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Hamlet is usually regarded as a departure in Shakespeare's writing, in that it is not an ‘action' play, relying far more heavily on the thought processes and reflections of the chief protagonist. Indeed, as is well documented, it is Hamlet's ‘fatal flaw' that he fails to ‘act' until it is too late. However, Hamlet does, ironically, rely heavily on the notion of ‘acting' in the sense of ‘playing a part'. Hamlet both contrives to ‘act' as if losing his wits to disguise his attempt to expose Claudius's murder of his father and uses ‘a play within a play' as one of his devices. Thus, Shakespeare emphasises the importance of ‘acting', and of drama, to reveal ‘truth' and renders his play about the actions of one man representative of a more general comment on the uses of acting to understand and deal with aspects of the human condition in a cathartic sense. Thus, ‘Hamlet exists in three dimensions: text, performance, and cultural icon'.
Most of the characters in Hamlet are acting for much of the play. It is essential, for the preservation and development of the plot that this should be so but the audience is also aware that the men and women have to ‘play a part' in order to survive. At the beginning of the play, when the young prince returns to find his country devastated by war and his family torn apart by his uncle's assuming the throne and marrying his mother, he is betrayed and bereft. His royal place usurped and his values questioned there is little to which he can cling. Immediately, the audience connects with the dilemma of this young man, so lost and seemingly alone, who draws us into an intimacy with him via the soliloquies. This device, used throughout Shakespeare's work but more especially so in Hamlet, allows the playwright to make truth more vital through artifice; Hamlet is ‘acting' both for us and with us, as he grows from a naÃ¯ve and childlike character into a man to whom justice is more important than revenge, although this is a ‘revenge play' and action essential. As has been pointed out by MacCary (1998): Aristotle insists on the importance of action over character: ‘one can have tragedy without character, but no tragedy without action' (Poetics 1450a). In Hamlet the structure of the action-how the plot develops from scene to scene and act to act - is determined by the development of Hamlet's character.
Claudius's opening speech sets the tone for the artificiality which is to determine the way in which characters are to behave in this play and introduces the first of three courtly ‘set-pieces' over which Claudius and Gertrude, the ‘Player King and Queen', preside: Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death The memory be green, and that it us befitted To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom To be contracted in one brow of woe; Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature That we with wisest sorrow think on him, Together with remembrance of ourselves. Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, Th' imperial jointress to this warlike state, Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,- With an auspicious and one dropping eye, With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage, In equal scale weighing delight and dole,- Taken to wife; nor have we herein barr'd Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone With this affair along: For all, our thanks.
Claudius immediately adopts the ‘kingly' syntax which is to characterise his role both as perceived by the other characters, who make up the court, and by the audience (this is in marked contrast with the less pretentious ‘I' which the ghost of Old Hamlet will later employ). Filled with paradoxes and oxymorons such as ‘mirth in funeral' and ‘dirge in marriage', he adopts the royal usage of the plural pronoun to express his individual thoughts, and develops this to make it (like both Brutus and Antony reconciling the crowd after Caesar's assassination in the roughly contemporary Julius Caesar) seem that he is ‘acting' for the benefit of Denmark rather than himself, alone. By linking the personal and possessive pronouns ‘our' and ‘we' in ‘our whole kingdom' and ‘we with wisest sorrow', Shakespeare shows Claudius's manifest determination to make clear to the court that from now on the decisions on what is best for the country are to be his. The application of ‘wisest' to ‘sorrow', allows Claudius to temper grief (which he must plainly feign, since he has murdered his brother and usurped the throne) with wisdom. This will allow him scope to do as he wills whilst maintaining the appearance of doing what is best for others. In ‘remembrance of ourselves', Shakespeare combines Claudius's evocation, for his own ends, of Old Hamlet's memory, with the realisation that what matters, for the new king and, he pretends, the country, is the present and future; consolidation of his position being vital. This basic need to appear a ‘natural' successor, when actually all he represents is its antithesis, is stressed by Claudius's reference to his ‘sometime sister, now our queen'. By marrying Gertrude, Claudius has provided a semblance of continuity, as if the ‘old order' is not annihilated but continued. The chief obstacle to this is, of course, the young Prince Hamlet.
With heavy irony, Claudius addresses his first remarks to Hamlet in almost accusatory tones, suggesting that the prince's grief is feigned saying: ‘How is it that the clouds still hang on you?' This is rejected by Hamlet in a pun on his objection to Claudius calling him ‘son' replying ‘I am too much i' the sun'. Nevertheless, in a characteristic betrayal, Gertrude supports Claudius: Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off, And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark. Do not for ever with thy vailed lids Seek for thy noble father in the dust: Thou know'st 'tis common,--all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity.
By urging him to stop giving the appearance of grief, Gertrude implies that Hamlet acts more than he feels and hides behind his ‘vailed lids'. Moreover, she suggests that he is rejecting the natural order that ‘all that lives must die'. The irony is clear: Hamlet's father has not died a natural death and it is not natural for Gertrude to have married his murderous brother. Hamlet twists her use of ‘common' to make her seem to require vulgarity in him and emphasise his feeling that it is she who has behaved in a ‘common' way, debasing the man she refers to as Hamlet's ‘noble father', Hamlet and herself. Shakespeare follows this with an analysis of the word ‘seems' by mother and son: Queen: If it be, Why seems it so particular with thee? Hamlet: Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems.
