Show MoreThe Impossibility of Certainty in Hamlet
“Doubt is that state of mind where the questioner faces no single answer nor the lack of one, but rather a choice between a pair of alternatives.” – Harry Levin in The Question of Hamlet
It is appropriate that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is regarded as the Bard’s greatest dramatic enigma, for misunderstanding is the unavoidable condition of Hamlet’s quest for certainties. Not only is Hamlet bewildered by puzzling visions and by commands seemingly incapable of fulfillment, but he is also the victim of misinterpretation by those around him. The dying Hamlet urges the honest Horatio to “report me and my cause aright To the unsatisfied”, because none of the characters except for Horatio have…show more content…
David Bevington notes in his commentary on Hamlet that the name Claudius stems from two words. The first is the verb claudo, meaning “to imprison”. The second is the adjective claudus, meaning “disabled, wavering, or uncertain” (Bevington). It goes without saying that a character whose name literally means “uncertain” highlights the theme of doubt that is apparent through the whole play. The arrival of the Players and their presentation of “The Murder of Gonzago” in Act 3 also demonstrate duplicity within the text. Hamlet modifies the play within a play to have it reflect the murder of his father. This dramatic device conjures up the notion of appearance versus reality. The duality of Claudius, Polonius, and Hamlet demonstrate the lack of certainty and absolute truth within the play. The perpetual search for meaning and questioning of the established order within the play reflects the unattainability of truth and certainty in greater society. Hamlet’s numerous soliloquies of self-questioning and self-loathing paint an image of a man overcome by excruciating self-observation. Morris Weitz notes that Hamlet’s speeches show signs of existentialism (“How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world”, I.ii.137-138), relativism (“For there is nothing good nor but, but thinking makes it so”, I.ii.268-270), and moral subjectivism (“Vicious mole of nature…in their birth…wherin…they are not guilty
During the first act of the play, Hamlet’s friends encounter the spirit of Old King Hamlet roaming about the outer ramparts of the castle. Seeing the spirit as a bad omen they quickly report the appearance to his very distraught son, Hamlet. The spirit explains to him that he had been murdered by his deceitful younger brother, Claudius, and that Hamlet must take revenge on the spirit’s behalf. This incident initiates Hamlet’s investigation into his father’s murder; however it is his doubt in the cause of this apparition that keeps him indecisive and prevents him for taking his revenge. First, Hamlet almost immediately questions the authenticity his father’s spirit after its disappearance. “ The spirit that I have seen may be the devil and the devil hath the power to assume a pleasing shame; yet, and perhaps out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me to damn me.” (II, ii, 596- 601). Hamlet grows unsure if the ghost’s story holds any authentication as he plunges deeper and deeper into his own melancholy; Hamlet wonders if this is work of the devil praying on his weak state of mind. This uncertainty prompts Hamlet to test his Uncle Claudius’ conscience because of his own lack of faith in the ghost and himself; which only prolongs this revenge.
Second, because Hamlet is so doubtful about the story told to him by the ghost, he must test his Uncle’s reaction first. “Observe mine uncle, if his acute guilt. Do not itself unkennel in one speech. It is a damned ghost we have seen. And my imagination are on foul as Vulcan’s stithy.” (III, ii, 80- 84 Shakespeare). This uncertainty in the ghost results in Hamlet prolonging his revenge on Claudius in attempt to confirm the ghost’s story. This course of action leads to him being called upon by his mother, accidently murdering Polonius, and then being poisoned by Laertes. Without this additional prerequisite to begin his revenge, Hamlet could have potentially avoided the resulting confrontations and his death. Third, Hamlet’s trust in the story is only confirmed at seeing his Uncle reaction to the play. “O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound..” (III, ii, 281- 282). Without Claudius’ reaction to the play Hamlet would probably remain in limbo about his own thoughts and the ghost and may never taken revenge. The play is the confirmation for Hamlet’s revenge scheme and its lengthily process was necessary to convince Hamlet of the ghost’s story; Nevertheless Hamlet’s continual indecisive behavior after the play gave Claudius amply time to plot Hamlet’s murder. However an even greater conflict to within Hamlet to prorogue his revenge and keep him unsure is his own doubts of what he really desires in terms of kingship and life in general.
