|Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s most famous play and probably the most famous play in the world. Even tough it is a very famous play, Hamlet is regularly criticised to be too long. Critics accuse Shakespeare of having included unnecessary scenes and of needing too much time to get to the point, meaning to get to the end of the play. The whole play is an “artistic failure” as T.S. Eliot puts it in his famous essay. Hamlet is the biggest problem of Hamlet. Hamlet as a character does everything in order to not fit into the play. He almost seems not to belong into the play with his very name. Hamlet does not want to fulfil his role in the play. The character strives against the plot.
When in act I, scene III Horatio tells him about the appearance of the ghost Hamlet is very eager to learn more about the incident. He is sorry that he has not been there to see the ghost with his own eyes. He decides to wait for the appearance the following night and tells the others not to speak to the ghost. At the end of the scene when he is alone he begins to suspect that his father did not die of a natural cause, he “doubt(s) some foul play” (Act I, Scene III, 256). The most obvious reason for old Hamlet to come back is that he cannot rest peacefully. It is a common belief that people whose body has not been found, or such who did not get a proper burial with sacrifices, burial objects, lament, and grief or, if they have been murdered, vendetta, come back as a revenant of any kind. (Bunson, 297) Common forms of revenants are vampires, werewolves or ghosts. As they seem to have buried the king according to the rites the two possible reasons for the appearance of a ghost are firstly missing grief, which Hamlet has already accused his mother of in his first scene, and secondly murder. But Hamlet should have his doubts about the whole incident; he has studied in Wittenberg and is therefore likely to be a protestant. We do not know whether Hamlet is a protestant or a catholic. If Hamlet is a catholic he believes in purgatory as a middle stage between heaven and hell, where the souls stay until they have paid for their sins and can rest peacefully. But if Hamlet is a protestant, his belief is or, at least should be, that all ghosts come straight out of hell and are therefore evil. In this case, if the guards and Horatio really have seen a ghost it cannot have been the ghost of his father. Hamlet’s speech in this and the following scene is ambiguous concerning his religion. We cannot determine whether he is a protestant or a catholic. Hamlet speaks of heaven and hell when he first talks to the ghost but he does not mention purgatory as a third alternative for the ghost’s origin.
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. (Act I, Scene IV, 40-44)
This implies a protestant view of the next world, but after having talked to the ghost he seems to be a catholic: “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit” (Act I, Scene V, 190). Or, he might have been a protestant but after the confrontation with his father’s ghost who really seems to be the incarnation of his father and not just an evil spirit trying to complicate or jeopardize Hamlet’s life, Hamlet may not be so sure what to believe after all: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Act I, Scene V, 174). (Greenblatt, 233). We cannot define Hamlet’s religion. In the same way we cannot really understand Hamlet’s actions within the play. He strives against the plot.
At the end of Scene I, Act IV, Hamlet still follows his function in the plot. He is very eager to meet the ghost, even when Horatio and Marcellus try to convince him not to follow the ghost: “I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me” (Act I, Scene V, 85). He acts in the way the plot wants him to act in order to get to the point as soon as possible. In brief terms: Hamlet goes to the ghost, talks to it, does whatever the ghost wants him to do, so that the ghost can rest in peace and the play is over; the classical motive of the grateful dead. At this moment Hamlet seems to be a normal revenge play. When I say that Hamlet strives against the plot, then I see ‘plot’ as the plot of the classical revenge play one would expect after having read as far as the beginning of Act I, Scene V; in the following scenes Hamlet still seems to be a revenge play if we look at M.H. Abrams’s definition, even if its protagonist does not always act as if he is starring in one:
Its subject is a murder and the quest for vengeance, and it includes a ghost, insanity, suicide, a play-within-a-play, sensational incidents, and a gruesomely bloody ending. (Abrams, 323)
The scene in which Hamlet starts to struggle against the plot starts with Hamlet first asking the ghost and second giving him commands: “Whither wilt thou lead me? Speak, I’ll go no further” (Act I, Scene V, 1). Once again, Hamlet shows that he wants to follow his own will. He does not want to go any further, he does not want to follow the ghost anywhere, but the ghost has to follow him, or in this situation, his will, even if Hamlet has only minutes before this scene told the ghost twice: “Go on, I’ll follow thee” (Act I, Scene IV, 79; 86). While Hamlet talks with the ghost of his father, he is shocked and does not say much. He mostly utters sentence fragments: “What?” (Act I, Scene V, 8); “O God!” (Act I, Scene V, 24); “Murder!” (Act I, Scene V, 26). He then is able to gather his spirits and acts in the way, the plot would want him to. He asks his father for details about his revenge:
Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love
May sweep to my revenge. (Act I, Scene V, 29)
The choice of his words indicates that he does not really understand what the ghost wants him to do. He compares his revenge with gentle things like love and meditation, not with the brutality of the homicide he has to commit in order to fulfil the ghost’s order. In another edition of the play (Rowohlt, 1957) Line 80 is said by Hamlet instead of the Ghost: “O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!” (Act I, Scene V, 80). In conjunction with his speech right after the disappearance of the ghost, Hamlet seems to bewail himself: “O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? And shall I couple hell? O fie!” (Act I, Scene V, 92). He almost seems to wish not having talked to the ghost; if he had listened to Horatio and Marcellus and had not talked to the ghost, he would not have the unpleasant duty of killing his uncle. He is no longer as eager and energetic as he was before he talked to the ghost of his father. He does not run off and kill Claudius right away, but he sits down and writes: “My tables. Meet it is I set it down” (Act I, Scene V, 107). Hamlet is an intellectual, not a muscleman. Violence is against his character. Even if States argues that “one of Hamlet’s more dramatic attributes (…) can be summed up in the term cruel (States, 36)”, I argue that his cruelty is, at least until he kills Polonius, found only in his speeches. He knows what he has to do, in order to fulfil the ghost’s wish and in order to follow the plot of the play, but he does not really want to fulfil his duty as soon as possible, first of all he thinks about the situation and prays.
For every man hath business and desire,
Such as it is- and for my own poor part,
I will go pray (Act I, Scene V, 136)
At the very end of act I, scene V, Hamlet shows us, how inconvenient this whole situation is for him and that he rather wanted not to have talked to the ghost in order to not know about his bloody duty: “O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right” (Act I, Scene V, 196). The duty the ghost has laid on Hamlet is an enormous burden for our protagonist. In the following scenes Hamlet will try to avoid his destiny.
Killing someone deliberately, in this case Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, is murder. Murder is a class one felony, even if the victim has committed a felony as well and the killing is the revenge for this first felony. If Hamlet is caught and found guilty, he will be taken to prison and will find his certain death. He is not after just anyone’s blood, but his uncle’s, his stepfather’s and more importantly the king of Denmark’s. Killing the king would turn Hamlet into an enemy of the state, the very state that he is prince of and therefore king designate. By killing king Claudius Hamlet risks his entire future. It is not a big surprise, that Hamlet is not very eager to fulfil his bloody duty. He starts to think a lot, as Polonius points out:
You know, sometimes he walks four hours together
Here in the lobby. (Act II, Scene II, 160)
Hamlet seems to try to win as much time as possible. The later he starts his revenge, the later he will die if his plan does not succeed. The longer he thinks about it, the better his plan will be and the better his plan is, the better his chances are to survive. Hamlet’s chance to survive increases with every second he waits until he fulfils his duty. He should take action; he should kill Claudius as soon as possible in order to fulfil the ghost’s will, and of course the plot’s will as well. Hamlet’s task is to kill his father’s murderer. But Hamlet first tries to make sure someone else will fulfil his duty. By the mean of the play “The murder of Gonzago” / “The mousetrap” Hamlet tries to bring Claudius to reveal his secret in public:
Is it not monstrous, that this player here,
But in a fiction, a dream if passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing! (Act II, Scene II, 545)
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick. (Act II, Scene II, 589)
Hamlet does not have to risk his life in order to revenge his father, when Claudius reveals his guilt in public, which he tells us while he speaks about the play: “All for nothing!” (Act II, Scene II, 551) This is exactly what he is trying to achieve by adding his lines to the play: “Make mad the guilty and appal the free” (Act II, Scene II, 558). If Claudius behaves suspiciously during or after the play, Hamlet can reveal what he knows about the murder of old king Hamlet; the audience is shocked and Claudius will most certainly be taken to prison and executed later on. Hamlet would have fulfilled his duty without risking his life, he can delegate his bloody duty to the state; his hands stay clean, he won’t be taken to prison because of a felony and he will be the king of Denmark.
When after the play, he talks to Horatio and learns that Horatio as well has seen, how Claudius reacted to the poisoning scene, Hamlet is happy:
Ah ha! Come, some music; come, the recorders.
For if the King like not the comedy,
Why then, belike he likes it not perdie.
Come, some music. (Act III, Scene II, 285)