‘Even with his death, Hamlet has achieved nothing. ‘ – O’Toole ‘Finally, He has not failed. ‘ – Granville Barker Discuss these two views and consider any other response of your own, as regards the behaviour and character of Hamlet. Johann Chipol The play ‘Hamlet’ contains some of the most debatable choices ever written. Allegedly inspired by ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ by Thomas Kyd, It emphasizes on a hero’s emotional dilemma. Many of these decisions were acted by the character Hamlet who is a man filled with contracting thoughts. Because of his state of mind, the majority of his acts ended with frustration and fatal consequences.
This raises an important question, should the audience feel sympathetic towards him or should they see him as failure for his lack of motivation. In order to understand Hamlet’s character and his reasons for his actions, one needs to understand the manner in which he pursues his revenge mission, and the different interpretations of these views. Hamlet’s desire for revenge is continually manipulated by the actions of the other characters as well as developments of his situation. A definite feature is how he procrastinates almost every important act needed to avenge his father’s death.
This mental act has created various theories from critics. Harbage suggests that Hamlet suffers from a ‘lymphatic temperament’, who is a type of person who lacks the ‘energizing temperament to act’. This very physical view is a very far-fetched theory which is later proven wrong in the final scene of the play. Even though Hamlet describes himself as being the ‘fat and scant of breath’ and refers to ‘sullied flesh’, he proves in the fencing competition with Laertes that he does have the ability to kill Claudius. So why was there such a hesitation to perform the murder if he was physically capable?
Other critics offer a more psychological approach to Hamlet’s procrastination. Coleridge’s theory expresses that Hamlet has the ‘innate quality’ of being too introspective, which shows how his intelligence was one of his ‘fatal flaws’ in this tragedy. But this contradicts all of Hamlet’s impulsive actions, such as the killing of Polonius. The cowardly reaction by Polonius made Hamlet stab him through the curtain. This takes the audience completely out of the spectrum of Hamlet’s original character. Hamlet’s first attack in the play and it ironically was accidental.
This may have an act of mistaken identity, possibly believing that it was Claudius behind the curtain. But after so many opportunities to kill Claudius at an earlier time, what possessed him to attack at that moment? This irrational murder had many repercussions which again manipulated his situation. In an ironical circumstance, the attack did not fulfil the ghost’s task; his reputation has been tarnished and has gained nothing from this experience except personal satisfaction. Lines 37-38 from Act 3, Scene 4 ‘Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better. ‘ I believe that Hamlet’s confused behaviour may be that of depression. Bradley’s ‘Melancholy Theory’ suggests that the direct cause of Hamlet’s delay was ‘a state of mind that is quite abnormal and induced by special circumstances’. These circumstances can easily be related by the audience as they have witnessed the events. Hamlet has been labelled as ‘a victim of circumstances’ from the very beginning of the play. Because of his unfortunate loses and his lack of involvement in these events, it has made him too upset to do anything.
All this procrastinations, such as the ‘antic disposition’ and the play-within-the-play, is Hamlet trying to gain enough time to overcome his depression. This inner conflict has transformed his behaviour towards the other characters as well as how he pictured himself. Lines 161- 163 from Act 3, Scene 1 ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’er thrown! The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword; Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state. ‘ Hamlet’s emotional conflict will lead him to finally make an important decision.
This is clearly seen through his soliloquies throughout the play. The soliloquy in act four, scene four begins with the line ‘How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge. ‘ This shows how doubtful he is of the ghost’s request. Hamlet feels victimised and feels that his situation is too unfair to make a rational decision. He isn’t treating this revenge mission as the act of anger and self-determination that it should project but as a chore. This shows how immature and unorganised his thoughts are at that moment. Dr.
Ernest Johnson believes that Hamlet is ‘a man distracted with contrariety of desires and overwhelmed with the magnitude of his purposes’. Because of his doubts of his father’s confession, it leads him to try and prove to himself as well as the other characters that the ghost may be a demon. Within Shakespeare’s day, people believed that demons from the underworld would appear in the image of a dead relative to help convince others to perform evil. This may sound far-fetched through our modern standards but this is the beliefs of the Elizabethan Era.
Delay was one of the conventions of revenge tragedy that Shakespeare inherited. Thomas Hanmer makes a practical point that if the Prince carried out his father’s instructions straight away ‘there wouldn’t be a play’. Yet other critics have found that the delay was Shakespeare’s attempt to investigate the psychological point of the human mind. However, this psychological perspective has raised the question as to how successful Hamlet was in his task. Was his procrastination able to help him accomplish his goals or did it help him fail to perform the perfect assassination?
The last scene see Hamlet finally taking advantage of his situation without any hesitation, stabs the King with the poisoned tipped sword. This attack splits the views of the audience. The audience could either celebrate the fact that Hamlet has been able to kill Claudius or question if all this tragic waste could have been avoided. It is quite ironical that he finally gets all the evidence as well as the confidence to kill his nemesis when he is on the verge of dying. Critics are very mixed in the views of whether or not Hamlet has gained any success in his mission for vengeance.
Even though the task was completed, Hamlet’s unorthodox approach has created more and more problems for him as the play progressed. O’Toole is one of many critics who believed that by doing this, Hamlet has failed more than he had achieved, making his attempt in seek revenge a failure. The Romantics considered that although he failed to carry out the ghost’s wishes, he should have never have been expected to kill Claudius, as he was completely unsuited to the task. Hamlet is a person who uses his wits and intelligence to overcome his troubles. This task required much more than just outwitting a person.
It involved a physical act which Hamlet was not prepared for. Bradley believes that Hamlet failed because he was made ‘melancholy by his mother’s sexual depravity’. Could the reason why Hamlet failed was because he was distracted by his mother’s actions and was seeking for his mother’s approval to kill her husband? This question sets up the idea of the Freudian Theory that Hamlet may have displayed the characteristics of a person with Oedipus complex. Hamlet feels that he should be the only male figure in her life and seems to be in love with her.
He has become jealous of Claudius for stealing her away from him, and despises him for this, not for the murder of his father. This would explain why Hamlet was reluctant to Kill Claudius at an earlier date. When his mother died from Claudius’ poisoned wine, he emotions for his mother were finally expressed through his murderous attacks to his uncle. Yet it seems that this theory is contradicting because Hamlet seems to reflect his anger and frustration for the King to his mother, which expresses how Hamlet’s mental state has confused his emotions.
Taking his frustration out on ‘the wretched queen’ has not altered or achieved anything that the ghost’s demanded. In fact, this verbal abuse is against his father’s wishes as the ghost did not want to get Queen Gertrude involved with his scheme. This means that he has failed to perform the perfect murder as Hamlet did not follow all of the rules. Lines 91-94 from Act 1, Scene 5 ‘… nor let thy soul contrive Against thy mother aught; leaver her to heaven, And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge To prick and sting her.