The Thought Process of Shakespeare's Hamlet

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The Thought Process of Shakespeare's Hamlet

"If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,

And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,

Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.

Who does it then? His madness. If't be so,

Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;

His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy."


Hamlet's self-description in his apology to Laertes, delivered in the appropriately distanced and divided third-person, explicitly fingers the greatest antagonist of the play‹consciousness. The obligatory cultural baggage that comes along with Hamlet heeds little attention to the incestuous Claudius while focusing entirely on the gloomy Dane's legendary melancholia and his resulting revenge delays. As Laurence Olivier introduced his 1948 film version, "This is the tragedy of a man who couldn't make up his mind." By tracking the leitmotif of "thought" throughout the play, I will examine the conflicts that preclude Hamlet from unified decisions that lead to action. Shakespeare is not content, however, with the simple notion of thought as a mere signifier of the battle between the mind and the body. The real clash is a conflict of consciousness, of Hamlet's oscillations between infinite abstraction and shackled solipsism, between recognition of the heroic ideal and of his limited means, between the methodical mishmash of sanity and the total chaos of insanity. I repeat "between" not only for anaphoric effect, but to suggest Shakespeare's conception of thought; that is, a set of perspectivally-splintered realities which can be resolutely conflated, for better or worse, only by the mediating hand of action. Any discussion of Hamlet, a work steeped in contradictions and doubles, necessitates inquiry into passages ...

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...ble that someday the legendary cultural baggage that accompanies Hamlet will be lost, and future generations may wish to judge the play on its dramatic merits and not on its required-reading position. If that is the case, they may very well "make" the play "bad" through their different perspective, one which we cannot yet appreciate, and Hamlet, already four centuries old, may disappear from our cultural consciousness. As the prince himself might say, perish the thought.

Works Cited:

Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

Franco Moretti, Modern Epic (New York: Verso, 1996).

Marjorie Nicolson, "The Breaking of the Circle" (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1950).

William Shakespeare, The Arden Shakespeare: Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (England: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1982).

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