In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the protagonist exhibits a puzzling, duplicitous nature. Hamlet contradicts himself throughout the play. He endorses both the virtues of acting a role and that of being true to one’s self. He further supports both of these conflicting endorsements with his actions. This ambiguity is demonstrated by his alleged madness, for he does behave madly,only to become perfectly calm and rational an instant later. These inconsistencies are related with the internal dilemmas he faces. He struggles with the issue of revenging his father’s death-vowing to kill Claudius and then backing out, several times. Upon this point Hamlet stammers through the play. The reason for this teetering is directly related to his inability to form a solid
opinion about role playing. This difficulty is not present, however, at the start of the play.
In the first act, Hamlet appears to be very straightforward in his actions and inner state. When questioned by Gertrude about his melancholy appearance, Hamlet says, “Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not ’seems.’ (1.2.76). This is to say “I am what I
appear to be.” Later In Act I, Hamlet makes a clear statement about his state when he commits himself to revenge. In this statement the play makes an easy to follow shift. This shift consists of Hamlet giving up the role of a student and mourning son. Hamlet says,
“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” (1.5.99-103).
Hamlet is declaring that he will be committed to nothing else but the revenge of his father’s 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 status and intentions suddenly, and with out demonstrated reason, become mired in confusion.
When Hamlet appears again in act two, 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, talking with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the players. It is not until the very end of the act that he even mentions vengeance. If he had any of the conviction shown earlier he would have been working on his vengeance. So, instead of playing the part of vengeful son, or dropping the issue entirely, he hangs out in the middle, 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” (2.2.298-299). Later he tells them that he is just feigning madness when he says, “I am but mad north-north-west, when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw”(2.2.380-381). Admitting so blatantly that he is only feigning madness would imply that he is comfortable with it. He also seems to be generally comfortable with acting This is evidenct when he says, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2.251-252). Hamlet is saying that behavior shapes reality.
It is puzzling that, at this point, Hamlet is comfortable with acting, but not with the role that he said he would play earlier. If he is to play a role, why not the one that his father gave him? When the players come in a short wile later his attitude changes.
Hamlet is prompted to vengeance, again, by the moving speech that is given by one of the players. About this speech he says,
“Whatis 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? “(2.2.561-564)
In this praise of this players ability to act, Hamlet is saying that, if he were such an actor, he would have killed Claudius by now. This link between vengeance and acting that is present here is what Hamlet struggles with until very near the end. 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 is off. Bloody, bawdy villain! O, vengeance! Why, what an ass am I?’ (2.2.581-585) He makes this big buildup of what he should have done and how he will be revenged and he shoots it down in the next line. This passage is the model of Hamlet’s cognitive dissonance. 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 or not to play the role. Words are further condemned when he says, “Must, like a whore, unpack my hart with Words” (2.2.587). So, he is now condemning role playing. Being caught in the middle, he decides that he needs more proof of the Kings guilt when he says, “The play is the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.606-607). Before the mouse trap is to be played, Hamlet runs into Ophelia and makes some telling statements. Upon the issue of Opheliais beauty, Hamlet says, “That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty” (3.1.109-110). He is saying that Ophelia can be honest and fair, but that, honesty being an inward trait, and fairness being an outward trait, cannot be linked. He goes on further to say that “Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd that the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness” (3.1.13-15) So not only can the inner and outer self not be linked, but acting, or the show or exterior, will transform one’s inner self to match the exterior show. He says this just after denying that words and acting are important. By what he says here, if he would only act the part he wouldn’t have a problem taking action. Then, he contradicts himself, yet again, when he says “God hath given you one face, and you go make yourselves Another”(3.1.146-147). He had just said that appearance is all and now chastises women for changing it. He is bouncing back and forth between supporting acting and denouncing it.
Whenever he is in support of acting, he is also ready for vengeance. When he swings back to support acting again 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”(3.1.149-151). The “one” Hamlet is referring to must be the King. So, it returns to vengeance and acting going together.
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” (3.2.17-18). 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 that one should not distinguish between word and actions, but he does maintain this separation. Yet, when Hamlet speaks with Horatio he praises him for being objective, levelheaded, and for having a consistent character. He is praising Horatio for being true to himself, not being an actor. Hamlet says, “Give me that man That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart, As I do thee” (3.2.69-72). 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 Horatio to agree with him. Hamlet says to Horatio, “Observe mine uncle. If his occulted guilt Do not itself unkernnel in one speech, It is a
dammed ghost we have seen” (3.2.77-80). 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. However, the King is not a good actor and when he rises Hamlet responds with, “What, frighted with false fire?”(3.2.254). It’s as if Hamlet is saying ‘it’s 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”(3.2.229-230). 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” (3.2.379). He again associates this with a role, that of Nero. “The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom” (3.2.383). Later, Hamlet again talks himself out of character and does not kill the King. He puts it off until later and says, “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, At gaming, swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation init, Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be dammed and black” (3.3.89-94) He is waiting until Claudius fits the part of a villain. His action is paralyzed whenever something does not fit the part. 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?”(3.4.72). He is voicing his distaste for Gertrude, not only for marrying his uncle, but for not being true to herself. Hamlet believes that she should show some shame for her sins, but she does not. Hamlet is contradicting himself in this. He has been duplicitous and untrue for two thirds of the play. At this point, he is still not sure as how he is 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, after he sees the soldiers going off to war to die.
“The imminent death of twenty thousand men continent To hide the slain. O, from this time forth My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth! 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 Those soldiers fight and die for an insignificant plot of land, and they do it because they are soldiers, no other reason.” (4.4.51-57)
Hamlet realizes that he should do what his role dictates, strictly because it is his role. He does not falter in his conviction after he returns, and he fully embraces the act. Upon confronting Laertes, he says “This is I, Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.53-54). The “Dane”, meaning the King. He is claiming his right to the throne. This is the appropriate action for someone as wronged as he, albeit late.
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” (5.1.256-258). Hamlet should have loved her, but he did not. Had he loved her he would not have treated her so poorly earlier. He is now committed to acting, and loving Ophelia fits the role.
In the rest of the play, Hamlet does not mess around. He barely has time to tell, to Horatio, his story of escape 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.
It would seem that being a good actor is paramount to survival in this play. Polonius could not stick to the role of adviser, and was trying to convince the King that Hamlet was in love with his daughter. This leads him to spy on Hamlet, and because he could not do that right either, is killed. Ophelia could not handle the role of mourning for her father, goes mad and dies as a result. The King could not cover up his guilt, so Hamlet has the proof he needs to spur him on. Finally, Hamlet: If he would have acted as the ghost instructed him to in the first place, instead of flip flopping, would have killed Claudius outright. Had Hamlet been truly comfortable with acting, Claudius would have been the only causality.