In the last short story I published, Claudius, King of Denmark, I tried to look at Hamlet from a different perspective. For most events, we just have to take Hamlet’s word. But is Hamlet reliable? Another thing I wanted to point out is the similarity between Hamlet and Claudius, and so I put Hamlet’s words in Claudius’ mouth. I wrote once in college about how Hamlet is written from the perspective of the main character and that all the events are subordinated to his point of view, and I decided to blog about some of these ideas.
One of the things that makes the spectators, or readers, believe Hamlet is his strong personality. We believe him because he’s a thinker, and therefore trustworthy. Hamlet is the thinker, but also in a way the spectator – and that is why the audience aligns with his perspective, and he dominates their experience of the play (Cartwright 93). He distances himself from the other characters and their actions, and states that everything they do is fake, while only his emotions are real and cannot be expressed by visible things.
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,/ Nor customary suits of solemn black,/ Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,/ No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,/ Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,/ Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,/ That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem,”/ For they are actions that a man might play./ But I have that within which passeth show,/ These but the trappings and the suits of woe’ (1.2.77-86).
Hamlet sees the behaviour of others as some kind of a play, and presents himself as the only one who is real – at the same time the audience is aware of its own reality in opposition to the characters on stage. Dark clothes, deep breathing, tears, sad facial expressions – all these things can be used to perform a certain emotion, without really feeling it. As Hamlet states, those are the “actions that a man might play”, and the word “play” may also allude to acting, performing a play. This may serve as another form of audience’s identification with Hamlet. They are aware of the artificiality of what takes place before their eyes, and in a certain way, so is he.
If the entire play is presented through Hamlet’s eyes, it is very likely that all of the characters are also based on his own impressions. Just as the spectators see themselves in Hamlet, Hamlet sees himself in other characters. Even more so, the characters apparently reflect Hamlet’s personality and characteristics. This is presented by constant doubling. Most noticeable is the connection with Laertes, another son who lost his father and seeks revenge. Leartes’ characteristics construct Hamlet’s identity “through a play of similarity and difference“ (Faurholt). Hamlet even mimics Laertes’ behaviour, and it seems that he wants to be better than him. After Leartes leaps into Ophelia’s grave, Hamlet does the same, and afterwards says:
I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/ Could not, with all their quantity of love/ Make up my sum. (5.1.256-258).
Hamlet does not see Laertes as an individual – he sees his actions in relation to himself. Laertes acts, and that is what Hamlet wants to do, but cannot, which causes him frustration.
Obviously, Hamlet lacks some characteristics that he wishes to possess. He becomes insecure, and that is why he does not compare himself to his father:
…my uncle,/ My father’s brother, but no more like my father/ Than I to Hercules“ (1.2.152-153).
According to this, if the father is like Hercules, that obviously Hamlet is like Claudius. Hamlet is obviously divided between his real self, and his ideal self. As Greenblatt notes, the play raises “the possibility of a difference between oneself and oneself” on various occasions (211). For example, Ophelia is described as “[d]ivided from herself” (4.5.83). Hamlet also speaks of his own division from himself before the duel with Laertes:
Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet./ If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,/ and when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,/ Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it./ Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so,/ Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged./ His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy (5.2.179-185).
Even if the madness is used as an excuse, or as a way of carrying on with the revenge scheme, the fractioning of character is mentioned too often to be taken for granted. That is why Greenblatt concludes that “Hamlet is a play of contagious, almost universal selfestrangement” (212). And the self-estrangement causes Hamlet to see reflection of his ideal self in Laertes, but even more so in the ghost of his father.
When speaking of the ghost, Hamlet has problems with his own identity after the death of his father. Hamlet projects all of the virtues he appreciates in people onto his father and it seems that he takes pleasure in being the only one who still appreciates him. The father becomes the ideal he aspires to, and his memory transforms into an idealized image. Therefore, the father becomes a part of Hamlet, the man Hamlet wants to be. Hamlet’s ideal self, represented by the ghost, may be awakened by the urge to keep everything in place, but it also awakens Halmet’s doubts about himself.
It is also interesting that, though he is not the only one who sees the ghost, Hamlet is the only one who hears him speak – and what the ghost says and wants Hamlet to do is what Hamlet wants to hear. This is obvious in the scene when the ghost appears while Hamlet is speaking to his mother.
Before he went to see her, Hamlet decided: “O heart, lose not thy nature, let not ever/ The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom./ Let me be cruel, not unnatural. I will speak daggers to her but use none” (3.2.382-384).
He does not want to spare his mother, but he does not want to be too cruel. However, he loses his temper, and his words start to hurt her. Gertrude begs him: “O, speak to me no more!/ These words like daggers enter in mine ears” (3.4.84-85). She even uses the same word – dagger – to express her feelings, and this shows that Hamlet went too far and hurt her more than he intended to. However, he does not stop speaking, led by his rage. At that moment, the ghost appears, and it seems that the purpose of this visit is to calm Hamlet down and prevent him from hurting his mother even more:
…This visitation/ Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose./ But look, amazement on thy mother sits./ O, step between her and her fighting soul./ Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works./ Speak to her, Hamlet (3.4.100-105)
The ghost has even before warned Hamlet that the revenge should not include his mother:
But howsoever thou pursuest this act,/ Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive/ Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven/ And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge/ To prick and sting her… (1.5.84-88).
Hamlet feels strongly attached to his mother, even though her marriage disturbed the ideal image he had of her, and it made him uneasy. He still does not want to hurt her, and the ghost – a man he wants to be – prevents him from doing so.
The ghost also gives Hamlet a reason to hate Claudius. Hamlet takes the marriage celebration as an insult towards his father, therefore he already harbours rage against his uncle when the ghost appears and confirms that his anger is justified. Even though Hamlet really has a reason to be sad, and even angry, his “buffoonery of emotion” (Eliot 146) really exceeds the events that took place, but after the truth is revealed Hamlet’s reaction is more understandable. The ghosts speaks of Claudius with hate:
…that incestuous, that adulterate beast./ With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts/ O wicked wit and gifts… (1.5.42-44).
Therefore, he speaks what Hamlet also feels, and what he wants to hear. He also openly asks Hamlet to “[r]evenge his foul and unnatural murder” (1.5.25).
To conclude, Hamlet can be seen as a play based on the main character and the entire surrounding stresses his inner struggles. Hamlet, and accordingly the audience as well, sees his own traits, ideals, and weaknesses in the people that surround him. The characters in the play are not presented objectively, their characteristics are presented in a way that they correspond Hamlet and his stream of thought. Therefore, the characters serve as the projections of Hamlet’s personality and emotions. Does this mean Hamlet’s truly mad? Well, it’s up to you to decide, but it’s certainly interesting to think about it. So many things are left unsaid in the play it’s left to our imagination to fill the gaps. That’s what makes the play interesting.
* I use the term in a broader sense – a doppelgӓnger can represent embodiment of a part of somebody’s character
Cartwright, Kent. “Remembering Hamlet.” Shakespearean Tragedy and Its Double: The Rhythms of Audience Response. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
Eliot, T.S. “Hamlet” T.S. Eliot: Sellected Essays. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1932: 141-146.
Faurholt, Guy. “Self as Other: The Dopplegӓnger.” Double Dialogues Issue 10 (2009): n. pag. Web. 9 July 2013.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 2005.
Magnus, Laury. Laertes, Hamlet’s Foil and Fratricidal Brother. Hamlet Works, n. d. Web. 9 July 2013.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. London: Penguin Books, 1977: 930-976.