a) Write a character assessment of Hamlet based on what other people in the play say about him.
Hamlet is one of the most interesting, complex and enigmatic of Shakespeare’s many tragic heroes, and it therefore comes as no surprise that he has fascinated audiences and readers for centuries. Hamlet’s character has long been a question of uncertainty, and many critics are divided as to whether they believe him to be admirable or unpleasant. The characters of the play themselves are also divided; the people of Denmark all seem to present Hamlet in very contrasting lights.
Hamlet is first introduced by his uncle Claudius in what seems to be a very calculated and deceptive speech, presenting Hamlet as rather ignorant and childish. Claudius refers to Hamlet as “my son,” and asks him: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Gertrude also questions Hamlet as to why he is still grieving; she advises him not to, since “all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity.” She even questions why his father’s death seems “so particular” to him. The attitude of Claudius and Gertrude towards Hamlet is largely one of condescension, and indeed both seem to treat him like a child. Claudius tells him: “’Tis sweet and commendable in your nature Hamlet, / To give these mourning duties to your father…” This could be one of Claudius’ attempts to seem loving and supportive of Hamlet, but it almost appears contrived. The “But you must know…” of line 89 marks the beginning of Claudius’ quasi-paternal lecture in which he condescends (he refers to Hamlet’s “unmanly grief,” employing the macho stereotype as a method of persuasion) Hamlet in such a way that even the audience is, while horrified at his message, almost convinced that Hamlet is in the wrong. The phrase also introduces the theme of appearance and truth that occurs throughout the play. Hamlet is presented by Claudius as ignorant (“obsequious sorrow”), stubborn, and even impious (Claudius says that Hamlet’s grief shows “impious stubbornness” and “a will most incorrect to heaven”). Claudius’ attitude towards Hamlet is epitomised in his claim that Hamlet’s grieving is caused by “An understanding simple and unschooled.” Thus Claudius is clearly eager to treat Hamlet as a child, perhaps to present himself as a paternal figure, or perhaps as a method of control. Either way, the image of Hamlet he puts forth is indubitably one of immaturity.
On the contrary, we get a positive perspective of Hamlet from his friends Marcellus and Horatio, two of the first characters introduced in the play, and two of the most amiable. The relationship between Hamlet and Horatio is particularly kind and loving, and their greetings of each other suggest the intimacy of this relationship:
Hamlet: I am glad to see you well.
Horatio – or I do forget myself.
Horatio: The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.
Hamlet: Sir, my good friend, I’ll change that name with you.
Hamlet’s saying “or I do forget myself” suggests that he knows Horatio almost as well as he knows himself, indicating their intimacy. Horatio’s extravagantly humble greeting could imply that, rather than simply revering Hamlet out of obligation, he really does respect him. Moreover, the fact that Horatio and Marcellus dare to tell Hamlet of what they have seen, and the fact that Hamlet later discloses his plans to them suggests their firm trust in one another. It is also worth noting that Horatio is revered amongst his colleagues for his scholarly status and intelligence, presenting him as a rather noble figure. He tries to speak to the ghost and tries to help him, exclaiming:
“If there be any good thing to be done
That may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me.”
Indeed, Horatio’s repetition of the phrase “Speak to me” suggests a real and noble anxiety not only to help the ghost, but also to protect Denmark from any danger. Thus, the audience is able to warm to Horatio, and are therefore more likely to agree with his opinions of Hamlet. And so, through the perspectives of Marcellus and Horatio (whom we identify with particularly because we, like him, rely on empirical evidence of the ghost’s existence) we get a friendly, caring and amiable image of Hamlet, demonstrated through their friendly words and actions towards him, and through his response to them. This can be contrasted to the friendship between Hamlet and his two friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who feign friendship with Hamlet in order to trick him. In comparison, their greetings of Hamlet (“My honoured lord!” and “My most dear lord!”) are less extravagantly humble, and thus one could argue that they suggest a lack of sincerity. Again, this is a variation on the idea of appearance and reality. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to manipulate Hamlet through their trickery, feigned friendship, and false praise (they claim that Hamlet’s ambition makes Denmark feel like a prison) and thus present him as ignorant, just as Claudius does.
