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In Shakespeare’s tragic drama, Hamlet, the multi-faceted character of the hero is so complex that this essay will enlighten the reader on only one aspect of his personality – his melancholy dimension.
A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy presents convincing evidence regarding the true extent and depth of the hero’s melancholy sentiment:
But there is a more formidable difficulty, which seems to have escaped notice. Horatio certainly came from Wittenberg to the funeral. And observe how he and Hamlet meet (I.ii.160). . . . Is not this passing strange? Hamlet and Horatio are supposed to be fellow-students at Wittenberg, and to have left it for Elsinore less than two months ago. Yet Hamlet hardly recognizes Horatio at first, and speaks as if he himself lived at Elsinore (I refer to his bitter jest, ‘We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart’). Who would dream that Hamlet had himself f just come from Wittenberg, if it were not for the previous words about his going back there?
How can this be explained on the usual view? Only, I presume, by supposing that Hamlet is so sunk in melancholy that he really does almost ‘forget himself’ and forgets everything else, so that he actually is in doubt who Horatio is. (370)
It is obvious that from the very outset of this tragedy there is a melancholic protagonist. And the depressing aspect of the initial imagery of the drama tend to underline and reinforce Hamlet’s melancholy. Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes some of this imagery of the opening scene:
The story opens in the cold and dark of a winter night in Denmark, while the guard is being changed on the battlements of the royal castle of Elsinore. For two nights in succession, just as the bell strikes the hour of one, a ghost has appeared on the battlements, a figure dressed in complete armor and with a face like that of the dead king of Denmark, Hamlet’s father. (35)
Horatio and Marcellus exit the ghost-ridden ramparts of Elsinore intending to enlist the aid of Hamlet. The prince is dejected by the “o’erhasty marriage” of his mother to his uncle less than two months after the funeral of Hamlet’s father (Gordon 128). There is a post-coronation social gathering of the court, where Claudius insincerely pays tribute to the memory of his deceased brother.
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Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer--married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (1.2)
Soon Horatio, the hero’s closest friend (“Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man / As e'er my conversation coped withal.”), and Marcellus make contact with Hamlet and escort him to the ramparts of Elsinore. At one a.m. the ghost, ironically a sinner suffering in the afterlife (West 110), reveals to the protagonist the extent of the evil within Elsinore, “the human truth” (Abrams 467). The ghost says that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, who had a relationship with Gertrude prior to the murder; the ghost requests a “restorative” revenge (Gooch 1) by Hamlet: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,--
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!--won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there! (1.5)
Hamlet swears to carry out vengeance on King Claudius for the murder of his father. If the hero was melancholy prior to the ghost’s visitations, he is even more depressed now. From the outset of the drama, the reader/viewer sees the continuing development of Hamlet’s character into one of very complex temperament and motivation, which would render him quite “rounded” (Abrams 33); in other words, he is one of Shakespeare’s “sharply etched characters” (Wilkie and Hurt 2155). Philip Edwards’ “The Ghost: Messenger from a Higher Court of Values?” explains what the protagonist wants from the ethereal messenger:
Though it is specific explanation – why the Ghost has come – and a specific course of action – what the Ghost wants him to do – that he seeks, his words have a wider perspective. The Ghost may have some secret, some unimaginable truth to bring relief from those ‘thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls’, an explanation why things are as they are and a directive for meaningful action. To his demands in both their specific and their general senses he receives, or thinks he receives, a more than sufficient response. (66-67)
Does Hamlet get relief? No, not yet. For one thing, he does not know if the ghost is telling the truth. And secondly, if he is, then Hamlet has a huge job ahead – regicide itself. Maynard Mack in “The World of Hamlet” tells why the ghost’s visit provides no relief for the prince’s melancholy:
The ghost’s injunction to revenge unfolds a different facet of this problem. The young man growing up is not to be allowed simply to endure a rotten world, he must also act in it. Yet how to begin, among so many enigmatic surfaces: Even Claudius, whom he now knows to be the core of the ulcer, has a plausible exterior. (258)
The hero resolves to put on an “antic disposition” to disguise his intentions while he seriously works on establishing the truth of the ghost’s words. Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, is unfortunately the first to experience the hero’s new “madness,” and she is terrorized by his disordered appearance. Her father, Polonius, diagnoses Hamlet’s condition as madness resulting from unrequited love. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interrogate him on behalf of Claudius and “kindly, slow witted” (Pitt 47) Gertrude. Ophelia agrees to be a decoy to lure the hero so that the king and lord chamberlain can study him. At the time of the “chance” meeting, Hamlet is already feeling quite dejected, and perhaps even contemplating suicide:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. (3.1)
Regarding the rendering of a key word in the above passage, Harry Levin states in the General Introduction to The Riverside Shakespeare:
Shakespeare’s vision of things is at times so vivid that it seems to leave his expression turgid, and he falls into what the classical-minded critics deplored as mixed metaphor. When Hamlet proposes to “take arms against a sea of troubles” (III.i.58), Pope replaced sea with the emendation siege to preserve the military tone. Yet the bold image of a warrior stalking, sword in hand, into the sea is not uncharacteristic of the Anglo-Saxon imagination. (14)
Levin’s reading would mean that Hamlet is not really on the verge of suicide. When the hero suspects Ophelia’s collaboration with others as a decoy or lure for himself, he is completely alienated from her: “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”
If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for
thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as
snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a
nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs
marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough
what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go,
and quickly too. Farewell. (3.1)
Needless to say, this outburst on the part of our saddened hero brings additional mental grief to Ophelia, and probably to himself. Shortly thereafter, the hero in his “madness” redesigns a standard play, The Murder of Gonzago, into The Mousetrap – a reenactment of Claudius’ murder of Hamlet I. The prince thereby reveals his own vocation to acting (Rosenberg 63). The anxiety within the hero is obvious at the outset of the play with Hamlet nervously and accusingly muttering: “Begin, murderer; pox, leave thy damnable faces, and begin. Come: 'the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.'”
