Whether ic or modern, the power of tragedy still works to capture our imaginations with unforgettable stories and in depth analyses of individual characters. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Bernardo starts off the action by demanding to know “Who’s there?” (I, i, 1). As the action unfolds, Shakespeare tells the story of the young prince of Denmark who is informed by the ghost of his father that his Uncle Claudius, now married to Hamlet’s mother, murdered his father with poison. As the ghost demands vengeance, Hamlet seeks a way to both prove what the ghost has said and bring about the revenge that is demanded if the ghost is correct. Hamlet feigns insanity to discover the truth, but his character can still be ascertained by closely examining what he reveals about himself through his many speeches. .
Throughout much of the play, Hamlet’s speeches can be seen to indicate more than one aspect of his character, such as in the Player’s speech (II, ii). This scene has been interpreted as Hamlet trying to remind himself of the need for revenge, trying to prove the need for revenge or trying to stir himself into the action of revenge due to the nature of the play he suggests (Westlund, 1978). At the same time, it shows Hamlet’s tendency to approach life as if it were a play, constantly taking on new roles to fit the action he is confronted with. This is revealed in his admiration of the play as a true account of life: “I remember one said there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savory, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation, but called it an honest method, and wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine” (II, ii, 429-434). In his comparison of the roles available to him in this instance, he can be seen to relish neither one. As he describes Pyrrhus, his imagery is full of base, evil creatures, with which he has a difficult time associating himself. However, his sense of duty and honor, while it prevents him from willingly taking on the role of a murderer, also prevents him from allowing a foul, underhanded murder go, not only unpunished, but richly rewarded. “One part of him says that he must take revenge, another part finds it horrible; he attempts to reconcile these conflicting feelings by saying that he fears the Ghost may be a devil” (Westlund, 1978: 252). At this point, he can not find a role that allows him to both enact the revenge demanded and retain his own sense of worth and morality. “The possibilities open to Hamlet actually consist of these three alternatives: 1) Either he kills himself 2) or he kills the king 3) or he does not act at all” (McElroy, 1967: 543). As a result, Hamlet simply stalls for time and further justification by seeking proof that the Ghost is not leading him false.
This sense of indecision is seen to be somewhat resolved but still present as Hamlet considers killing the King while he is at his prayers in Act 3. In this scene, it becomes clear that Hamlet has a strong sense of justice as well as a deep and abiding anger regarding the murder of his father. Joseph McCullen, Jr. (1962) sums up the various reactions critics have had to this speech throughout the centuries, including everything from revulsion at Hamlet’s desire to destroy the man spiritually instead of just physically, disgust at his lack of action and admiration for his sense of honor in his unwillingness to attack an unarmed man. In truth, any or all of these assessments could be true as Hamlet can be seen to first determine to kill his uncle, and then talk himself out of it at he watches him at prayer. However, his own statements regarding the reasons he has withheld his hand seem to indicate a much stronger character than one who would cut and run, as he indicates a complete vengeance is necessary, “am I then revenged, / To take him in the purging of his soul, / When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?” (III, iii, 84-86). This idea is supported in an examination of Elizabethan philosophy as well. “If he must kill for personal reasons mainly, wisdom above that of a dog would demand complete revenge – both the physical destruction and the spiritual damnation of his enemy” (McCullum, 1962: 25). Rather than showing Hamlet to be a coward, then, this passage seems to illuminate him as an agent of God and a highly moral and principled individual now more settled regarding what he must do.
Through these two speeches in the play, it becomes apparent that while Hamlet has a strong sense of justice, honor and duty, he remains unclear on which belief system he should base his actions and on how this will affect him even as he remains convinced that the morality of the household is in his hands. This incredible sense of responsibility prevents him from acting immediately upon the words of the Ghost and throws him into a crisis of faith as he determines whether “’tis nobler in the mind” to seek bloody revenge with his own two hands, thus making himself an imperfect copy of his Uncle Claudius, or to leave the actions of revenge to God, as he has learned at school, thus forsaking his own father and dishonoring his promise to him and again rendering himself imperfect in the eyes of God. Hamlet’s inability to determine which is the greater of two evils, rather than a sense of cowardice or self-preservation, emerges as the central driving, or perhaps limiting, force of the play. Everything he does, from instigating the ‘mousetrap’ play to contemplating his own death to stalling his murder of the king to berating his mother’s actions centers upon his need to act in perfect accordance with the laws he’s been taught, both at home and away.
McCullen, Joseph T. Jr. “Two Key Speeches by Hamlet.” The South Central Bulletin. Vol. 22, N. 4., (Winter 1962), pp. 24-25.
McElroy, Davis D. “’To Be or Not to Be’ – Is That the Question?” College English. Vol. 25, N. 7, (April 1964), pp. 543-545.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Group, (1969), pp. 930-976.
Westlund, Joseph. “Ambivalence in the Player’s Speech in Hamlet.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 18, N. 2, (Spring, 1978), pp. 245-256.