Hamlet is arguably the most dynamic character to come of seventeenth century literature. William Shakespeare created a human being with a complex mind and elements of diversity difficult to understand. From the first glimpse of Hamlet alone, the audience is engulfed in his opulent intensity. As a man of extreme contradictions, he is cautious yet reckless, polite yet inappropriate, and always dramatic. He confronts the news of his father’s death with both outrage and resentment, though shows no sign of remorse towards the deaths he is most responsible for. The beautiful Ophelia is used as an outlet for his hatred towards his mother’s ‘incestuous’ actions, though he cannot grasp that these toxic remarks are what drove her towards insanity. Hamlet is complex. His personality is structured from layers of trauma and negative qualities. By explicating the diverse elements of the young Prince’s characteristics through the play’s intricate themes of introspection, religion, madness, and misogyny, it will become more attainable to understand Hamlet as person.
Introspection can be defined as the “observation or examination of one's own mental and emotional state, mental processes, etc.; the act of looking within oneself (dictionary.com)”. When putting a face to this description, there is no one more worthy than the young Hamlet of Denmark. A prominent factor revealed about Hamlet is his powerful affiliation with the introspective world. He appears to be very in touch with his metaphysical senses, constantly questioning his morality and self-values. This creates an aura of tension that always surrounds Hamlet, whether it being around himself or others.
Many explanations of Hamlet’s introspection can be plucked out in his most infamous soliloquy alone; the third one of course. The speech itself can define the depth of Hamlet’s mind and prove the extent of his complexity. This scene introduces Hamlet in a new light, identified through his unhealthy relationship with contemplation and depression. Before the scene begins, Hamlet was blinded by hammering thoughts of avenging his father to even realize Polonius and Ophelia occupied the room alongside him, further leading himself down a path of troublesome emotions. These emotions changed so drastically from his previous soliloquy, shifting his mindset from the intention of killing King Claudius towards his own will of survival. It sounds most familiar to soliloquy number one, with Hamlet forgetting the previous plan of taking Claudius off the thrown and instead wishing that his 'Too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew! (1.ii.129-130)”. Act 3 Scene 1 follows this by letting Hamlet explain his thoughts by balancing the weight of being dead or alive. For example, the first words to leave his mouth, “To be or not to be (1.iii. 57), speaks volumes upon Hamlet’s contemplative nature. This balance questions the significance of life over death, with an emphasis in his interest towards death although leaning away from it in the end. The Prince is proclaiming his exhaustion with living in a world of life’s humiliations such as abuse from superiors or unrequited love. He would much prefer to face the sweet relief of death in hopes of escaping the world to dream. But of course, dreaming leaves the element of the unknown. Hamlet does not know what will happen to him if he is to take his own life and entire an undisturbed slumber.
Religion plays an intricate role throughout Shakespeare’s play and during this soliloquy especially. As Hamlet is speaking of his desire to end his life and drift off into a sea of lullabies, his strong trait of metacognition comes to life and questions his morals. He becomes fearful of committing the act of suicide because the Ghost of his late father once told him the horror of Purgatory. It is important to remember that before the Soliloquy was spoken Hamlet dramatically cursed God for not permitting the act of suicide. He cries, “that this too, sullied flesh would melt. / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God, God! “(1. ii. 129-132). Even from the beginning of the play Hamlet recognizes the scrutiny behind self-harm in God’s eyes. Now that his suicidal thoughts have re-emerged into his mind, Hamlet became perplexed, again, with the balance of life and death. One article writes, “He expresses a desire for death, and a fear of death, and scorn for himself for thinking himself out of actually doing anything. He seems overwhelmed, but it's hard to see what--other than his own thoughts--is overwhelming (Shakespeare-navigator.com)”. Knowing that even if he doesn’t take his own life, he will relate every day on earth to as if he were already dying. The obstacle in his way is the fear of damnation due to these Catholic upbringings. Though he strays from suicide, this is not the only time he encounters such a concern.
Hamlet has the opportunity to express his religious beliefs as early as the beginning scene of the play, thanks to Uncle Father and Aunt Mother. Omar Abdulaziz Alsaif created an article explaining, “In the author’s view, Hamlet is as much a believer as anyone in his community. However, he becomes more pious after the shock of the illegal marriage” (Alsaif). Omar Alsaif continues to argue that his uncle Claudius’s decision to marry his mother was an illegal act during this time frame as well as against religious traditions. This is what causes the Prince to continuously make crude remarks of his family’s incestuous actions.