Polonius and his son Laertes also view Hamlet in a negative light. They too, like Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, present Hamlet as ignorant, immature and childish. Laertes’ warnings to his sister Ophelia about Hamlet’s advances are littered with words that accentuate triviality and immaturity. For example, Laertes refers to “Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour,” and goes on to describe it as “A violet in the youth of primy nature, / Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting.” Laertes is rather sternly warning Ophelia not to trust Hamlet’s advances since they are, for Laertes, simply the product of his youth. In fact, Laertes, despite being young himself, seems to distrust young people entirely, and indeed he says to Ophelia: “Be wary then, best safety lies in fear: / Youth to iself rebels, though none else near.” The fact that these are the only two lines of his speech that rhyme suggests that they are of some significance, and therefore reinforces Laertes’s view of Hamlet as immature and untrustworthy. Hamlet was performed in a time of political uncertainty and transition, and thus the idea of an immature and untrustworthy prince coming to power would have been particularly perturbing for the contemporary audience. Polonius’s warnings reinforce Laertes’s message, but in an even more cruel and unloving manner. He describes Hamlet’s advances as “springes to catch woodcocks” and he tells her: “These blazes daughter, / Giving more light than heat, extinct in both / Even in their promise as it is a-making, / You must not take for fire.” Polonius is cautioning Ophelia that Hamlet’s advances may simply be appearances and that they ought not be trusted. However, Polonius’s message is really rather convoluted, and his image of fire serves to make his meaning less concise. He says that Hamlet’s “blazes” should not be taken for fire, a contradiction in terms. Polonius goes on to tell Ophelia:
“For Lord Hamlet,
Believe so much in him, that he is young
And with a larger tedder may he walk
Than may be given you.”
Not only does this emphasise Polonius’s severity as a father, as it implies that he keeps Ophelia on a leash, it also emphasises Hamlet’s youth and possible insincerity. Polonius’s advice here seems to precisely contradict what Laertes told Ophelia: “his choice be circumscribed”. In this way, Hamlet is again presented as ignorant in his youth, although we are unsure as to whether these characters should be listened to and trusted.
Another contrasting perspective of Hamlet and his character comes from the ghost of King Hamlet himself. The ghost refuses to talk to Marcellus, Barnardo or Horatio despite their pleas, and it is only to Hamlet that he discloses his secret. The ghost clearly views Hamlet as easily persuaded, since when Hamlet says: “Speak, I am bound to hear,” the ghost replies: “So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.” Whether this implies that Hamlet is noble for wanting revenge or ignoble for encouraging violence is unsure, but the ghost obviously trusts Hamlet to fulfil his desires. However, the ghost, like Claudius, also seems to be manipulating Hamlet by evoking his pity and so spurring him to action. For example, the ghost describes himself as “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for a day confined to fast in fires.” This attempted inspiration of pity, emphasised by the alliteration, could suggest that the ghost sees Hamlet as easily manipulated and coerced into acting, and therefore ignorant. However, since Hamlet already suspects most of what the ghost tells him, it is unlikely that he would need any manipulation, and thus it is simply a method of encouraging Hamlet to act rather than a method of manipulation. The ghost also views Hamlet as decisive and headstrong:
“I find thee apt,
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this.”
This quotation, as well as recalling Marcellus’s words “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and thus insinuating the importance of Hamlet’s revenge, again implies the ghost’s trust in Hamlet to be decisive, despite the fact that indecisiveness proves to be one of his more prominent characteristics. Finally, although the ghost’s guidance of Hamlet could be seen as suggesting the young prince’s immaturity and ignorance, it more readily suggests a paternal affection and concern. And so, the insights into Hamlet’s character provided by the ghost are somewhat ambivalent: although the ghost’s confidence suggests that Hamlet is a trustworthy person whom his father dearly loved, we are unsure as to whether the ghost’s attitude towards Hamlet is condescending or loving.
