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Essay: Shakespeare’s Hamlet – a man of duality, caught between extremes

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: November 22, 2021*
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  • Shakespeare's Hamlet - a man of duality, caught between extremes
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During one’s life, an individual knows about the sort of person they were in their past and present however, it is difficult to know who they will become later on. As Ophelia once says “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” (4.5. 48-49). The title character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is depicted as an individual caught between extremes. He constantly contradicts himself and struggles to realize what he has become. Author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about the idea of the duality of human nature. He believed every human had both good and evil within them however, what is important is the decisions you make. He argued the choices people make determine whether they are truly good or evil. Stevenson’s text exemplify duality is apart of human nature and Shakespeare’s Hamlet proves this to be true. (BBC, n.d.) Firstly, Hamlet aspires to achieve greatness however, his obdurate thoughts hold him back from being a man of action. Next, he negates his existential convictions through his commitment to Christianity. Additionally, on the surface, Hamlet appears to be a noble prince of Denmark however, he is truly hiding his inner evilness. Lastly, Hamlet’s pseudo madness has him eventually contemplating his own sanity. Truly, Hamlet is a man of dualities and struggles with accepting his fate.

Firstly, Hamlet demonstrates he is a man of duality as he is not capable of committing to an action due to his constant contemplation. Hamlet sees his dad’s ghost who reveals to him the conditions encompassing his demise. ” Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole, With juice of cursèd hebona in a vial And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leprous distilment.” (1.5. 68-71) Hamlet at that point becomes fully aware that Claudius murdered his father and comes up with a plan to persuade others he is crazy so no one will speculate he would plan to vindicate his dad’s demise. Hamlet further considers how to vindicate for his dad’s demise and decides to test Claudius by composing a play recreating the events of his father’s murder. Hamlet plans to watch Claudius’ response to the play and guarantee the message he got from his father was not a figment of his degrading sanity. After watching the crime he committed play out, Claudius can no longer bear the guilt of his brother’s murder and portrays his guilt as he storms out yelling, “Give me some light, away!” (3.2.295) Even after confirming the crime Claudius, committed Hamlet still takes time to come up with additional plans instead of immediately taking action. Shortly after the play, Hamlet is given a perfect opportunity to avenge his father however, once again he allows his thoughts to consume him and elects to delay murdering his evil uncle. As the play proceeds, Hamlet’s anger and depression cause him to act nonsensically and without considering potential repercussions to his actions. Thus, he turns out to be exceedingly forceful when he tosses his mother down on her bed and later murders the wrong man. Hamlet justifies his rash actions by claiming he is fulfilling his father’s wishes, “Nay, I know not. Is it the King?” (3.4. 32) Hamlet erroneously kills Polonius, indicating he had changed from a man of contemplation to a man of action. Shakespeare sends the message through Hamlet’s character that one should never overthink a situation nor should one act without contemplation.

One viewpoint to think about when assessing Hamlet as a man of duality is the consistent fight between his Christian and existential convictions. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is depicted as a character having characteristics of an existentialist. He is overpowered with sentiments of depression as he sees his life as self-destructing. His dad died, his genuine romance caused him extreme pain and his mom is having sexual relations with his Uncle Claudius, the man who undeservingly was delegated King of Denmark. Because of these brutal conditions, Hamlet sees the world as a ludicrous spot to live and says, “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.136-137). Hamlet once again scrutinizes the standards of life when he says, “For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me, it is a prison.” (2.2. 268-270) Hamlet was written in 1599, when the implications of good and bad were clearly defined in the public eye. The “good” included character attributes of philanthropy and dependability while the “bad” incorporated those of infidelity and crime. Hamlet demonstrates himself to be an existentialist when he proposed the exceedingly present day thought that qualities of good and bad are for an individual to dictate as opposed to God’s standard to direct. As the play advances, Hamlet is changed and ends up profoundly associated with God. Because of the disastrous occasions Hamlet has suffered, he winds up contemplating suicide. He asks himself, ” To be or not to be—that is the question” (3.1. 64). Hamlet ponders why one would take their life and the natural fear of death within. Despite such advanced beliefs, Hamlet’s devotion to Christianity still holds him back from taking his own life. Furthermore, Hamlet does not fear death but rather fears damnation. Due to his Christian beliefs, Hamlet fears committing suicide will result in an afterlife of torture and Hell. Hamlet keeps on showing his association towards God and Christianity when he chooses not to murder Claudius while in the act of praying. Hamlet hears his uncle confess to his father’s murder and ends up in the perfect situation to kill Claudius however decides not to. Hamlet accepts in the event that he slaughters Claudius while amidst admitting his wrongdoings, that Claudius will be sent to Heaven. Hamlet’s constant contemplation of an afterlife is a result of the period in which the play was written. In Elizabethan England, many obsessed over the mystery of death. Many believed death was God’s punishment however, the plague made many realize that despite who you were, a peasant or a king, death was inescapable. Hamlet clearly believes this while contemplating Yorick’s skull realizing after death there is no differentiation in status. (Best, n.d.) Hamlet is clearly torn between his Christian and existential views which repeatedly causes him suffering.

