The Tragedy of Hamlet:
Purpose Through Character, Language and Imagery
April 8, 2009
Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber wrote that “the experience of Hamlet is … one of
recognition, of recalling, of remembering…” (466), as Hamlet resides in the minds of everyone, in
bits and pieces, quoted lines and fragments, that speak to the themes we have held as significant to our cultures, such as the limitations of our understanding, the physical and spiritual consequences of death, the character of men, and the downfall of the noble ones. These are themes that are often addressed in great literature, as they are the questions and concerns that are addressed on an individual level, as well as on a larger scale; however, Hamlet is a literary
innovation, and innovation requires breaking apart from what is expected. Hamlet does this by
rising above the concept of clear cut, direct themes and arriving at a grander concept –a story,
fuelled by a complex protagonist, which offers the audience a reflection of the human experience, while allowing them to “botch up [its] words to fit their own thoughts” (4.5). Shakespeare does not
offer us a commentary on fate against free will, man’s relationship with the Gods, coming of age
or any other universal truth; instead, he provides us with a canvas on which we paint our own reflection, our own conclusion, not only of our world, but also of ourselves.
Hamlet is a character of brilliant complexity. He himself even admits this, and subtly, through Hamlet’s character, Shakespeare invites the audience to “pluck out the heart of [Hamlet’s]
mystery … sound [him] from [his] lowest point to the top of [his] compass” (3.2). Hamlet’s
contradictions, his extremely curious nature, and his capacity for self-reflection are what fuel this conclusion. And it is a correct observation. Hamlet possesses the extremities of human hypocrisy. This hypocrisy is foreshadowed in the beginning of the play, beginning when Ophelia tells her brother:
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whilst, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
Hamlet reflects this. He reflects this in his contradictory thoughts. He reflects this in his contradictory words. He reflects this in the way he applies moral judgments on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and his mother, while not following any moral code himself.
One of these contradictions, contradictions that are the matter of Hamlet’s character, is
the switching from philosophic questioning of his world to narcissistic anger and hopelessness. He preaches of the limits of human philosophy, human knowledge, while constantly reflecting on the metaphysical and the ethical. He questions what happens to the body and soul after death, constantly inquiring and accepting the answers without doubt. For example, when Horatio questions the existence of the ghost, Hamlet accepts it without question. He speculates on the hopeless nature of the world at a nihilistic level, seeing his surrounding as “an unweeded garden,”
(1.2) yet he still reflects on those he cares about with honour and love, particularly his father and Horatio. He possesses the confusion of a young man, struggling to find his place, while being thrust into a situation that he cannot cope with.
Hamlet, although narcissistic, has moments in which he comes close to redemption in his apparent selflessness; however, his moments of empathy and compassion are laced with an ever-present self-absorption. This is seen when Hamlet, after killing Polonius, repents his actions, but then quickly explains them away by saying:
…heaven hath pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. (3.3)
Hamlet claims powers outside his control dictated his actions, and Polonius’ death is as much a
“punishment” to him as it is to Polonius. His actions are repeated at Ophelia’s grave site. The
mourning Hamlet sees her death as a tragedy felt only by him; he rarely speaks of how her death would be felt by others, and, when he does, he mocks and downgrades those feelings. All he speaks of is how his grief outweighs that of those around him. All he speaks of is himself. The same is true when Hamlet apologizes to Laertes. Although he repents for “hurt[ing] his brother,”
(5.2) he, once again, turns himself into the victim. “Poor” (5.2) Hamlet was also hurt by this
“enemy” (5.2) –his feigned madness. Even with his dying breath, Hamlet demonstrates his veiled selfishness. He tells Horatio, who is about to drink the last of the poison, that:
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story. (5.2)
Hamlet asks his friend to put off a death that will prolong his stay in a “harsh world,” denying him the “felicity” of death, so that he may tell Hamlet’s story.
Hamlet begins the play with an expression of his selfish, juvenile, and sarcastic nature. While it is true that he matures significantly upon his return from England, throwing off his “antic
disposition” (1.5) and adopting the demeanor of an experienced, grown man, these minute
improvements do not negate his larger flaws. Although he has moments of shining maturity, deep thoughts, and emotional expression, the substance of his character does not change. Hamlet, from the beginning to the end, possesses the one quality undeserving of any hero, tragic or otherwise: the constant thought of oneself, zealous and passionate self-love.
