Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hamlet's Character Revealed

The title of the play ensures that the character development of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play would undoubtedly take a prominent role.  The first three acts establish aspects to his temperament that most would consider good or at least understandable.  He is despondent yet shrewd, loyal and brave.  These actions show Hamlet as working in revenge of his father’s untimely death thus giving a heroic stance to his actions.  However, when Hamlet murders Polonius at the end of Act 3, it is disturbing.  Before this seemingly senseless act it was possible to consider Hamlet’s actions as laudable, as a son who will avenge his father not rashly but with cunning and intelligence.  The complexity to Hamlet’s character is further revealed in Act 4, Scene 2.  Hamlet is shown not to be the prince hero but one who may actually be mad and not just feigning madness.  He is not remorseful for Polonius’ murder, he acts self-righteously, and his manic behavior reveals that his madness may not be faked. 
A hero would be remorseful for a murder even if it was justified, yet Hamlet does not repent following his murder of Polonius.  This is obvious when, following the murder, he tells his mother, “This man shall set me packing.  I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room” (3.4.186-187). He does not describe Polonius, a man he knew well, even as a person, but now is reduced to just “guts” that he will “lug” into the next room.  However, the coldness of his response is more clearly illustrated when, at the beginning of Act 4, he flatly states of Polonius’s dead body, that it is “Safely stowed” (4.2.1).  At this point he is not even able to give Polonius the respect of even naming his corpse.  He further reinforces his disrespect for Polonius’s body and its decent burial when he tells Rosencrantz that he has “Compounded it with dust, whereto ‘tis kin” (4.2.5).  Thus he has disintegrated Polonius already from a living person to “dust.”  Finally, when he ends the scene by not refusing to tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern where the body lies and instead playing a game of “Hide fox,” he shows he could care less about a proper interment of Polonius’s body which may not even exist in his mind any more (4.2.28).  Hamlet’s lack of remorse for murdering his girlfriend’s father reflects a cold temperament not in keeping with that of a hero and barely reflecting that of a human being.  
Despite such immoral behavior, Hamlet presents himself as self-righteousness in this scene.  All kings of the time relied on courtiers to provide them with information, yet for those roles Hamlet condemns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  When he calls Rosencrantz a “sponge,” he shows that he has no respect for him as friend or courtier (4.2.10-11).  Furthermore, he puts blame not on himself for the heinous murder of Polonius, but turns the tables on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by accusing them of pandering to the king.   When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ask Hamlet where he disposed of Polonius’s corpse, he is insulted that they would even ask him. This is evidenced by his reply that “to be demanded of a sponge—what replication/should be made by the son of a king?” (4.2.11-12). He asks why he, the king’s son, should listen to two panderers who are beneath contempt to him. Furthermore, when he tells them the king will use them “like an ape an apple in the/corner of his jaw, first mouthed to be last swallowed,” it illustrates his utter contempt of them and the king they pander to by comparing the king to a lower form of animal and to both of them as even lower, as a piece of food kept waiting in the mouth until ingested (4.2.16-17).  Finally, he refers to Rosencrantz twice as a “sponge,” describing him not as the sponge who can easily grasp a situation intelligently but as an inanimate object that can be indiscriminately “squeezed” whenever the King wants. 
Hamlet’s true manic-depressive behavior is now revealed to be not feigned.  He committed murder with a reliable witness, his mother, and would be expected to be fearful.  Nevertheless, he is seemingly calm as represented by stating those two words, “Safely stowed.”  Before this instance with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet treated them as friends, although a little crazily.  Not being privy to Hamlet’s secret pact to act crazy, they do not understand when he tells them that if he takes Polonius’s body to the chapel, he will no longer be thought mad.  This is evidenced when he says, “That I can you’re your counsel and not mine own” (4.2.10).  In addition, Hamlet’s mania and lack of trust for his friends through his repetitive speech: “The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body.  The King is a thing--” (4.2.25-26).  Finally, by running away from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead of seriously considering how to dispose of Polonius’s body, Hamlet exhibits childish and manic behavior.  This is emphasized by Shakespeare since this is the first direction of Hamlet’s action exhibited yet in the play.  In Act 4, Scene 2, Hamlet displays glimpses of his still-evolving complex character traits that hint at disastrous consequences of actions still to come.    

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Barbara, I found your post intriguing to read. I certainly agree with your perspective in assessing Hamlet’s un-heroic behavior. To add to the examples you mentioned, and in keeping with another prevalent theme in this week’s blog posts—the mistreatment of women in Hamlet—I find Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia to be particularly despicable. It’s hard to imagine that someone, even as distraught as Hamlet is over his father’s death, could find it in his conscience to speak so sexually demeaning toward Ophelia. Hamlet’s immoral behavior really makes me question just how “heroic” he is. In fact, the way Hamlet is so calculated makes me question the authenticity of his feelings. I certainly do not blame him for avenging the heartless, unnecessary murder of his father, but he could have gone about it in a much more effective way, certainly without hurting Ophelia or killing Polonius.