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The nature of drama consists of the weaving of conflict throughout it. Without conflict, a work of dramatic literature suffers from a lack of effective plot development or flow and the inability to capture the interest of readers. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet creates an inward conflict of Man vs. Self that focuses on Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father as he grapples with his own internal dilemmas. Internally, Hamlet’s seeming fear of action results from his confusion between the expectations of the Ghost and his religion. He wants to avenge his father’s death, but questions whether or not the Ghost is truly his father. Hamlet demonstrates that he is unable to fulfill the ghost’s demand for vengeance as he is also struggling with his love for his mother. On the one hand, he truly loves his mother; on the other, he is angered by her hasty marriage to Claudius. He is also facing trouble dealing with Ophelia’s betrayal. Again, he loves her but is disgusted by her behavior: her deception in returning his tokens of affection and her unwillingness to be honest with him reveal her betrayal. For all of this, he reacts violently and cruelly, and doubts his own decision-making. In all, Hamlet’s internal conflicts send him into a fit of confusion and depression, leaving him unable to fulfill the Ghost’s request of revenge.
A sense of religious conscience is seen at work in Hamlet as it becomes a major source of internal conflict within the protagonist. Hamlet’s hesitation in avenging his father’s death comes from his uncertainty regarding his religion and extreme fear of his own condamnation to hell. Although Shakespeare is vague in his references toward religion in the play, it can be said that Hamlet is indeed religious. During the Ghost and Hamlet’s conversation, the Ghost is made to represent Roman Catholicism and Hamlet Protestantism. The Ghost seems to be stuck in some type of Purgatory, “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confin’d to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg’d away” (I.v. 10-14). According to the Catholic church, “Purgatory” can be defined as a state in which souls who have died must repent their sins in hopes of one day attaining eternal peace in heaven. It can be said that Hamlet’s father is religious as Shakespeare writes that he went to his death “unhouseled”, meaning without benefit of the Holy Spirit and Eucharist. It is likely that Hamlet’s father passed down these religious values to Hamlet himself. However, Hamlet becomes crippled by religious confrontation when he shows that he is unable to distinguish the ghost between the devil, an angel or his true father by asking which religious realm it is from saying, “Be thou a spirit of health, or a goblin damn’d / Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell” (I.iv.42-44). When analyzing this, it is unsure whether Hamlet is Roman Catholic like his father. It is a possibility that the Catholic Church cannot provide Hamlet with the secure religious identity that he longs for. Hamlet’s internal religious battle becomes clear when looking closely at his studies in Wittenberg. As a student, it is most likely that Hamlet is Protestant since Wittenberg is home to Martin Luther’s ninety Five Theses and the Protestant movement. Furthermore, Hamlet’s inner turmoil worsens when Claudius is seen praying for forgiveness of his foul murder. By this time, Hamlet is at his highest point of religious uncertainty asking, “Be thou a spirit of health, or a goblin damn’d / Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell”(I.iv.43-44). As he contemplates stabbing Claudius, his revenge is one again stifled as he does not want to kill the king while he is asking for forgiveness by God. He does not want to give him the opportunity to be forgiven and sent to heaven or be in purgatory with his father. This shows that Hamlet may believe in purgatory after the apparition of the ghost in the form of his father that he previously encountered. To drive Hamlet’s inner conflict further, he faces the judgements of his own religion as he grapples with the pressure put upon him to kill another man to avenge his father. He wonders if he can kill another man, and still attain peace in heaven with God. This ultimately becomes a major source in Hamlet’s demise as he is unable to kill the king. Once taken out of the world of religion he is finally able to fulfill his revenge. After figuring out the king’s plan to kill him, Hamlet in a fit of rage sees his dying mother at the hands of Claudius and is no longer affected by religious barriers. Finally, he is able to kill the king and make amends with his mother and friends, but quickly turns back to religion saying “Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee” as he slowly dies” (V.ii.325)
Hamlet seems to be delaying his revenge due to his confusion surrounding his love for his mother, but also his hatred for her betrayal of King Hamlet. Hamlet’s source of inner conflict is expressed when he utters “a little more kin and less than kind” (I.ii.65), revealing that it lies with his inability to understand his mother’s new relationship with Claudius and her betrayal to his father. Hamlet expresses his extreme agony towards Gertrude’s lack of grief towards her husband’s death and her hasty marriage to Claudius, his brother. As the play progresses, it can be seen that although Hamlet grieves the death of his father and places much of the blame on Gertrude, he still truly loves her. His indecision in killing Claudius and avenging his father comes from his innate Oedipus nature. He cannot kill Claudius, because he identifies with him. Although he hates his uncle and wishes to kill him, he is jealous in an oedipal way due to his love for his mother which becomes a major source of inner conflict. In a discussion with his mother and uncle , Hamlet states:
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ’Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.
