William Shakespeare's Hamlet: Emotional Complexity of Personality and Intricacy of Plot


 “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!

how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how

express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the

world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,

what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not

me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling

you seem to say so.”— HAMLET  2.2.317

 The term tragedy or tragic drama is broadly applied specifically to literary and especially to dramatic representations of serious action, which eventuate in a disastrous conclusion for the protagonist (the chief character). More precise and detailed discussion of the tragic form properly begins with – although they should not end with – Aristotle’s classical analysis in the ‘Poetics’. Aristotle based his theory on introduction from the only examples available to him, the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Hamlet opens at Elsinore castle in Denmark with the return of Prince Hamlet from the University of Wittenberg, in Germany. He finds that his father, the former king, has recently died and that his mother, Queen Gertrude, has subsequently married Claudius, his father's brother. Claudius has assumed the title of king of Denmark. Hamlet’s sense that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” is intensified when his friend and fellow student Horatio informs him that a ghost resembling his dead father has been seen on the battlements of the castle. Hamlet confronts the ghost, who tells him that Claudius murdered him and makes Hamlet swear to avenge his death. In order to disguise his feelings, Hamlet declares that from now on he will demonstrate an “antic disposition.” His behavior appears to everyone but Claudius to be a form of madness.

            In the subsequent two thousand years and more, many new artistically effective and serious plots ending in a catastrophe have been developed – types that Aristotle had no way of foreseeing. Many major tragedies in the brief following time between 1585 and 1625 by Marlowe, Shakespeare, George Chapman, Webster, Sir Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher deviate radically from the Aristotelian norm.

Since first performed in the early 1600s, the title role in William Shakespeare's Hamlet has remained a favorite of many actors because of the emotional complexity of Hamlet's personality. Nowhere is this complexity more apparent than in Hamlet's famous soliloquy in Act III, Scene 1. The soliloquy is a monologue in which a character reveals inner thoughts, motivations, and feelings. Shakespeare used the technique often, and his soliloquies are poetic and rich in imagery. In Hamlet, a play about a man whose mind may be his fatal flaw, the form reaches its highest level.

            In the narrowest sense of the term, Shakespeare took no trouble to be original. However, it would be misleading to say that he has summed up the tradition. Of him we can say what T.S.Eliot speak in his essay, ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’,

“The most individual part of work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors assert their immortality … vigorously.”

This excerpt from American poet Walt Whitman's famous “Song of Myself,” written in 1881, illustrates the author's conception of death as an integral part of living, an event to be faced with open arms and a lack of fear, an occasion, even, for joy.

 It is evident that, in writing Hamlet , Shakespeare to some extent adopted the drama tradition of the Senecan Tragedy, which is also known as the Revenge Tragedy or the Tragedy of Blood. This type of play derived from Seneca’s favourite material of murder, revenge, ghosts, mutilation and carnage, but while Seneca had relegated such matters to long reports of offstage actions by messengers,  Elizabethan dramatists usually represented them on stage to satisfy the apatite of the contemporary audience for violence and horror. Thomas Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy’(1586) established this popular form and received its significant after-effect in its own time, most famously in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, a play that adapted the revenge play conventions and turned them inside out. Says Rebecca Bushnell, in his ‘Tragedy, A Short Introduction’,“Hamlet is a revenge tragedy that questions every aspect and convention of the revenge tragedy plot while it reproduced them.”

             The play interrogates why revenge motivates a plot, not by directly questioning the value of revenge, but by differing it. Hamlet has raised the most important question for all those who are capable of inquiring into truth, into life, into existence. The most important question of all questions is: What is true happiness? And is there a possibility to achieve it? Is true happiness possible at all, or is all momentary? Is life only a dream, or is there something substantial in it too?

            One of the prominent features of Shakespearean Tragedy, according to Bradley is that it is pre-eminently the story of one person, of exceptional calamity and suffering that leads to the downfall and death of the hero. When the disconsolate Richard returns from Ireland to his troubled kingdom in the play to which Shakespeare gave the full title, ‘The Tragedy of King Richard the Second’, he insists that no one speaks to him of comfort.

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs

How some have been deposed, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghost they have deposed,

Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,

All murdered.”

            Thus for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as much as for their ancient Greek and Roman predecessors, the very nature of tragedy seemed to require that it explored the sad stories of King or at least of men and women dignified by royal blood or civil authority. An exemplary dramatic fall one which stirred the emotions of pity and fear in lesser mortals had to be a fall from a height of influence and honour. Shakespeare’s Tragedies deal almost exclusively with the destinies of kings and princes on whose fortune depends those of the nation they rule.