Furthermore, Hamlet may have appeared to be a “good” man however, upon more profound assessment he is evil, further demonstrating himself to be a man of duality. Since Hamlet is the protagonist of the play, the audience knows about his life’s hardships; his father’s murder, his mother wedding his uncle, he and Ophelia’s failed relationship and the disloyalty he gets from his once friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Because of the hardships Hamlet perseveres through, the audience needs to be thoughtful towards him and needs to accept he is “good.” It is clear the residents of Denmark and Elsinore have high regard for the prince when Claudius says, “The other motive Why to a public count I might not go, Is the great love the general gender bear him, Who, dipping all his faults in their affection” (4.7. 18-21). He discloses to Laertes that one reason he can not punish Hamlet for killing Polonius is on the grounds that people respect Hamlet despite his obvious flaws. Despite Hamlet’s public approval, he continuously engages in evil activities. Firstly, he is exceedingly damaging towards Ophelia and can be blamed for her eventual insanity and demise. “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1. 131) is said by Hamlet to belittle Ophelia. Secondly, Hamlet erroneously slaughters Polonius and feels no distress. This demonstrates Hamlet to be evil as he shows no regard towards the life of another man and can execute without lament. Finally, Hamlet sends his youth peers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their demise. Ervin Staub, a respected and published professor of Psychology states, “Evil means great human destructiveness. Evil can come in an obvious form, such as a genocide. Or it can come in smaller acts of persistent harm doing … Goodness means bringing about great benefit to individuals or whole groups. It too can come in an obvious form, like a heroic effort to save someone’s life, or great effort in pursuit of significant social change, or in smaller, persistent acts.” (Staub, 2001). By Staub’s definition it is clear Hamlet is deeply evil, he fails to show any effort to benefit the individuals around him and repeatedly commits evil acts. The audience follows Hamlet’s hardships making it appear as if he is “good” and the victim of the tale however, his actions prove Hamlet’s true inner evil.

Lastly, Hamlet’s character throughout the play lies on a fine line between genius and madness. Through Hamlet’s soliloquies and thoughts, he is portrayed as a genius much ahead of his time. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like

an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me” (2.2 327-333). To Hamlet, the world should view men as a perfect invention filled with unlimited thinking and angelic in action. However, Hamlet views men through a veil shielded by his depression. Hamlet’s genius and deceit comes at the price of his sanity, which slowly fades over the course of the play. Hamlet murders Polonius with no remorse, committing the very crime he had sworn to punish. Hamlet, the son of a murdered father commits the murder of a father himself. Hamlet has experienced colossal grief over the death of his father, yet demonstrates his lack of sanity by being unaffected over killing his friend and love interest’s father. Hamlet continues to display his madness when he speaks with his mother and sees the ghost of his father once again and says, “My father, in his habit as he lived! Look where he goes even now out at the portal!” (3.4. 155-156). After speaking with an apparition his mother fails to see, she too determines her son has lost his sanity. Lastly, Hamlet shows his lack of sanity when he plunges into Ophelia’s grave at her funeral. Although mourning her death, Hamlet is portrayed as insane when lying in Ophelia’s grave insisting to be buried alongside her. Hamlet’s actions and thoughts cause the fine line between genius and madness to be erased and leads him to lose his sanity.

Evidentially, Hamlet is truly a man of duality. It is futile to apprehend whom we will one day become, especially those like Hamlet whose personality is divided in extreme ways. Hamlet is clearly struggling with many hardships and lets these challenges distort his view of reality and who he has become. This distorted view causes Hamlet to be constantly fighting with two different versions of himself. Hamlet aspiration for action and greatness is constantly held back from his over contemplating. Next, Hamlet’s devotion to Christianity causes him to negate his existentialism causing him to fall deeper into his madness. Hamlet appears to be good but deep down his evil intentions control his actions throughout the play. Lastly, Hamlet’s genius eventually causes the downfall of his sanity. Hamlet is torn between his dualities showing one must live in the moment and not the past or future.


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