Shakespeare is a master craftsman who depicted almost all aspects of human life and psyche in his great tragedies. Hamlet is one of his all-time great tragedies that have a carefully drafted plot, characterization, development of conflicts, dramatic ironies, and a setting conducive to the development of pity and terror in the audience. He captures the attention of the audience in the very first scene of the play and the spectators throughout the play are left in awe and tension regarding when and how Hamlet would avenge the murder of his father. Even though the play, in this respect, can be read as a revenge play, it assumes greater significance in its tragic nature and effects on the audience. The play can be rightly understood as a tragic depiction of the tragic hero Hamlet who suffers and finally ruins his own life because of the tragic flaw in his character- that of procrastination or indecision.
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The theme of the drama
Characterization assumes greater significance in Hamlet. The theme of the drama can be best understood through the characterization of the protagonist, Hamlet. The tragedy of Hamlet can be best understood concerning Aristotle’s conception of a tragic hero. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is a person of noble birth, who had all heroic qualities, suffers from a ‘hamartia’, a tragic flaw or weakness in his character that leads him to his catastrophe or downfall. Hamlet confronts the ghost of his father in Scene V, Act I of the play and the ghost discloses that he had been murdered by Claudius and that Hamlet has to avenge his death. The plot develops based on the Elizabethans’ traditional belief that the murdered person’s soul will not be saved until his murder is being avenged. The spectator expects Hamlet to take revenge on Claudius, the antagonist of the play, which he does not.
Hamlet, on the other hand, postpones his action to the last moment. At first, he is suspicious regarding the credulousness of the ghost and he waits to make sure whether Claudius himself has committed the cruel deed. After the staging of ‘the play within the play,’ he is quite convinced of his Uncle’s and mother’s part in the murder. Even then he is incapable of acting promptly because of his tragic flaw. His mind is full of thoughts and plans regarding revenge. In Act III, Scene I he tells Ophelia: “I am very proud revengeful, ambitious; with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in” (III. I, 123-128). However, instead of taking his revenge, Hamlet is moved by moral, psychological, and philosophical speculations. For instance, in Act III, Scene III, one finds Hamlet not trying to kill Claudius during prayer as he believes that this would take his soul to heaven as “ he is fit and seasoned for his passage”(III. iii, 86). One can feel the inner conflicts that pass and torment his mind. He conflicts with Claudius; however, his conflict within himself is much more powerful, deeper, and stronger. The ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy best displays the inner struggles in him:-
“To be, or not to be that is the question/ Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles” (III. I, 56-59). The question here is whether to live or to die. He even thinks of committing suicide but is unable to subject himself to the thought as he thinks that people would consider it to be cowardice. Thus, he makes a lot of plans and schemes. However, he fails to do the inevitable and this procrastination causes his downfall in the end.
The character of Laertes
Shakespeare presents the character of Laertes in foil to that of Hamlet. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes is very prompt to take revenge on Hamlet, who has killed his father Polonius. He is bold enough to challenge Hamlet for a dual to avenge the murder of his father However, Hamlet is not incapable of action. This is evident when he kills the eavesdropping Polonius, mistaking him to be Claudius. The way he tricks both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death the heroic manner by which he accepts Laertes’ challenge for the dual, and the way he, at last, manages to kill Claudius all suggest that he is capable of performing courageous and shrewd actions. His killing of Polonius has made others consider him mad and even the spectators are at times tend to doubt the sanity of Hamlet.
But a close reading of the novel convinces one that his ‘madness or insanity is only a pretension. Ophelia is the only character in the play who turns out to be mad because of the insane behavior of Hamlet and his continued neglect of her. But even the madness and subsequent drowning of Ophelia does not distract Hamlet or make him abnormal. Thus, the theme of madness is also projected in the play through these two characters-one mad and the other pretending to be so. Thus, all the characters in Hamlet play their parts to bring about the tragic effect envisioned by the dramatist and his superb characterization helps the reader to “build, project, revise, compound, and complicate the image of the characters throughout the reading of the play.” (Understanding the Text, p. 1044).
Shakespeare employs the classical dramatic structure in Hamlet- the play begins with an exposition, moves to rising action reaches the climax, and moves to a falling action which culminates in the catastrophe or the actual tragedy. Shakespearean tragedies begin with a capturing exposition that introduces the problem and builds tension in the audience. In Hamlet, the appearance of the ghost in the second scene of the first act arouses the attention of the audience. Later in the fourth scene of the same act, one comes across Hamlet confronting the ghost. This supernatural element is maintained by Shakespeare throughout the play. We have instances in the play where the ghost reminds Hamlet of his duties.
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“Do not forget; this visitation/ Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (III. iv. 110-111) exhorts the ghost to Hamlet. Similarly, the symbol of Yorick’s skull also is suggestive. It suggests the transitory nature of human existence and foreshadows the plight that is awaiting Hamlet himself. In the rising action of the play, one comes across the tension and conflicts mounting up in the minds of Hamlet as well as in the spectators. The staging of the play within the play unravels the climax. Then the ground is prepared for the falling action which culminates in the duel between Hamlet and Laertes and the subsequent killing of the two along with the murder of the antagonist, Claudius. The structure of the play helps to keep the spectators in awe and suspense throughout the play. Dramatic ironies are widely employed in the play; everyone hopes that Hamlet would take revenge when he gets Claudius alone in the prayer room, but he does not. The greatest dramatic irony is that even though the spectator wants Hamlet to be triumphant in the end, the play ends in his destruction.
Thus, there is no doubt that Hamlet is a superb theatrical performance that has a well-structured plot, characterization, and powerful themes. One can never forget the stage and settings made by the master dramatist in the play. The Shakespearean stage was divided into three parts and very often the ghost appearing from the downstage and disappearing into the upper stage had special theatric effects. Almost all the actions in the play take place in and around the castle of Ellsinore in Denmark. The dramatic art of Shakespeare is thus unmatched and his poetic use of the language adds to their effectiveness. The tragedy of Hamlet lingers and haunts the spectators for a long period after watching or reading the play and one feels sympathy for Ophelia and that is how one comes to acknowledge the dramatic art in Hamlet.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New Delhi: Oxford & IBH Publishing Company, 2005. Understanding the Text. p. 1044.