Although much can be said of Hamlet as an individual character, more of him is revealed when he is compared to others. Many of the characters of Hamlet, although fully formed
and developed, exist to bring out the traits, specifically the weaknesses, of the protagonist. These include the three people Hamlet demonstrates immense respect for –Ophelia, Laertes,
and Horatio. Each of these characters has a different relationship to Hamlet, from lover to enemy to friend, and therefore each is used to highlight different aspects of his personality. Laertes, for example, acts as a mirror in which Hamlet’s most negative traits shine. Laertes makes Hamlet’s
flaws more visible, and less forgivable. Laertes is a “very noble youth,” (5.1) as Hamlet points out;
however, this has already been seen by the audience in the way in which he advises his sister and respects his father. He, based on his moral nature, initially seems more honourable than Hamlet. This is an important facet of their symmetry. It is clear that Laertes and Hamlet share similar motivations; each man has lost a father, and is driven to avenge him through “filial
obligation” (1.2). Differences are seen, however, in the way that each man fulfills this vengeful
obligation. While Hamlet is preoccupied with thought-provoked excuses and attempts at coercing confessions, Laertes acts in a manner that is described by Hamlet as being “splenetive and rash”
(5.1). This includes the moment Laertes confronts Claudius at sword point. There are several
examples of how Laertes and Hamlet share motivation, but not means. For example, when Hamlet encounters a chance to kill Claudius while he is praying, Hamlet reflects to himself that would be a death which would result in Claudius being “fit and season’d for his passage [to
Heaven]” (3.3). This is a death that would be too kind. Laertes, on the other hand, does not possess this quality of rationalization. When Claudius turns Laertes’ rage regarding his father’s
death onto Hamlet, Laertes exclaims that he would “cut [Hamlet’s] throat in the church” (4.7).
This unplanned action, so common to Laertes, is not nobler than Hamlet’s unfulfilled planning, as
it carries with it ethical consequences of its own. This is pointed out by Claudius when he mentions the sanctity held by churches, and the moral implication killing a man in a church would have for Laertes’ soul. The most evident example of Hamlet and Laertes’ reversal of action is seen in act five, when Hamlet and Laertes “grapple” (5.1) over Ophelia’s grave. Hamlet,
throughout the play, consciously or not, is in a constant struggle with Laertes. Hamlet’s following
Laertes into Ophelia’s grave and grappling with him is a continuation of this struggle. When Hamlet jumps into the grave after Laertes, he is in the process of attempting to demonstrate how much deeper his love for Ophelia was than that of Laertes. But, like usual, Hamlet lets his “reason
pander [his] will” (3.4), while Laertes uses violent, “rash” (5.1) means. Laertes is the one who,
immediately preceding the fight, shouts “the devil take thy soul,” (5.1) suggesting an anger so
intense that it forces him to discard verbal argument and take up a physical one so quickly that Hamlet has little chance to counter-attack and finds himself in subservient position, with Laertes hands around his throat. This is another instance where the difference between Hamlet’s
planning without action and Laertes’ acting without a plan is seen, and it is another instance that shows that Laertes’ method of executing his revenge is no better than Hamlet’s.
Ophelia, too, is used to highlight the vilest aspects of Hamlet. She is the only truly innocent person hurt by Hamlet’s actions. Although Hamlet hurts her indirectly, she is the one
who takes the worst of his abuses. When Hamlet points out the “frailty” (1.2) of women, he is
angered by the actions of his mother. Despite this, he directs his anger onto Ophelia. He sees her actions as a betrayal of him at the request of her father, neglecting the fact that all her actions were done out of fear and concern for him. This, in Hamlet’s eyes, mirrors the actions of
Gertrude, resulting in him applying the image he has of his mother to Ophelia. Hamlet sees
Ophelia’s preference for her father as a promiscuous betrayal like his mother’s. Ophelia is the
only character who is truly mourned, as she is the only character who possesses true innocence. She is, as Polonius says, “green” (1.3). She is over-protected and sheltered from the harsh
cruelties of the world in a way that is characteristic of a child, and when she is forced, by Hamlet, to experience true pain and true loss, she reverts back the childlike state, reciting nursery rhymes and picking flowers. She is the example of the pain caused by Hamlet’s actions, and her pain
allows us to see the full extent of the cruelty inflicted by Hamlet.
