“Who’s there?” Whispered in the dark, this question begins a tale of conspiracy, deception and moral ambiguity. And in a play where everyone has something to hide, its answer is far from simple. Written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1601, “Hamlet” depicts its titular character haunted by the past, but immobilized by the future.
Mere months after the sudden death of his father, Hamlet returns from school a stranger to his own home, and deeply unsure of what might be lurking in the shadows. But his brooding takes a turn when he’s visited by a ghost that bears his father’s face. The phantom claims to be the victim of a “murder most foul,” and convinces Hamlet that his uncle Claudius usurped the throne and stole queen Gertrude’s heart.
The prince’s mourning turns to rage, and he begins to plots his revenge on the new king and his court of conspirators. The play is an odd sort of tragedy, lacking either the abrupt brutality or all-consuming romance that characterize Shakespeare’s other work in the genre. Instead it plumbs the depths of its protagonist’s indecisiveness, and the tragic consequences thereof.
The ghost’s revelation draws Hamlet into multiple dilemmas– what should he do, who can he trust, and what role might he play in the course of justice? These questions are complicated by a tangled web of characters, forcing Hamlet to negotiate friends, family, court counselors, and love interests– many of whom possess ulterior motives.
The prince constantly delays and dithers over how to relate to others, and how he should carry out revenge. This can make Hamlet more than a little exasperating, but it also makes him one of the most human characters Shakespeare ever created. Rather than rushing into things, Hamlet becomes consumed with the awful machinations of thinking itself. And over the course of the play, his endless questions come to echo throughout our own racing minds.
To accomplish this, Shakespeare employs his most introspective language. From the usurping king’s blazing contemplation of heaven and hell, to the prince’s own cackling meditation on mortality, Shakespeare uses melancholic monologues to breathtaking effect. This is perhaps best exemplified in Hamlet’s most famous declaration of angst: “To be or not to be—that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And, by opposing, end them.”
This monologue personifies Hamlet’s existential dilemma: being torn between thought and action, unable to choose between life and death. But his endless questioning raises yet another anxiety: is Hamlet’s madness part of a performance to confuse his enemies, or are we watching a character on the brink of insanity? These questions weigh heavily on Hamlet’s interactions with every character. And since he spends much of the play facing inward, he often fails to see the destruction left in his wake.
He’s particularly cruel to Ophelia, his doomed love interest who is brought to madness by the prince’s erratic behavior. Her fate is one example of how tragedy could have been easily avoided, and shows the ripple effect of Hamlet’s toxic mind games. Similar warning signs of tragedy are constantly overlooked throughout the play. Sometimes, these oversights occur because of willful blindness– such as when Ophelia’s father dismisses Hamlet’s alarming actions as mere lovesickness.
At other points, tragedy stems from deliberate duplicity– as when a case of mistaken identity leads to yet more bloodshed. These moments leave us with the uncomfortable knowledge that tragedy evolves from human error– even if our mistake is to leave things undecided. For all these reasons, perhaps the one thing we never doubt is Hamlet’s humanity. But we must constantly grapple with who the “real” Hamlet might be.
Is he a noble son avenging his father? Or a mad prince creating courtly chaos? Should he act or observe, doubt or trust? Who is he? Why is he here? And who’s out there– waiting in the dark?
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Credit: TED ed – Iseult Gillespie