Selective Perception in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Selective Perception in Shakespeare's Hamlet

From the end of Act I, the point at which Hamlet judges it may be prudent to feign madness - to "put an antic disposition on" (I.v.181) - much of the first half of the play concerns characters trying to determine why the prince's melancholy has evolved into seeming insanity. Each of the major players in Elsinore has a subjective impression of the reason for Hamlet's madness; indeed, in each of these misconceptions there is an element of the truth. At the same time, however, the nature of these selective perceptions provides insight into the characters who form them. And finally, these varied perspectives are notable in their effect upon the dynamic of the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius, and upon the king's increasing paranoia.

Long before the encounter with the Ghost turns Hamlet's vague suspicions into something approaching certainty (I.v.1-113), Claudius views Hamlet not as a madman, but as a threat to the security of his rule and possibly his life. This is evident from their first scene, in which Claudius publicly denounces Hamlet's "unmanly grief" (I.ii.94) as "a fault to heaven" (l.101); Claudius seems to be undermining Hamlet's popular support by painting him as unworthy to rule. Even in the face of his court's attempts to dissect the "very cause of Hamlet's lunacy" (II.ii.49), Claudius' initial convictions are never shaken. Like the other characters, Claudius has his own motives for believing as he does; like the other characters, his beliefs are subject to manipulative reinforcement by the play's events. Moreover, the speculation regarding Hamlet's madness serves only to convince the king that Hamlet is not mad, and th...

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...nnate guilt and paranoia will not let him view Hamlet any other way. This facet of Claudius' character is integral to the resolution of the tragic sequence: while, in the end, Claudius' paranoia is not enough to save his life, it is certainly sufficient to ensure that no one else escapes the conflict unscathed.

Works Cited

Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 4th ed. New York: Longman-Addison Wesley Longman, 1997.

Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Macmillan, 1967.

Hamlet. Prod. Dyson Lovell. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Warner Brothers, 1990.

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. British Broadcasting Corp. Prod. Cedric Messina. Dir. Rodney Bennett. Time-Life Films, 1978.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Bevington 1060-1116.

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