Horatio, Hamlet’s only true friend and confident, is everything Hamlet wishes to be. He is calm, while Hamlet is not. He is not “passion’s slave” (3.2); his love, for Hamlet or anyone else,
does not rule him. This is a trait that allows him to be more honourable than Hamlet. Horatio appears from the first scene to the last, as a witness to all that takes part. He verifies events, like the appearance of the ghost, which would otherwise allow Hamlet to look insane. When Horatio is not present, like the moment King Hamlet appears in Gertrude’s room, it calls Hamlet’s sanity,
Hamlet’s stability, into doubt. While Hamlet seems to be constantly trying to escape the present
reality he is faced with, Horatio is grounded in it. Horatio is used to allow the audience to see that Hamlet, while being surrounded by sinful and deceitful men, is one himself. He is the ideal; he is everything Hamlet is not, yet he is everything Hamlet should be.
These are just examples of Hamlet’s duality; specifically, they are examples of when
Hamlet’s conflicting qualities join in singular moments. The hypocrisy of his actions is what reveals his character, allowing him to be seem in a multi-facetted way. His contradictions allow the audience to project their perspective onto him, viewing his negatives or positives simultaneously, separately or selectively. Hamlet not only possesses the moral and emotional extremes of humanity, but he also allows the individual reader to mould him into their own vision, their own form. Harold Bloom claimed that Shakespeare "went beyond all precedents and invented the human as we continue to know it” (qt. in Steinberg). Although this is an extreme
concept, it has a ring of truth; Shakespeare did not invent the modern human when he wrote Hamlet, but he did surpass all precedents and provided us with a character that possesses all aspects of our humanity, including its contradictions, its hypocrisy, its weaknesses, and its
strengths. Hamlet shows us our endless possibilities by revealing to us our flaws, our power, our reactions to our hardest moments, the uniquely human drive for discovery, and how these combine to create something that is more than a character. They create a fully formed human.
Much of Hamlet can be said through an analysis of his individual character, and who he is reflects who we are, but much more can be said about humanity than that which is presented through what is made in humanity’s image. Hamlet is hailed as one of the greatest works of the
English language, but while it uses language to its fullest effect, it also points out its limitations. This is clearly demonstrated in the scene where Hamlet converses with the Gravedigger. Here, after the gravedigger dodges Hamlet’s question due to the technicalities of his language, Hamlet
exclaims that he “must speak by the cards, or equivocation will undo [him]” (5.1). Of course, this
should have already been known to Hamlet, as previous to that moment he has encountered the multi-facetted nature that accompanies language which holds any hint of uncertainty, any room for misinterpretation. He himself has even toyed with this, as it is seen when he banters with Polonius in act three:
POLONIUS. What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET. Words, words, words.
POLONIUS. What is the matter, my lord?
HAMLET. Between who?
POLONIUS. I mean, the matter that you read, my lord. (2.2)
This passage perfectly demonstrates how “words” can be misinterpreted and manipulated. This
is amplified by the fact that Polonius is seen throughout the play to have a preoccupation with language. If he cannot clearly and concisely express his meaning without confusion, then it is an ability that is not prevalent.
This limitation of language has been repeatedly discussed by philosophers and scholars. Sir Francis Bacon, for example, wrote that:
… men converse by means of language; but words are formed
at the will of the generality; and there arises from a bad and
unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction to the
mind. … Words … manifestly force the understanding, throw
every thing into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and
innumerable controversies and fallacies.
