“Nothing but to show you how the King may go a progress through the guts of a beggar”hamlet-Mel_Gibson_1990

This week I fell in love with Hamlet (by William Shakespeare in the Seagull Reader). In fact, I was late getting my blog up because I was unsure what portion I wanted to discuss.  I feel as if a week is only enough to scratch the surface of the play.

Our book’s prequel to Hamlet discusses the debate over whether Hamlet is mad, or if he is truly acting so. He tells Haratio not to think him insane as the others soon will, because he is going to put on an act saying:

Here as before, never, so help you mercy,

How strange or odd some’er I bear myself

(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet

To put an antic disposition on). (page 8)

Though his behavior may seem genuine madness by the end of the play, I still believe it to be an act. The cleverness of Hamlets plans, and his ability to foresee the King’s and divert them accordingly, does not see like the actions of a mad man. The things he says when he is alone, although they seem tormented, are not twisted. I instead think that he finds himself in an obsessive compulsive state over avenging his father’s death. He himself says that:

Yea, from the table of my memory

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past

That youth and observation copied there,

And thy commandment all alone shall live

Within the book and volume of my brain. (page 80)

Here he vows that nothing else will occupy his mind but this arduous quest his father’s ghost has sent him on. Calling his memories “trivial fond records” as though compared to this new reality his past worries seem foolish. One of the things about Hamlets personality I admired the most was his obvious intelligence, and his almost psychic like abilities to predict the actions of others. His plan to act crazy in and of itself is brilliant because insanity provides him with a sort of pardon against his offenses. Even when he commits the murder of Polonius he is simply to be sent England (though the King has other plans for him there) where another person would certainly face death for such an offense. He seems to predict he will need such protection in his plans for revenge; not only that, but acting insane helps minimize how much of a threat he looks to his uncle.

What is certain, however, is that Hamlet is a tormented depressed soul. All except for Horatio seem to be against him at times, and the world itself losing its luster. While speaking to Rosencrantz he says that “this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors” (page 98). This is one of the many times the play portrays Hamlet’s constant pondering over life and death; much like in his famous “to be or not to be” line. There is an underlying theme throughout the story with his apparent frustration over death and the afterlife.  When he speaks about how the fear of what is to happen after life “makes cowards of us all,” I get the feeling like he is frustrated with himself for not killing the King more swiftly.

Our text discusses such a question in the excerpt before the play as to why Hamlet takes so long to avenge his father, and I think such fear is a lot of the reason. He has many things to consider when it comes to assassinating the King, including ensuring his dissention to Hell. If he was to kill him when he first considers it, while the King is repenting then he fears he would be sending “a villain to heaven” (page 129). He must catch him in sin before he kills him in order to ensure he is placed where he belongs. He also wants to be sure that the ghost he has seen is not “a devil which has power to assume a pleasing shape” to damn him (page 107).  It gives me the impression that Hamlet is in fear of murdering him. He is fearful whether he is truly guilty, and what his own consequences may be for the act. In the end it is only the death of his mother that gives him the courage (and most likely blind rage) to complete the quest he has become infatuated with.

The depth of Shakespeare’s characters is truly astonishing and at many points of this play I found myself thinking “how did he come up with this?” What really makes me love Hamlet is that you can never grow tired of it because it is so complex you discover new layers with every read.


12 thoughts on “Hamlet

  1. I also had a difficult time trying to decide what to concentrate on with my post. There is so much going on that it seems impossible to do it justice. It hadn’t occurred to me that Hamlet might be afraid to kill Claudius, but I think that is a definite possibility. Hamlet is obsessed with his own damnation as well as Claudius’ and seems almost incapable of doing much more than playing with his mind until he delivers the final blow. At the end I wondered if he would have had the nerve to kill Claudius if his mother hadn’t been poisoned. Tragedies never end neatly, and this one in particular seems to sow seeds of doubt in the reader’s head as to what is really happening in each scene.

