Shakespeare was not just one of the most prolific playwrights of his time, but of all time. An quick Internet search revealed that the general consensus is that he wrote in his lifetime thirty-seven different plays—comedies, tragedies and histories. Of his tragedies, few would argue that any is as tragic as Hamlet, whose protagonist is considered the iconic tragic character. The realities he faces are some of the most unimaginable hardships any human being could imagine going through. These difficulties leave their mark on Hamlet as a person, and the consequences of them become his consequences. This essay explores what I consider to be the five most difficult hardships that Hamlet the character endures in Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
When a ruler of a country dies while still in power, a great uncertainty inevitably pulses through the land. The death of Hamlet’s father left him very broken, as it left uncertainty within the entire country of Denmark where his father was enthroned. Losing a parent is one of the most difficult things anyone in life goes through, and unless the greater tragedy of a parent losing a child happens, it is something that everyone must go through. Hamlet’s father though, was strong, and as his prince who will one day be king, Hamlet never feels that he will be able to live up to that standard. More dire, is that he is haunted not just but the memory of his father, but his actual ghost. Worse is when a spirit in the fifth scene appears to Hamlet saying that he is the spirit of his father and tells him that he did not die of natural causes but that his death was the result of a “foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.25). Now not only does he have to cope with his father’s death, but the fact that his father may have been murdered and that the murderer is none other than the person who currently wears the crown in the country, Cladius, who is also his uncle.
The ghost then tasks Hamlet with seeking revenge upon him for having done this. The affect also is on Hamlet’s mother, who the ghost tells him is now in an incestial relationship with his uncle, which is most unnatural. Hamlet at this point regrets that he was ever born into the world saying, ““The time is out of joint: O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” (I.v.189).
The second hardship the he endures is to witness his mother being married to his uncle Cladius, who he now knows is the murderer of his father. He feels ill prepared to be able to deal with all of this on his own, and so Hamlet decides that the best course of action for him is to pretend to be crazy so that people will not suspect him of being involved in a plot to kill his uncle who is also the ruler of the country. For the rest of the play, Hamlet acts crazy and it becomes difficult for a reader or audience member to know if hamlet is faking madness or if the stress and hardship that he is dealing with is bringing him to insanity.
Another hardship that Hamlet must go through is the feelings of his own inadequacy. In life it is important to have goals and feel that one has the power to achieve them. In Hamlet’s case, his goal was a rather tragic one, killing his uncle to avenge the death of his father’s murder, but it is still something that gives him something to live for. However, his self-doubt begins to plague him like a disease, which leads to him to begin to feel emotions of self-loathing and inadequacy. He is increasingly frustrated with himself as he expresses in a soliloquy that expresses as much. “Now I am alone,” he bemoans, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I. It is not a monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit, That from her working all his visage wann’d, Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect, A Broken voice, and his whole function suiting With forms of his conceit? And all for nothing.” This self doubt also emanates from Hamlet being unsure if indeed his uncle is actually guilty of if he simply dreamed or imagined the incident of the ghost claiming to be the spirit of his father. He decides then to catch him in a trap, by making him watch a play that essentially mimics the murder of his father, he expects to see proof in his uncles reaction as to whether or not he is guilty of the murder that he suspects him us. “The play’s the thing,” he said, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the kind.” (II.ii.581). But after the play, the plot that Hamlet though was foolproof, he finds himself questioning the kings reaction and has not progressed further in deducing the king’s guilt. As are many people who feel powerless before the face of what they must do, Hamlet is an expert at avoiding actually doing what he has to and finds himself distracted in asides, which miss the larger thing he wants to do. The play is a good example of this; it is a way for him to buy his time rather than actually put into motion is plot to avenge the death of his father. People who are depressed, often do this too, they find excuses for why they can’t do what they should rather than just doing it or admitting openly their own inadequacy in the face of things.
Adding even more hardship to hamlet is when Hamlet loses Ophelia, who he was very much in love with. Though he used his love as an excuse for his madness, it is genuine. But then this love, like so much in Hamlet’s life, becomes compromised with doubt and loathing, since he begins to suspect that her father is tasking Ophelia to spy on him. His view of women due to his mother’s marriage to Cladius becomes tainted and he lumps them all into the same category of whores. He teller her that if she married anyone that she would turn her husband into a monster since she would cheat on him and teller her that “I loved you not.” Ophelia is deeply wounded by this and says to him, “I, of ladies most deject and wretched, That sucked the honey of his music vows Now see that Noble and most sovereign reason out of tune and harsh. (III.i.13).
Hamlet had no idea just how far his condemnation of her would lead her, and to add another blow and hardship to his life, Ophelia dies, likely by her own hand in drowning herself. When Hamlet realizes that she has died, he is beside himself, not even able to act or think rationally and jumps into the grave saying, “Forty thousand brothers Could not, with all their quantity of love,/ make up my sum” (V.i.254).” He then continues to make the case to those around him that he is mad saying that he would eat a crocodile for her, and that he would like to be buried alive with her. This is when his mother and uncle decide that his is actually crazy as he leaves.
What hamlet does not know is that while he is failing in his plot to kill his uncle, there is a plot afoot for him to be killed. The ultimate hardship that Hamlet endures is that his plan for revenge falls apart and he not only fails to avenge his father, but his mother is killed.
Hamlet is unaware that Laertes and Claduis have plotted revenge against Hamlet for killing Laertes’ and Ophelia’s father in a due. In order to enact their revenge they work two different angles assuming that one will yield the desired results. They poison a glass of wine and Laertes sword. Things, as happens in much of the play, do not turn out as they were intended to and Gurtrude, the queen and Hamlet’s mother ends up drinking the poisoned glass of wine, killing her. Hamlet is beyond grief when he realizes that his mother has been killed.
Laertes cuts Hamlet’s arm with the poisoned swoard and before he dies he kills his uncle and Laertes after realizing that the sword was poisoned.
So Hamlet, the man of so many hardships, endured the ultimate hardship of having his whole family die to unnatural causes and losing his own life in the end. There does not seem to be a particular moral in the story, and that is perhaps why it is classified as a tragedy. It is hard to put oneself in Hamlet’s place as he has so many unimaginable hardships happening at once. But it is safe to say that if there is a moral, it is that seeking vengeance leads only to more harm to oneself.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Santa Fe, Argentina: El Cid Editor,. Print.