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Hamlet is one of the most popular plays of William Shakespeare. It has been enjoyed by audiences throughout its existence, and also criticized by critics. Since the time it was written, critics have been trying to explain Hamlet s odd behavior, and the apparent lack of explanation for the absurdities of the play have caused some critics to denounce the play as a failure. This is far from the truth. The basic explanation of the play, which solves many problems associated with the play, is that Hamlet is depressed. T.S. Elliot says the play is a failure because Shakespeare s fails to impart to the audience how one would feel in Hamlet s situation. The fault is not Shakespeare s, but the audience s. The audience often fails to understand that Hamlet at the opening of the play, is not in his normal state, but is Hamlet depressed because of the death of his father. We see Hamlet change throughout the play, as he is starts out depressed, and grows in a natural progression. As he exits depression, he realizes the need for revenge, and he feigns madness to help him achieve this. Hamlet s depressed state in the beginning helps to explain many of the actions, and perceived failures of the play.
As the play opens, we see Hamlet as he learns of his father s murder. Hamlet is lethargic, melancholy, and slow to action. As the play continues Hamlet changes, and seems to be completely different than what he previously was. Critics say that Hamlet not remaining constant throughout the play was a reason the play was a failure. This is wrong. There are three explanations why Hamlet was lethargic, melancholy, and slow to action. The first explanation is that Hamlet is depressed. His father was just murdered, his mother married his Uncle, and the title that he had been training for his whole entire life had just vanished before his eyes. This would be a great deal of disappointment for any man, and it leads to Hamlet falling in a depression. Many critics denounce the character Hamlet for being too slow to action.
Nearly all readers, commentators, and critics are agreed in thinking that it was Hamlet s duty to kill, that he ought indeed to have killed much sooner than he did. His delay, they say, was a weakness, and disaster (Goddard, Hamlet:His Own Falstaff, pg.12)
There is an explanation for the lack of action of Hamlet in the opening scenes. The reason is Hamlet s intellect. Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar say, He has been at the University of Wittenberg, where he has engaged in the subtleties of intellectual speculation (Hamlet: A Man Who Thinks Before He Acts, p.64). Hamlet is a man of reason. One who has been trained to carefully think and analyze every situation completely before he should act. It is for this reason that Hamlet was slow to action. He was carefully analyzing the situation of his father s death, and all the possibilities, and it wasn t until he was completely sure of himself that he was actually moved to action. A third factor, which cannot be ignored when trying to understand Hamlet s lack of action, is his Christian beliefs. Paul A. Cantor believes
The complexity of Hamlet s stated view of the world-and above all the way it brings together classical and Christian elements in an uneasy fusion-may well be responsible for the fact that he cannot respond to the ghost s challenge in a simple and direct way. (Hamlet s Christian Beliefs Stifle His Heroic Impulse, pg. 122)
Many times, while contemplating suicide, Hamlet gives God as a reason why he can t do it. Hamlet s Christian beliefs play an important role in his lack of action.
The character of Hamlet was not constant throughout the play. Hamlet, like all human beings, changes. There is nothing wrong with this. Much of his change is the result of external forces. By looking at Hamlet s five soliloquies, we are able to gain insight into the true feelings of Hamlet. Hamlet gave his first soliloquy directly after the time of his father s death, and after his mother remarried to his uncle, Claudius. He is greatly depressed. We learn that he is a religious man, when he contemplates suicide but decides against it because God doesn t want him to.
Or that the Everlasting had not fix d
His canon gainst self-slaughter! O God! God (I, ii, 131-132)
Hamlet is greatly distressed that his mother had immediately married his uncle instead of mourning. Last we see that he is hurt because he can not say anything, and must keep silent. During his second soliloquy, Hamlet s attitude has changed, from confused, to angry. At this point he is set on avenging his father s death, and swears to it. This soliloquy mainly serves to show Hamlet s progression. When Hamlet says his third soliloquy, we see some important insight of Hamlet. First we see an important part that shows another dimension of Hamlets depression. His whole life, Hamlet had been raised to become king. He was nobility. After Claudius becomes king, he sees that that it is no longer possible for him to become king, and this greatly upsets him. Oh! What a rogue and peasant slave am I: (II,ii, 553). As demonstrated in the quote, he feels like he has been demoted as a citizen, and is no longer royalty. In this soliloquy, we also see some of the genius reasoning skills of Hamlet is educated. His plan to trap Claudius s conscience marks a change in behavior. In his fourth and most famous soliloquy, Hamlet once again debates suicide. This behavior is a little inconsistent with his plan to trap Claudius, but when there is grieving and depression, much is chaotic. While thinking about suicide, he once again he decides against it, calling death
The undiscover d country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, (III, i, 79-80).