    1. I feel like It would take years to fully understand Hamlet. I kept reading and thinking “ooh I really like that quote, I should put that in my blog” but in the end I had millions of them; which made it all the more confusing as to where to start! When my husband and I were talking about the ending (we watched the movie when I finished reading) he said “why does everyone have to die at the end?” After I thought about it, its really the only ending that makes sense. If any one of those people would have lived (with the exception of perhaps Laertes) it wouldn’t have insinuated a sensible future. If the King lived he would have gotten away with it, if the Queen lived she would have had to deal with the fact that two of her husbands died (one of which was murdered by the other) and her son. If Hamlet lived it wouldn’t make sense because he wouldn’t have had anything left to live for with his mother and Ophelia dead. He couldn’t just magically go back to normalcy, in fact the death of his mother probably would have lead him into complete lunacy.

    2. My view is similar: I think that, as a scholar rather than a warrior-type, the prospect of murder really challenges Hamlet’s thoughtful sensibilities.

  2. With three versions of this play, I wonder what Shakespeare intended in the first place with Hamlet. (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/05/Bad_quarto%2C_good_quarto%2C_first_folio.png)

    I am with Megan, I never thought of him being afraid of killing Claudius. It makes sense in a way because by killing him, he becomes what he hates.

    His pursuit of revenge ends up destroying his and others lives. In a way, Hamlet is truly the villain of this piece.

  3. I am really torn between Hamlet truly being mad or acting as if he is. I just can’t believe he could give such a convincing portrayal of madness; he really appears insane! Perhaps he realizes he really is losing it and uses that to his advantage in exacting revenge. Shakespeare must have written the work with this great mystery in mind. I do agree that he is severely depressed “what is certain, however, is that Hamlet is a tormented depressed soul.” This was extremely evident to me when he is all alone and contemplating suicide “To be, or not to be…” He is all alone here and there’s no-one to feign despair or possibly madness for, which allow us to truly see how distraught he is. I agree that we’ve barely “scratched the surface” here: we could devote an entire course to this play!

  4. Nice analysis on Hamlet’s “madness.” There are parts where it does seem contrived (as mentioned in your blog), but I think the overwhelming force of revenge and anger, at times, does push him to the brink of true insanity – like when he kills Polonius. I think his motives, fear and emotions are all intertwined in a crazy mishmash, and that’s why he doesn’t always instantly follow through with his plans – like killing Claudius when he has the chance. There’s constant lingering questions of morality and self-reflection on his part that he doesn’t quite fully understand himself.

    1. He doesn’t kill the king at first because he is scared that if he kills him then while he is confessing in church he will go to heaven. That wouldn’t really be revenge because he’d be sent to a better place. The reason why I don’t think he’s truly insane is because I see a difference between his behavior and Ophelia’s in the end.

      1. I totally get why Hamlet didn’t kill Claudius when he gets the chance. My comment was touching more on the idea of Hamlet’s constant indecision, and how everything he does isn’t cut and dry because there are so many lingering moral tones to his ideas and choices – alluding to his internal struggle.

        Also, madness takes on different shapes and forms, and we all have different reactions, so their differing behavior isn’t abnormal to me. Though, I do think that there are “parts” and elements to Hamlet’s behavior where his madness seems contrived. When you’re talking about Ophelia’s madness, are you referring to her behavior while she’s drowning?

      2. I think that saying someone is mad just gives me a vision of someone who struggles to stay in touch with reality, and Hamlet strikes me as very in turn with his surroundings. As I was discussing with Timothy I think maybe obsessive is better word. He seems mentally disturbed but not insane…that seems like too harsh of a word. With Ophelia she seems more like she’s lost her grip on reality (yes like when she drowns). We are shown this when Claudius says: “poor Ophelia
        Divided from herself and her fair judgment,
        Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts.”

      3. Or is it an excuse? This moment is criticized by some as Hamlet being indecisive. Instead, I see it as him approaching with deep gravity a moment that is worthy of deep gravity. One of conscience does not simply or easily kill another human being, even if one believes that act is justified or required in order to avenge a loved one.

  5. “His plan to act crazy in and of itself is brilliant because insanity provides him with a sort of pardon against his offenses.”

    I love this! He gives him the excuse for elaborate actions that act as distractions, while furthering his biggest scheme of all.

  6. “I feel as if a week is only enough to scratch the surface of the play.”


    “The depth of Shakespeare’s characters is truly astonishing and at many points of this play I found myself thinking ‘how did he come up with this?'”

    This is *exactly* what distinguishes Shakespeare from his contemporaries and those who have followed him.

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