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William Shakespeare





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11. The murder of Polonius, though perhaps an excessive punishment for his eavesdropping, is the inevitable outgrowth of his spying on behalf of a king whose moral purposes he never questions. Similarly, Hamlet's execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is warranted by their having put themselves so trustingly in Claudius' hands. Laertes and Claudius, as the former points out, are fittingly caught in their own trap, and the queen's poisoning is a logical result of her having trusted, despite her better judgment, in a marriage she knows to be incestuous. Hamlet's own death, finally, is the tragic result of his having postponed his revenge till he is caught up in the circumstances of Claudius' counterplot; he is in a sense sacrificed to his responsibilities. In addition, he is expiating his murder of Polonius. Only Ophelia's drowning while insane seems an excessive punishment for the comparatively minor sins of trusting her father and telling Hamlet one small lie in the Nunnery Scene. On the other hand, Shakespeare is at pains to examine the danger the world holds out for those who trust too innocently to others' motives. Ophelia trusts her father and brother blindly, as they trust Claudius, and like them she is destroyed.

12. Hamlet's description of the naturalism, balance, and honesty he looks for in acting are artistic equivalents for the sincerity and equanimity he is searching for in real life. He wants a true friend who "is not passion's slave," and he does not want an actor to "out-Herod Herod" by expressing passion in an exaggerated way. He wants clowns "not to speak more than is set down" for them, and he wants Polonius not to be a "tedious old fool." For a man with Hamlet's ideals the world is out of joint with itself, only in art, which is made consciously, can he hope for perfection.

13. Hamlet's confrontation with the gravedigger, a man happy enough to sing at his work even while surrounded by death, teaches Hamlet that "the readiness is all"- that there is no escaping one's destiny- and that all paths lead to the grave. At the same time, the gravedigger reveals to Hamlet how time passes, altering everything in a natural way. The gravedigger began his work the day Hamlet's father defeated Fortinbras and Hamlet himself was born. The skull they handle is that of Yorick, the court jester, who was in his way a second father to Hamlet, warm and loving, and a jovial drinking companion and practical joker to the gravedigger. Now he is only a skull, and his bones are being shoveled aside to make room for the young Ophelia. Death, it seems, cannot be depended on to respect youth and innocence any more than it respects age, wisdom, or strength.

14. First, the speech is significant as an example of Hamlet's refined taste, since it comes from a play too learned and intelligently written to be popular. Next, the story it contains reflects on Hamlet's situation. Pyrrhus, who kills King Priam in revenge for the murder of his father, Achilles, is a model of the man of action, which Hamlet craves to be. The second section of the speech describes the grief of Priam's wife, Hecuba, after his death, and thus is both a criticism of Gertrude (who has not shown a similar degree of grief over her husband King Hamlet) and a warning to Hamlet of the emotions he may trigger if he kills her new husband.

The speech both urges Hamlet on to action and puts him off by showing him the difference between his own behavior and that of a mythological king. The First Player's real tears and his sincerity in delivering the speech torment Hamlet, because they remind him of his own conflicting impulses and of his inability to feel sufficient desire for revenge or sufficient grief over his father's death.

15. Comedy is necessary in a tragic work to give respite to the tragic feelings we experience. It also heightens and intensifies the tragic emotion by its extreme contrast. Comedy and tragedy are entwined in Hamlet, because the tragic hero himself is both a partly comic character and a master of witty repartee even while under the strongest emotional pressure. Hamlet has the disturbing gift of laughing at his own grief as well as at the shortcomings of the world in general. His laughter strengthens the plot, by becoming one of the qualities of his mind that enable him to evade his mission and postpone his revenge. In his own mind Hamlet is a fool, trapped in tragedy by the fact that the rest of the world is made up of even bigger fools, who lack his ability to laugh at himself. Claudius does not see anything funny in his situation as a murderer and as an incestuous husband; but Hamlet, calling him "my mother" and "uncle-father" can joke about it. The only character with whom Hamlet is wholly serious is Gertrude; he even calls his father's ghost "old mole."


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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