Hamlet will not commit suicide at this point, but is still in a depressed state. When Hamlet gives his fifth soliloquy, we see a final progression of the character of Hamlet. At this point, Hamlet is surer of his destiny. He calmly accepts that he needs to get revenge, and kill Claudius. He is now completely trusting of the ghost. We see in this soliloquy the true character of Hamlet. This soliloquy exemplifies Hamlet as man of reason. Hamlet s conclusion that he needs to get revenge shows no emotion, leading us to believe that it was a calculated decision that had been given much thought. These soliloquies mark the progression of Hamlet in his depression throughout the play. In the first he goes through the first stage of depression, which is confusion and denial. In the second soliloquy, we see him in the second stage of depression, which is anger, as he was very vengeful in the soliloquy. In the third and fourth soliloquy, Hamlet goes through the third stage of depression, which is a feeling of loneliness, suicidal thoughts, and great feeling of being upset. At the time of the fifth soliloquy, we see Hamlet finally exit his depressed state. The depression no longer controls his emotion, and he is back to normal. He is now the prince he used to be before the play started. He is sure of decisions, and has a cunning wit. Hamlet has evolved throughout the play.
A major issue commonly discussed, is whether Hamlet is insane or just feigning madness. The truth is Hamlet is just feigning madness. Hamlet, a man of reason, is extremely smart with a cunning wit. He knows that no one around him understands how he is feeling, and that acting insane would be believable because of what has happened to him. By acting insane, Hamlet throws people off, not letting them know his motives, which in turn makes his goals believable. Throughout the play he has demonstrated the use of reason which negate the possibility of him being insane. Hamlet s plan to escape his own death by stealing Claudius s letter to the king of England, which asks that they kill Hamlet, and switching it with a letter that asks that the King kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, was an ingenious plan which no insane man come up with. Hamlet is just acting insane to make his motive of revenge easier. Unlike Hamlet, Ophelia is insane. Her role in this play is as a foil to Hamlet. She serves as a comparison to Hamlet, by showing to the audience what insanity is, and by doing this shows that Hamlet is not insane. Ophelia, unlike Hamlet, is weak and unable to deal with personal losses, such as the death of her father and the rejection of Hamlet. Yet Polonius s death (together with Hamlet s rejection) is enough to send Ophelia mad (Pennington, Ophelia: Madness Her Only Safe Haven, pg. 73). Ophelia s inexplicable behavior as a result of insanity is markedly different to the calculated behavior of Hamlet, demonstrating that Hamlet is just feigning madness.
In conclusion, we find explanations to the misunderstandings of this play by understanding Hamlet. Knowing that he holds Christian beliefs, is a calculated man of reason, and that he begins depressed will help to solve the problems that critics of denounced the play for. We see Hamlet s lack of action as a result of his Christian beliefs, his intellectual training, and his depressed state. Hamlet s supposed madness is actually a result of his brilliant mind that understood that feigning madness would help him achieve his goals. Knowing these facts, Hamlet is not the failure that many critics say it is. Hamlet is rather a brilliant play, in which Shakespeare successfully attempts to impart the feelings of grief. Hamlet, although sometimes difficult for audiences to understand, is one of Shakespeare s greatest achievements.
Works Cited Page
Cantor, Paul A. Hamlet s Christian Beliefs Stifle His Heroic Impulse
Readings On Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1999
Goddard, Harold. Hamlet: His Own Falstaff Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed
Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Pennington, Michael. Ophelia: Madness Her Only Safe Haven Readings On Hamlet.
Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1999
Wright, B Louis and Virginia A. LaMar. Hamlet: A Man Who Thinks Before He Acts
Readings On Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1999