Hamlet Character Analysis + Main Themes

Hamlet Hamlet is a multi-dimensional character, becomes a different character in each scene. He is a paradox. E.g. He can be angry, dejected, depressed + brooding but also be manic, elated, enthusiastic + energetic. He is very good at twisting + manipulating words (e.g. constantly spars with Claudius but Claudius not smart enough to battle back) but his words control him, stopping him from avenging his father’s death by over-analysing them; “Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear murdered… Must like a ***** unpack my heart with words” (Hamlet, Act 2 scene 2, lines 535 – 536, 538). Hamlet could have unnatural relationship with his mother, lusting after her. He has a Puritanical nature where he dislikes sexual activity. He could also be a brutal misogynist (afraid of love and women). He verbally abuses Ophelia and uses sexual innuendos; “Get thee to a nunnery” (Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1, line 119). Is he mad? If he is, how did he change the letters sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. Could Hamlet’s flaw be his madness? Pretending to be mad? His words? His arrogance in deciding life and death? From outside factors and his flaws, everyone falls with him.
Claudius He is a good example of a quintessential Shakespearean antagonist. He is social, has genuine charm + great at being upset over his brother’s death. He is decisive, good at politics + commands the bedroom. He does love Gertrude. He knows his mistakes + his “offence is rank” (Act 3 Scene 3, Line 36) but does not want to give up what he took. Claudius shows more heroism by taking responsibility for his actions but Hamlet causes 6 deaths before he kills Claudius. He mitigates (decreases) his evil nature. Claudius mirrors Hamlet in certain ways. For example, they both believe the ends justifies the means. However, Claudius is wrong as he secretly murdered and lied. Hamlet is right but not from openly murdering and suffering the consequences in his conscience. Hamlet wants contrition (sense of guilt) but absolves (free from guilt) himself before death. Claudius subverts (takes over) his conscience + does not want absolution so he does not get absolution.
Gertrude Her character is malleable. She could be cunning to receive power with Claudius but also be clueless of Claudius’ actions. Hint of Gertrude not being fully blameless; “Leave her to Heaven/ And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge/ To prick and sting her” (Ghost, Act 5 Scene 1, Lines 86 – 88). She never opposes Claudius even when Hamlet tells her of what Claudius has done. Could have drunk the poisoned wine in Act 5 Scene 2 out of maternal protectiveness; “The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet” (Gertrude, Act 5 Scene 2, Line 266). Loves Hamlet (not wanting him to go to Whittenburg University) + wants his happiness (wishing Ophelia would’ve married Hamlet).
Polonius Could be a devoted father or ruthless politician in actions. For example, sending Reynaldo (his servant) to spy on Laertes because he cares or protect his reputation. Even when elderly + demented, he is still counsellor to king + at least good at politics. Could be victim of contrivances (plotting + spying).
Ophelia She’s torn between expectations of men. Her father + brother see her as an eternal virgin, dutiful wife + firm mother. They believe Hamlet will take away her virginity since he can’t marry her. Hamlet sees her as a sexual object, a corrupt and deceitful lover. Does not have a mother to help her. She has to choose obeying her father or staying true to her love but chooses to obey her father. This issue drives her crazy since she can’t balance it, she can’t heal herself of it.
Laertes Grew up + friends with Hamlet but decreased friendship when Hamlet went to Whittenburg and Laertes went to Paris. Mirrors Hamlet as a foil but behaves oppositely. For example, Hamlet uses words but Laertes uses action. Hamlet has passionate inaction from love for Gertrude and duty to Old Hamlet but Laertes has passionate action from love for Ophelia and duty to Polonius. Hamlet could be Laertes if his words did not consume him most of the time.
Horatio He is a typical example of a faithful friend. He is intelligent but not driven by it. He accepts the world as it is, has a wanted opinion but no one tells him he talks or thinks too much, he understands Hamlet’s wordplay but does not add on to it. Horatio loves Hamlet so much that he was willing to die with Hamlet. Hamlet shared his love by asking Horatio to tell the truth of what has happened.
Fortinbras A foil for Hamlet. He was also seeking revenge for his dead father. He was spirited and ambitious. He is a man of action and never happy unless he is doing something. Obedient to his uncle (King of Norway) who lets go of his indiscretion (carelessness + foolishness) due to Fortinbras’ spirited nature. Uncle gives Fortinbras what he need to satisfy his cravings. Fortinbras is successful since his is single-minded and continues to meet the ends of his goals; “Witness this army, of such mass and charge/ Led by a delicate and tender prince;/ Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d…” (Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 4, 47-49).
