William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is recognized to be one of the masterpieces of literature. The character Hamlet exemplifies Shakespeare’s genius in his ability to express the universal awareness of human existence (Stockton, 2000). I am embarrassed to say that I have never read or watched “Hamlet” until enrolling in this “Introduction to Literature” course offered by Wayland Baptist University. To make matters worst, I would not have enrolled if it were not that this course was required to graduate. Now that I have read and studied this classical masterpiece, I now understand why it has captivated the literary world with its eloquence. What has captivated me was Shakespeare’s use of multiple actors in Hamlet. Each actor or character has its unique and influential role in Hamlet. It is this myriad of fronts or “facades” of the characters fortifies the central theme of tragedy. Each unique character has its own theme.
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The facades that each character assumes are all essential to the intricate deception and insanity that is constantly present in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s characters have diverse multiple personalities. The two main characters, Hamlet and King Claudius have colorful attributes. The only character with a true face is Horatio, Hamlet’s close friend. The true thoughts of the other characters are seen only in asides and soliloquies. A soliloquy, also known as a monologue, is an extended uninterrupted speech by a character in a drama. The character may be speaking his or her thoughts aloud, directly addressing another character, or speaking to the audience. It is through this dramatic devise that Shakespeare develops his characters. The first character elaborated will be the character theme of Hamlet, followed by King Claudius. Next will be Fortinbras and lastly, Horatio.
In the play, Hamlet expresses his thoughts through these soliloquies; through the use of words and the manipulation of language. Shakespeare inserts soliloquies from these characters to add an extra dimension to his ideas of deceit and revenge. Through these soliloquies, Hamlet displays his true inner feelings and reveals the complexities of his heart and soul; especially his anger, his selfishness and his weaker gullible side. Hamlet is melodramatic and extensively uses his vivid imagination in his first soliloquy. When Hamlet verbalizes to himself the question, “To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, Lines 59-61) (Alison Booth, 2006) there no question that he is thinking of death. Hamlet attempts to present such a question in a rational and logical way. He is still left without an answer of whether the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” can be because since life after death is no guarantee. Hamlet ponders about what would become of his death and briefly thinks that it may be like a “deep sleep.” Hamlet seems at accept this notion until he speculates on what will come in such a “deep sleep.” His “deep sleep” notion begins to appeal him, but Hamlet states “To sleep: perchance to dream:-ay there’s the rub; / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come” (III, 1, 68-69). The “dreams” that he fears are the pains and suffering that death might present. Since there is no way to be positive that there will be a relief from his earthly sufferings through death, he is forced to question death yet again. Despite his faith and the teachings of the Church, he questions the beliefs about death. It could be argued that this is due to Hamlet’s educated background at a university. However, Hamlet’s elaborate introspect of himself could be a symptom of his “alleged” insanity. It is important to know that depression is a mild, form of madness. Shakespeare presents Hamlet’s imagery as elaborate and vivid. From the audience’s perspective, it would seem that Hamlet’s disposition of insanity is an act of depression rather than true, developed madness. Hamlet’s speeches remain well balanced and rather calm, despite his current situation.
Shakespeare presents another side Hamlet’s madness as a deep-rooted depression is in his speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet’s depression is revealed while trying to convey his deeply felt hurt that his old friends from Wittenburg have betrayed him. At the end of Act 2, Hamlet’s soliloquy “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave I am I?” conveys his emotional upheaval at the events around him. In this soliloquy, his emotional takes him from self-disgust to solving the act. The soliloquy pictures Hamlet’s concerns in his delays of actions. Hamlet feels ashamed that he has not yet avenged his father’s death with the speed and expression exhibited by the villains in the play. Hamlet compares his inaction to the dramatic expressions exhibited for the death of his father as King Claudius and Gertrude did. “What would he do, / Had he the motive and cue for passion/ That I have” (II, 2, 512-514) Hamlet is amazed that they can conjure such emotions without a real impetus. He is truly upset that he is incapable of doing anything in response to his father’s murder. He then calls himself a coward for his inability to say anything in defense of his father. “Am I a coward” (II, 2, 523), this is ironic because he is focusing on the expression of grief, not a proactive response, which will only inhibit his action. Hamlet never discusses the act of vengeance, only the ability to hear the “horrid speech” (II, 2, 515). Hamlet also displays his low self-esteem in this soliloquy as he sarcastically describes his inaction. This is most brave, “That I, the son of a dear father murdered, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must like a whore unpack my heart with words And fall a-cursing like a very drabâ€¦(II, 2, 536-539). Hamlet is his own worst critic throughout the play. Through this statement, Hamlet incites himself to the point that he plans some action. “The play’s the thing/Where in I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (II, 2, 567-568). He plans to put on a play that will mirror his father’s murder in order to see Claudius’ guilty reaction. Finally, Hamlet makes a plan. Shakespeare varies Hamlet’s language with constant changes in his tones of voice; the outbursts of rage “Bloody, Bawdy Villain” (II, 2, 532), with brief but obvious instances of depression “Yet I / A dull and muddy- mettled rascal” (II, 2, 518-519), or of perplexed questioning “Who does me this?” (II, 2, 527). Shakespeare emphasizes Hamlet’s intensive emotional journey throughout his speech and lack of stability. The constant change in the tone exemplifies the ever changing scenes in Hamlet’s environment. The next character “facade” to elaborate on is King Claudius.
