Being a thematically intricate and unbelievably nuanced work, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” incorporates a plethora of ideas. However, of all concepts that the play embraces, the one of loyalty seems to be particularly persistent and ubiquitous throughout the narrative.
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Although vengeance and the corruption of power are usually regarded as the main themes portrayed in “Hamlet,” it is the one of loyalty that proves to be the centerpiece of the composition and the glue that holds the play together, serving as Hamlet’s motivation and the driving force behind his actions, also juxtaposing him to the rest of the characters, who are devoid of loyalty entirely.
Hamlet: The Only Character with Loyalty
Throughout the play, loyalty remains the defining feature of Hamlet’s personality as he realizes that his father was murdered. In fact, one could argue that, by making Hamlet the only character who is allowed to have loyalty as one of his defining characteristics, Shakespeare not only makes Hamlet special but also isolates him from the rest of the characters, thus, predetermining the emergence of another vital theme of the play, namely, Hamlet’s loneliness. Therefore, even though “Hamlet” has several crucial themes integrated firmly into its plot and character development, namely, the one of vengeance, Hamlet’s loneliness, and the concept of betrayal, all of them stem from the foundational theme of loyalty (Rhodes 106).
Additionally, loyalty becomes the main characteristic of the leading character that singles him out from the rest of the characters in the play. Indeed, even those that are supposed to be Hamlet’s friends eventually submit to Claudius’ arguments, either due to his power or due to being convinced that Hamlet has gone insane: “Both your Majesties/Might, by the sovereign power you have of us,/Put your dread pleasures more into command/Than to entreaty” (Shakespeare Act II Scene I lines 1110-1112). Therefore, none of the characters retains any semblance of loyalty to Hamlet or the deceased king, consequently, making the specified quality the defining characteristic of the protagonist.
Absence of Loyalty in People Close to Hamlet
Apart from being portrayed directly in the play, the concept of loyalty is also turned inside out to reinforce the significance of the theme and loyalty as a quality. Specifically, the glaring absence of loyalty and, therefore, the propensity toward betrayal is evident and eventually proven true in every major character in the play. While Claudius and Gertrude are supposed to be devoid of loyalty as the main villains of the story, other characters that an unsuspecting reader might initially believe to be supportive turn out to be traitors. For instance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s childhood friends, are recruited by Claudius to spy on Hamlet, thus, breaking the bond of their friendship: “But we both obey,/And here give up ourselves, in the full bent,/To lay our service freely at your feet,/To be commanded” (Shakespeare Act II Scene I lines 1114-1116).
Likewise, Ophelia, who is portrayed as Hamlet’s main love interest, eventually yields to the pressure of Claudius and Gertrude and uses her friendship with Hamlet to spy on him. In turn, unsuspecting Hamlet confesses his love, showing his unwavering loyalty, which creates a stark contrast with Ophelia’s conniving behavior: “Doubt thou the stars are fire;/Doubt that the sun doth move;/Doubt truth to be a liar; / But never doubt I love” (Shakespeare Act II Scene II line 1212). Therefore, Ophelia distances herself from the notion of loyalty, showing her weakness and inability to defend her friendship with Hamlet.
Loyalty as the Starting Point
Loyalty also plays a huge role in “Hamlet” since it sets the entire play into motion, serving as the catalyst for Hamlet to make a decision to act. Given Hamlet’s rather indecisive nature and the propensity toward observing rather than acting, as it is emphasized throughout the play, the specified impact is quite noteworthy: “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge” (Shakespeare Act I Scene V line 765). Therefore, while not being named directly, the idea of keeping allegiance to specific people and ideas is perpetuated in the very plot of the play.
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In fact, the presence of loyalty in Hamlet’s motivation and in the very body of the narrative is what allows elevating the protagonist’s motives and viewing them as noble. While the concept of revenge is usually seen as a primal and mostly instinctive feeling that does not contain much humanity, loyalty as the feeling of deep affection allows one to become a better version of oneself. As a result, when Hamlet decides to avenge the king, it is his love for his father and loyalty to him that makes Hamlet relatable to the reader.
Loyalty as the Characteristic That Makes Hamlet Humane and Relatable
The relatability of Hamlet as a character hinges on his allegiance to his father and love for the deceased patriarch is what makes the lading character so sympathetic to the reader. Though Hamlet’s indecisiveness might alienate some readers, his devotion to and love for his father is instantly understandable and relatable for most readers. Thus, the specified quality becomes the main characteristic of the protagonist.
Moreover, this characteristic is expanded further, creating the platform for the tragic narrative, as Hamlet, who is initially loyal to Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, eventually becomes disappointed in each of them. Thus, when Hamlet is gradually betrayed and abandoned by all of them, his character development reaches the peak of tragedy: “Why did you laugh then, when I said ‘Man delights not me’?” (Shakespeare Act II Scene II 1405).
Loyalty as Juxtaposition to Betrayal
Furthermore, while vengeance is typically seen as the main inciting force that encourages Hamlet to plan his stepfather’s demise, it is Hamlet’s loyalty to his father that supports him and gives him strength. For instance, Hamlet confesses the following: “So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word:/It is ‘Adieu, adieu! Remember me.’/I have sworn’t.” (Shakespeare Act 1 Scene 5 lines 848-850). The specified sentiment is indicative of the lead character’s desire to make a change in memory of his father as opposed to committing a murder as an eye-for-an-eye type of revenge.
Finally, Hamlet’s loyalty to his father and his cause allows the prince to remain morally superior to his enemies. As a result, the line that would have been viewed as contemptuous, portraying the lad as arrogant, sounds quite natural in the play: “My father’s brother, but no more like my father/Than I to Hercules” (Shakespeare Act I Scene II line 355). Moreover, the reader perceives Hamlet’s wrath and indignation as warranted, becoming emotionally invested in the character’s story and plight.
Despite ostensibly placing vengeance and the need for retaliation at the forefront of the play, “Hamlet” also centers the concept of loyalty as the quality that distinguishes Hamlet from the rest and that serves as his main motivation, thus, defining his relationships to the rest of the characters and, ultimately, determining his loneliness. Thus, Hamlet’s plight, as well as his character arc, becomes instantly understandable and relatable to any reader. Therefore, while being introduced covertly in the play, the theme of loyalty remains its leitmotif and the main vehicle driving the action.
Rhodes, Kimberly. Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture: Representing Body Politics in the Nineteenth Century, 2nd edition. Routledge, 2017.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. OpenSource Shakespeare, 1603.