A text is exposed as remarkable and memorable as a result of the innovative ideas and the dramatic execution that carry them from writer to audience. Shakespeare’s theatrical play, Hamlet, exemplifies this fundamental interaction as it underscores the innate human state of indecisiveness, driven by a confrontation between the desires of an individual and the actions of others. “Bear[ing] our hearts in grief” a state of madness is seen to manifest, and Hamlet ultimately unfurls as a work underpinned by a preoccupation with death, in a great tragedy that will eventually “cry on havoc”.
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Shakespeare explores the universal notion of indecisiveness, as his protagonist grapples with actions that contravene historical and contemporary notions of morality. Such indecision in action is explored extensively through Hamlet’s procrastination concerning “vengeance for a dear father murder’d”. Struggling with the divisiveness of slaughtering Claudius, Hamlet’s brooding soliloquies best reveal his indecision and apathetic intellectualism. The rhetorical musing ‘To be or not to be…whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer or to take arms against a sea of troubles” exhibits, in its mere length, Hamlet’s universal struggle with morality and hesitancy. Positioned to slaughter Claudius in Act 3 Scene 3, Hamlet rationalises his inaction and indecision, “To take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and seasoned for his passage? No”. Hamlet, tormented by his indecisiveness, is thrust into a reality of otherworldly composites as he identifies with Queen Hecuba and acts out his murderous intentions through the theatrical slaying of the player king. Stating “I, impregnant of my causeâ€¦can say nothing”, Shakespeare metaphorically alludes to his inability to exercise courage and determination. Emasculated as he stands barred from his rightful position as King, Hamlet’s ingrained allegiance to his mother appears to be the root of his indecisiveness. Instructed to “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother”, it is only following Gertrude’s death that Hamlet can proclaim “The king’s to blame venom to thy work!” and poison Claudius, as highlighted in O.B. Hardison’s analysis of Hamlet. Comparably confronted with the death of a father, Laertes overcomes his ambivalence regarding revenge or forbearance, resonating through his contracted and emphatic resolve to “cut [Hamlet’s] throat i’th’church.” As a foil to Hamlet’s indecisiveness Laertes’ vigour immediately juxtaposes Hamlet’s procrastination and leads to the rhetorical inquiry “Am I a coward?” which undoubtedly reveals Hamlet’s hamartia – indecisiveness – as a most human, and universal flaw.
The universal relevance of Hamlet is evidently best seen in the universality of its protagonist, and the humanity of his flaws, including his consumption by grief. Emphasised with a sense of antithesis, the musing “To be or not to be” arouses a sense of Hamlet’s existential nature, as a Machiavellian Renaissance man, willing the freedom to leave his grief ridden “mortal coil”. Polarising the notions of freedom and damnation in the face of grief, Shakespeare manipulates Ophelia as a foil to Hamlet as she continues the path of suicide to its fruition. A dishonorable act devoid of justification, Ophelia’s shuffle off her “mortal coil” and grief is foreshadowed as universally present by naturalistic motifs, asserting “I would give you/some violets, but they withered all when my father/died.” The dramatic juxtaposition of Hamlet and Ophelia exposes Shakespeare’s perception that the veiled ‘madness’ of grief is more pernicious and universally relevant than the “antic disposition” barbaric Denmark defines as true madness. This is linguistically highlighted through Hamlet’s poetic declarations – “Which passes show, the trappings and the suits of woe” – as paralleled by Ophelia – “They bore him bare-faced on the bierâ€¦and in his grave rained many a tear”. Institution of gender segregation in grief emerges hereafter as only Ophelia’s crazed state in Act 4 Scene 5 is identified as true “madness” causing those around her to “give her good watch”, disparate to Hamlet’s alienating “madness” which is disregarded as “unmanly grief”. The aphoristic notion that “wise men know…what monsters you make of them” serves to highlight Hamlet’s ingrained distrust for women catalysed by his grief, and is reflexively recognised as he states “It hath made me mad”. The notion that grief is manifestly inimitable emerges as the consequences of Hamlet’s grief extend to both misogyny and the deaths of many courtiers, whereas Ophelia’s madness is brief and auto-retributive. This universal element appears as an integral cross-contextual statement serving to highlight the deference that must be shown in the face of grief.
Shakespeare further explores the manifestation of grief as a universal predecessor to preoccupation with death. The universal relevance of death itself is underscored as Hamlet reflects “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust”, paralleling the death of Yorrick and Alexander the Great through the timeless power of death. Raised in Act 1 Scene 2, Hamlet instigates his exploration of death, had “the Everlastingâ€¦not fix’d/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” Ruled unconscionable by the allusion to the Christian doctrine, as a display of “weakness and melancholy”, discussed in J. Nosworthy’s dissertation of Hamlet, preoccupation with death is relegated to the domain of “vengeance…for a dear father murder’d”. It is this dramatic manipulation of Hamlet’s obsession with death which unifies the protagonist and humankind as a whole. Hamlet’s obsession is seen to manifest in the ghostly appearance of Old Hamlet, as Shakespeare employs fast-paced, interrogation-style dialogue to engage the audience – “His beard was grizzled, no?” and, “Looked he frowningly?” The ghost’s apparition acts as a vessel to communicate the inherent concern for the afterlife and explores the potential associated with purgatory and supernatural trapping to the earth. A looming figure, the ghost is arguably a metaphor for Hamlet’s preoccupation with death despite his uncertainty regarding the validity of such a presence – “O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else / And shall I couple hell’ O fie!” It is this ambiguity regarding death that perhaps allows for Hamlet’s impulsive rejection or acceptance of responsibility for the deaths of those around him. The dramatic lack of discourse surrounding Hamlet’s murder of Polonius and his unsettling indifference towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – “They are not near my conscience” – exposes the sociopathic manifestation of deathly obsession which allegorically claims Hamlet’s life. Realised in a Feudal context, this dangerously universal fixation is a theme that remains edifying for a contemporary audience and enlightens individuals to the peril of fixation.
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Though Shakespeare’s thematic explorations are manifest in a context bearing little resemblance to that of the 21st Century, it is through critical thematic and linguistic analysis that much is revealed about human nature today. Having devised such a dramatic triad of tragedy, Shakespeare presents the audience with notions regarding human nature and the universal notion that an individual will be subject to “thine own treachery.”
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