Bacon explained in prose what Shakespeare explained through poetry: language cannot be the perfect vessel for truth and thought, since constantly changing and adapting definitions lead to meanings that are connotative to the individual, thereby altering the meaning of what is heard from what was originally intended when it was spoken. Modern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein also pointed out the uses and limitations of language. Wittgenstein states that only that which can be envisioned in thought can be expressed using logical language. This means that aesthetic and ethical judgements cannot be properly articulated. As Wittgenstein says, “there is
indeed the inexpressible” (6.522). The limitations of our language greatly hinder our journey for truth, as they do Hamlet’s. Of course, the denotative meanings of words are not where language ends; meanings can also be gathered by the words’ connotations, and the metaphors, the mental
images, aroused when words carry with them their own separate meanings.
Language is the way in which we express our truths. It is our vessel of knowledge, yet it is riddled with complexities that limit its effectiveness. It prevents Hamlet from truly understanding what is being asked of him, from truly understand what is going on around him. Every word seems to have alternative meaning; “sun” (1.2) holds a triple connotation, juggling
“royalty,” “happiness,” and “son” consecutively. This is another example of confusion, of the lack of truth, in Hamlet. This confusion allows the audience to project their own meaning onto what is read, to fabricate their own, personal, truth.
The language of Hamlet also carries with it a harsh, violent theme, which expresses imagery of rot and disease. It is known, through the words of Marcellus, that there “is something
rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4) from the first scene of the play. The imagery of decay and stench is synonymous with moral corruption, as seen when Claudius refers to his “offence” as
“rank” (3.3). Hamlet sees the world as an “unweeded garden,” (1.2) and this begins to alter his
consciousness. In a very short time, Hamlet’s mental state is being described by both him and
Claudius as “disease[d]” (3.2, 4.1). This connection demonstrates how the metaphorical decay of the environment impacts the individual. In an extension of this, Hamlet’s “diseased” mental state
begins to adversely affect his physical surroundings. His prediction of a world filled with things “rank and gross in nature” (1.2) seems to give itself life. The “beauteous majesty of Denmark” (4.5)
transforms into a kingdom of virulent decay, beginning with the reference of “nosing” (4.3)
Polonius’ body, continuing to the graveyard scene, where Hamlet constantly remarks about the foul odour and decomposing bodies, and ending, with climactic finality, at the pile of corpses found by Fortinbras. Horatio foreshadows this transition when he tells of how:
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun …
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen. (1.1)
He is stating that rot and decay not only affect the political state, but also affect “climatures and
countrymen,” the environment and the people, and is also a “precurse of fierce events,” a
malicious foreshadow of future tragedy. Through vibrant, yet unsettling imagery, Shakespeare demonstrates the causal relationship between humanity and its world, as well as the reverse. He demonstrates the way the moral environment affects man, and how man, in turn, affects his physical environment, as “rank corruption, mining all within, infects unseen” (3.4).
Hamlet is an innovation. In this play, Shakespeare gives us a work of literature that goes beyond providing us with new ways to live our lives; moreover, he gives us a way “of
recogni[zing], of recalling, of remembering,” (Garber 466) not a facet of our humanity, but our
humanity as a whole. Marjorie Garber claimed that “every age creates its own Shakespeare,” (3) but that is not the case. Shakespeare has the ability to adapt, to mould itself for every age, as it is seen in Hamlet. The character of Hamlet, brilliant in his complexity, allows the audience to see a reflection of itself in his actions. The language of the play reminds us that nothing is anchored
in certainty, and we face the same troubles as our treasured protagonist, mainly, the quest for knowledge being hindered by the “inexpressible,” or by words that “throw every thing into
confusion.” The imagery, dark in its language, reveals our relationship with our environment, and reveals how it impacts upon us, and how we, in turn, impact upon it. Hamlet provides us with a
way to view our world. Hamlet asks universal questions, without providing universal answers. Hamlet possesses the same drive we all do, a drive which compels him to discover the truth of what is around him. Sociologist Karl Manhart said that humanity “[has] a biologically conditioned
desire for order and sense, … [a] need to understand the fundamental nature of our world” (2005). Hamlet shares this quality, and Hamlet helps us fulfil that. Hamlet shows us the trials and
triumphs, the breakthroughs and setbacks, that we encounter while attempting to understand our world. This is the purpose of Hamlet and its protagonist: to provide us with questions and hints,
and having us alter them, adjust them, and “botch up [the play’s] words to fit [our] own thoughts”