After the lost of old King Hamlet, the people of Demark are asked to choose between Hamlet or Claudius to rule in place of their lost king. The people choose Claudius to rule over them, who will be succeeded by a much older and perhaps wiser Hamlet. Knowing Claudius killed the old king, Hamlet understands he is the rightfully king of Denmark; however Hamlet is unresolved about his desires for that position and makes him hesitant to take any action. First, Hamlets confesses to Ophelia of traits that he is reprehensible of, one of which is ambitious. “I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious…”(III, ii, 132- 135). This personality presented by Hamlet provides a contradiction to his behavior. He wishes to remove Claudius from the thrown however states he would rather not be ambitious, about can be assumed, his right to be king. At this moment it seems that Hamlet is unwilling to be king, which will keep him indecisive and hinder his revenge. Second, Hamlet does however reveal to Rosencrantz he is “distempered” because he “lacks advancement”. “Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper? You do, surely, bar the door upon your own liberty, if you deny your griefs to your friend……….. Sir, I lack advancement.” Contrary to what he previously states during his conversation with Ophelia, Hamlets now reveals his desire to “advance”. This change in ambition could be seen as the possibility for his revenge to finally transpire, however Hamlet may not be referring to his succession as king but his plans for his revenge; consequently not knowing if he desires both delays Hamlets for taking his revenge. Finally, Hamlets tells Horatio of his desire to be king, and disappointment of being denied this right. “Does it not, think’st thee, stand me now upon– He that hath kill’d my king and whored my mother, Popp’d in between the election and my hopes, Thrown out his angle for my proper life…” (V, I, 69- 72). This final explanation by Hamlet reveals that he does have intention to become king and therefore the expectation can be made that he will take his reveal shortly, which he prompted does in the next scene. However by the time he finally discovers this truth about his ambitions it is already too late and his murder has already been planned. Furthermore, all of this could have been avoided if Hamlet did not put so much thought into his revenge and just acted upon his feelings.
Throughout the play, Hamlet is constantly over analyzing the world around him. Every action that he takes, Hamlet tediously examines all the potential outcomes and reasoning behind it. This over thinking of the world around him is a reason for his indecisiveness and consequently his downfall. First, Hamlet argues to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the philosophy of what is “good” and “bad”. “Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” (II, ii, 260- 262). This point made by Hamlet only illustrates how critically he thinks of the world around him. His insight of the objectiveness of all behavior, made only subjective through perspective displays he is character of deep thought who muct analyze a problem from all angles before processing often resulting in him being indecisive on an issue. Second, Hamlet reveals in his soliloquy, his justification of why humans, and himself, fear death and anything related to it. “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action” (III, I, 91- 95). This over analyzing of death of what makes Hamlet question his right to kill another human and the fear that all humans have toward death. This scrutinizing of his own plan, only makes Hamlet doubt himself and prolong his revenge even more. It also illustrates that Hamlet does fear killing another and inaction on his behalf is this awareness of his fear. Finally, Hamlet debates to himself what the reasoning behind his inaction on his father’s behalf. Now whether it be b*stial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th’ event…” (VI, vi, 39- 46). This is a realization on Hamlet’s behalf that the cause of his inaction is indeed his overanalyzing of all his behavior just to establish his own excess thought and deliberations. The examination of so many situations of his life causes Hamlet to yet again prolong his revenge and seem indecisive to the reader.
In conclusion, there were many paths Hamlets could have taken throughout the course of the book, which he own indecisiveness prevented him from doing. Hamlet’s dismay is attributed to the hesitant behavior toward his father’s revenge due to several internal conflicts and personality traits Hamlets posses. From the beginning of the play Hamlet is in indeterminate state about the validity of anything occurring around him. Furthermore, Hamlet’s doubts in the truthfully of his father’s spirit, doubts of his own ambitions and over analyzing of the world around him, left Hamlet an very indecisive man which ultimately led him to his own death.