A critical study of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet allows the audience to develop insightful perspectives on the subject of revenge tragedy, which evokes differing responses during the course of the play. Themes of revenge and madness within Hamlet continue to resonate with both modern and Elizabethan audiences through the frustration, provocation and fascination of human understanding, developing their views on the fundamental exploration of morals and values within a range of contexts. Shakespeare reveals the corrupted nature of humanity and prompts the audience to consider Hamlet’s struggle to commit revenge driven by his desire to avenge his father’s death, due to the influence of the Renaissance morals. On the other hand, Elaine Prosser validates in ‘Hamlet and Revenge (1971)’ that Hamlet’s struggle to endure rage will eventually influence him to inflict social punishment that can also lead to chaos and destruction. Hence, the audience is encouraged to reflect on Hamlet’s inaction driven from his realisation of his revenge creating a disastrous impact towards the corrupted state of Denmark, as well as the tension between reason and emotion driven from his reflective thoughts. Shakespeare presents different depictions of madness from several characters, in an attempt to challenge the audience’s views on the effects of moral corruption and emotional devastation created from madness. This aligns with E.K. Chambers’ argument in ‘Critical Appreciation of Hamlet (1895)’ that the downfall of the characters occurred due to the tragedy of spiritual impotence. Additionally, Brian McClinton’s ‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet (2010)’ and Elaine Showalter ‘Ophelia, gender and madness (2016)’ both demonstrate their perspectives of the individual’s struggle to maintain emotional stability and their morality.
Shakespeare’s dramatic expression of the individual’s struggle between revenge and morality among the conflicting ideals of action and inaction, ponders the audience to consider their interpretations of the individual’s cause of indecisiveness. The incorporation of significant ideologies between Medieval Christian morals and Humanist Renaissance values creates an inaction through the struggle between filial duty and purity. Likewise, Hamlet’s indecisiveness impacts his role as an avenger, which supports Shakespeare’s motive to confront the audience about Hamlet’s journey towards justice, which leads to a tragic downfall, to not only him but to those around him. Within the prologue of the play, King Hamlet’s ghost prompts Hamlet, “if thou didst ever thy dear love…Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.90). Shakespeare’s use of dialogue as a dramatic expression of the conflict between familial honour and self reflection engages the audience to consider Hamlet’s determination to avenge his father. Although, Hamlet is desired to maintain his role as an avenger during the play’s progression, he struggles in committing the murderous deed, as Shakespeare demonstrates the impact of Christian faith of the Elizabethan Era that disciplines Hamlet showcasing his purity. Within the praying scene, Hamlet is provided the worthy opportunity to murder Claudius amplified through his cautious tone of “Now I might do it pat”. However, Hamlet realises that Claudius is “now a-praying” (4.3.74) as his “soul may be as damned and black as hell” (4.3.94). This demonstrates that Shakespeare’s use of religious allusion reveals Hamlet’s intention to delay his vengeance. Moreover, Prosser states that “many have argued that man can find his ‘being’ only by trusting his instinct and obeying his private moral code”, where she is fascinated from Hamlet’s intention to ensure that Claudius’ soul will experience the same purgatorial punishment as King Hamlet’s Ghost, even though, Hamlet had delayed his previous motive of achieving justice. In fact, the textual integrity of Hamlet has been damaged, as both Elizabethan and modern audiences had expected Hamlet to immediately take action after King Hamlet’s ghost had prompted him, however, Hamlet’s contemplation of moral thoughts had delayed this action. Shakespeare’s aim is to therefore convince audiences that Hamlet’s causes of hesitation was to sustain moralistic stability encouraged from the influential ideals of the Humanist Renaissance.
Furthermore, audiences are engaged to examine the impact of an individual’s willingness to take action motivated from another individual’s assertiveness of becoming forceful, in spite of their consideration of moral ambiguity. Shakespeare’s implementation of soliloquy uncovers Hamlet’s realisation that he possesses the “cause, and will, and strength, and means” (4.4.45) to achieve filial duty for his father, through the realisation of Fortinbras’ motive to immediately reclaim his throne in Denmark, as well as his honour. Shakespeare demonstrates the juxtaposition of two individuals who are both desired to achieve vengeance for a heroic purpose, but their responsiveness of achieving their motive differs through contemplative thoughts or assertive action, which frustrates the audience to ponder on their reliability as an avenger. This aligns with Prosser’s belief of “Hamlet’s early surrender to rage can lead only to chaos and destruction”, which was influenced from Hamlet’s realisation of his “thoughts be bloody or be worth nothing” (4.4.66). In addition, this belief strongly agrees with Brian McClinton’s argument that Hamlet “ignores his conscience, abandons reason for passion and surrenders to violent revenge, with catastrophic consequences”, as Hamlet has decided to commit the brutal deed of murdering Claudius, in order to achieve filial justice for his father, as well as the restoration of Denmark. Shakespeare provokes the audience to provoke on Hamlet’s sudden decision of taking assertive action, in spite of his previous motive of delaying his action due to his contemplative thoughts of reason and emotion. Therefore, the audience has created different interpretations of Hamlet’s commitment for revenge, as they are frustrated about Hamlet’s decision to take action, in spite of a conflict between the influences of Hamlet’s contemplative thoughts of Humanist Renaissance values and Hamlet’s realisation of Fortinbras’s motive to take assertive action for revenge.
