The Shakespearean tragic drama Hamlet, though recognized as an unexcelled classic of tragedy by many literary critics, is nevertheless ambiguous in various words and actions. This problematic dimension of the drama will be considered in this essay.
Howard Felperin, in his essay “O’erdoing Termagant,” expounds on the ambiguity within Hamlet’s directives to the plays (“O, it offends me to the soul . . .”):
Yet whether or not Hamlet’s account of the purpose of playing is also Shakespeare'’, the fact that it occupies a central place within the most theatrically self-conscious and complex of his plays makes it more problematic than is usually supposed, a text in certain respects ambiguous in its statement and inconsistent with the play that forms its context.
It is with the general statement of the function of drama that I am chiefly concerned here, both in its immediate application to Hamlet itself and in its wider implications for Shakespeare’s work as a whole. In Hamlet’s classic restatement of the commonplace – “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature” – the purpose of playing is twofold.[. . .] What Hamlet has done, in effect, is to conflate under the blanket phrase, “to hold the mirror up to nature,” two distinct notions of drama, each with a long tradition and each in some degree antagonistic to the other in aim and method. (100)
The conflict between the “moral” notion and the “lifelike” notion of drama is what makes the above statement by the protagonist so ambiguous. Other examples of ambiguity are found in this tragedy by the Bard of Avon. D.G. James says in “The New Doubt” that the Bard has the ambiguous habit of charging a word with several meanings a...
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... Impulsive but Earnest Young Aristocrat.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from The Masks of Hamlet. Newark, NJ: Univ. of Delaware P., 1992.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/hamlet/full.html
West, Rebecca. “A Court and World Infected by the Disease of Corruption.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from The Court and the Castle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.
Wright, Louis B. and Virginia A. LaMar. “Hamlet: A Man Who Thinks Before He Acts.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar. N. p.: Pocket Books, 1958.