Hamlet astutely picks up on his mother's careless, but damaging, use of a word that attaches the mere appearance of grief to what is truly felt. The sharp rejection, enhanced by the commanding ‘madam' and the use of the exclamation mark, underlines a fundamental theme of the play: all is not what it seems and the appearance of feeling often masks an actual underlying insincerity. Hamlet is truly grieving yet accused of acting, Gertrude and Claudius are truly playing a part in order to survive and prosper: 'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, Nor customary suits of solemn black, Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath, No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage, Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief, That can denote me truly: these, indeed, seem; For they are actions that a man might play; But I have that within which passeth show; These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
By saying that it is not just the ‘inky cloak' (his clothing foreshadowing his later feigned madness, melancholy being associated with this state) which evidenced his grief, Hamlet again puns on a word implying disguise. His awareness that those around him ‘cloak' their real feelings links with ‘shows of grief' to culminate in the ultimate reference, here, to the ‘actions that a man might play' and invites the audience to infer that Claudius and Gertrude are doing just this. The young prince, in contrast, has ‘that within which passeth show' and the importance of the reference is shown in Shakespeare's usage of the rhyming couplet for emphasis (a device he frequently uses, both to signal an important point, as here, or to cue the end of a scene); this also stresses the introspective nature of the play, as his ‘woe' is ‘within' not ‘show'. The fact that Claudius uses this to call Hamlet ‘unmanly' and guilty of ‘impious stubbornness' says more about Claudius than the prince and the audience sees this. (He also seizes the opportunity to emphasise Hamlet's youth and instability by declaring that he is returning to school, leaving Denmark without guidance other than his own).
When Hamlet is left alone, his true feelings are revealed openly in the first of his soliloquies. This method is particularly effective in a play where artifice is so apparent. The soliloquy is a way in which a playwright can allow the audience access to his character's thoughts and feelings with no need of ‘acting' (ironically, of course, these are the most challenging speeches for the actor playing Hamlet as they literally ‘unlock his soul' and are crucial to the audience's comprehensive connection with him). Hamlet's distress is firstly at the betrayal by his mother, ‘Frailty thy name is woman!' he declares, the punctuation reflecting the violence of feeling. He praises his father in ‘So excellent a king' and thus emphasises the wicked, unnatural behaviour of his mother in ‘incestuous sheets'. The soliloquy ends with the dark foreshadowing of Hamlet's: It is not, nor it cannot come to good; But break my heart,--for I must hold my tongue!
The fundamental difference is that Hamlet is compelled to act a part and hide his grief, whereas Claudius and Gertrude choose to pretend grief in order to mask their guilt. In both instances, Shakespeare uses acting to great effect to reveal the extent to which all persons ‘act' but it is the reasons for doing so which expose deeper truths than mere fact.
Having been convinced of the truth of his suspicions about his father's death by the ghostly visitation of Old Hamlet, the prince slips further into disguise to expose Claudius's guilt. He determines to feign madness in order to remain in Denmark to observe Claudius and prove his guilt without seeming to pose a threat. His chief means of doing this is to observe and to watch others ‘observing' likewise. This again invites the audience to infer that the play is essentially about what is seen and what is perceived and how the interpretation of this can be influenced for good or ill. Even the source of Hamlet's ‘madness' is open to alternate inference in the minds of the players, especially since Ophelia (who, ironically, descends into genuine ‘madness') is seen by her father, Polonius, as responsible for it due to her ‘rejection' of him. Dramatic irony, used throughout the play, becomes increasingly effective as the audience is aware of the true reason for Hamlet's pretence.
When it comes to an attempt at open exposure, significantly, Hamlet chooses to employ actors to provoke a guilty response in Claudius. Again, ironically, Hamlet has been informed of the arrival of the travelling players by his ultimately duplicitous erstwhile ‘friends', Rosencratz and Guildenstern, with whom he drops his guard. Hamlet first chooses a scene from Virgil's Aeneid, on Dido and Aeneas to perform and reflect on Claudius's guilt, linking Denmark with Troy, then asks the actors to perform another play, ‘The Murder of Gonzago', incorporating lines of his own, and tellingly speaks of the power of ‘drama' to reveal the truth: I have heard That guilty creatures, sitting at a play, Have by the very cunning of the scene Been struck so to the soul that presently They have proclaim'd their malefactions; 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: if he but blench, I know my course. The spirit that I have seen May be the devil: and the devil hath power To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps Out of my weakness and my melancholy,- As he is very potent with such spirits,- Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds More relative than this.--the play's the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
Hamlet has been revitalised by the arrival of the wandering players and seems to envy their freedom, as it is in such strong opposition to the suffocating atmosphere of his own life ‘imprisoned' at Elsinore. Within a very short time, Hamlet connects with the actors, as player, director and playwright. The audience is aware that the young man's purpose is to expose Claudius, yet this is clearly not Shakespeare's only purpose in introducing the ‘strolling players'. Shakespeare emphasises the general importance of drama in the words he chooses to give Hamlet here, describing ‘guilty creatures, sitting at a play' as ‘struck to the soul' by ‘the very cunning of a scene'. This gifts the playwright with a huge responsibility for the reactions his plays provoke but also stresses the cathartic qualities of the experience: the guilty are exposed but feelings are also purged, ‘They have proclaim'd their malefactions', as if a purification has been facilitated by the actual performance which is a catalyst for the same. He also reiterates a major theme, that of ‘observation': Claudius is watching Hamlet, who in turn is watching him and both are involved in plots which engage others to become embroiled in this observation. Shakespeare further stresses the importance of the drama in this by again offering a rhyming couplet to close the scene and embody the thought: ‘the play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king'.
