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Essay: How Shakespeare portrayed the inner lives of the characters in Hamlet

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  • How Shakespeare portrayed the inner lives of the characters in Hamlet
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This essay will examine the way in which Shakespeare has portrayed the inner lives of the characters within Hamlet. This essay will primarily examine the characters of Hamlet and Claudius and discuss how their soliloquys and speech give insight into their individual thought process. This essay will discuss the characters from a psychoanalytic approach and consider how this may make the plot problematic. Hamlet is greatly known for its use of several soliloquies and includes one of Shakespeare’s most famed soliloquys, from act three, scene one ‘To be, or not to be – that is the question;’ (Shakespeare 314). The use of soliloquys such as this allow the audience to share in a character’s anxieties and torments. By using this form of device, the audience or reader can observe the character to be thinking out loud, ‘It is used not only to convey the development of the play to the audience but also provide an opportunity to see inside the mind of a certain character.’ (Literary devices).

Hamlet’s first soliloquy is presented to the audience in act one, scene two of the play following a discussion with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude. This first soliloquy hints to notions of corruption and decay by use of metaphor, ‘tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature’, (Shakespeare 206). His use of words such as ‘rank’ and ‘gross’ encourage the imagery of a rotting world. These notions of rot continue into Hamlet’s feelings toward his mother Gertrude’s marriage to her brother-in-law, Claudius. Hamlet suggests that ‘a beast that wants discourse of reason / Would have mourned longer – married with my uncle,’ (Shakespeare 208). Here, Hamlet prompts the suggestion that a beast without conscious would mourn death longer than his mother. Within lines such as this we are able to see Hamlet’s tormented feelings regarding his mother’s marriage in which Hamlet depicts her as lesser of being to that of an animal.
The opening line to the first soliloquy ‘O that this too too Sallied flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,’ (Shakespeare 206) presents the audience with a dispirited Hamlet effectively prepping the audience to encounter a despondent and tragic character. Within Hamlet’s opening lines to this soliloquy there is use of a juxtaposition. Hamlet suggests he wishes that his flesh would become a dew, a substance of impermanence contrasting to his mention of the ‘Everlasting’ in the succeeding line. Alex Newell suggests, ‘His desire for dissolution into dew, an impermanent substance, is expressive of his desire to escape from the corporality into a process suggestive of spiritual release. Immediately juxtaposed to this notion, and standing in contrast to \”flesh\”, is his reference to the \”Everlasting\”, the spiritual term for the duality. Paradoxically, in his aversion from the flesh, his body must seem to him to possess a state of permanence, closer to something everlasting than to the ephemeral nature of the dew he yearns to become’ (Newell 35). This may then suggest notions of a conflicted character, which directly correlates to the plots ongoing theme in which Hamlet wishes to seek revenge for his father’s death but is repeatedly unable to act on these feelings.

Hamlet ends his soliloquy with ‘But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.’ (Shakespeare 209). This ending line creates the beginning for the events that follow where the audience is presented with a character that ‘seems’ crazed by restrained hostility toward King Claudius and who is unable to seek revenge for the death of his father.

The ambiguous content used in the play appears as a method to suppose a character’s inner intentions. However, it appears that it has done so in a way that it is left up to the interpretation of the audience to decipher its meaning. We are able see such ambiguity used in King Claudius’s speech, act one scene two of the play. ‘Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death / The memory be green,…’ (Shakespeare 195). Here, we are presented with several ways to interpret the word ‘green’. It could be suggested, that King Claudius is stating that the memory of Old Hamlet’s death is still fresh; on the other hand, it may suggest that there are underlying feelings of jealousy or envy. To be green with envy is a term introduced by the Greeks and was later used by Shakespeare himself within his plays. This use of the word ‘green’ can be seen in Othello act three, scene three ‘beware, my lord, of jealousy! / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on.’ (Shakespeare 218). Again, the term green is used as an expression of envy/jealousy in Anthony and Cleopatra, act three, scene two; Enobarbus refers to Lepidus as having ‘the green sickness.’ (Shakespeare 221). The term green appears regularly in Shakespeare’s tragedies as an expression of envy. On the other hand, the term ‘green’ within Hamlet may be intended as a juxtaposition that combines Old Hamlet’s death with notions of growth and renewal thus creating the contrast between death and birth.