            However, unlike the Greek Tragedies, which were the tragedies of Fate, Shakespearean Tragedy is to some extent a tragedy of character. Fate does play a very large and important part in this yet it is pre-eminently a tragedy of character, because in Shakespeare, Character is Destiny. The fault lies not in their stars, but in men themselves. In all Shakespearean Tragedies, we can trace the tragedy to a certain fatal error, or weakness or predisposition in the hero; he has in him something that offset all his virtue and brings about his downfall and death. In the case of the play of ‘Hamlet’, there is no doubt that the tragedy of the prince is due chiefly to a fault of his own character. There is in him, what may be called, a tragic flaw. Hamlet is by nature a reflective type of man very much given to philosophic speculation. It is true as the proverb says that a man must think before he acts. But Hamlet only thinks and thinks until he loses all his capacity for action. In this sense it is true to say that ‘Hamlet is a tragedy of reflection’ Hamlet is a thinker, a speculative intellect whose speculative intellect is tragically ineffective in this world of action – where a man is judged by what he  does and not by what he thinks. This world is a world of hard and stern reality and a man filled with moral idealism is doomed to tragic failure. In this sense, “Hamlet is a tragedy of moral idealism.” To quote Schelegel, a famous German critic,  “The poet loses himself with his hero in the labyrinth of thought, in which we find neither end nor beginning. The stars themselves, from the course of events, afford no answer to the question so urgently proposed to them. A voice commissioned, as it would appear, by heaven from another world, demands vengeance for a monstrous enormity, and the demand remains without effect. The criminals are at last punished, but as it were, by an accidental blow.”

The duality of happiness and unhappiness is the most fundamental and the most symptomatic, but there are a thousand and one dualities: the duality of love and hate, the duality of life and death, day and night, summer and winter, youth and old age, and so on, so forth. But the fundamental duality, the duality that represents all other dualities, is that of happiness and unhappiness. It knows nothing of unhappiness, it is pure happiness. It knows nothing of death, it is pure life. It knows nothing of darkness, it is pure light, and to know it is the goal. Gautama the Buddha went in search of this and one day, after six years' struggle, he attained to it. Your life is almost a vicious circle: one mischief leads to another and that one leads to still another. Mischiefs grow out of mischiefs -- only mischiefs can grow out of mischiefs. And you go on living and moving in circles and you don't know what else to do. You do good -- at least you think you are doing good -- but the good never happens; otherwise the world would have been overflowing with good.

            Though Shakespearean Tragedies are to some extent tragedies of character, a profound sense of Fate underlies all Shakespearean Tragedies. In this respect, Shakespeare was at times almost Greek in his outlook. This sense of Fate is powerfully expressed in King Lear,

“As flies to wanton boys are we to gods,

They kill us for their sport.”

The philosophy of the supremacy of Fate is also voiced by Hamlet:

“There is a divinity that shapes our ends.

Rough hew them how we will.”

According to Bradley, “The essence of a Shakespearean Tragedy is that fate represents a problem which alone is difficult for the hero at a time when he is least fitted to tackle it.” This means that if there had been any other problem the hero would have tackled it successfully. This also implies that any other hero would have tackled the problem easily. If Hamlet could change the place with Macbeth or Othello the problem would have been solved.

S. Freud
‘Conflict’ is the essence of Shakespearean Tragedy. The classical tragedians appreciated the conflict between Fate and Free Will. At the heart of every tragedy lies the universal struggle between the human inclination to accept fate absolutely and the natural desire to control destiny. Both Sophocles and Shakespeare would agree that the force of destiny and choice continually vie for control of human life. Yet each of these great playwrights espouses a perspective on the struggle born of specific time and culture. For the Greek Sophocles, Fate far overpowers human will; the harder a man works to avoid his Fate the more surely he catapults fourth into that very Fate. Sophocles’ characters ultimately surrender, after resistance, recognition and reversal, to their destinies. For Shakespeare, a Christian, the choice between good and evil represents man’s basic dilemma; for him, the human will is indomitable. Though fate may ultimately win, a man must fight to the death, if necessary, in order to remain the master of his own choices – choices that ultimately decide if and how his fate defeats him. To quote Andrew Sanders from his ‘The Short Oxford History of English Literature’, “Shakespearean tragic world is uncertain, dangerous and mortal and the catastrophes to which all his tragic dramas inexorably move are sealed by the deaths of their protagonists.”

