Hamlet is the protagonist this Shakespearean tragedy. He is the prince of Denmark and son of Old king Hamlet. We meet him in the play for the first time as an elegant character but who is full of contradictions. His tenderness is punctuated by rage which is evident after the death of his father.
When his father dies, his mother Gertrude gets married to Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. One night, Hamlet is visited by a ghost which claims to be his father’s. The ghost claims that it is Claudius who was responsible for King Hamlet’s death through poisoning. The ghost wants Hamlet to take revenge by killing Claudius. However Hamlet says that he is not sure if the ghost is from ‘heaven or hell.’ He wants to take revenge, but somehow cannot bring himself to doing it.
The indecision following the visit by the ghost is the first act of Hamlet which brings into focus his supposed character flaw. After the ghost visit, Hamlet is full of doubts whether the ghost was actually speaking the truth. He wants to avenge his father’s death but this moment of indecision delays his action. In fact, he lets ‘convenient’ opportunities to kill Claudius pass him by. When Hamlet finds Claudius praying, he concocts an excuse that killing him while deep in prayer will send him to heaven.
After the ghost leaves, Hamlet says, “The time is out of joint. Oh cursed spite/that I was ever born to set it right” (Shakespeare, Philip and Brian, 12). The line illustrates tat although Hamlet is in anguish following the death of his father, but he has lingering doubts about the integrity of the ghost’s information.
Masculinity plays a significant role in Hamlet’s indecisiveness. Hamlet’s attitude towards women is sexist and it originates from what he views as betrayal by his mother for marrying Claudius. His attitude towards women is reflected in his statement, ‘frailty, thy name is woman” (Shakespeare, Philip and Brian 72).
The grief that Hamlet feels at the death of his father is tempered by a Claudius‘s statement to him that grief is ‘unmanly.’ He also associates women with deception beginning with his mother with whom he is disgusted for betraying his father by marrying Claudius. He compares his own indecisiveness to promiscuity.
Hamlet cannot recover from his mother’s deception and it has led him to develop a negative attitude towards women. Ophelia becomes his outlet for the hostility he feels towards women. His strong sense of retribution drives him to treat Ophelia in such a cruel manner.
So intense is Hamlet’s negative feelings towards all women that one may argue that his pretended madness momentarily veers into actual madness when dealing with them. In explaining his pretended madness, Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (Shakespeare, Philip and Brian, 67). He is implying that he may appear mad sometimes but in the right circumstances, his mind is stable. At this point, Hamlet is obviously sane.
However, the question must still be asked- If Hamlet has such strong grief following the death of his father, what prevents him from taking revenge? When he has the perfect opportunity of killing Claudius during his prayers, he concocts an excuse that killing him would send him to heaven.
It could just be that Hamlet is not actually indecisive but something deeper is preventing him form killing his uncle. It could well be that Hamlet is suffering from an Oedipus complex. Freud postulated in the oedipal complex theory about the tendency of the boy to feel a psychological sexual attraction to his mother (Jones, 23).
Killing Claudius would be an admission of the deep feelings he himself has for his mother and it would amount to betraying his father’s honor. It is the reason he urges his mother not to have sexual intercourse with Claudius. Killing Claudius can only occur if he is sure that he and his mother would be dead too.
Hamlet’s soliloquies bring out his emotional feelings and help us understand the oedipal complex that seems to drive Hamlet’s rage towards his mother’ relationship with Claudius. In one of the soliloquies, the rage towards his mother’ remarriage to Claudius is greater than the grief for his dead father. He says, “With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” (Shakespeare, Philip and Brian 87).
In Act three, this aspect is mad even more apparent by Hamlet’s statement alluding to sexual desires. He says that his mother seeks out that “incestuous pleasure of his bed “(Shakespeare, Philip and Brian 89). The obsession with his mother’s carnal concerns points to the fact that his driving force is not his father’s death but jealous of ‘losing’ his mother to Claudius. However, fear of dishonoring his father cannot allow him to kill Claudius.
Jones, Ernest. The Oedipus-Complex As an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive. New York, 1910. Print.
Shakespeare, William, Philip Edwards, and Brian Gibbons. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Cambridge [u.a.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003. Print.