Following the unsettling news of the Royal marriage is the appearance of the late King Hamlet, in ghost form. Perhaps the ghost appears to young Hamlet as a figment of his imagination during a time of shock and trauma, or the possibility of a spirit from the other side guiding Hamlet towards the truth. Ghost speaks, “I am thy father's spirit, / Doomed for a certain term to walk the night /And for the day confined to fast in fires /Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature/ Are burnt and purged away” (1.V.14-18), as a first statement towards Hamlet. It is clear that the Ghost speaks from knowledge of the afterlife while informing the young man of these tragedies. By speaking in Biblical tongue, Hamlet seems to have a higher likelihood of trusting the Ghost, along with its uncanny resemblance to the King. Although the prince grasps the Ghost’s information of his father’s death and swears to avenge him, later in the play Hamlet portrays signs of questioning the reality of the figure. Act 2 scene 2 provides an example of this through Hamlet’s words, “May the devil, and the devil hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape, Yea, and perhaps / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits, / Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds More relative than this” (578). He wonders again if the Ghost is true, and not just a figure created from his sadness. He is overall reluctant to take a position on his father's murderer because of his fearing to be a sinner. There is a part of him that believes the Ghost is a devil who took the form of someone who holds great meaning to the young man. Hamlet explains that he needs better evidence than the ghost to fully uncover the truth of the murder. This circles back around to Hamlet’s obsession with contemplating his thoughts and emotions, thus the creation of his sinister play.
“Even if the ghost’s appearance is the result of mental illness caused by the trauma of his mother's marriage to his uncle and the story of killing his father is imagined, Hamlet's attitudes and behavior are religiously based. Hamlet reveals how Shakespeare uses rhetoric to create a religious message about the church and re-create the values of right and wrong according to his own view, so he punishes sinners by creating disastrous endings” (acedemicjournals.org).
When first introduced to Hamlet in the beginning of the play it is obvious that he has been suffering and mourning the loss of his father, someone he cared so intensely for. He is melancholy, bitter and cynical; engulfed in enough hatred and disgust towards his uncle and mother to burn down their kingdom. The pressure of having a dead father as well as knowing his once faithful mother had married the brother of the late king, all to take the throne, overpowers any ordinary train of thought. It is a time of crisis with Hamlet’s mental health, as his struggle with depression becomes prominent, though depression is the only absolute diagnosis some readers can conclude. It is impossible to know whether or Hamlet actually is ‘mad’, due to the uncertainty of his mental state imitating the play’s overall sense of uncertainty. Besides disturbing trauma that can classify as depression or PTSD, did Hamlet actually fall into madness? Or was there just a certain method to his madness, as Polonius would say. Interpretations of this idea are expressed by saying, “We find that Shakespeare modifies the original Hamlet story to include Hamlet’s melancholy in addition to the feigned madness in the source stories. His melancholy influences his outlook and contributes to his delay in avenging his father’s death. The reason behind his feigned madness is vague in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, creating an ambiguity surrounding his madness not present in the source stories. Ophelia’s genuine madness in Hamlet represents Shakespeare’s own creation, and her inclusion in the story illustrates his interest in employing madness as a theme in this play” (Shakespeare’s Madmen).
There is much evidence to defend Hamlet’s madness as intentionally false fits of insanity, to create a cloud of confusion between himself and the king. His self-spoken intentions to “put an antic disposition on” and act “strange or odd” (I. v. 170,172) are small examples. Scene 3 act 2 of the play addresses an instant where Hamlet confesses his need to stay foolish to Horatio while discussing the theatrics of his upcoming play. Everyone who comes in contact with the Prince senses the decline in his mentality throughout the time he returned to Denmark. It is clear that Hamlet did a remarkable job of acting clinically insane. Eventually he becomes so intricate and manipulative about this plan that he develops ways of reverse psychology, telling others not to be tricked into thinking he has been healed. For example, the closet scene between himself and the Queen describes a conversation referring to Claudius persuading his wife to choose him over her son and believe that Hamlet is “not in madness / But mad in craft” (III. Iv. 187-188). Hamlet reminds her that he is not well, and Claudius is the lying back stabber. This is a genius strategy that describes the intelligent, cunning, and theatrical nature of Hamlet. Of course, the majority of Hamlet’s situations at home could not be possible without his strong connection to the arts.