Main Themes: Mortality This theme begins at play as Old Hamlet dies and Hamlet becomes obsessed with questions of death. He deals with the complexity of life and death, with questions such as: what happens when you die? If murdered, will person go to heaven? Can kings have free passage to heaven? Hamlet is afraid of the afterlife so he chooses not do die. When Hamlet sees Yorick’ skull, he sees death removes the differences between people. E.g. A lawyer who has many cases and Alexander the Great who conquered many countries both end up dead as skulls. Hamlet leaves questions of death, afterlife and suicide unanswered.
Madness (1) Hamlet pretended to act mad so people could see him as harmless. Polonius states “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (Act 2 Scene 2, Line 200). Polonius is right and wrong. This is ironic since Hamlet does have a method to his madness but because of his love for Ophelia. Later, Hamlet becomes more inconsistent since he can’t handle the deep emotional problems. Leads him to physical violence from stress.
Women Hamlet is most angry and emotional when talking to Gertrude and Ophelia. He loves both of them but is suspicious of them. He freaks out that Gertrude married Claudius too quickly and if Gertrude did not love Old Hamlet that much. He sees Ophelia as working with Gertrude, Claudius and Polonius but she’s obeying Polonius and the king.
Political Livelihood The state of Denmark is decreasing due to: the death of the old king and a new king on the throne and the Prince acting mad. Marcellus’ statement “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Act 1 Scene 4, Line 90). This statement foreshadows the deaths of characters and shows the political unrest of Denmark. The political state of Denmark can link to Hamlet’s mental state.
Delay and Inaction Hamlet’s actions in not doing anything moves the play as he questions himself. Stuck between act of killing Claudius and questioning the results and meaning of his actions. He knows that he will not have a happy ending since he is in a revenge tragedy. His moral and religious views prevent him from killing Claudius. For example, How will Hamlet’s soul be pure after he has murdered someone. Hamlet is a university student and understands the world through his university context: “Yea, from the table of my memory/ I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records/ All saw of books, all forms, all pressures past…” (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5, Line 98-100). Uses his sense of self as a student to understand his duty in avenging his father. He is guilty of his lack of responsibility and harsh to himself: “Why, what an ass am I: this is most brave/ That I, the sone of a dear murdered… Must like a ***** unpack my heart with words”. (Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2, Line 535-536, 538). When Hamlet does do something, it is unpredictable and has lack in thinking through things. For example, when Hamlet stabs Polonius (Act 3 Scene 4). He chooses to do it, rather than think on it (e.g. ‘The Mousetrap’). He must find a way to end this revenge tragedy: “O, from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody or nothing worth” (Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 4, Lines 65-66).
Moral Corruption Hamlet always reflect on pictures of disease and rot. Shows moral corruption in play. Pathetic fallacy (“the attribution of human feelings and responses to inanimate things or animals, especially in art and literature) shows degrading of characters and Denmark: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Marcellus, Act 1 Scene 4, Line 90). This quote shows the rotted heart in court of Denmark. ‘Body politic’ (metaphor of body of ruler and state) shows rulers physical and emotional state which represents country. Claudius destroyed peaceful state by killing king and marrying his wife. Fortinbras cleans the rotten heart of Denmark. Laertes’ metaphor “contagion” [poison on his sword], (Act 4 Scene 7). Shows rotting of court from disease of power as it spreads. Hamlet reflects on corruption: “tis an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely” (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 2, Line 135-137). Metaphors of rotting show imagery of play as Hamlet tries to clean disease but one murder brings more murders. Corruption ends when Hamlet dies.
The Power of the Theatre ‘Hamlet’ about theatre and performance through artifice (cunning and trickery), masks and hidden truths. Context: Globe theatre in Southwark neatly built and ‘Hamlet’ was to be performed on. Shakespeare shows the power of theatre in play. E.g. Hamlet ‘acting’ mad: “Lord Hamlet with his doublet all unbraced, / No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled… And with a look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosed out of hell/ To speak of horrors – he comes before me” (Ophelia, Act 2 Scene 1, Line 76 – 77, 80 – 82). Since character’s are acting, this makes the audience question whether we act true or put on a mask? Hamlet tells Gertrude that he’s not acting grief – he is grieving: “Seems madam – nay it is, I know not ‘seems'” (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 2, Line 76). Story of ‘Hamlet’ shows faith in power of theatre: “I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play… have proclaimed their malefactions” (Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2, Line 542, 545). Many characters wear masks. Hamlet a scholar and humanist does not want to be ‘tragic revenger’ so he puts on ‘antic disposition’ to do regicide (kill a king). Claudius pretends to be a caring uncle and generous kings: “That one may smile and smile and be a villain” (Act 1 Scene 5, Line 108). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play forced roles on them with Hamlet to spy on him but die because of it.