Finally, Ophelia’s agitated conversation with her father gives us another angle from which to view the tragic hero. Ophelia believes that he is truly in love with her, and indeed he seems to fulfil the stereotype of the crazed and frenzied lover. For instance, she tells Polonius how “He raised a sigh so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk…” She goes on to say that “He seemed to find his way without his eyes…” and all of these phrases suggest madness and frenzy. Moreover, Polonius says that Ophelia’s ignoring of his letters “hath made him mad” and admits that he was wrong. However, because the audience know that this is only Hamlet’s “antic disposition,” Ophelia and Polonius succeed in presenting Hamlet as a skilled and resolute deceiver, rather than a frenzied lover. Whether this is an admirable trait is ambivalent.
It is clear, therefore, that opinions of Hamlet differ dramatically from character to character, and that the prejudices of certain characters result in their manipulation of Hamlet’s personality. For instance, Claudius’s attempts to seem concerned for Hamlet result in a rather condescending tone, and Laertes and Polonius depict Hamlet as young and immature so as to persuade Ophelia to remain pure. Thus, Hamlet cannot be seen in such a negative light as these villainous characters desire. Indeed, the fact that Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Laertes present him in such a negative light actually implies his nobility, since the audience is unlikely to agree with anything they say, and will in fact believe the opposite. However, even the characters who present him in a positive light are reserved about doing so: the ghost, for example, is forced to guide him not to harm his mother (“nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught”) for fear that he might do so, and Horatio himself seems bewildered and confused by Hamlet’s erratic behaviour, saying: “but this is wondrous strange.” In this way, the audience are affronted with a number of different insights into Hamlet’s character, and it is up to them to decide which ring the most true.
b) Consider how and in what ways your view of Hamlet differs from the views of the play’s characters
Our own view of Hamlet is qualified much more by what he does and says himself than what others say about him. However, this does not mean that the characters’ perspectives are wrong; in fact, their opinions are almost identical to those of the audience, although they are slightly polarised. The audience are able to discern both good and bad in Hamlet’s character, whereas Hamlet’s friends largely see the good and his enemies only see the bad. Hamlet is neither definitively good nor definitively bad; he is simply a product of Shakespeare’s skilled use of realism in the creation of personalities. This ambivalence of character makes the play all the more gripping.
We first meet Hamlet in deep mourning for the death of his father, and we immediately sympathise with him. To mourn, in many cultures, is considered just and noble, and thus we are made particularly uncomfortable when Claudius describes Hamlet’s mourning as “impious stubbornness” and “obsequious sorrow”. Moreover, mourning is not often considered a particularly immature activity since children often lack the ability to comprehend death, and thus Claudius seems almost to contradict himself when he says that “’tis unmanly grief”. The audience pity Hamlet even more on account of his mother’s remarriage. Distraught, he exclaims: “Oh most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets,” and the sibilance of this line serves to add a tone of contempt to Hamlet’s words. Claudius attempts to justify the swiftness of their marriage, saying: “With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage, / In equal scale weighing delight and dole…” However, because the speech seems so utterly insincere and calculated, these attempts are unsuccessful. Claudius’s balancing of phrases (like “with one auspicious eye and one dropping eye”) and his references to “our brother” seem so well executed, and indeed his speech is so rhetorically impressive that it must have been contrived, and thus it seems insincere. Claudius’s affront to our sensibilities leads us to dislike him, and therefore his opinion of Hamlet is largely ignored. However, Hamlet’s suicidal and rather extreme exclamations in his first soliloquy (“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,” and “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!”) do, in many ways, support Claudius’s claim that Hamlet is too deep in mourning. In fact, for one to even suggest that they would like to kill themselves was seen as blasphemous and sinful in Elizabethan times, and so the audience may very well have lost respect for Hamlet here. Nonetheless, although there is some truth in Claudius’s words, we admire Hamlet for his sensibilities, and therefore our opinion of Hamlet is a positive one, whereas that of Claudius is negative.
