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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE PLAY

THE CHARACTERS

HAMLET

Many, many other explanations of Hamlet's motives have been offered, ranging from an excessive ambition that uses the ghost as a chance to seize the crown and then feels guilty about doing so, to an apathy that makes him hold back on philosophic grounds, since all action is futile. A few commentators have even proposed the unlikely possibility that Hamlet is a woman who has been raised as a man to provide the throne with an heir, thus explaining Hamlet's reluctance to commit the "masculine" act of revenge.

What commentators and interpreters sometimes forget is that Hamlet is first a character in a play, and only secondly (if at all) a demonstration of this or that view of human life. You might say that Hamlet is not a classifiable type of person because he is a specific person, who, like ourselves, is made up of many different impulses and moods. It's possible for a soft-spoken professor of philosophy, under the right circumstances, to commit murder, just as it's possible to be depressed one day and crack jokes the next. Hamlet is a person of exceptional intelligence and sensitivity, raised to occupy a high station in life and then suddenly confronted with a violent and terrifying situation in which he must take drastic action. It's hardly surprising to find him veering between extremes of behavior, hesitating, demanding proof, looking for the most appropriate way to carry out his task.


The fact that Hamlet is a thinking as well as a feeling person, conscious of the good and bad points in every step he takes, makes the act of revenge particularly painful for him. Revenge is not Christian, and Hamlet is a Christian prince; it is not rational, and Hamlet is a philosopher; it is not gentle, and Hamlet is a gentleman.

Unlike the typical hero of an Elizabethan revenge play (or a modern gangster movie), Hamlet does not approach his task in an unquestioning, mechanical way. He has qualms about it, as any of us might if asked to do the same thing. It releases violent emotions in him, the intensity of which shocks and unbalances him. This questioning of what is instinctive and preordained, the testing of the old tribal code by a modern, troubled consciousness, is perhaps what makes the play so great and so universal in its interest.

As you read Shakespeare's play you will discover for yourself the specific things Hamlet says and does that make his motives understandable to you, just as every critic, reader, and playgoer over the centuries has picked the elements he or she most responded to in the young prince's tragic story. That will be your interpretation of Hamlet. If you follow the play closely and seriously, your opinions are likely to be every bit as valid as those of professional critics or teachers.  

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