The failure of this actually to expose fully the guilt of Claudius in no way detracts from its dramatic impetus, as a central ‘climax', nor does it reduce the efficacy of the evoked cathartic process. The fact that Claudius does not react in the way Hamlet expects is not evidence of the defeat of the proposal but of the different reactions that drama produces. Hamlet's own composition is never delivered but the creation of it gives it a powerful metaphorical connection to basic ideas of the power of drama. Claudius is compelled to act, after this, and though this results in Hamlet's departure and the plot by the king to assassinate him, it unnerves the king and queen, causing a shift in loyalties within the court and in Gertrude in particular. This begins with her equivocal, enigmatic exchange with her son just after they have witnessed the actors playing out an uncomfortably recognisable amorous scene of guilty lovers: Hamlet: Madam, how like you this play? Queen:The lady protests too much, methinks.
She is ruffled but retains a royal distancing which is very different from Claudius's direct challenging of Hamlet, recognising ‘offence' in the play and allowing Hamlet to state its name as ‘The Mousetrap' (the audience is aware that Gertrude is given the name ‘mouse') and declare openly the similarities between his suspicions and the plot being enacted before them: 'tis a knavish piece of work: but what o' that? your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not: let the gall'd jade wince; our withers are unwrung.
Hence, the ‘free souls', the guiltless, have nothing to fear in the ‘fake' revelation, ‘it touches us not'. Hamlet is also keen to stress that he is indifferent to those who have sinned, ‘let the gall'd jade wince; our withers are unwrung'. Significantly, he is playing the role of ‘the chorus', here, and a ‘good chorus', too, as Ophelia, herself involved in deception and ‘playing a part', states. Traditionally, the audience takes its cues from ‘the chorus' as to what should be thought and felt about the action of a play. Thus, Hamlet becomes both narrator and protagonist as the ‘dramas' unfold, commenting on the actions and reactions, as well as guiding the audience towards what should, according to the playwright, whose ‘centre of consciousness he so often is, be thought and felt as the plot progresses. This, combined with the soliloquies, is the closest the medium of the play can come to the freedom with which the novelist ‘enters the consciousness' of his ‘audience'. (Since the novel as a genre was not developed until long after Shakespeare's time, this combination of dramatic devices can be seen to be radically innovative in engaging with the audience as a novelist would with a reader.) The imagery of the garden setting is vital, here, as for the Elizabethans it represented order. Therefore, by contrast with the chaos of ‘reality' in Denmark, the drama is controlled, albeit by Hamlet's manipulation. In a sense, he acts the part of more than king here. Rather, he resembles a Greek god, who moves his characters around as emblems of reality, not as actual persons. This is close to the idea expressed in King Lear, that the gods ‘kill us for their sport'. Hamlet's indifference, like the ‘wanton boys' seems right but also audaciously cruel.
Indeed, Hamlet, though thoughtful (perhaps too much so: ‘There's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so') can be both cruel and unfeeling. This is certainly true in his dealings with Ophelia. When he professes, after her suicide, that he loved her, the audience is not entirely convinced, having seen little evidence of it and being accustomed to his ‘play-acting', albeit usually from the best of motives. For most of the play, Hamlet is the main player, with Claudius, in a dangerous revenge game and many, including Ophelia and her family (in many ways an alternate view of the ‘royal family'), suffer as a result. Ophelia's genuine madness emanating from Hamlet's feigned madness is evidence of this; ‘life' thus imitates ‘art'.
The culmination of the play, in the staged duel between Hamlet and Laertes, can be seen as an inversion of what has gone before, since it begins as an entirely ‘managed set-piece' but ends with truth and tragedy. The fact that death, on which Hamlet has so often mused throughout the play as ‘sleep's companion', is the agent of this is inevitable, since it is the final and singularly universal ‘Truth'. Significantly, the ‘play-acting' ends with the constant image of integrity, Horatio, bidding his surrogate son farewell: Now cracks a noble heart.--Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
The man on whom Hamlet has always relied and in whom he justifiably trusted is given the task of passing on to a new generation the truths which artifice has revealed.