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William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Hamlet invites various interpretations of the structure because of the play’s complexity. Let us in this essay analyze various interpretations of structure.
Mark Rose, in “Reforming the Role,” highlights the “double plot” structure within Hamlet and another tragedy:
Hamlet and Lear are the only two of Shakespeare’s tragedies with double plots. [. . .] The story of Polonius’s family works analogously in Hamlet. Each member of the family is a fairly ordinary person who serves as a foil to some aspect of Hamlet’s extraordinary cunning and discipline. Polonius imagines himself a regular Machiavel, an expert at using indirections to find directions out, but compared to Hamlet he is what the prince calls him, a great baby. Ophelia, unable to control her grief, lapses into madness and a muddy death, reminding us that it is one of Hamlet’s achievements that he does not go mad but only plays at insanity to disguise his true strength. And Laertes, of course, goes mad in a different fashion and becomes the model of the kind of revenger that Hamlet so disdains. (125)
A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy analyzes the structure of Shakespearean tragedy:
As a Shakespearean tragedy represents a conflict which terminates in a catastrophe, any such tragedy may roughly be divided into three parts. The first of these sets forth or expounds the situation, or state of affairs, out of which the conflict arises; and it may, therefore, be called the Exposition. The second deals with the definite beginning, the growth and the vicissitudes of the conflict. It forms accordingly the bulk of the play, comprising the Second, Third and Fourth Acts, and usually a part of the First and a part of the Fifth. The final section of the tragedy shows the issue of the conflict in a catastrophe. (52)
Thus the first step of the structure of Hamlet involves the presentation of a conflict-generating situation. Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes the beginning of the Exposition of the drama:
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.
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Horatio and Marcellus exit the ramparts of Elsinore intending to enlist the aid of Hamlet, who is home from school, 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, the former king, and then conducts some items of business, for example dispatching Cornelius and Voltemand to Norway to settle the Fortinbras affair. Hamlet is present, dressed in black, the color of mourning, for his deceased father. His first words say that Claudius is "A little more than kin and less than kind," indicating a dissimilarity in values between the new king and himself. This dissimilarity is not adequate grounds for a serious conflict between the protagonist and Claudius.
The reader sees stronger negative emotions build up within the prince during his first speech spoken alone after the royalty vacates the court. Hamlet’s first soliloquy emphasizes the frailty of women – an obvious reference to his mother’s hasty and incestuous marriage to her husband’s brother:
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!—(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 I 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. The Exposition is complete at this point because the reader now has sufficient grounds for the long conflict between Hamlet and Claudius through the rest of the play.
The reader now enters the second phase of the structure of the play, wherein the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist grows and develops. This second part will take us to Act V of Hamlet. Philip Edwards’ in “The Ghost: Messenger from a Higher Court of Values?” says that the prince is “galvanized into activity” (66). Maynard Mack in “The World of Hamlet” states that Hamlet is “not to be allowed simply to endure a rotten world, he must also act in it” (258) as a result of the ghost’s visit. The hero resolves to put on an “antic disposition” to disguise his intentions while he seriously works on avenging his murdered father. R.A. Foakes in “The Play’s Courtly Setting” explains that “where there is no legal punishment for his father’s death, he must stoop, driven by the universal wrong, and ‘being thus be-netted round with villainies,’ to revenge” (53). Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, who is unfortunately aligned with Claudius through her father, is the first to experience the hero’s new “madness.” Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar in “Hamlet: A Man Who Thinks Before He Acts” considers the hero pretending and not needing psychoanalysis. (61)
Polonius diagnoses Hamlet’s condition as madness resulting from unrequited love. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interrogate the prince on behalf of Claudius and “kindly, slow witted” (Pitt 47) Gertrude, thus aligning themselves more closely with the antagonist, with the consequent loss of the prince’s friendship and respect. One episode at a time, the play experiences the escalation of the conflict. Ophelia agrees to be a decoy to lure the hero so that the king and lord chamberlain can study him. Hamlet’s mood is already very low:
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)
And when the hero suspects Ophelia’s collaboration with others as a decoy, 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)
Ophelia is now relegated to the same category as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – former friends who can no longer be trusted during these trying times of revenge-taking. Shortly thereafter, the hero in his “madness” redesigns a standard play, The Murder of Gonzago, into The Mousetrap – a reenactment of Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet. Marvin Rosenberg in “Hamlet as a Player-Fool” says that in so doing, the prince shows that “he is an actor, to theatre born.” (63)
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. En route to his mother’s room, Hamlet 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.” In other words, Claudius would not go to the punishing flames of hell (Kliman 155). While conversing with his mother, the very emotionally upset Hamlet detects a spy (Polonius) behind the arras in the room and runs him through with his rapier. 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. The king, for the first time, is actually threatening the life of the hero. The conflict has grown into an intensity that is sure to precipitate action on the part of the seemingly indecisive prince. It seems that the ghost’s wishes will go unfulfilled as Hamlet laments: “How all occasions do inform against me / And spur my dull revenge!”
In the meantime, Ophelia loses her sanity because of rejection by Hamlet and the death of Polonius. Laertes, when he learns of his father’s death, returns from France at the head of a rebellious crowd who want him made king. Claudius is sympathetic with Laertes in his grief, “Laertes, I must commune with your grief. . . .” and wins his allegiance, so that when news arrives that Hamlet is returning to Elsinore (fortuitously, because of a kidnapping by pirates), Laertes is moved by the king’s words to “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. This is the second occasion of Claudius directly threatening the life of the prince.
Ophelia drowns in her madness, and Hamlet returns in Act V to Elsinore at the time of her burial. Briefly chatting with one of the gravediggers, Hamlet observes the unearthed skull of Yorick, a long-dead friend of his, and he considers:
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! (5.1)
It would seem that the hero is not ready to face death. Soon the courtly family of Ophelia arrives to bury her. Anticipatory of the coming duel, Hamlet grapples with an emotional Laertes in his sister’s grave, her death being acutely painful to the hero. The brief conflict with Laertes is given importance because the reader knows that he is a close ally of Claudius; even grappling between Laertes and Hamlet could spell big trouble for the hero. The conflict could precipitate catastrophe at any time now, so this episode is within the third and final division of the drama. Therefore, the final phase of the structure can be said to begin shortly into Act V. Soon thereafter, Claudius and Laertes implement their plan to kill the prince 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:
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 prevails in Hamlet’s mind, despite a recent 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 process of the contest of foils, the reader is fully aware, unlike Hamlet, that this is a deadly game. The reader breathes a sigh of relief as Laertes begins to change his mind away from murder. But then Laertes remains firm in the plan due to Hamlet’s 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, converts and 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!--envenom'd too!
Then, venom, to thy work.
Indeed, Hamlet, in putting everything in God’s hands, has seen the fulfillment of his murdered father’s wishes, but at what a price! He is the “righteous avenger” (Frye 42). The demise of the hero and most of those about him constitute the catastrophe of the play, the last component of the final phase of this three-part drama.
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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.
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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.
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.