Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Is Hamlet a likeable figure?

Prince Hamlet is one of the most equivocal and hotly-debated characters in all of English drama. Though he is the hero of a revenge drama, Hamlet is certainly not your typical revenger. He is, instead, a lover, a thinker, and an actor, and it is these qualities, contrasted with the bloodthirsty violence of Vindice and other tragic heroes, that make Hamlet a likeable figure. However, he is by no means perfect: he delays acting for five acts of the play (though some would claim this is no bad thing), he is at times cruel and immature, and he is, in the words of Kitto, “driven down into the gulf.” The play is a study in the spread of corruption and sin, and Hamlet is not exempt from this. Therefore, though Hamlet is a likeable and pitiable character, he is flawed and, like all tragic heroes from Oedipus to Lear, he does make mistakes.

At the opening of the play the audience is full of pity for the young prince Hamlet, who is deep in mourning for his father’s recent death. Shakespeare encourages us to contrast the grief of Hamlet and Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, who uses skilful rhetoric and political tropes to describe the extent of his false grief. Claudius refers to the deceased King Hamlet as “our dear brother”, making his mourning seem universal and of great importance. But despite the fact that, in his own words, “The memory be green,” he encourages the people of Denmark not to dwell in their mourning. His careful balancing of phrases (“With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,”) renders his speech undeniably contrived and deceptive. Hamlet’s speech, on the other hand, is honest and authentic, as he explains: “Seems, madam? Nay it is, I know not seems.” Claudius’ grief is, in Hamlet’s words, “but the trappings and the suits of woe,” whereas Hamlet has “that within which passes show,” words that encourage our pity for the tragic hero.

What is more, Hamlet’s reflections on suicide in soliloquy one (“O that this too too solid flesh would melt…”), though they may have shocked an Elizabethan audience (since suicide was blasphemous), would also have evoked pity, and thus our first image of Hamlet is that of a son sympathetically mourning his father. We also pity Hamlet in his grief over his mother’s remarriage (“But two months since – nay, not so much, not two”), and thus Hamlet is a likeable figure at the play’s opening. Moreover, Hamlet’s undeniable state of melancholy (later he exclaims, “What a piece of work is a man!”) might to an extent explain his cruelty and his mistakes later in the play: at the opening of the play, Hamlet is clearly not himself, “Th’expectancy and rose of the fair state,” (in Ophelia’s words).

We also warm to Hamlet as a character on account of his intelligence and his wit. We applaud his scholarly discernment in not only his judgement of Claudius’ character (when the Ghost reveals the truth, Hamlet exclaims “O my prophetic soul!”), but also in his suspicion of the Ghost, who might be a “spirit of health or goblin damned.” The audience respect Hamlet for questioning the nature of the Ghost, and we likewise respect his decision to hold the play in order to verify the Ghost’s words. Indeed, Hamlet’s love of acting (he begs the player king to recite Aeneas’ speech) and his own ability to act (“Speak the speech I play you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue…”) are both rather redeeming features, particularly for the audience who share his love of the theatre. Hamlet’s use of his wit in mocking Polonius might also encourage us to like and sympathise with the prince. In these hilarious scenes, Hamlet provides the audience with amusement at the expense of some of the play’s most unattractive characters (Polonius’s cruelty is constantly evident, as when he tells Reynaldo to put on Laertes “what forgeries you please”). It is particularly amusing when Hamlet tells Polonius he is a “fishmonger”, one of the basest professions of the Elizabethan era. Thus, Hamlet is seen throughout the play as an intelligent and witty character, and it is these qualities that make him likeable.

