Hamlet, the timeless tragedy by William Shakespeare, has at its core an amazing internal struggle within its title character. As a result of this quandary, Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, contradicts himself many times throughout out the play. As well as trying to be true to himself, Hamlet is proficient at acting out roles and making people falsely believe The roles that he plays are ones in which he feigns madness to ultimately accomplish his goal. While one second Hamlet pretends to be under a strange spell of madness, seconds later he may become perfectly calm and rational. These inconsistencies are directly related with the internal dilemmas that he faces. He struggles with the issue of revenging his father?s death, vowing to kill Claudius and then backing out several times. His actions throughout the play support this duplicitous nature. His dual persona is the foundation of Hamlet?s madness, and ultimately the play itself. There are many examples that illustrate how Hamlet?s fraudulent nature results in a tragedy because of his inability and reluctance to choose which role to play.
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One such example occurs near the beginning of the tome. In Act One, Hamlet appears to be very straightforward in his actions, inner state, and role. When his mother questions him, Hamlet says, “Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not seems” (Act I, Scene 2). By saying this, Hamlet lets Gertrude know that he is what she sees, distraught and torn over his father?s death. Later, he makes a clear statement about his state of mind when he commits himself to revenge. “I?ll wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain” (Act 1 Scene 5). In that statement, Hamlet is declaring that he will be committed to nothing else but the revenge of his fathers death. There is no confusion about Hamlet?s character. He has said earlier that he is what he appears to be, and there is no reason to doubt it.
In the next act, however, Hamlet?s intentions suddenly become mired in confusion. In the first act, Hamlet was dedicated and inspired in seeking revenge. However, when Hamlet appears again in the second act, it seems that he has lost the conviction that was present earlier. He has yet to take up the part assigned to him by the ghost. He spends the act walking around, reading, and talking with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the players. It is not until the very end of the act that he even mentions revenge.
These two acts are crucial because they show Hamlet?s dire duplicity, and how tragedy results. With certain people, Hamlet is resolved to avenge his father?s death. With others, that seems to be the last thought in his mind. If he had any of the resolve he had showed earlier, his act of revenge should have already been completed. So instead of playing the part of the vengeful son, or dropping the issue entirely, he spends the entire act “slacking off,” avoiding the decision he has to make, and pretending to be mad. This is shown when he says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I know not-lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise.” (Act 2 Scene 2). Later he tells them that he is just faking his madness when he says, “I am but mad north-north-west, when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” (Act 2 Scene 2). I feel that by admitting he is faking madness, he is ultimately saying that is comfortable with it.
The idea of feigning or faking madness has a lot to do with acting. Faking, or in other words, playing a role, is at its root a way of acting. It is ironic how in a play, something entirely composed of acting, the theory of acting is brought up so much. By “faking madness,” Hamlet is, definitely acting. It is strange that Hamlet is comfortable with playing at this point, but the crucial concept here is that he is not acting out the role that he so resolved in act one.
However, when the traveling theater troupe comes around, the resolve Hamlet once had returns. Hamlet is prompted to vengeance, again, by the moving speech that is given by one of the players. About this speech, he says, “What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her? What would he do had he motive and cue for passion that I have?” (Act 2 Scene 2). In this praise of this players ability to act, Hamlet is saying that if this was a play, and he was an actor in it, he would have killed Claudius by now. He is then moved to swear that he should kill Claudius when he says, “I should have fatted all the region kites with this slave?s offal. Bloody, bawdy villain! O, vengeance! Why, what an ass am I?” (Act 2 Scene 2).
He makes this big buildup of what he should have done and how he will seek revenge, but then shoots it down in the next statement. This passage is the model of Hamlet?s tremendous problem. After all of this swearing and support of the value of acting and words, he backs out of it again. He can?t decide whether to play the role or not. Being caught in the middle, he decides that he needs more proof of the King?s guilt. He keeps going back on his resolve when he says, “The play is the thing, wherein I?ll catch the conscience of the King.” (Act 2 Scene 2). Hamlet feels that not only can the inner and outer self not be linked, but also acting will transform one?s inner self to match the exterior.
This is a strong statement, but one backed up by the play. If Hamlet believes that acting can transform your one?s inner self into whatever role one is playing, then it is clear to me why this play ends tragically. Hamlet has inherent flaws in the way he perceives the way people function. By what he says here, if he would only act the part he wouldn?t have a problem taking action. However, the contradictions that are so commonplace in Hamlet are shown again when he says, “God hath given you one face, and you go make yourselves another.”(Act 3 Scene 1). He is bouncing back and forth between supporting acting and denouncing it. Whenever he is in support of acting he is also ready for revenge. He says, “It hath made me mad. I say we will have no more marriages. Those that are married already all but one-shall live.” (Act 3 Scene 1).
