Shakespeare’s Hamlet was one of my first introductions to the Bard. A tragedy of immense proportions, the complex web of conflicts and plots weave together to build a unified rising action towards the play’s depressing climax. Since there’s so much to cover due to the play’s length, I’d like to focus on a couple things I found most intriguing about the work.
There was a chart in my seventh grade classroom that showed the severity of crimes as a rising ladder, with murder in the second place and suicide on top, implying that to be capable of killing yourself you first had to be capable of killing another (either that or they simply put it on top to avoid the ridiculousness of implying someone could commit a crime after killing themselves). I kept thinking during the play that since Hamlet cannot kill himself (a least not without the Christian threat of eternal damnation), he moves down one step off the ladder, channeling his grief and sadness into a vengeful rage that dooms nearly every character.
The “To be” speech is our first glimpse into this transformation, which happens by the end of the monologue where Hamlet says, “Conscience makes cowards of us all”. Hamlet’s conclusion is fascinating, since it implies that to exist is to be a coward (I interpreted this as referring directly to the control we give up over our own lives by not choosing when to end it, thus creating uncertainty and the fear of an unexpected death).
He goes on to say,
“And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”
Here he speaks of the thoughts that block ambition (how rumination leads to inaction), but then, beautifully, he receives Ophelia as she enters and immediately enacts the beginning of his plan, treating her terribly because of his “madness”. His disparity turns to sharpened purpose in the blink of an eye and sets in motion the events of the rest of the play.
King Claudius, devious as he is, sees a shadow of this plan as he hides and listens to Hamlet’s words, afraid of that “which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger”.
Claudius is a master manipulator–he has to be to have gotten where he is–and as a plotter himself he senses Hamlet’s ulterior motive.
What’s interesting to note is that if Hamlet is acting “mad” on purpose, then there really is no reason for his cruelty towards Ophelia. This is something that plagued me throughout the play, since Ophelia is really the only innocent character we lose, and it happens through Hamlet’s supposedly honorable actions. Especially anchored to this is Hamlet’s unrelenting badgering of sexual purity, most notably before the play within a play begins. If we’re to believe this all stems from the knowledge he has that Ophelia is working as a kind of spy for the king, it makes me question whether he ever truly loved her, or if the circumstances of the play have overruled any previous feelings he might have had.
Hamlet is an amazing character, constructed as a fully-realized three-dimensional person with his own contradictions and inner secrets. Four hundred years haven’t dimmed the strength of the story, and I found myself riveted more than I expected (though I found the ending a little too expedient).
All of this feeds into what I loved most about the play, the complex web of players that increasing move towards a summit of action. It feels less like reading a play and more like watching a strategic game of chess, where in the beginning movements are slow and hard to decode, but by game’s end pieces fall in quick succession until an unexpected checkmate occurs.