Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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This is the thinking Hamlet, and this is a great and thought-provoking theme of Shakespeare’s play. It is also much too neat to be a satisfactory, or rather complete , reading, particularly in this play, which is so full of questions and uncertainties and various characters’ attempts at interpretation. Having established the procession of Hamlet’s thoughts on death, a bigger question inevitably succeeds: how does he overcome his fear of death? How does Shakespeare intend us to understand this change of mind?

This is a much deeper question, and to answer it, it is necessary to leave behind the thinking Hamlet and look more closely at the mystery of what really motivates this extraordinarily complex created character. Shakespeare gives his audience a significant clue immediately after the ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy, in that he juxtaposes a deeply rational and thoughtful Hamlet with one whose actions seem cruel and bizarre as well as foolish in the extreme.

The ‘Nunnery Scene’ (III.i) has probably baffled and bedazzled audiences ever since the play’s first performance. Why does Hamlet warmly praise Ophelia’s virtue in his soliloquy:

Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins rememb’red. ( ibid . 87-9)

and then, as soon as he addresses her, accuses her of wanting to be ‘a breeder of sinners’ – her alleged ‘wantonness’ only to be safely confined within the walls of a nunnery? And this is nothing to the cruel and crude sexual humour he enjoys at her expense in the next scene. Why? A typical answer is that, in his soliloquy, Hamlet tells us what he really feels about Ophelia, whereas elsewhere he is ‘pretending to be mad’ adopting his ‘antic disposition’ as a disguise so that no one will suspect he is about to assassinate the king! How could this interpretation possibly be true? For one thing, pretending to be mad in this way (and certainly in this scene, where Hamlet surely suspects he is being observed) only serves to draw more and more attention to his actions. He had, to be fair, achieved a measure of success in throwing Polonius off the scent by pretending to be ‘mad with love,’ but his words in this scene completely destroy any possibility of his enemies being satisfied with such an interpretation of his actions. The only convincing explanation for Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia in these scenes is that he cannot help himself . He is acting under the influence of an overpowering and irrational impulse that runs completely counter to his own interests and ‘true’ feelings.

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William Shakespeare