He speaks to his friends of role playing in aim of misleading Claudius and Gertrude, although no person who speaks to Hamlet ever questions whether the illness is real or not. He uses an act of madness as an attempt to understand all events leading up to the death of his father, as well as lulling Claudius into a false sense of security. It leaves one question behind, is Hamlet truly mad, or is he just a terrific actor? The success of this multifaceted plan furthers the deep and diverse qualities that describe the complexity of Hamlet at a character.
Not only was Hamlet successful in fooling his mother, he easily convinced the innocent Ophelia of his madness as well. In the play, Ophelia represents femininity, tainted purity, and loyalty in a world full of tragedy. Hamlet commonly and casually uses her to act out his aggression towards his mother. Ophelia is young and naive, yet Hamlet begins to look down upon her the longer he is in her presence, accusing her as a woman falsely acting pure when their worlds truly revolve around sexuality. It is true that Hamlet once Loved Ophelia, but this ‘changed’ once his scheme of usurping Claudius from the throne took action. Ophelia transitioned from his faithful lover to a pawn in his mischievous game. This statement can be further exemplified through the article Misogyny in Hamlet, “Hamlet himself, who critics have debated to be a true lover of Ophelia, is shown to make her second in his consciousness, trailing the thoughts of his own self-righteous plots for revenge. Already of a frail mind, Hamlet toys with Ophelia, also of a frail mind, on multiple occasions. In the scene of the players (Act II, scene ii), Hamlet pays little or no attention to Ophelia and is more concerned with his alterations of the play, done for his own benefit, not hers” (pearsoned.ca). This describes Hamlet as a man who grew an unhealthy obsession with avenging his father’s death and cannot think morally.
Misogyny is sprinkled throughout the play through interactions between Hamlet and Ophelia, discovering the truth behind Hamlet’s sexist nature. An example of this is portrayed in Act 3 scene 1, following one of Hamlet’s dramatized soliloquys. Though he never speaks of Ophelia when talking to himself, once she walks into his sight, he finds something to say, such as “I have heard of your paintings well enough. God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another […] It hath made me mad” (III.i.141-6). In this scene Hamlet blames his own insanity on all women, especially when it comes to their façade of beauty and femininity. This troubles hamlet because of his trust issues, though his fixation with female sexuality amplifies it. He proceeds to tell Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery” (III.i.) to further drive a knife into her heart. It is painfully obvious that the abusive manipulation Hamlet and Polonius threw on top of Ophelia led her deep into madness, and unfortunately her tragic death. Although it is not certain whether this hatred from women stemmed before or after the death of his father and his ‘madness’, his misogynistic comments suggest that women have played an important role in creating his radical characteristics.
There is no question that Hamlet suffers from dealing with ‘mommy issues’, and it is extremely prominent in the play. He uses harsh and vulgar language to cope with the grief of loosing a parental figure and gaining untrustworthy and selfish beings as family. “In Hamlet’s anguish over his father’s death, Gertrude does little to comfort him. Gertrude minimizes Hamlets feelings and sides with Claudius, who ironically was responsible for the murder of Hamlet’s father” (pearsoned.ca). The disinterest towards Hamlet’s emotions encourages the audience to believe that his mother could possibly show more interest in hierarchical power over motherly love. In the first scenes of the play, Hamlet was confused as to why he was the only one still in mourning of King Hamlet. It had only been a short amount of time and his mother and uncle acted as through there was no death. This caused Hamlet to question his mother’s faith towards her late husband and wondered if she ever truly loved him. The only comping mechanism that Hamlet felt as appropriate, is to unleash his overwhelming emotions back to the one who caused it, Gertrude herself as well as Ophelia.
From the beginning of this play the audience can understand that Hamlet will be suffering both mentally and physically throughout. Hamlet’s surroundings and interactions have shaped him into the complicated adult that he grew to become. Discovering all of the faults that make up this character can further help the audience gain an understanding of the complex realm of his brain alone. Introspection, religion, madness, and misogyny are just a scarce number of the themes to help discover the personality traits of Prince Hamlet. Through these explications, it can be safe to say that Hamlet is an intelligent man, though it would be questionable to have him crowned as the King of Denmark as the ‘Prince among men’.