Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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Here, the audience encounters not the thinking Hamlet, but the irrational Hamlet – an individual so ‘out of control’ that in Act Five, he himself is comfortable admitting that he has recently experienced ‘a sore distraction,’ even a ‘madness’ (V.ii.230,232). There is no great mystery about where this ‘madness’ stems from, as Shakespeare emphasises it again and again throughout the play. When Hamlet has Ophelia before him, he cannot help but see his mother. Nearly every time he shows real anger and a desire for revenge it is his mother who bears the brunt. In the first soliloquy, she is accused of hastening ‘With such dexterity to incestious sheets’ (I.ii.157). When Hamlet listens to the Player’s speech in Act Two, he particularly wants to hear of Hecuba. Why? Because he wants to hear about her terrible grief at seeing Pyrrhus ‘mincing with his sword her husband’s limbs’ (II.ii.514). Most of the ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ is aimed at Gertrude, not Claudius. Finally, when Hamlet at last feels full of murderous intent – ‘Now could I drink hot blood’ (III.ii.390) – he has to restrain himself from his desire to kill his mother (‘let not ever/The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom’ ibid . 394) and he then goes off to talk to her rather than seek revenge upon his uncle (of whose guilt he is now entirely convinced).

Given all this, it seems more than likely that Shakespeare intended his audience to see Hamlet’s fears and delays as inspired less by his rational debates with himself, and more by his titanic struggle with the sense he has of his mother’s sexual betrayal. He must take his revenge on her , before he can take his revenge on him . And that, of course, is precisely what happens in the ‘Closet Scene’ (III.iv), when Hamlet is finally able to tell Gertrude in grim detail what he feels about her sexual relations with Claudius or, as he puts it so delightfully, all about ‘the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,/Stew’d in corruption…’ (III.iv.92-3). After he has got phrases like that off his chest, he seems to become a new man. Suddenly his inability to face death vanishes like a mist; the audience hear of some surprising heroics when his ship is attacked by pirates; the man who was so uncertain in the first three acts seems now to be very sure of who he is (‘Hamlet the Dane’ V.i.258) and of what he has to do.

It is also rather touching that now he can love Ophelia again:

I lov’d Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum. (ibid. 269-70)

Tragically, she has, in some manner, taken Hamlet’s ‘madness’ upon herself and drowned, but the man she loved is healed from what afflicted him before. This ‘affliction’ is what may be called the double-mindedness evident in the ‘Nunnery Scene’ itself, which sees Hamlet shift from the balanced if introspective reasoning of ‘To be, or not to be’ to the irrational rantings of his dialogue with Ophelia.

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William Shakespeare