“For all his talk, Hamlet’s state of mind and motivations are no clearer at the end of Hamlet than they were at the beginning.” Evaluate this proposition playing close attention to relevant aspects of dramatic technique in Shakespeare’s play, including discussion of at least three of Prince Hamlet’s soliloquies.
To evaluate Hamlet’s state of mind and motivations is a challenge. As Hamlet himself puts to Guildenstern, “Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.” In this literary analysis, like Guildenstern, I also seek to play Hamlet to a tune, and that tune aims to reveal that Hamlet’s motivations and state of mind are clear and do change and develop contrary to the proposition. There are key differences in the Hamlet at the beginning of the play and the Hamlet who returns from witnessing Fortinbras’ marching troop and the pirates after his short-lived exile from Denmark – which can be shown through several soliloquies and supported by dramatic technique employed intentionally used by Shakespeare to this end. Though there are several veins of consistency to Hamlet’s character which will also be discussed.
The Hamlet we are introduced to at the start of the play is confused, disillusioned, and a shadow of his former self. He even dresses as a shadow, suited in black clothing he still griefs for his father despite his mother begging him to “cast thy nighted colour off.” Soon after Hamlet, who is ever vigilant on the use of language, jumps on the word “seem” that Gertrude uses, in which he argues that he “know not seems” but is genuinely grieving (Andrews 2014). This brief rebuke is an important introductory point to Hamlet’s character for it founds a basis for his basic honesty which he displays in his heartfelt soliloquies throughout Hamlet – and it is also an ironic one in that Hamlet is doubted when he displayed his grief truly and openly but then believed without challenge when he perpetrates his false madness.
His grief is exacerbated by the apparent “o’erhasty marriage” between Gertrude and Claudius which Hamlet sarcastically exclaims that that “the funeral baked-meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” We see the true extent of his depression and disillusionment in the immediately felts succeeding soliloquy (I ii 129) and the famous “To be…” soliloquy (III i 56). In the former, he establishes his perspective of the world, which he sees as “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” and expresses his view on women as being the embodiment of “frailty.” In the latter, Hamlet elaborates on his role in this “sea of troubles” in which he can “take arms against“ or “suffer the arrows of fortune”, though the choice has no real consequence since both paths lead to the same end: “to die, to sleep.” This Hamlet is deep in melancholy both before and after the Ghost appears but we do see brief yet bright glimpses of a previously passionate person (Bradley 1991). When the players arrive in Elsinore, Hamlet’s energetic remarks and open joy cut through his sorrow and façade of madness as he bids them welcome and asks for “a passionate speech.” Another source of this joy is the possibility of coherent action towards avenging his father, finally he can make a proper strike wherein he can “catch the conscience of the king” and also protect his own moral nature being confirming the truth in Ghost who he suspects could be a devil assuming “a pleasing shape.”
Hamlet is repeatedly described as “transformed” and described by several characters as being previously a passionate scholar at Wittenberg, logic dictates if his state of mind changed from external events of his father’s death and uncle’s usurpation then it can once again change in the future. A primary example is Hamlet himself expresses his change of behaviour when he witnesses the passing army of Fortinbras (IIII iv, 30), moved by the soldier’s willingness to sacrifice themselves “when honour’s at the stake” despite their call to action being the defence of land “which is not tomb enough and continent / To hide the slain.” Hamlet resolves that the call to action can be as thin as “an egg-shell” then considers all the dishonour that he has suffered and feels shame at his inaction where he concludes that from now on his “thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.” This soliloquy provides valuable insight into the changed Hamlet that will return from the pirates. Evidence of this change being more than mere ‘talk’ as the proposition suggests is found in his conversations with Horatio in which he admits that he has sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths and feels no remorse for “for his old schoolfriends” that Hamlet expresses “are not near my conscience” (Bradley 1991). This point is further conveyed when he also reflects, with no remorse, on the thought of violence in the duel, even if that violence means his death. He states to Horatio that “there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” reflecting his new found faith that even the smallest of actions have been moved by the divine hand, and are part of an overarching plan or in other words “a divinity that shapes our ends.” Previously he held the attitude that the world was as disordered as “an unweeded garden” but now shows a marked difference saying to Horatio:
If it be not to come, it will be now.
