HAMLET – WHAT’S A BOY TO DO?

27 Jul

           

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A TALE OF TWO CHAMBERS

In the first speech we see Hamlet as an emotional young man, racked by grief, torn by bereavement, but without the inclination to revenge. The later sea-change of emotional torment he undergoes can be explained by the pre and post visitation of the ghost: the revelations of his dead father which cause him to alter his point of view. There’s a dramatic difference in the boy prior to this experience and of the emotionally disturbed Hamlet later in the play. Although mourning his father’s death, he’s also looking for someone to blame – a fault we can probably forgive – which can only be perceived as a very human trait. Why him, why his father and most of all why did his mother marry his uncle? In a whirlwind of emotion, Hamlet is tossed and torn between sadness and anger. Unable to contain his emotion, Hamlet is chastised by his uncle and mother for his “impious stubbornness” (1.2.95) and “unmanly grief,” (1.2.96) and so his thoughts turn to suicide. How can he possibly go on with the agony he bears when all around him seem to doubt and requite him for his melancholy? Hamlet is alone and bereft, or at least so he thinks. What’s a boy to do? On the one hand he isn’t loved and yet on the other he’s the most constant thing in his “parents” eyes. His mother implores him not to return to Wittenberg whilst his uncle tells him he’s the heir to Denmark. Hamlet, frustrated, recognizes his own character flaw when he says “I must not hold my tongue.”(1.2.160) He knows that he must speak out, but in doing so what can he possibly hope to achieve? Surely – as he knows himself – he should have confronted his mother before her marriage. Once again Hamlet proves tardy in his reactions and so one has to question his moral fortitude.

            Hamlet shows a religious reverence and although wishing his “too sullied flesh to melt” (1.2.129) is forbidden to do so by God’s Cannon. Suicide isn’t an option and so he must persevere. His anger turns instead towards his “parents” in an attempt to justify his own feelings. God’s lore raises its head again in the comment regarding “incestuous sheets” (1.2.157) and the unseemly urgency to which his mother has remarried after his father’s sudden death. This would seem to indicate that there may have been some kind of attachment between his mother and uncle before the death of his father. The idea of “incestuous sheets”(1.2.157) would’ve have been familiar to the Globe’s audience as it was within living memory that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon – his brother’s wife – who he later threw over for Anne Boleyn, preempting the dissolution of the monasteries and the faith related hate that ensued throughout the rest of the century. It would seem that bed hopping between kith and kin only leads to problems and therefore, why wouldn’t God forbid it? One only had to have an experience of the alternating persecution between Catholics and Protestants to understand the nature of Hamlet’s frustration. Shakespeare was making a historical reference that his audience would’ve understood and which would’ve undoubtedly engendered sympathy for Hamlet’s later actions.       

            In the closet we meet a new Hamlet, a man who’s suddenly decided on a plan of action. No longer the potential suicide we met earlier in the play, he’s a man bent on revenge and prepared to speak his mind in order to avenge his father. No longer cowed by hierarchical position he speaks to his mother directly, “You are the queen your husband’s brothers wife.” (3.4.16) Hamlet is determined to express his deepest thoughts and in doing so, to hold a mirror to Gertrude and reveal her failings and expose her new husband. Motivated by his conversation with the ghost, Hamlet is precisely aware of what’s occurred between his uncle and father. His father, although revealing murder, has importuned him not to harm his mother and so, impotent to serve justice upon her, can only reveal his inner most thoughts. Not a particularly brave act on the part of Hamlet, as surely a better man would’ve taken the quarrel to the father – but there again its Hamlet we’re dealing with and not some warrior prince – when he confronts both a woman and his mother. Rather than inaction, Hamlet is turned into the revenge figure, his easy murder and acquittal of the death of Polonius revealing his new discovered fortitude. He’s out for blood and in the blazon of attributes and deficiencies of both his mother’s husbands, lets her have it both barrels: his anger not sparing his tongue. Harping once again on the “inseemed sheets” of her marriage bed, Hamlet expresses a jealousy for his mother’s love. One has to pose the question whether or not it is the death of his father he’s angry about, or the fact that her mother has given her sexual love to another man. After all, as his father’s son, shouldn’t he inherit all? His tone is tempered by the ghost, who once again implores him to love his mother. There’s an affinity between the two which is almost tangible but which his mother can’t requite because of her love for Claudius, the apparent madness of her son and the murder she’s just witnessed.

            The second conversation, although an act of revenge, is also a cry for help. Ensconced in his mother’s chamber with the corpse of Polonius and the ghost of his father, Hamlet is as close to his former life as he’ll ever be. Although far from perfect, the experience of the family reunion might’ve been the turning point for Hamlet if it wasn’t for his uncle’s necessary retribution. Hamlet, although trying to achieve justice for his father, must now face the justice of his own actions. Clearly the development of the dual characterization of Hamlet as a man of action and a man paralyzed by emotion is the twist Shakespeare was looking for and the reason that we’re so enthralled with his character.

            The two separate scenes are typical of Shakespearian characterization, where the mirror of opposites is held up to the character and from which the audience must draw its own conclusion. Nothing is as simple as it as first seems and in between the cracking of walnuts there had to have been an element of concentration on the part of the groundlings. Hamlet is not an easy play and the twists and turns it contains would’ve undoubtedly warranted a second viewing.

 

 

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