Hamlet dares us, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to “pluck outthe heart of my mystery.” This mystery marks the essence of Hamlet’s characteras, in spite of our popular psychologies, it ultimately does for all humanpersonalities. Granting this, we can attempt to chart its origin and outwardmanifestations. Ophelia tells us that before the events of the play Hamlet wasa model courtier, soldier and scholar, “The glass of fashion and the mould ofform, / Th’ observed of all observers.” With the death of his father and thehasty, incestuous remarriage of his mother to his uncle, however, Hamlet isthrown into a suicidal frame of mind in which “the uses of this world” seem tohim “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” Though his faith in the value oflife has been destroyed by this double confrontation with death and humaninfidelity, he feels impotent to effect any change in this new reality: “It isnot, nor it cannot come to good. / But break my heart, for I must hold mytongue.” All he can do in this frustrated state is to lash out with bittersatire at the evils he sees and then relapse into suicidal melancholy.
It is in this state that he meets the equally mysterious figure of hisfather’s ghost with its supernatural revelations of murder and adultery andits injunction upon Hamlet to revenge his father’s murder. While this commandgives purpose and direction to Hamlet’s hitherto frustrated impulse towardsscourging reform, it also serves to further unsettle his already disturbedreason. Whether or not the ghost was actually a devil, its effect upon Hamlet has In the two months after his meeting with the ghost, he puzzles the courtwith his assumed madness but does nothing concrete to effect or further hisrevenge. His inability to either accept the goodness of life or act to destroyits evils now begins to trouble him as much as his outward hysteria anddepression does the court. He first condemns his apparent lack ofconcentration on his revenge as the sign of a base, cowardly nature. Theadvent of a company of players, however, gives him an idea for testing thetruth of the ghost and the guilt of Claudius. He plans to have the playersperform a play which reproduces Claudius’ crime and observe Claudius’ reactionto it, thereby dispelling his own doubts as to the proper course of hisaction. Having momentarily silenced his shame at his inaction, however, heimmediately relapses into his former state; he meditates upon suicide and thenlashes out with satiric cruelty at Ophelia.
The performance of the play is successful in revealing Claudius’ guilt toHamlet, and Hamlet reacts to this proof with wild glee. His old friendsRosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had returned that day to Elsinore to helpfurther Claudius’ investigation into Hamlet’s disorder and had therebyalienated Hamlet’s affections, enter with a message from Hamlet’s mother thatshe wishes to see him immediately. His coming visit with hismother inspires him with a murderous rage appropriate to the hellish time ofnight. Once more in the power of hell, he accidentally comes upon the prayingfigure of Claudius but does not take this opportunity for revenge because ofthe devilish rationalization that such revenge would not damn Claudius’ soul.
But the truth seems to be that Hamlet’s murderous rage is misdirected at hismother rather than at Claudius, even though Hamlet is now fully convinced ofhis guilt. Coming to his mother’s room with the intent to punish her withverbal daggers for her unfaithfulness, her unwillingness to listen to himreleases his murderous impulse against her. In a moment of temporary insanityhe manages to exercise enough control to deflect the blow designed for her tothe direction of an unexpected sound, killing the hidden figure of Polonius.
In the ensuing scene he all but forgets the body of Polonius in his urgency toarouse his mother’s guilt for her treatment of his father and injury to hisown trust. All he knows is that his mother’s behavior hascontributed to wrenching the time “out of joint” for him, and that he has beenOnce he is reconciled to his mother, the whole of reality appears to himin a different light. Where before his will was “most incorrect to heaven,”the “Everlasting” seeming to be the creator of sterile farces and imposer ofharsh laws, he now can accept heaven’s purposes and ally himself with them asheaven’s “scourge and minister.” If Hamlet’s nausea with life as well as sexseems to the modern intelligence to have a hidden psychological basis, Hamletraises the discussion of his nature to the ultimately more profound level ofreligious existential confrontation. Seeing the hand of heaven in hisaccidental slaying of Polonius as well as in the exile to England which willresult from it, he is able to accept this turn of events with new confidenceThough Hamlet does not appear outwardly changed, as witnessed by hiscontemptuous treatment of Polonius’ body, continued obsession with the horrorof death and with the obligations of honor, the change in attitude begun inhis mother’s room continues to develop while on shipboard and is responsiblefor his actions there. Inspired by his restlessness, he rashly discovers theletter ordering his death, forges a new commission which substitutes for hisdeath the deaths of Claudius’ accomplices, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,returns the commission unknown, and, in a sea fight with pirates, manages tofree himself from the Danish ship. In all of this he sees “heaven ordinant”and this teaches him that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough -hew them how we will.” Recognizing by this that humanly conceived plots aredoomed to fail, he places himself completely in the hands of Providence.
Nonetheless, his first actions upon his return do not seem to indicateany real change in his nature from our last view of him in Denmark. He isstill overly sensitive to the decomposition of the body after death and, inhis treatment of Laertes at the funeral he so rudely disrupts, he still showsa cruel insensitivity to the feelings of anyone he believes to have wrongedhim. This insensitivity also extends to his lack of any qualms about hismurders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as was also true of his earliermurder of Polonius. If Hamlet had once been a model human being disillusionedin life by the double blows of his father’s death and mother’s remarriage, hisoversensitivity to these evils of existence has warped his nature into anequally extreme insensitivity to all those whom he suspects of impurity. Hecruelly torments his mother and Ophelia, bitterly mocks Polonius, Rosencrantzand Guildenstern and then wantonly kills them without a qualm and with theattempt, in the last two cases, of ensuring their eternal damnation, and herefrains from killing Claudius for this same evil reason. In terms ofvindictive cruelty and wanton slaughter, he stands far more condemned for evilthan Claudius and in danger of his own eternal damnation.
This warping om a sensi i s nat re into ane cspable of inhuman evil isperhaps the clearest proof of the evils of existence, though Hamlet must nowbe numbered among the evils to be punished by cosmic justice. But if Hamlet’sactions condemn him to death, his growing perception of reality finallyredeems his soul in our eyes. Though Claudius has planned Hamlet’s destructionand Hamlet has proof of this, he has returned to Denmark without any plan forhis revenge, even warning Claudius rudely of his approach. In “perfectconscience” now about the sin of regicide%2Bibliography: