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Learn all you need to know about the major characters in Hamlet, from Ophelia to Hamlet himself, with our character analysis and essay examples.
Hamlet’s dying words are: “The rest is silence”. The character who has more to say than any other in Shakespeare, ends with a typically enigmatic remark. Many theatre-goers and readers may agree that Hamlet has said everything he possibly could!
But of course he leaves us with numerous questions, about which there has been a colossal amount of discussion and controversy. And this will go on; there will never be a definitive answer to the enigma of Hamlet, and therefore of the play Hamlet either.
When we first meet Hamlet, he has much on his mind. His father, a greatly admired king, has recently died but young Hamlet has not become king (as you might expect). However he remains heir to the throne, while his mother has re-married his uncle (thus remaining queen), disturbingly she has done this very hastily, within a matter of months. Such marriages were not so rare when it was important to secure royal accessions. Henry VIII had married his brother’s widow. But Shakespeare, in this most psychological of all plays, focuses upon Hamlet’s human feelings, not upon political concerns. Hamlet is overwhelmed with disgust, with a profound depression: “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world.” We see this in the bitterly caustic replies he makes to Claudius.
This is bad enough; it becomes far, far worse when Hamlet then discovers from the ghost that his father has been murdered by his uncle, and that [probably] his mother was already having an affair with Claudius! Any young person, let alone one as sensitive as Hamlet, would find this knowledge intolerable.
So to what extent does all this explain the many questions asked of Hamlet during the play: Why does he delay taking revenge? Why does he treat Ophelia so badly? Why does he insist on the players re-enacting what the ghost has already told him? Why does he seek role-models in unsuitable characters like Pyrrhus and Fortinbras? Why does he not kill Claudius when he has the perfect opportunity? Can we accept the reasons he gives? Why does he allow himself to be sent away to England? And why, when he returns, does he seem a changed character?
Hamlet himself does talk about many of these issues, but they remain questions with no easy answers. What is more puzzling, and more interesting, marking a distinct break with the stories upon which Shakespeare drew, is that Hamlet always seems to ask the big questions, questions of philosophy, which seem greater than his immediate concerns. The most famous example – “To be or not to be” – exemplifies this, because, in the words of the French writer, Albert Camus, “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” What makes this even odder is that he talks of death as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn/ No traveller returns”, despite having spoken to his father, who seems to have returned from just such a country, albeit temporarily! No wonder, editors and producers have wondered whether this speech, coming soon after Hamlet has decided to stage a play “to catch the conscience of a king”, is rightly placed within the play. Should it not come earlier or later?
Critics have suggested he is paralysed by melancholy, or self-disgust, and has “an aversion to real action” [Coleridge]. Not at the end, but in Act Two Hamlet asks “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” But he calls mankind the “quintessence of dust”, even before he has looked into the empty eye-sockets of Yorick’s skull. Hamlet may be the perfect Renaissance prince, but his is trapped in lies and deceit; struggling to free himself, he brings down destruction on those he loves as well as on those he despises. From this all-too-human paradox, he cannot escape – nor can any of us. Which is perhaps Shakespeare’s final answer to the unanswerable.
Claudius has murdered his brother, and then married his brother’s wife. He may also have had an affair with her before the murder. When we first see him in Act One Scene Two, he is very much in charge and much enamoured of his new queen. At this point neither Hamlet nor the audience know how Hamlet’s father was killed. Claudius deals with impressive diplomacy with the threat of war with Norway, sending ambassadors to negotiate for peace. Claudius clearly has difficulty dealing with his surly nephew, but our view of him is relatively neutral until the ghost tells Hamlet that “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/ Now wears his crown.” From that point on, especially when we learn the gruesome details of the actual murder, and that “the royal bed of Denmark be/ A couch for luxury and damned incest”, we see Claudius as Hamlet sees him. When he tests Hamlet with Ophelia, spying on them, and also sets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find the cause of Hamlet’s bizarre behaviour, the paranoid atmosphere of Elsinore is established. Finally in Act Three, Claudius’s comment – “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience” – confirms his guilt, but only to the audience. Right to the end of the play, Claudius’s guilt is hidden from the other characters.
When we see Claudius praying, even though he admits to “the primal eldest curse” – like Cain killing Abel in the Old Testament – an audience may be glad that Hamlet does not exact revenge on a defenceless man in cold blood. But the later actions of Claudius – dispatching Hamlet to England with instructions that he be murdered there; then when that fails, coolly plotting with Laertes to ensure Hamlet does not survive the duel – destroy any traces of sympathy.
It is never absolutely clear whether Gertrude had an affair with her brother-in-law when her husband still lived, but the force of the ghost’s accusation – “won to his shameful lust/ The will of my most seeming virtuous queen” – strongly suggests she did just that. It is undeniable that Hamlet has major problems with her sexuality: “for at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame,” he says rather hopefully, while castigating Gertrude for going from “the front of Jove himself” in her old husband, to “a mildewed ear/ Blasting his wholesome brother”, in the new. Even Gertrude, appalled as she is at her son’s accusations, admits to “our o’erhasty marriage”, which seems to be the general opinion.
One of the many mysteries of the play is her reaction when Hamlet, in the closet scene, accused of “a rash and bloody deed” in killing Polonius, replies “Almost as bad, good mother,/ As kill a king and marry with his brother.” There is no evidence she was involved in the elder Hamlet’s murder – the ghost does not accuse her – and she comments, as if astounded, “As kill a king?” But she never follows this up or asks Hamlet for further explanation. The question remains unresolved between them.
In the original story, the Ophelia equivalent is a beautiful young woman, whom Amleth has known since childhood, and with whom he has had sex. She is used by Feng as bait, to test Amleth. But Amleth is warned, and swears her to secrecy. In Shakespeare’s play Ophelia is a much more complicated and tormented character. Indeed she is as much a victim of Hamlet, as Hamlet is of Claudius.
We first see her as a woman of independent spirit, standing up for herself under forceful male pressure applied by her brother and her father, in view of her relationship [probably not yet sexual] with Hamlet. She is then baffled by Hamlet’s behaviour when he visits her, “As if he had been loosed out of hell/ To speak of horrors.” The audience knows what Hamlet has learnt from the ghost; Ophelia does not, but she has, as instructed, “repel[led] his letters, and denied/ His access to me.”
In the circumstances in which they find themselves, the “prison” of Denmark, it is impossible for Hamlet and Ophelia to have a free relationship. When they do meet, Hamlet torments her, repeating “Get thee to a nunnery.” This fits with his sense of sexual disgust inspired by his mother’s behaviour, but it could equally be caused by his awareness that they are being spied upon by Claudius and Polonius. Which would mean he is not speaking sincerely. Ophelia is of course baffled; “I, of ladies, most deject and wretched.” And she sees Hamlet as “a noble mind...o’erthrown.”
Hamlet’s next action, killing her father, tips Ophelia over the edge into the very madness she thought she saw in Hamlet. The songs she plaintively sings, are full of sexual innuendo, showing, as in the whole play, natural energies perverted and misdirected, like Denmark itself, “rankly abused” in the ghost’s words.
When Hamlet returns at the moment of Ophelia’s funeral, he protests his love for her in exaggerated style, seemingly unaware that his own actions may have brought her to suicide. Thus she is a victim of the moral poisoning of the kingdom. Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.