Normanhurst Band 6 Hamlet – Critical Notes

Interest in Drama in created through tension between individuals: 

One of the most important elements of Hamlet that make it an interesting play is Hamlet’s conflict as a hero – whether he should avenge his father, or simply abandon his quest through philosophical moralizing.

The demands of Elizabethan society and even our society would be that one should return an eye for an eye, most of our films and drama support this idea of righteous justice towards someone who has wronged us. Initially Hamlet also communicates this idea through the “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” of the king. From Hamlet himself, he uses strong emotional language to swear that “I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,” “And thy commandment all alone shall live”, clearly indicating that he knows exactly what is expected of him, and this is his role in the play and his life. What society expects is also shown through the reference to the Chain of Being, through which a false king would lead to the collapse of the natural system. Hamlet describes this in the metaphor, ’tis an unweeded garden, That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely…” Using the garden imagery to show that a false king leads to weeds and other unnatural elements in the world. Thus at least initially, there appears to be no conflict, and Hamlet will merely be a revenge tragedy play.

However, the play gets much more interesting when it becomes clear that Hamlet wants nothing to do with revenge, in fact, he is such a philosopher and thinker that he despises what is basically another bout of regicide. The critic Henry Mackenzie agrees with this idea that the play arises from Hamlet’s nature: even the best qualities of his character merely reinforce his inability to cope with the world in which he is placed. Textually, we can see this in the various ways Hamlet forces himself to stop his murder. His doubt, “[the devil] is very potent with such spirits, I’ll have grounds/More relative than this.” Show he is unwilling to simply go out and be a traditional avenger. Furthermore, his continues this idea of him trying to escape fate, “Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,” shows that society “heaven and hell” prompt him to go and murder his uncle, but he refuses to simply be a whore of fate – he is going to forge his own destiny. This conflict as a central element in the play can also be seen in Hamlet’s polar opposite. Laertes have his father killed, but gives no two lines about wanting to kill Hamlet – and straight away he dies in the attempt – his demand for “[daring] damnation to be most thoroughly revenged for [his] father.” not only ends his life, but draws Hamlet’s avoidance of his fate to an end, and ends up with all involved dying, and thus formatting the tragedy.

Another way that Shakespeare shows the conflict between society and the individual is through the play within a play dynamic of Hamlet. As a Avenger play, Hamlet is the tragic hero doomed to avenge his father. However, Hamlet as an individual refuses to, and this conflict, the putting off of the murder, is what makes the play philosophical and enjoyable. Unwilling Hero / Fate / Fight against Fate Both arguments are explored with excellent textual integrity by Shakespeare through a multi perspective approach of the conflict between individual and society.

Again, the concept of fate here is central – Hamlet is fated to get revenge, even if it costs him his life. His own self doubt in berating his own inaction such as “How stand I then, That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d And let all sleep?” Uses rhetorical questions to demonstrate the conflict in his heart. However contrary to popular belief, the Elizabethan perceptions of revenge had shifted from the Old Testament ‘an eye for an eye’ stance, to the New Testament perspective on revenge, ‘Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord’, so it is arguable that Shakespeare’s ‘humility and mercy’ Hamlet is much more interesting than a eager Hamlet. This is why Hamlet simply refuses to choose a fate, but rather tries to play the roles out. His acting, “The best actors in the world // Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light.” shows that he realizes he cannot ‘give up’ his revenge, nor can he simply commit to it, as he is as tradition, going to die as a result. His constant placement of himself into the role of an Avenger is shown here in his own chastisement, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I”, whilst his utter unwillingness to carry out the deed is seen in the excuse he comes up with to put off the kill, “To take him in the purging of his soul, When he is fit and season’d for his passage? No!”. Together, these back and forth elements make the play very interesting for the viewer.

Ultimately, Hamlet does do the deed, and it becomes difficult to see how there is a conflict when he has already killed the king, no less forcing poison into his ear in many versions. However, what we should pay attention to is the fact that Hamlet even in death wants nothing to do with revenge. His final words to Horatio are, “Thou livest; report me and my cause aright, To the unsatisfied.” Literally asking him to tell Fortinbras what happened here. He is more interested in his kingdom and legacy than any act of having accomplished his revenge and sated the Gods of revenge and fate. This is continued in his repetition, “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story.” that again clearly shows a Hamlet who is neither happy nor unhappy with the result – he simply wants to have his story told, “with the occurrents, more and less, Which have solicited.” Hamlet is in the end like the description by Millicent Bell, “both the overstylized play-within-the-play and the conclusion of the play itself. Hamlet’s concern with revenge is nowhere to be seen when he is dying, noting that, rather than crying out for revenge, Hamlet asks only to be remembered.”

 

One of the most interesting elements of Hamlet for me is probably the way in which the female leads are portrayed by Hamlet himself – how their actions and roles, juxtaposed against what Hamlet tells us – creating tension and interest.

A big ironic element of Hamlet the Prince is that for someone who seems to have an incredible view of life, death, fate, and his own role as an Avenger, the guy seems to really, hate, women. This is agreed upon by the critics Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (1996) whom commented that Hamlet’s own misogynistic attitudes towards the women in the play is a reflection of the society of the play.

Gertrude is depicted as a whore – with a level of sexual imagery that is rare for a tragedy. She is described by Hamlet with completely hyperbolic,, bestial metaphors such as her “O’erhasty marriage” to Claudius, creating an image of her as a character driven by lust. “O, most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” Using the context of her marriage to her brother in law as incest. He continues to berate her with lines such as “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul; And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct.” Again a use of strong, over the top insult to create an image of her mother as someone sinful. Ironically however, he seems to be the only one in court with this opinion, no other character seems to insult Gertrude’s sexuality or sex life, and she herself even comments “The lade doth protests too much…” show that she is perfectly aware of her role as a Queen and woman in court.

On the other Hand, Ophelia is meant to be a beautiful flower – a pure maiden that many artists have painted romantic oil portraits of, like the famous portrait by Sir John Milliais. However, textual evidence shows that she is little more than a “toy in blood”, a sexual object that is traded like chattel amongst the powerful nobility. This is why even Hamlet calls her out, when he says “frailty, thy name is women!” further insulting her with his claim, “Get thee to a nunnery”. Hamlet further demonstrates that Ophelia is little more than a lying whore her self when he claims “God has given you one face and you make yourselves another”. Using both biblical reference and the metaphor of a mask to show that she is just a tool of the power players. Finally, Ophelia herself admits, that her violets have ,“withered along the way”.  Violets are cultural symbols of modesty and virtue and thus, in “obeying” all her male leads, there is nothing virtous left in Ophelia, and truly her only ‘way out’ is suicide. As such, a point of contention in the drama of Hamlet is the representation of gender roles and the women of Hamlet’s life itself.

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