In the next scene the conflicting action is similar, but less obvious. When Hamlet is advising the player on how his lines should be read he says, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” (Act 3 Scene 2). If Hamlet would follow his own advice he would not have a conflict. This shows that he is not consistent within himself. Hamlet is saying one should not distinguish between word and deeds, even though he does himself. Yet when Hamlet speaks with Horatio he praises him for being objective, rational, and for having a consistent character. He praises Horatio for being true to himself, and not being an actor. Hamlet says, “Give me that man that is not passion?s slave, and I will wear him my heart?s core, ay, in my heart of heart, as I do thee.” (Act 3 Scene 2).
Hamlet is saying this because he wants Horatio to watch the King at the play. He is unsure of his uncle?s guilt, and he wants proof. He wants it from someone who he thinks is honest throughout. It comes back to acting and vengeance, or in this case, he has failed in his vengeance and needs someone honest to agree with him. Hamlet says to Horatio, “Observe mine uncle. If his occulted guilt do not itself unkernel in one speech, It is a dammed ghost we have seen,” (Act 3 Scene 2). Proof, however, does not have any thing to do with the role Hamlet is supposed to play, but there is more to it than that. The interesting thing is that his uncle will be judged by how he acts during the play.
If the King is a good actor, and does not show his guilt, he will most likely not be killed. Once again, the whole resolution of the play comes back to acting. Whichever role the king decides to play is the role in turn Hamlet decides to play. Unfortunately for Claudius, he is not a good actor and when he rises Hamlet responds with, “What, frighted with false fire?”(Act 3 Scene 2). It is as if Hamlet is saying it is only a play, it is not real. He does say something to this effect a few lines before. “Your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not”(Act 3 Scene 2).
This new proof drives Hamlet to use more words. He is again to talk of killing, and he says, “Now I could drink hot blood” (Act 3 Scene 2). Later Hamlet again talks himself out of character and does not kill the King. He puts it off until later, once again and says, “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, at gaming, swearing, or about some act that has no relish of salvation in it, then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven, and that his soul may be dammed and black” (Act 3 Scene 3). He is waiting until Claudius fits the part of a villain. His action is paralyzed whenever something does not fit the part. For Hamlet, everything needs to be perfect in order for him to carry out his actions. He needs his revenge to be dramatic so that he may get into it and finally play it out, and it takes him the next scene and an act to finally do this.
After Hamlet backs out of killing Claudius, Hamlet says to his mother, “O shame, where is thy blush?”(Act 3 Scene 4). He is voicing his distaste for Gertrude not only for marrying his uncle but also for not being true to herself. She should show some shame for her sins but does not. Hamlet is contradicting himself once again. He has been two sided and untrue for two thirds of the play. At this point he is still not sure as how to proceed. Hamlet is caught in the middle of acting and objectivity. Hamlet finally gets his act together, and decides to act the part his father had given him, when he sees the soldiers going off to war to die. “The imminent death of twenty thousand men that, for fantasy and a trick of fame, go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, which is not tomb enough and continent to hide the slain. O, from this time forth thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” (Act 4 Scene 4). Those soldiers fight and die for an insignificant plot of land, and they do it because they are soldiers, for no other reason. This convinces Hamlet to follow through and do his duty.
Hamlet realizes that he should do what his role dictates strictly because it is his role. He does not falter in his after he returns and fully embraces the act. In reaction to Ophelia?s death he is again behaving as he should have. She was his love interest and as such he should have loved her more than her brother. This is shown when Hamlet says “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not, with their quantity of love, make up my sum” (Act 5 Scene 1). Hamlet should have loved her, but he did not. Had he loved her he would not have not treated her so poorly earlier. He is now committed to acting, and loving Ophelia fits the role. In the rest of the play Hamlet sticks to his resolve. He barely has time to tell his story of escape to Horatio before he is challenged. He does not refuse the challenge because as nobility, which he is finally claiming to be, he cannot refuse and keep his honor. Hamlet goes to the match and because he has now accepted the role, he does not hesitate to kill the King when prompted to do so.
It would seem that being a good actor would be paramount to lessening the tragedy of Hamlet. Had Hamlet been truly comfortable with acting, Claudius would have been the only causality. But instead, throughout the whole play, Hamlet wrestles with an inner conflict that ultimately costs not only Claudius? life, but also many others, including his own. This is an inner conflict that strikes to the root of Hamlet?s being. If can not decide which role to play. He even feels that playing one role can transform his inner feelings as well. While one moment Hamlet is committed to revenge, the next moment he is not sure if Claudius was the killer. In one scene Hamlet praises acting and realizes his role, but in the next he decides to put off his deeds. If Hamlet had followed through with his actions, and not so fiercely debated, tragedy could have been averted. Hamlet is all about acting. While it has other meanings as well, the famous line, “to be or not to be,” asks whether one should act, or be true to oneself. This is the essence of the tragic resolution. As this paper has clearly shown, Hamlet?s inability to act leads to everyone?s demise.