Hamlet can also be seen as noble in his desire to exact revenge for his father. Hamlet is suspicious about Claudius from the outset, and indeed he says that his father is to his uncle a “Hyperion to a satyr” and he describes his uncle as “a beast”. Thus, when the murder of King Hamlet is revealed (“The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown,”) we respect young Hamlet all the more for his quick discernment of character. This affirmation of Hamlet’s suspicions is emphasised by the parallels between Hamlet’s first soliloquy and the ghost’s speech in 1.5. Just as Hamlet compares the two brothers, the ghost compares himself, “whose love was of that dignity / That it went hand in hand even with the vow / I made to her in marriage,” to Claudius, “a wretch whose natural gifts were poor / To those of mine.” Thus our respect for Hamlet is increased now that we know his suspicions were accurate. Moreover, Hamlet’s reaction to the ghost can also be praised: he immediately declares his intentions to exact revenge and swears to remember the ghost. Indeed, we admire him for his determination and his claim that he will “wipe away all trivial fond records” so as to remember the ghost. This quotation is almost ironic since, soon after this, Hamlet assumes his “antic disposition,” and it is as if he really has cleared his mind of everything. Hamlet is also commendable in his ingenious plan of the play, and his idea to “set down and insert” a speech in it in the hope of a reaction from Claudius. We admire Hamlet for his desire to help Denmark and its people; he prays: “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.” Furthermore, the fact that the King’s body is explicitly compared to the city of Denmark (“swift as quicksilver it [the poison] courses through / The natural gates and alleys of the body”) implies that Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father is, at the same time, a desire to avenge and protect his city. Therefore, he can be viewed as particularly admirable in his resolution of revenge, and thus the audience may agree with Horatio and the ghost, seeing Hamlet from a positive perspective.
In contrast, many might argue that Hamlet’s desire for revenge is not noble at all. Since Hamlet’s desire for revenge results in a violent and bloodthirsty climax, Hamlet himself could be seen as the villain. Moreover, the fact that immediately after his father has told him not to harm his mother he exclaims: “O most pernicious woman! / O villain, villain, smiling damnèd villain!” suggests not only his frenzied desire for violence, but also his inability to discern the real enemy. The audience, along with Laertes and Polonius, could consequently see Hamlet as young, immature and ignorant. Hamlet’s feigned madness can possibly be seen as another example of this immaturity. Indeed, at times he seems particularly childish and flippant, particularly when he mocks others; he says to Marcellus: “Hillo, ho, ho, boy! Come bird, come.” He even goes so far as to suggest that, after he has conversed with the ghost, they should “shake hands and part” and go about their own businesses. This is, of course, a rather outrageous suggestion, and the audience dislikes Hamlet for his facetiousness, possibly caused by immaturity. Indeed, the audience once again identifies with Horatio, who says: “These are wild and whirling words, my lord,” and indeed the assonance (the repeated ‘ur’) suggests a certain whirling, repetitive motion. And although the exchange between Polonius and Hamlet in which Hamlet says “y’are a fishmonger” is rather funny (and, one could argue, an example of his wit) since fishmongers were considered to be particularly unglamorous, again it perhaps demonstrates Hamlet’s immaturity, and thus supports Laertes and Polonius’s perspectives. Finally, Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia and his feigned madness towards her is particularly immature and cruel. Indeed, it results in the poor Ophelia being “so affrighted,” and indeed she seems to blame herself for Hamlet’s mad advances: “I did repel his letters, and denied / His access to me.” She has done exactly what her father told her to do, and yet it has been unsuccessful. Pathos for Ophelia is inspired even more because of Polonius callous treatment of her and uncaring approach; he says, with a cruel brevity: “That hath made him mad.” Hamlet is to blame for Ophelia’s terror and plight, and thus the audience cannot help but concur with Laertes and Polonius in the view that he is somewhat ignorant and immature. However, we are unlikely to completely agree with them, not least because this is part of Hamlet’s plan, but also because we dislike Polonius and Laertes for their cruelty to Ophelia, and so we are loathe to agree with them.
Hamlet’s character is certainly ambiguous. Although he is not as ignoble as the play’s villains sem to think he is, he is certainly not perfect, and indeed many of the criticisms of Hamlet seem to ring true with his character. Nonetheless, the overarching characteristics of Hamlet in the first two acts seem to be his desire to be benevolent and exact justice, but his inability to go about this effectively. His youth and subsequent inexperience seems to be one of the factors that most impede him. He seems to think that the end justifies the means, when this is not necessarily true. Thus, Hamlet can be seen as an archetypal Aristotelian tragic hero, “a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgement.”