English 2310 – 401
Interpretation of Themes in ‘Hamlet’
The play Hamlet remains William Shakespeare’s most popular play on stage and off-stage. As a play, “Hamlet portrays the doubts and fears of a conflicted prince whose dead father places the most burdensome of obligations on him: to avenge the king’s murder at the hand of his brother and Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who also marries the widowed queen, Gertrude” (652). Hamlet portrays the Prince’s unpretentious character as he attempts to find the truth about his father’s death and seek revenge. The Prince is weak and indecisive, and yet he also has moral strength and an uncompromising honesty, which lead him to think carefully before acting. All in all, in shaping the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s central use of vengeance gets somewhat lost, frustrated, and prolonged by Hamlet's indecision.
First, Hamlet is perhaps the most indecisive character among any in the plays written by Shakespeare. His indecision surrounds his thinking as he seeks to take revenge against those who wronged him by murdering his father. However, the play Hamlet turns the theme of revenge upside down in an imaginative way. As he yearns to seek revenge for his father’s murder, Hamlet cannot bring himself to a decision and keeps going back and forth through with his plan for revenge. Hamlet’s indecision and delay is a major theme in the play and it has been debated ever since play was written and performed. Hamlet, who thinks too much and acts very little, is a classic example and embodiment for indecision, “With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls? Say, why is this? Wherefore? What should we do? (1. 4. 56, 57 Hamlet)
Second, in an act of benevolence, Hamlet gives his uncle a chance to live another day. Thus, Hamlet is an altruistic person. He thinks real carefully before he acts because God had given the purpose of the righteousness for him to debate the revenge. When his mother asks why Hamlet is still in mourning two months after his father died, he replies, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is, I know not’ seems.” (1.2. 75-75 Hamlet). The different between “seems” and “is” is crucial in Hamlet. Every character is constantly trying to figure out what the other characters are thinking, as opposed to what those characters are pretending to think.
One argument is that death is one true reality, and he seems to view all of life as ‘appearance’ in doing everything he can from seeking power, lying, committing murder, engaging in passionate and illegitimate sex, to hiding from the reality. The Ghost’s connection to the cosmos leads Hamlet to an indeterminate indecision as to whether to seek revenge or not. As the ghost is in purgatory, not heaven or hell, its soul is unsettled and that is why the spirit is still around haunting Hamlet to avenge his father’s death before the spirit can go to heaven.
However, the plot emphasizing the ambiguity concerning the Ghost’s presence is radical. Shakespeare takes a long time in having Hamlet and the Ghost to “Swear on his sword” (1. 5. 153 Ghost) to keep what Hamlet has seen a secret in getting revenge for his father’s murder to release his father from that hell. Therefore, as a requirement for release from hell, the dark commanded that Hamlet must kill his uncle.
The play sketches the Prince’s link with Protestantism only lightly for no other purpose than to bring out Protestant silence on the subject of Purgatory. Not only does Shakespeare create doubt about whether the Ghost is “[A] spirit of health or goblin damned [or] bring with the air from the heaven or blasts from hell” (1. 4. 40-41 Hamlet), but also adds a third dimension of purgatory. In other words, the Ghost is neither an angel nor a devil. Shakespeare quite deliberately complicates the issue by adding the further possibility of purgatory. Young Hamlet just wants to be a typical adolescent person that can experience and enjoy a normal life. However, Hamlet had been forced to seek revenge for his father’s murder. Consequently, Hamlet is confronting the huge dilemma of how to know for sure if what is haunting him is really his father’s Ghost? True, the act of vengeance keeps slipping from Hamlet’s mind in the favor of remembering, “Remember thee” (1. 5. 95 Hamlet).
Hamlet’s pessimism in part derives from his discovery of subjectivity. Renaissance ontology is closely linked to the philosophy of rhetoric, whereby something like grief is understood in a specific, conventionalized way, which Hamlet reacts against his grief. He ultimately has to capitulate to evade the pain of his alienation (Ronald 1046).
Indeed, Hamlet’s tragedy becomes the setting of a cultural struggle between rationalism and individualism. The ambiguity surrounding Hamlet is partly due to the guilt Hamlet feels in getting revenge on his uncle. However, the duty of revenge removes Hamlet from the being aware of the dilemma he faces and causes Hamlet to do some soul searching.
Yet, the injunction to seek revenge can never be fully forgotten. It has a thematic place in the play by the parallelism to his father’s death. The Ghost represents the authority of the command that Hamlet must take action for revenge. However, Hamlet is indecisive concerning the order of authority. The authority here is the spiritual power. Most humans are imperfect and Hamlet, like most humans, is an imperfect human being. Sometimes people have a very hard time making their mind to tough decisions.
In conclusion, the paper explores revenge as the central theme of the play Hamlet. In exploring revenge as the central theme, it becomes apparent that Hamlet shows certain moral strength through his indecision and ambivalence about killing his uncle. He goes to the extent of doubting the ghost to be his father as he is constantly haunted about seeking revenge. Hamlet resorts to analyzing the realm of a purgatory in understanding the messages and meanings of the ghost haunting him. The Hamlets’s theme of seeking revenge is completely relevant for people in the world today. People still often have conflicts regarding cultural beliefs, value systems, and moral virtues which lead to the war of human mortality.
Knowles, Ronald. "Hamlet and Counter-Humanism." Renaissance Quarterly (1999): 1046-1069.
1. 5. 153 Ghost
1. 5. 153 Ghost
1. 4. 40-41 Hamlet
1. 4. 56, 57 Hamlet
1.2. 75-75 Hamlet
1. 5. 95 Hamlet