The contrast between the two points of view is a noteworthy feature of any comparison between Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Like ‘Oedipus Rex’ Hamlet begins with the death of a king. In ‘Oedipus’ and ‘Hamlet’ we might think at first as the heroes do, that the present crisis could be solved if you could find the murderer and then avenge the death of the king. However, that is exactly not the case.

While Hamlet knows that his world is out of joint, or rotten, he does not even know at first that there was a murder. He knows only that his father is dead and his mother has married his uncle. The twist in the play comes early on, when the ghost tells him who killed his father. Thus the truth that is the climax for Oedipus is the beginning of a frustrated plot of revenge for Hamlet.

Moreover, “…few would challenge the assertion that ‘Hamlet’ is the most problematic play ever written by Shakespeare or any other playwright.”, as Harry Levin says so. T.S. Eliot in his famous essay ‘Hamlet and His Problems’ (1952) acerbically note that,

“Few critics have ever admitted that ‘Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary.”

Of its numerous problems some are adventitious arising from the text in which it has survived or from its indefinable relation to the source-play which has not. Some, as we may as well admit, are due to ambiguities unresolved by the dramatist; more have been created by the critics, for instance, T.S.Eliot’s verdict that, “Hamlet is an artistic failure.”  However some permanent and deep-seated problems of the meaning of the play remain.

The psychological method is less open to objection because after all, the Shakespearean  universe is peopled with men and women, so very like ourselves and yet so unaccountably different. Freud himself had decoded that the play, “Another of the great creation of tragic poetry, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ has its root in the same soil as ‘Oedipus Rex’. But the changed treatment of the same material reveals the whole difference in the mental life of these two widely separated epochs of civilization: the secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind. In Oedipus the child’s wishful fantasy that underlies it is brought into the open and realized as it would be in a dream. In ‘Hamlet’ it remains repressed; and just as in the case of Neurosis – we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences.” (P-298)

Curiously Freud points out to the fact of historical difference in comparing Oedipus and Hamlet, even while he collapses them together as much the same character having ‘roots in the same soil’.  Moreover the German Critic Gustav Freytag, in ‘Technique of Drama’ (1863) introduced an analysis of plot of a five act play as a pyramidal shape, consisting of a rising action, climax and falling action.

As applied to Hamlet for example, the rising action begins after the opening scene and exposition, with the Ghost telling Hamlet that he has been murdered by his brother Claudius; it continuous with the developing conflict between Hamlet and Claudius, in which Hamlet despite setbacks, succeeds in controlling the course of events. The rising reaches the climax of the hero’s fortune with his proof of the king’s guilt by the device of the play-within-a play. (Act-3, Scene-2) Then comes the crisis, the reversal or ‘turning point’ of fortunes of the protagonist, in his failure to kill the King while he is at prayer. This inaugurates the falling action; from now the antagonist, Claudius largely controls the course of events, until the catastrophe or the outcome, which is decided by the death of the hero as well as of Claudius, the Queen and Laertes.

Here the question comes that there is no poetic justice in Shakespearean Tragedies. If character is destiny and if a character suffers for some error or weakness, there should be some proportion between crime and punishment. But we notice in Shakespearean Tragedy, the tragic characters suffer more than they deserve to. Hence, it is argued that there is no poetic justice in Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s rejoinder was that there is no poetic justice in Nature or Life where the Good and Bad suffer equally for no fault of theirs. Hence, in the region of poetic justice, where virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, Shakespeare has his own laws which are the laws of the living world and not of a theory.

To Conclude, the salient of the tragic drama Hamlet are, I do not claim, common to all Shakespearean Tragedies. To end with A.C.Bradley from his ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’,

“When Shakespeare writes tragedy he is an artist imposing an order and form upon the raw material of experience. Each of his characters is carefully moulded to fit an intellectual conception which the play in its totality is designed to embody. Every one of the tragedies is a separate attempt, if not finally to answer the great problem of man’s relation to the forces of evil in the world, at least to pose it in such a way that new facts may be freshly illuminated in terms of human experience. If no two tragedies are exactly alike, it is because the questions with which they deal are themselves so complex and many sided, and because Shakespeare’s insight into human experience is of infinite range. He approaches the great issue of human life from many angles, with different hypotheses and we have a resulting diversity in his plays.” 

Ref: Shakespearean Tragedy, A.C.Bradley


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