarded as one of the greatest plays ever to be written and staged in universal drama.

        As one critic, T.S. Elliot, remarks in his book ‘On Poetry and Poets’, “the opening scene of ‘Hamlet’ is as well constructed as that of any play ever written…”. Immediately, from the opening of the play, Shakespeare establishes a mood of anxiety and dread by using fragments of conversation, for example, ‘Nay, answer me, stand and unfold yourself’ and ‘Long live the King!’ The verses do not flow and their broken rhythms generate an atmosphere of unease, apprehension and confusion; this, and the fact that the play begins with the question ‘Who’s there?’ and is followed by six more in the next twenty lines, reveals from this early point of the play the notion of distrust and uncertainty that is prevalent throughout the play. In addition, the supernatural appearance of the ghost on a chilling, misty night outside Elsinore Castle indicates immediately that something is wrong in Denmark. The ghost serves to enlarge the shadow King Hamlet casts across Denmark, indicating that something about his death has upset the balance of nature. The appearance of the ghost also gives physical from to the fearful anxiety that surrounds the transfer of power after the king’s death, seeming to imply, as Horatio sees it, a dark and frightening future for all.

In addition, Horatio in particular sees the ghost as an ill omen, an ‘extravagant and erring spirit’, boding violence and turmoil in Denmark’s future. The introduction of this character in the scene is important in signalling to the audience that there can be no doubt of the Ghost’s existence or of its striking resemblance to the last King of Denmark, the valiant warrior, King Hamlet. This is due to the establishment of this character as a good-honoured man who is also educated, intelligent and sceptical of supernatural events. Before he sees the ghosts, he insists, ‘Tush, tush, ’twill not appear’, and even after seeing it he is reluctant to give full credence to stories of magic and mysticism. However, on seeing the ghost, Horatio’s ability to accept the truth at once, even when his predictions had been proven wrong, indicates the fundamental trustworthiness of his character. His reaction to the ghost functions to overcome the audience’s sense of disbelief, since for a man as sceptical, intelligent and trustworthy as Horatio to believe in and fear the Ghost is far more convincing than if its only witnesses had been a pair of superstitious watchmen. In this subtle way, Shakespeare introduces Horatio from the first scene of the play not only to inaugurate the themes of disorder and uncertainty but also to represent the audience’s perspective throughout this dark and ghostly scene.

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In a seemingly stark contrast, the second scene of the play is devoted to the apparently jovial court of the recently crowned King Claudius. If the area outside the castle is murky with the aura of dread and anxiety, the rooms inside the castle are committed to an energetic attempt to banish that aura, as the king, queen, and the courtiers desperately pretend that nothing is out of the ordinary. Claudius’s opening speech appears relaxed, level-headed, eloquent and persuasive. In spite of this, Shakespeare signals to the audience, long before they hear Claudius confess it, that the King’s public mask ...

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