Claudius’s speech is act one scene two continues to use opposing ideas creating oxymoron’s within. This can be seen with mention of ‘defeated joy’ (Shakespeare 196) and ‘delight and dole’ (Shakespeare 196). This use of this literary device within Claudius’s speech appears as though a method to create a conflicted character that portrays opposing emotion. Creating two opposing characters, both Claudius and Hamlet share an internal battle of conscience.
Shakespeare continues the theme of ambiguous content, this can be seen in act two, scene two of the play. Polonius says to Hamlet ‘Do you know me, my lord?’ Hamlet responds ‘Excellent well, you are a fishmonger’ (Shakespeare 280). Within this scene, Polonius proclaims Hamlet to be mad as he has asserted to knowing Polonius recalling he has a daughter but states that he is a Fishmonger. The reference Hamlet makes to Polonius as a ‘fishmonger’ appears to be allegorical. The audience is aware that Polonius intends to use Ophelia as a trap to reveal Hamlets mental state, she has therefore become bait. This may then suggest, Hamlet’s reference to Polonius as a fishmonger forms a pun to attempt the portrayal of Hamlet as being outwitting and deceptive.

Hamlet is portrayed fluently as an indecisive character unable to take revenge for his father’s death. Thus, making the play problematic as Hamlet commits unjust murder within the play however, he is unable to kill Claudius with purpose. We observe Hamlet’s murder of Polonius in act three, scene four. Hamlet then arranges for the double murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This adds complications to the interpretation of Hamlet’s inner self. It could be suggested, that Hamlet’s inability to act may be related psychologically to the Oedipas complex.

The Oedipus complex is primarily lived out in one’s childhood. The strong feelings of desire for the mother and absence of the father commonly become repressed. However, the repressed can return in adulthood generating revived feelings of attachment for mother and desire for absence of the father that are symbolized as sex and death. Using a psychoanalytic approach, critical interpretation may determine Hamlet as having revived feelings of an Oedipus complex. This would suggest, Hamlet harbors indignant feelings toward Claudius and his mother’s marriage as he wished to be the one to replace his father and take to his mother’s side as one would as a child. However, he is denied this conclusion when Claudius takes his place beside the queen. The effects of Hamlets repression are shown through the difficulties he faces in carrying out the act of retribution on Claudius. Freud suggests, ‘on two other occasions in the play he is able to act quite ruthlessly. It is rather the case that Claudius is acting out Hamlet’s own repressed wishes and is thus a living reproach to him’ (Wright 41). This then correlates with Hamlet’s inability to revenge his father and murder Claudius, as he unknowingly relates to his opposed, a ‘living reproach’ to himself. Thus, when King Claudius dies also does Hamlet.

The intentions of characters such as Hamlet and Claudius are presented as conflicted and often confused. The audience is provided with devices such as soliloquys to interpret these character’s inner self and shed light on their thoughts. Characters such as Gertrude, have not had their inner life or thinking made blatant to the audience. The observer remains unaware whether Queen Gertrude is knowledgeable that King Claudius is her former husband’s murderer and whether she has intentionally betrayed her son Hamlet when Claudius requests his death. Gertrude is a character of uncertainty and her inner thoughts cannot be effectively interpreted. Gertrude’s portrayal within the play depicts her as male dominated and man dependent henceforth making Hamlet’s statement ‘Frailty, thy name is Woman’ (Shakespeare 207) applicable to her character. However, we are unable to undress Gertrude’s reasons for any of her actions as Shakespeare gives no means to interpret her inner self.

In conclusion, Hamlet’s effectiveness in conveying the inner lives of its characters is a varied one. Characters such as Hamlet and Claudius are undoubtedly the most significant characters in terms of interpreting a character’s inner life. This has been done so by providing these characters with soliloquys and are therefore observed to be thinking out loud assisting the audience to become knowledgeable of a character’s intentions. However, as previously discussed Hamlet proves a problematic character as we observe his inability to murder Claudius though he has been given cause, yet he can murder other characters without just reason. Harold Bloom suggests ‘Shakespeare left inconsistences in his exhibition of the character which must prevent us from being certain of his ultimate meaning’ (Bloom). Blooms theory then suggests that the character of Hamlet is one of holes and inconsistencies and therefore his inner life cannot be properly determined. In accordance with Freuds theory, the inconsistency of the character may be intentional to portray a form of oedipal complex adding complexities to the play. Thus, to seek understanding of the character one must observe him as a cognitive concept. Bloom further suggests, ‘Hamlet appeals powerfully to our sense of the mystery of life, but so does every good tragedy…we feel how strange it is that strength and weakness should be so mingled in one soul’ (Bloom 233). As Bloom suggests, the character of Hamlet is a muddled one and though he has been given opportunity within the play to reveal his true self through his soliloquys, it fails to answer why he is strong in parts and weak in others. Characters such as Queen Gertrude appear to fail in revealing one’s inner self. The audience can only be sure of her obdurate uncertainty as a character. Shakespeare’s play primarily reveals the inner workings of Claudius and Hamlet but lacks clarity in other characters.

2016-11-7-1478559333

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