Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be seen as an exploration of the human psyche and the human condition in the consequences our actions have when acted on out of impulse and emotion rather than careful deliberation. Hamlet the character makes most of his decisions on the spot but has trouble deciding one way or another after thorough consideration. Many of the decisions he does make have implications that result in dire consequences for him and other characters in the play.
The character Hamlet’s actions are driven by his emotion, but usually thinks rationally, before making decisions on how to act. Throughout the play, we see Hamlet faced with unimaginable stress and decisions to make but is able to think pragmatically and follow his conscience. He debates how he can do the right thing, yet avenge the terrors inflicted on his father. However, it is when Hamlet acts spontaneously that his decisions and actions seem reckless and negligent.
Many critics through the years have debated about Hamlet’s emotions none more so than T. S. Eliot. In his essay, Hamlet and His Problems he argued that Shakespeare was unable to express the feelings Hamlet felt because Shakespeare himself did not understand them. Eliot believes Shakespeare did not use ‘objective correlative’ which is a series of events or objects that rouse a specific emotion of a character. According to Eliot, the play is interpreted emotionally in different ways because Shakespeare did not know how to properly express the emotion of Hamlet. This however, neglects the fact that Hamlet acts mainly out of emotion and passion.
Hamlet’s emotions throughout the play are often difficult to determine. During his soliloquies, the audience is somewhat informed of Hamlet’s inner struggles and problems yet some of his actions seem rather contrasted to what he has been saying in his soliloquies. Hamlet is dominantly seen as being very melancholy since learning about his father’s death, greatly troubled by the incestuous behaviour of his mother and enraged at the gall of his uncle.
However, as the play progresses, Hamlet tells Horatio and the audience that he is feigning madness and this line between acting mad and being genuinely insane is somewhat indistinct. This makes it difficult for the audience to effectively decipher the true feelings of the protagonist as we are unsure of Hamlet’s madness and the fact he tries to hide his true emotion through this supposed madness.
Eliot in his critical essay, Hamlet and hid Problems, believes Hamlet’s madness is rather a “form of emotional relief” which Shakespeare “cannot express in art.” Eliot believes the madness of Hamlet is not a way in which Hamlet is able investigate the truth to the murder of his father and the revenge on his uncle but because there is no other way Shakespeare can express the desired effect of Hamlet’s emotion.
Through his soliloquies we hear of his dilemmas and the way he feels, not knowing what is ahead of him. His emotions are expressed as the reader is taken into the protagonist’s mind in the soliloquies and the audience hears of his indecision and uncertainty:
HAMLET: “Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward?”
This is part of Hamlet’s second soliloquy and he makes mention of his inability to act on his father’s wishes. He is “unpregnant of his cause,” that is, unable to act quickly on his call. He later likens himself to a coward. This is all because Hamlet as a character can not be sure of the ghost’s intentions and realises this as he goes through it in his mind.
In contrast to this, Hamlet is unable to altogether think logically when faced by the antagonist. Instead, his thoughts and actions are hasty and irrational. Here, Hamlet finds another reason to prolong his action, as he does not want to kill his uncle when his soul is clean:
HAMLET: And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
Hamlet has surpassed the idea simply having to know the facts of the murder that took place, but now feels the need to know the metaphysical details too before he acts. This can be seen as Hamlet not really wanting to go through with the murder as it is against his better judgement yet feels he is obliged to act on his father’s demand of wergild.
In the very next scene, however, we see Hamlet act differently to what the audience has seen him say and think by killing in hot-blood who he thinks to be the king. Here, he makes his decision in the heat of the moment without investigating or thinking what he is doing:
HAMLET: How now? A rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!…
Nay I know not. Is it the king?
Here, Hamlet makes a pivotal decision in the play. He believes that the person behind the arras is the king and acts immediately by killing Polonius. This is one of the first decisions Hamlet makes; one which has consequences that affect many of the characters in the play. The decision to kill whoever was behind the arras had no logical reasoning behind it. As a result of this Hamlet is pursued by the king, a friend of Polonius’ and Laertes, his son.
This spontaneous decision brings about the chain of events that ultimately brings about the restoration of peace and order in the state of Denmark. The sudden death of Polonius provides a means for Claudius to get rid of Hamlet, through the battle between Laertes and Hamlet. Claudius tells Laertes about Hamlet’s actions and pushes for a battle in which Laertes will be able to exact revenge for the killing of his father. The battle ends with not only Hamlet but Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude dead. Before dying, however, Hamlet passes on the kingship of the country to young Fortinbras, which means the country is reestablished without the corruption and immorality of the previous rulers.
HAMLET: But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with th’occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.
Hamlet knowing he is dying realises that Fortinbras is the one who will bring prosperity and morality back to the Danish people. Finally all corruption and debauchery have been eliminated from the Danish crown.
The only other major instance where Hamlet acted on impulse and emotion was near the beginning of the play where Hamlet first meets the ghost. We have the ghost appearing clad in full armour in the middle of the night. He is seen as a very foreboding figure and does not talk to anyone for the first three nights. On the fourth, Hamlet this time joining the group, is beckoned away by the ghost, and Hamlet obliges. As Horatio, the scholar points out this is potentially very dangerous situation:
HORATIO: What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other, horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness?
Horatio verifies the existence of a ghost, as he is an intelligent being. This also means that advice given is valid. Hamlet puts himself in grave jeopardy by following the ghost not knowing where it is from, whether it is his father or an equivocal demon from hell. His emotions of yearning for his father take over and Hamlet feels drawn to know what the ghost has to say.
Hamlet never knows for certain the truth about his father’s death and only late in the play do the audience hear a confession for the regicidal murder. Nevertheless Hamlet follows the ghosts demand for wergild, exacting revenge on his father’s killer.
Hamlet’s emotion and motives have been questioned by many especially in the last century. T.S. Eliot believes Hamlet’s is an “artistic failure” and his emotions were unable to be expressed, as Shakespeare himself did not completely understand them. However, it is through Hamlet’s emotions that he is able to act, although, his actions often leave much to be desired.
Hamlet’s true emotions are often difficult to interpret as he often tries to hide his genuine feelings especially through his supposedly fictitious madness. However, at times it is clear to see Hamlet as a young man who is troubled by recent events and his conscience. Through Shakespeare’s use of soliloquies, the audience usually gets a clear insight into the psyche of Hamlet, but on some occasions, these sagacious thoughts are overcome by emotion and calenture. These emotional and impulsive decisions often result in dire consequences for all involved, and the ultimate price is paid by Hamlet and his corrupted family.
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