But two months dead — nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr. So loving to my mother
is it her face too roughly! (I.i.135-141)
Hamlet is expressing his disaffection towards his mother’s actions but pushes it aside allowing it to fester. He begrudges his mother for replacing the king so quickly, but also for taking away his birthright; his inheritance of the throne. Hamlet does not see Claudius as a legitimate heir to the throne. He not only wants to take is father’s place as king, but also in regards to his mother. At the end of the play, even though Hamlet lashes out at Gertrude in a fit of rage at the events taking place, she still remains faithful to him by protecting him from the king. Although her love for Claudius and betrayal of Hamlet’s father is immoral, Hamlet is able to forgive her for this in her final dying moments, revealing his true love for his mother that he struggled with throughout the play.
A final significant source of conflict in the play results from Hamlet’s constant changing perception of his lover, Ophelia. Hamlet is confused regarding his love for Ophelia as at times he is cruel and insults her character, where as other times he will speak of his deep longing for her love. Before his father’s death, Hamlet is madly in love with Ophelia, sending her love letters and tokens of affection. Ophelia finds herself stuck between two opposite poles, her father and brother and Hamlet. She believes that Hamlet does truly love her, but her father disagrees saying “Affection! Pooh, you speak like a green girl, Unsifted in such perilous circumstance. Do you believe his “tenders,” as you call them?” (I.iii.101-104). He believes that his daughter is too pure and inexperienced to be involved with Hamlet, who merely a sees her as a sexual object. At the instructions of her father, Ophelia returns all of Hamlet’s tokens of affections and reads his love letters aloud to the court. Because of this, Hamlet’s internal conflict not only results in his lack of action but also due to the actions of the women around him. During his “antic disposition”, Hamlet feels a great sense of abandonment and grief towards the woman in his life. This causes him to insult women as a whole and to dismiss that he ever loved Ophelia saying:
You should not have believ’d me, for virtue cannot so
inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I lov’d you not . . .
Get thee to a nunn’ry, why woulds’t thou be a breeder of
Hamlet denies Ophelia who insists that he once loved her, by saying that he did not. Using a metaphor, Hamlet refers to his old feelings of doubt to “old stock”, referring to the nature of all men and their ability to lie. Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery, that is seen as both a place of pure woman who give their bodies but also has a double meaning of “whore house” which Hamlet is referring to. By this he is describing Ophelia as both pure and impure and insulting her womanhood. This preoccupation and hatred for women is what drives Hamlet’s distrust and inner conflict. Hamlet is in a constant battle between the woman around him and his desire to avenge his father’s death. He truly loved Ophelia, but convinces himself that he could never love the woman that betrayed him, leading him to inner turmoil.
Throughout Hamlet, conflict become the nature of Shakespeare’s literary work. Hamlet’s major inward conflict is derived from his confusion regarding the apparition witnessed, provoking religious confusion and surrounding his mission to avenge his father. Because of Hamlet’s repressed love for his mother and desire to be his uncle, He suffers from a Oedipal complex that stifles his revenge and results in his demise. Finally it is his conflicting feelings of betrayal and love towards Ophelia and woman in general that send him into fits of internal conflict. Without conflict such as this, a play lacks movement or flow. Hamlet’s consistent inner and outer conflicts throughout the play drive the plot forward, keeping the interest of spectators.
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Harcourt Canada, 2003.
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