If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.
And once again he proves his words true and carries out the dual to its terrible end.
However, this is not to argue that Hamlet has changed to become completely numb or heartless, even after his encounter with Fortinbras’ soldiers and the pirates he still holds a consistent sensitivity to life. By Ophelia’s grave Hamlet argues with Laertes that he “loved Ophelia” more than “forty thousand brothers could”, showing his previous ranting to Ophelia that she take herself to a “nunnery” was part of his false madness, or as Bradley argues, a symptom of his melancholy (1991). Further evidence that points to this conclusion can be found just previous to the graveside fight as Hamlet mournfully reminisces on “poor Yorick.” In this famous scene there is also evidence of a changed Hamlet who reflects on death with sadness but does not fall into the same pit of melancholy as he has before, instead here he keeps a healthy distance from the melancholy posed by death through humour displayed in his lines:
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick,
to this favour she must come.
Shakespeare has provided Hamlet with a most appropriate solution considering Yorick’s occupation as a court jester when he lived. Slavoj Žižek has analysed this phenomenon in modern narratives which involve an individual’s relation to an ideology, his clearest example of this type of archetypal interaction in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The film’s the main character, Joker, survives and more importantly keeps his sanity by holding onto humour and thus keeping a distance from the terrible events of the film (Fiennes and Žižek, 2016). Hamlet also learns to keep a distance so that he too can have a humour about his mortality, though thats not to say he makes a mockery of death like the gravedigger who Hamlet’s finds to be reprehensible because he “sings in grave-making.” In all these matters there is a balance to be achieved, whether it be between respecting one’s morality and respecting one’s own honour, or between contemplation and action – the thought and the strike.
Another example of Hamlet’s humour about mortality are his lines before the funeral procession:
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole, to keep the wind away.
Hamlet’s entire train of thought on kings ultimately becoming trivial objects through decomposition is especially fascinating when you analyse how he introduces himself to the funeral party as “This is I, Hamlet the Dane” seemingly declare himself King of Denmark and claiming the throne. It is at this point that I would argue it is entirely possibly Hamlet is entirely sure of his course of action; revenge and its price being complete self-destruction. I believe this to be the crux of Hamlet’s tragedy, he finally became spiritually and morally equipped to combat against the evil agents of his life but his true “transformation” comes too late his devils have grown powerful in his inaction towards them. Like God said to Cain after his failed sacrifice, “And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door” (Genesis 4:7) Hamlet also has failed to make the correct sacrifices in his life – failing to choose sacrificing his moral high ground or his honour. Thus the price for revenge is his own destruction, which he walks to as willingly as Fortinbras’ soldiers marking himself not only as a hero among men – but this is also separates him from a being just a hero and upholds him as a tragic hero (Crawford 2015).
In conclusion, Hamlet finally achieves that balanced state he respects so much in Horatio “Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled”, a perfect balance between stoic judgement, Christian charity and spirit of violence to defend one’s honour. Of course, even without hearing the soliloquies and ‘talk’ spoken by the titular character of Hamlet, we would still be able to find a compelling progressing character in his actions. And despite his deception to his mother, his lover and, half the royal court of Denmark he is at least honest to his loyal confessor Horatio and lastly to us, his audience, the loyal confessors to the Bard himself.
Bradley, A. (1991). Shakespearean tragedy. 1st ed. London: Penguin Books.
CRAWFORD, A. (2015). HAMLET, AN IDEAL PRINCE, AND OTHER ESSAYS IN SHAKESPEAREAN INTERPRETATION. [S.l.]: FORGOTTEN BOOKS.
Fiennes, S. and Žižek, S. (2016). The pervert’s guide to ideology. 1st ed. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
The King James Study Bible. (2008). 1st ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Shakespeare, Andrews, R. (2014). Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.