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Essay on Hamlet

August 31st, 2009

Much has been said about whether or not Hamlet is insane, but I believe that there is more to Hamlet’s strange behavior than simply insanity. He struggles to kill Claudius because there is an internal conflict of personality where part of him wants to obey his father to the fullest, and part of him is hesitant because he does not feel that he has the guts to commit murder, especially when the proof he has of his father’s death is contestible.

When Hamlet hears of the sighting of his father’s ghost, he is eager to meet his father because he loves him very much. He begs the guards to take him to the ghost, and when they do, Hamlet insists on going to talk with him despite warnings by the guards. Hamlet’s eagerness to follow his father shows his respect and love for him, and indicates that Hamlet is willing to take risks to succumb to his father’s demands.

When the ghost tells Hamlet to murder Claudius, he shows no signs of hesitation. He proclaims that “I, with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love, may sweep to my revenge” (Act I, Scene IV, line 51).

However, had Hamlet been able to keep his promise of swift revenge, the play would have been over with by the second act. Instead, Hamlet spends the rest of the play hesitating and procrastinating on his duty. He hesitates because he is uncertain of whether he is physically capable of committing murder, and he also questions the validity of the ghost’s testimony. How can he be sure that what he saw was really his father’s ghost? How can he be sure that the ghost was even telling the truth? He struggles throughout the play to prove these things to himself.

His first attempt to do this is when he puts on the play in front of Claudius. The play was about a queen and a nobleman who kill the king and then get married to each other. This is quite obviously a parallel to what Hamlet is trying to convince himself happened in real life. His plan is to see how the king reacts to the play and look for signs of feelings of guilt. At the end of Act II Scene II, Hamlet talks to himself about using the play as an extra piece of evidence of Claudius’ guilt, a more substantial piece of evidence than his father’s ghost’s testimony. “The play’s the thing,” he says to himself, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (Act II, Scene II, line 810).

Hamlet succeeds in getting a rise out of the king and queen, as they exchange nervous glances during the play, but never does get any concrete evidence that convinces him that Claudius is guilty. So, Hamlet is once again left uncertain and hesitant.

In scene IV, Hamlet visits Gertrude’s chamber. Here, he tries to accuse Gertrude and Claudius of killing his father. In the beginning of the scene, Gertrude tells Hamlet that his play offended the king, whom she refers to as his father. Hamlet then responds by saying that she has offended his father (meaning his dead father) by marrying Claudius. Hamlet’s reasons for doing this are perhaps to discover some guilt in Gertrude, or maybe to convince Gertrude that Claudius has done something wrong and to get her support. Either way, Claudius is looking for reinforcement and support of his belief that his father was murdered. The method which he used was rash and unjustified, because it just upsets Gertrude and gives Hamlet no clue as to whether Claudius did in fact commit the murder.

Later in the scene, the Ghost makes an appearance. Hamlet sees the ghost, and tries to point him out to Gertrude, but she does not see him. This only makes Gertrude doubt Hamlet’s sanity, because he is talking to the walls. This is very good for Hamlet’s self esteem, because he now has even more doubt that the ghost actually does exist. He is understandably confused, because the castle guards originally discovered the ghost, so it cannot be something that only Hamlet sees. However, since Gertrude did not see the ghost, and calls Hamlet mad, it must put some doubt into Hamlet’s mind. Hamlet is clearly not in control of himself in this scene. He rants like a madman about something that Gertrude finds to be a preposterous accusation. Also, when the ghost tells Hamlet to talk to Gertrude to calm her down, he has no idea what to say to her, so all that comes out is “How is it with you, lady?” (line 175).

Hamlet’s rash behavior continues when he kills Polonius. Hamlet believes that he heard Claudius behind a set of curtains, so he pulls put his sword and stabs what he believes to be Claudius. This was a half-hearted attempt to kill Claudius, because he could not even see him, and thought that he might be able to quickly do it and forget about it, without having to worry about witnessing any pain. It was an attempt to do it quickly and get over it. He fails, and his torment lingers on.

This scene also shows Hamlet’s incompetence when it comes to premeditating murders. He does not have a knack for planning his actions, and they are rash and ineffective. Hamlet realizes this, and that this is part of the reason why Hamlet believes that he is incapable of fulfilling the duty given to him by his father’s ghost. Upon realizing this, Hamlet decides that the only way he is going to be able to commit murder is if he does it by accident, or at least makes it look like an accident, by making it look like he thought he was killing a mouse behind the curtain.

Hamlet’s murder of Polonius should not be interpreted as an alleviation of his inability to commit murder, because he killed the wrong man. The murder was rash and sudden, and it did not accomplish what he wanted it to accomplish. And Hamlet needs to joke it off in order to rid his mind of the guilt. This is evident when he tells Claudius that Polonius’ body is “at supper” (Act IV, Scene III, line 30).

Hamlet experiences hesitation once again in Act IV Scene IV, when news of the battle between Norway and Poland arrives. He ponders about the killing of thousands of men in the battlefield, and about how easy it is for all of these people to die in one swoop without hesitation. He is frustrated at himself for not being able to kill one man, when thousands of men are being killed without any premeditation or hesitation being necessary. As a result of this, Hamlet decides to focus exclusively on his task of revenge, as he says “from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (line 86). This decision is a sign of commitment on Hamlet’s part, which is an example of the second half of his personality, the half that wants to avenge his father. However, he only mentions his thoughts, and not his actions. If the line read “from this day forth, my actions be bloody or be nothing worth”, it would be more evident that he is no longer hesitant, but instead he indicates that he will think about the murder a little bit more before committing it.

His intents of thinking bloody thoughts do not hold up, however. In Act V Scene I, in a graveyard, Hamlet sees the skull of his old court jester, Yorick. Seeing the skull makes him reminisce, and he starts to feel sorry for the jester. This does not imply that he will feel sorry for Claudius when he kills him, but it does imply that Hamlet is not cold-blooded. This is because he sees Yorick’s skull, which represents something dead, and he thinks about it and remembers the time when it was alive. He cannot simply ignore the skull and consider it normal, he has to feel sorry for it. The same happens when Hamlet sees Ophelia’s coffin.

In the next scene, a manifestation of Hamlet’s vengeful side finally appears for the first time in the play. He orders for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be executed, because he knows that they were intending to have him executed, as per Claudius’ orders. This is the point at which Hamlet’s hesitant side starts to fade, and Hamlet finally decides to go through with his plans. It does not come easily, however. He only manages to kill Claudius once he has seen the Queen die and he knows that he will die of poisoning in a few minutes. The intent is there, but he needs the desperation and urgency of the situation in order to kill Claudius. Perhaps the realization of the inevitability of his death created a notion that this was his last chance to do it, and that he could kill Claudius and not have to live with the aftermath of his murder. Thus, it is only his own death that can rid Hamlet of the hesitant side of his personality.
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