Something that seems to be consistent amongst many of the main characters in Hamlet is that they tend to act outside of their roles. I am most specifically referring to the characters within the court: Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet. It is interesting to note how each one of them falls short of their expectations considering their status in regards to the Danish government.
First and foremost we have Claudius who has taken the responsibility of the throne after the death of his older brother. His character encompasses the roles of a King, a husband, a father, a brother, and an uncle. He fails to fully fit the criteria for any of these positions because he is dishonest in his behavior and intentions. For example, as a brother we learn that he took the concept of sibling rivalry too far when he admits to the murder of the King in 3.3, “Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven./It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,/A brother’s murder.” In addition, as Hamlet’s new father he goes as far as to tell him to stop being “unmanly” (Act I) by continuing to mourn for the loss of his real father and start respecting Claudius as his replacement. Instead of rightfully earning any of the responsibilities he claims to own Claudius just takes them, which is uncharacteristic to anyone who is true to those titles.
Gertrude displays similar flaws in her role as a wife and a mother. She sort of just assumes that she deserves the respect of a queen and a mother despite how unholy her actions are. She begs Hamlet to respect her prayers in Act I and defends Claudius as though he became the man she fell in love with as soon as he took the crown. It is not until Hamlet slaps some reality into her in the last scene of Act III that she begins to realize that her incestual acts deemed her an unfaithful wife and lost her the respect of her son, “O Hamlet, speak no more!/Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,/And there I see such black and grainèd spots/As will not leave their tinct.”
Then we have Hamlet, with the single consistent role as the King’s son. I believe this singularity allows him the clearest view of his purpose in the play: to avenge his father’s death. It is interesting that he is constantly being accused of being crazy when he is perhaps the only character who knows exactly what needs to be done to achieve peaceful order. However, just because his mission is clear this does not make him immune to the concept of identity crises that is displayed by both Gertrude and Claudius.
In the fourth scene of Act III Hamlet subject his mother to his harsh scrutiny. He speaks to her as though she is the filthiest sight he has ever seen. When Gertrude asks him if he has forgotten who she is (in response to his disrespectful behavior towards her and Claudius) he says, “You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife,/And—would it were not so!—you are my mother.” Hamlet pursues this condescending tone and brutally attacks the entire essence of Gertrude’s being throughout the remainder of this scene in the hopes of getting her to understand the extent of her sins.
Although his intentions in speaking against his mother are meant to re-establish the structure that has been broken because of the true King’s death, Hamlet is not representing himself as the son of the royal family in a noble manner. As a son, Hamlet is expected to obey the wishes of both his mother and his father and to protect the family’s reputation. However, considering Hamlet’s family (his real one) is in a situation that transpired through Claudius’s acts of corruption he feels the only way to fix it is to assert himself against his mother’s will. However, despite his honorable intentions towards his real father’s family—even from a modern-day perspective—it is considered a great sign of dishonor and weakness to disrespect the woman who gave you life.
The dynamics of the royal family in Hamlet succeeds in humanizing people in power. Just like those who look up to them, they experience feelings of envy, denial and vengeance, which effectively blur the boundaries of their highly defined positions. They are supposed to be role models, and yet, none of them seem to really know how to assume their roles in a proper way.