The presentation of King Claudius acts blends right in with the view that each character assumes a specific pretense. As the antagonist, Shakespeare presents King Claudius as manipulating subjects by skillfully employing a range of “oratory” techniques. In his first speech to the court (I, 2, 1-39) Claudius conveys a sense of unity in Elsinore after his “dear brother’s death” by using plural pronouns, “we”, “us” and “our”. King Claudius attempts to gain favor of his audience; he uses flattery and refers to the court as thinking on Old Hamlet in the “wisest sorrow”. Shakespeare also imposes multiples of threes in Claudius’ speech to add strength and fluency, “Sometime sister, now our Queen, / The imperial jointress” (I, 2, 8-9). The word “imperial” reminds his audience, the King’s court of Denmark, of its achievements. King Claudius is appealing to their patriotic side to sway them. King Claudius’ oration skills may make him more attractive to his court but this is just a pretense that Shakespeare is trying to present. Was the King trying to distract the citizens of Elsinore because of the marriage with Gertrude within two months of his brother’s death? Shakespeare does not elaborate, adding to the villainous side of the King. Out of the view from Denmark’s courts and behind closed doors, Claudius’ guilt and unease manifests itself in asides and soliloquies. “O my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; / It hath the primal eldest curse upon it, / A brother’s murder” (III, 3, 1-3). Here, disease imagery is used to convey the disease of corruption that appears to have infected those from Elsinore. This is the true nature of King Claudius, without the perceived eloquence grandeur of nobility. From this example of diverse multiple personalities, it can be seen how Shakespeare uses the pretense of his characters as the basis of each characters complex personalities in Hamlet. When King Claudius’ character complexities are compared to the Hamlet’s introspective behavior; the difference between the two main characters in breeding corruption is apparent. It is these unique character traits or “facades” that build up the plot in the play. In drama, opposites of the main characters are the supporting characters. The other noteworthy supporting characters worth mentioning are Fortinbras and Horatio.
Horatio and Fortinbras are the only two characters for whom it can be said avoid Shakespeare’s portrayal of corruption and deceit when compared to those characters that come from Elsinore. They are also the only two characters in Hamlet from whom a direct comparison can be made with Hamlet. All three individuals are of similar age and similar education. However, the differences between the three men are very apparent. Shakespeare has portrayed Fortinbras and Hamlet as direct equals in their positions of nobility but is the direct opposites in their personalities. Hamlet is extremely jealous of Fortinbras’ impulsive attitude and instinctive behavior and compares it to his own procrastination. In Hamlet’s final soliloquy: Act IV Scene IV, “I do not know / Why yet I live to say `This thing’s to do’, / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do’t” (IV, 4, 43-46). Throughout the entire play, Hamlet ironically questions his methods of questioning all of his actions and the indecision that follows. As a deliberate contrast, Shakespeare then creates a strong and instinctive prince – the “delicate and tender” Fortinbras. This exaggerates Hamlet’s constant indecision and paves way for a more hopeful and prosperous future for Elsinore at the end. This will only happen if Fortinbras is left to rule Denmark. The kingdom will now have a strong, decisive leader who is not tainted with the brush of deception. Hamlet’s influence is still felt even after his death, as the slain prince gives Fortinbras his vote as future King of Denmark with his “dying voice”(V, 2, 325). Young Fortinbras can be considered as a foil, a contrasting character to Hamlet. The other character worth mentioning is Horatio.
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Horatio is the second comparable character to Hamlet as they are best friends and have studied together at Wittenburg University for many years. He is Hamlet’s one and only confidant and thus he understands the intricacies of Hamlet’s nature and the theatrical “antics and dispositions” he projects to trick those in his quest for revenge. Shakespeare has presented Horatio as the “voice of truth,” the only character that commands respect from all of the characters and the audience alike. Horatio is the only involved character that is not infected by the disease of corruption. Shakespeare presented Horatio as the only involved character not to assume a “facade” nor have a “split” personality. The other characters become entangled within a web of controversy at the climax of the plot while Horatio remains innocent and untouched. The only reason why Horatio remains true is because he is the only character who is not manipulated by Hamlet’s corruption. Horatio’s last statement after the deaths of the entire Danish royalty: “But let this same be presently performed / â€¦ lest more mischance / On the plots and errors happen (V, 2, 362-264), showed his impartialness. Despite being Hamlet’s confidant, the truth needed to be brought forth. Horatio indeed was the “voice of truth” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Shakespeare’s use of multiple characters in Hamlet no doubt propelled this literary masterpiece as one of the best plays in literature. Even though Lord Hamlet was the main character in the play, each character had their unique and influential role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is this myriad of “facades” of the Shakespeare’s characters that fortified the central theme of tragedy. The themes of main characters: Hamlet, King Claudius; and the themes of the two minor characters: Fortinbras and Horatio; each played an intricate role. Despite the character differences, each had similarities that tied to each to another. It is this masterful entwining and entanglements of the characters that bring the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to its pinnacle among literary masterpieces.
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