Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, is a tragedy that instigates debate as to its interpretation especially regarding the lack of explicit, forthright truths that have heavy bearing to the procession of the plot of the play. Line 1 of Act 1’s first scene is “Who’s there?” and this line seems to set the tone of the rest of the play as Shakespeare treats the audience to mental roller coaster that leaves the audience not just questioning the play but questioning themselves.
The first instance that might have one thinking back to the first line of the play is Shakespeare’s use of one name for both sets of king and prince of Denmark and Norway; Hamlet and Fortinbras respectively. This is a shallow and literal taking to the line but it still makes one wonder why Shakespeare uses the same names for the kings and princes.
A character in a play is not simply what is covertly brought forth by the playwright, they tend to take a life of their own and have an existential reality that can be intuited by the audience. Hamlet himself (or to clarify, the younger Hamlet) gives credence to this truism. Hamlet, in Act 1 Scene V lines 92-112, seems to be resolute on avenging the death of his father but as the play proceeds, Hamlet seems to weaken his resolve for the vengeance he seeks. Vengeance is usually swift and an emotional affair but Hamlet, unlike Laertes, bides his time making an elaborate plot of staging the play to ascertain Claudius’ guilt. Hamlet also has a chance to kill Claudius in Act 3 Scene III but he hesitates by rationalizing that the Claudius would go to heaven if killed in prayer.
Hamlet also presents as a character that has wiles as shown by his interactions with Polonius, his decision to act crazy and his clever plot to stage the play “The Murder of Gonzago” as an allusion to the murder of his father yet he goes along with the wishes of Claudius in a show of gullibility. It is difficult to reconcile the two diametrically opposed sides of Hamlet; he is cunning and reads through the intentions of the king and yet proceeds to follow what the king wills of him even if it puts him at peril.
Hamlet has an intriguing relationship with Ophelia. In death, Hamlet professes his true love for Ophelia in Act 5 Scene I line 292 claiming that he loved her more than “forty thousand brothers” could. This is in stark contrast to how Hamlet treats Ophelia when she is alive as seen in Act 3 scene I line 122 he claims to not love her and in Line 145 tells her to go to a nunnery. What exactly does Hamlet feel for Ophelia, who is Ophelia to Hamlet?
Finally, the revenge that Hamlet finally achieves occurs by accident, so to speak. It is not in Hamlet’s plot to kill Claudius as he wantonly seemed before. It can even be assumed that hamlet kills Claudius not to avenge his father but as revenge for treachery against his mother. All through the play, the audience is left to wonder who exactly Hamlet is; is he an avenger or a forgiving man? Is he crazy or does he simply act crazy? Is he cunning or trusting and gullible? Does he love Ophelia or does he detest her?
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: first quarto, 1603. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.