We also admire Hamlet for his conscience, something that seems somewhat lacking in many of the play’s other characters. The reason Hamlet delays for so long is because of his conscience and because he knows, if he kills a possibly innocent man, then he will be eternally damned: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” Hamlet’s aversion from killing is most evident in the field soliloquy when he laments that the patch of ground “is not tomb enough and continent / To hide the slain.” It is undeniable that the audience would rather a thought with three parts coward and one part wisdom than a thought wholly bloody and violent , as Laertes seems to have: “Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit, / I dare damnation.” Where Hamlet has a conscience and fears damnation, Laertes, one of the play’s other revengers, has neither conscience nor fear (at least not until the duel scene). Moreover, while Laertes is willing “To cut his throat i’th’Church,” Hamlet is not, and we certainly are glad that Hamlet does not kill Claudius in cold blood while he is attempting to repent. And though Hamlet’s reasoning for this (he wants to kill Claudius “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage…” so that he goes to Hell) is, as Johnson has noted, very unattractive, it is very possible that Hamlet is being disingenuous in posing as the revenger he is not. Indeed, when Hamlet says “Oh from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth…” we somehow doubt that this is what he really believes or desires. And so, though Hamlet may call himself a coward for not acting, perhaps Hamlet’s inaction shows a positive aspect of his character, reinforcing our view of him as a mindful young man with a conscience, rather than as a mindless killer.

And yet, it is very possible to argue against this view of Hamlet. After all, he does send his two school friends to their deaths and then remarks: “They are not near my conscience.” However, this does not necessarily mean that he enjoys killing: he knew that it was either him that would die or them, and understandably he chose to kill them. Moreover, his decision to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern shows that when he needs to act, Hamlet is able to seize opportunities. Indeed, Hamlet seems to take advantage of opportunities throughout the play: the arrival of the players, the killing of Polonius, and the final killing of Claudius, presented as a sudden decision by Hamlet’s words, “And the point envenomed too! Then, venom, to thy work!” Thus, though Hamlet is unattractive in his cold killing of his school friends, it is somewhat understandable, since they did indeed “make love to this employment” of espionage and trickery on behalf of Claudius. Moreover, it does not mean that Hamlet is a violent murderer, it simply means that, as H.A. Taine argues, he is a man with a conscience who will act against it if he must.

Hamlet’s behaviour to Ophelia, however, is harder to excuse. Johnson defined it as “useless and wanton cruelty”, and it is true that Hamlet is unattractive in his ability to use (or indeed “play upon”) Ophelia to his own advantage. He orders her to “Get thee to a nunnery!” in order to convey his fa├žade of madness to Polonius, and this causes Ophelia much upset: “O my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!” she exclaims, after Hamlet has appeared in her room. Later, she tells him “You are keen, my lord, you are keen,” and we certainly dislike Hamlet in his cruelty. However, perhaps it can be excused to an extent: Levin argues that, when Hamlet asks Ophelia “Ha! Are you honest?” (changing into prose), he has seen Polonius skulking in the wings. This perhaps explains Hamlet’s anger at Ophelia: he sees her as complicit in Claudius and Polonius’ deceptive plans. Thus, though Hamlet’s acts may not be justified, they can to an extent be explained.

Hamlet’s acts at Ophelia’s funeral are similarly cruel. His arrogance and heartlessness is clear when he exclaims “This is I! Hamlet the Dane!” He is particularly unattractive when he compares his own love to that of Laertes, saying that “Forty thousand brothers” couldn’t make up his sum. We do not like Hamlet here because, not only has he arguably caused the tragic and sad death of Ophelia, he has also interrupted her funeral. Perhaps, however, this can be explained by Hamlet’s overwhelming sense of grief following his discovery of Ophelia’s death: it is possible that his extreme protestations of love are Hamlet’s attempts to overcome his sense of guilt. Thus, Hamlet’s cruel and unattractive actions may to an extent be explained by the position he is in and by the melancholy that has tainted him throughout the play.

Hamlet is a kind, intelligent and loving son and friend, “placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress and perplex his conduct” (Mackenzie). Though this does not justify Hamlet’s actions, the melancholic cloud that hangs on him following his father’s death, accompanied by the incredible burden he groans under, may explain his errant and unattractive actions. Our final view of Hamlet is, however, a positive one: his exchange of forgiveness with Laertes marks him as a loving and kind friend. Moreover, Horatio’s view of Hamlet as a “sweet prince” and Fortinbras’ view of him as a soldier who will have “proved most royal” are both true and positive perspectives on Hamlet’s actions in the play. He is, as Cruttwell argues, a conscript in a war: he does things he should not and would rather not have done, but he believes his war to be just and he persists in it until the end. He is not perfect, but we as an audience should not expect perfection: in fact, it is perhaps Hamlet’s imperfections that make him such a realistic, relatable and indeed appealing character.

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