Last updated: February 25, 2019
Topic: ArtBooks
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One aspect that makes William Shakespeare’s Hamlet alluring is how he broke the limiting mold of the one-dimensional character by representing characters in all of their human complexity. Hamlet, for example, is a compelling character because he is complicated. As Hamlet himself observes early in the play in, “Tis not alone my inky cloak/nor customary suits of solemn black, /Nor…forced breath/No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, /Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage…/with all forms, moods, and shapes of grief, /That can denote me truly” (1. . 80-86). Hamlet insists that he is an individual with many psychological and philosophical facets, though he himself will demonstrate difficulty in understanding and accepting all of his layers. Throughout the course of the play, Hamlet reasserts his complexity and cautions the other characters against reducing him to a single, predictable type. The lesson that Shakespeare conveys, then, is that human beings are both good and bad, and that their complexity should not be negated, but rather explored.

On the one hand, Hamlet is a character who is very much driven by emotion and impulse. After his father’s ghost reveals his dark secret, Hamlet declares that he will “wipe away all trivial fond records,/All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past/And thy commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of my brain,/Unmixed with baser matter” (1. 5. 106-111). Hamlet understands that he is the one who needs to see through his father’s wish, though he curses this responsibility.

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Hamlet commands Horatio and Marcellus, who witnessed the ghost’s revelation, to avoid acknowledging him, and to swear on his sword to not speak of what they have seen. Once Hamlet has dedicated himself to this singular task of avenging his father’s death, other people find it increasingly difficult to relate to Hamlet because he has become complex in a way that challenges their former understanding of him. For instance, Polonius finds Hamlet’s responses confusing, and exclaims, “How pregnant sometimes his replies are! ” (2. 2. 226).

Polonius goes on to observe that Hamlet’s speech is confusing because he speaks a language that sane people cannot understand. Hamlet is obscure and surprising, and, therefore, confounding because he subverts others’ expectations and never reacts with a predictable response to his own emotions or the expectations of other characters. In addition, it is worth noting that it is not only Hamlet’s curious speech that alienates others. Hamlet’s obsessive pessimism also begins to affect all of his relationships and becomes a large part of who he is as a character.

In an otherwise superficial conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet insists that the world has become a prison with “Denmark being one o’ th’ worst” (2. 2. 265), and he presses the men to explain why they would want to visit him in the place that torments him. Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is also troubling. While he is justified in questioning her decision to marry Claudius before her husband’s corpse has even cooled, Hamlet is sarcastic and demeaning towards her, provoking her to ask “What have I done, that thou darest wag thy tongue/In noise so rude against me? ” (3. 4. 7-48) These brief and often sarcastic interactions with other characters help define Hamlet as a pessimistic character and cause the reader to anticipate that his perceptions of events will be, almost always, clouded with this characteristic darkness of tone. Despite the intensity of his emotion, Hamlet is also contemplative and almost obsessive with respect to details of all sorts. For instance, although Hamlet believes instinctively that Claudius murdered his father, he goes to great lengths to investigate his suspicion in order to confirm it, and he sets up an elaborate ruse that is intended to provoke the revelation of Claudius’s guilt. The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” he says at the end of Act II, Scene II (633-634). The play that Hamlet arranges is cleverly designed and he guides the players as skillfully as a director with an almost maniacal sense of purpose and attention to small particulars.

He urges the actors to convey the authenticity of their characters, issuing the directive that they should, as stated in the beginning of Act 3 Scene 2, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you/Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand,/in he very torrent, tempest, and/the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness” (3. 2. 2-8). Still, even his seemingly singular dedication to bringing the play to the stage is not entirely straightforward. Hamlet is deeply conflicted about the choices he is making to avenge his father’s death. In a moving soliloquy, Hamlet pauses and takes the time to examine his motives and his very character: “I am pigeon-livered and lack gall/Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,/That I…Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with/ words,/And fall a-cursing, like a very drab, a scullion! (2. 2. 604-616). In sum, one of the most interesting and compelling aspects of Hamlet as a tragic character is that he is not quite sure who he is and spends the play working on developing a sense of self—a difficult task given his circumstances. Clearly, Hamlet is still in the process of learning about his own complex identity, and is struggling with self-acceptance. It was not until the last moments before his death that he built up the courage and anger to finally kill Claudius. These are the very things that make his character so interesting to watch and learn about throughout the play.