With Horatio and Hamlet observing the king’s reaction, Claudius shows himself to be guilty of the murder of his brother as presented in The Mousetrap, just as the ghost has accused him. Consequently Hamlet prepares for revenge as the king’s “distemper” and the queen’s “most great affliction” combine with Hamlet’s deep feelings to give a pervasive mood of melancholy and suspicion throughout the court at Elsinore. En route to his mother’s room, the prince passes Claudius kneeling in prayer in the chapel, but refrains from killing him because, “I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven,” and the king’s soul would not go to the punishing flames of hell (Kliman 155). The frustration which this forced wait imposes on Hamlet’s psyche drags his spirits down further, to the point where, when he is conversing with his mother, he runs his rapier through the arras and kills Polonius. Gertrude complains of his “bloody deed,” but Hamlet is too lost in his own regret to accept the comment level-headedly:
A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
The killing of Polonius, plus the suspicion of Claudius that Hamlet knows the king murdered King Hamlet , cause Claudius to send the Prince by ship to England with an unsuspecting escort (Madariaga) -- where the Prince will be put to death. When it seems that the ghost’s wishes will go unfulfilled, Hamlet laments:
How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. (4.4)
In the meantime, Ophelia loses her sanity because of the rejection by Hamlet and the death of Polonius. And Hamlet is kidnapped by pirates from his ship en route to England. Laertes, when he learns of his father’s death, returns from France; he and Claudius “concoct their dastardly plans for the certain death of Hamlet” (Burton) in retaliation for Polonius’ death and Ophelia’s madness. Hamlet’s demise appears imminent as the court at Elsinore await his return.
In her madness Ophelia drowns , and Hamlet returns to Elsinore at the time of her burial – indeed a fitting time for so melancholy a protagonist! Briefly chatting with the gravediggers, Hamlet observes the unearthed skull of Yorick, a long-dead friend of his from the court, and he considers in the company of Horatio:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? (5.1)
For Hamlet to be trifling with the skull of a dead friend as he meditates on death – is such an act not the height of sadness? The reflection on death prepares the reader/audience for the coming bloody climax. Soon the courtly family of Ophelia arrives to bury her. Hamlet grapples with an emotional Laertes in his sister’s grave, a suitable place for them both since they are both, emotionally speaking, quite low. Her death is more acutely painful to the hero because he, up to now, has been unaware of it.
Shortly thereafter, Claudius and Laertes implement their plan to kill the hero with poisoned cup and poisoned rapier. But Hamlet has seen a reinvigoration or deepening of his faith, and thus appears to the audience to be ready for whatever outcome:
Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting,
That would not let me sleep: methought I lay
Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly,
And praised be rashness for it, let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
When our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will [. . .]. (5.2)
This religious attitude of a “divinity,” in other words, of divine providence, prevails in Hamlet’s mind, despite the recent depressing discovery which he shares with Horatio, regarding Claudius’ orders which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were conveying to England:
Up from my cabin,
My sea-gown scarf'd about me, in the dark
Groped I to find out them; had my desire.
Finger'd their packet, and in fine withdrew
To mine own room again; making so bold,
My fears forgetting manners, to unseal
Their grand commission; where I found, Horatio,--
O royal knavery!--an exact command,
Larded with many several sorts of reasons
Importing Denmark's health and England's too,
With, ho! such bugs and goblins in my life,
That, on the supervise, no leisure bated,
No, not to stay the grinding of the axe,
My head should be struck off. (5.2)
In the contest of foils, Laertes begins to change his mind away from murder, but then remains firm in the plan due to Hamlet’s seeming display of pride or superiority (Brown 31): ". . . Laertes. You do but dally. I pray you pass with your best violence." Both Laertes and Hamlet are stuck with the poisoned rapier, and the queen imbibes the poisoned drink intended for the hero. Laertes in his dying moments explains the truth to the prince, and denounces the king:
It is here, Hamlet: Hamlet, thou art slain;
No medicine in the world can do thee good;
In thee there is not half an hour of life;
The treacherous instrument is in thy hand,
Unbated and envenom'd: the foul practise
Hath turn'd itself on me lo, here I lie,
Never to rise again: thy mother's poison'd:
I can no more: the king, the king's to blame. (5.2)
With this revelation, Hamlet promptly dispatches the king: “The point!—envenomed too! Then, venom, to thy work.” Then he, in effect, asks his friend, Horatio, to perpetuate the melancholy of his own person -- by telling his story in sorrow:
. . . If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story. (5.2)
As Hamlet dies, Horatio utters heartfelt words of prayer: “Good night sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” Only now may this greatest of all Shakespearean protagonists find mental and emotional peace and joy!
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Gooch, Bryan N. S. "Review of The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998): 5.1-6 http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-1/rev_goo6.html.
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Madariaga, Salvador de. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” On Hamlet. 2nd ed. London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1964. p.14-16. http://www.freehomepages.com/hamlet/other/essayson.htm#demag-ess N. pag.
Pitt, Angela. “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Excerpted from Shakespeare’s Women. N.p.: n.p., 1981.
Rosenberg, Marvin. “Laertes: An 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.
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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.
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