Gender Hamlet sees Gertrude and Ophelia as an example of immorality and unfaithfulness. He puts his anger and fears of deception on them. Does not consider Gertrude could be protecting her son’s future as Prince by marrying Claudius. Believes Gertrude’s marriage based on lust and links to corruption in Elsinore. He strongly lectures Gertrude due to this marriage. Hamlet’s misogynist tirades show extreme beliefs of women in period. His treatment to Gertrude and Ophelia shows he’s out of touch of world. Always talks about his mother’s sexuality: “O most wicked speed! To post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 2, Lines 156 – 157). Ophelia is pawn in corrupt game of men as she is controlled by them. Forced to deny her love for Hamlet and obey her father’s wishes: “I shall obey my lord” (Ophelia, Act 1 Scene 3, Line 136). Hamlet does not have empathy for Ophelia”s situation. Hamlet still believes Ophelia and women in whole are deceptive: “Get thee to a nunnery… God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another” (Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1, Lines 119, 137 – 138). He sees women as symbolising full of lies and artifice (cunning and trickery). Hamlet never considers Gertrude and Ophelia trapped like him.
Mortality Belief in religion, spirituality and meaning of existence make view of death and life harder. Hamlet wants to kill him self since he sees no meaning in life but being both Catholic and Protestant (Shakespeare’s Religion context) stops him – what happens after death? Hamlet thinks more on his actions compared to other revenge heroes: “O that his too solid flesh would melt/ Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,/ Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon ‘gainst self slaughter” (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 2, Lines 129 – 132). Hamlet wishes to die but due to his religious views believe it is a sin. In the end, he sees suicide not worth it: “(The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns) puzzles the will / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others we know not of” (Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 1, Lines 79 – 83). In Act 5 Scene 1 (gravedigger Scene), Hamlet confronts death with nihilistic (“the ejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless”) after seeing Yorick’s skulls: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam” (Lines 176 – 178). Hamlet worries about philosophy of life and death and cannot focus on being alive in present.
Revenge Shakespeare differentiates ‘revenge tragedy’ by showing impacts in ‘Hamlet’ instead of doing action. Shows violence affects psychology of person and creates more problems. Revenge links with honour and duty. E.g. Ghost telling Hamlet kill Claudius for his sake: “If thou didst ever thy dear father love… Revenge his could and most unnatural murder!” (Ghost, Act 1 Scene 5, Line 23, 25). Hamlet quickly accepts but later struggles killing Claudius. Even when he can kill Claudius when Claudius’ praying but believes he will go to heaven instead of hell: “A villain kills my father, and for that / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To heaven” (Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 3, Line 76 – 78). Shakespeare makes foils for Hamlet in Fortinbras and Laertes (who are full of action). Fortinbras sends army through Denmark to take back throne stolen. Laertes later kills Hamlet for Polonius’ death. Hamlet’s revenge shows problems of continuous violence, not cleaning the rotten weed in Denmark.
Madness (2) Hamlet’s madness shows deeper symbolism in performance, masks and impact of moral corruption and emotional devastation. Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus that he will pretend to be mad which lets him find out things without being too suspicious. Context early theatre let mad characters have uncontrolled Truths, reveal lies in politics and personal relationships. Hamlet tells people he is not mad but does not act like he is not: “I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft” (Hamlet to Gertrude, Act 3 Scene 4), “Get thee to a nunnery” verbally abuses Ophelia (Line 119). Clear Hamlet suffering and depression (‘melancholy’ in Elizabethan times). Hamlet’s pretend madness contrasted against Ophelia’s real trauma. Ophelia succumbs (gives up to) her emotional and psychological devastation from being controlled by family, Hamlet toying with her and Hamlet killing Polonius. She puts her father’s death and anxiety on women’s perception of sexuality in song and word. She speaks her true emotions and shows her sadness openly. Ophelia’s madness brings pathos (“a quality that evokes pity or sadness”) in court and shows moral corruption spreading in Elsinore.
Theatre and Metatheatre in Hamlet (Kate Flaherty) Metatheatre is a main theme in Hamlet. For example, Rosencrantz talking about success of boy players (Act 2 Scene 2, Lines 319 – 346), Hamlet’s advice to Players (Act 3 Scene 2, Lines 1 – 46). Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ (Act 1 Scene 5, Line 172) and ‘The Mousetrap’ (Act 3 Scene 2, Line 80 – 248). ‘Hamlet’ shows depth of notions of plays; the power of plays, the danger of plays and plays vs reality. First Player’s performance important cause it shows: the ‘play’ as a game, the ‘play’ as a performance and the ‘play’ in a technical meaning (pretend). Both fiction of play and power of performance can be accepted simultaneously. Does the First Player realise the idea theatrical power? If the First Player can show he understands the power, this makes Hamlet realise his lack of action and deeply affects him. Hamlet’s soliloquy (2.2) is same level performance as First Player’s speech on Pyrrhus. Irony in “Now I am alone (2.2.526) as Hamlet talks to audience about his story (like First Player telling story of Pyrrhus).