Shakespeare incorporates the theme of appearance and reality in an attempt to engage the audience in examining an individual, mainly Hamlet in his deceptive charade of madness on whether or not it is truth. The Elizabethan audiences believed that encounters of ghosts and spirits were considered as the Devil’s action, deceiving their victims, in an attempt to alter their emotions from the aftermath of witnessing false illusions. After Hamlet has discovered his father’s death in a suspicious manner, this has provoked his inner desires, notifying Horatio and Marcellus that he will “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.172), which demonstrates Hamlet’s intention to carefully analyse various situations and achieve justice in a sensible manner. Additionally, E.K Chambers also validates Hamlet’s aim to maintain his true motive by, “Instead of revealing all to his friends and enlisting their assistance, he binds them to secrecy and forms the plan of pretending madness that he may gain time to consider his position”, so Hamlet can use his deceptive appearance of madness as an alternative to further investigate his father’s death without creating suspicion from others around him. However, Hamlet’s descent into madness truly reveals itself, with his repetition and aggressive tone of “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.119-126) towards Ophelia. Both modern and Elizabethan audiences are frustrated and provoked to consider Hamlet’s pretence of madness, contemplating whether Hamlet was genuinely verbally abusing Ophelia for her dishonesty or attempting to cover his true motive through his pretence to act insanely, even though, Hamlet had just ended his love relationship with Ophelia through creating emotional intensity with his self-destructive behaviour. Likewise, Prosser has realised that “hatred of…one’s fellow man are moral ills”, influencing her to examine whether Hamlet was morally ill when he displayed his attitude of bitterness towards Ophelia, attacking her flaws. Thus, Hamlet’s deceptive appearance of madness engages the audience to question whether Hamlet’s behaviour towards other individuals around him creates suspicion of madness and the extent to which Hamlet has truly entered insanity.
In addition, Hamlet juxtaposes the different reactions of madness from several characters, as Shakespeare encourages the audience, evoking responses on the detrimental impacts of emotional devastation and moral corruption. Given that Hamlet has experienced a declination in his mental stability upon discovering his father’s death, his expression of madness differs to both Ophelia and Laertes representation of madness. The audiences are sympathetic about Ophelia, as they have witnessed her endurance of traumatic experiences such as manipulation from her relatives, her separation with Hamlet in their relationship, and the realisation of her father’s death created by Hamlet’s intentional murder. Shakespeare exposes one of Ophelia’s songs that she has composed, “He is dead and gone lady, He is dead and gone; At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone” (4.5.29-32) , which represents the devastating impact of discovering her father’s death. This aligns with Elaine Showalter’s perspective through justifying that Ophelia had suffered “hysteria and mental breakdown in sexually turbulent adolescence”. Furthermore, this correlates to “her unrequited love and repressed sexual desire”, given that Polonius had forcefully instructed Ophelia to provide love and friendship for Hamlet, in order to demonstrate her familial love for her father. However, Ophelia had lost both of her significant relationships with Polonius and Hamlet, creating emotional devastation and psychological trauma. Hence, the audience is frustrated from seeking an interpretation of the play, in terms of Ophelia’s tragic cause of madness created from traumatic experiences, which has devastatingly impacted her emotional stability.
The critical study of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet evokes the audience to create differing responses of the revenge tragedy. Shakespeare evokes both Elizabethan and modern audiences to explore their frustration, provocation and fascination of human understanding, through developing their views on the importance of morals and values within a range of contexts. Hamlet challenges the audience to provoke Hamlet’s causes of action and inaction to either achieve familial honour or moral stability, as his indecisiveness was created from the conflict between the contemplation of his morals and values as a Humanist Renaissance individual, as well as the influence of another individual who takes assertive action instead of contemplative thoughts, in order to achieve justice for their father. Elaine Prosser’s reading ‘Hamlet and Revenge (1971)’ and Brian McClinton’s argument in ‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet (2010)’ both consider their perspectives of an individual’s responsiveness to commit revenge in order to achieve justice, in spite of their realisation of the disastrous consequences that revenge can create within the corrupted state of Denmark. Shakespeare presents the different causes of madness from several characters, in order to frustrate the audiences’ conclusive interpretations of the play through enhancing their understanding of moral corruption and emotional devastation created from madness. This aligns with E.K Chambers’ opinion within ‘Critical Appreciation of Hamlet (1895)’ and Elaine Showalter’s argument in ‘Ophelia, gender and madness (2016)’, as they both express their perspectives on the causes of each character’s madness.