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Hamlet: Themes and Structure

14 Nov 2017Essay Samples

INTRODUCTION

Hamlet is characterized by the central theme of being and doing. “To be or not to be, that is the question”. The structure of the play evolves with all else wrapped around it. All the themes build the play into a well-rounded entity while running simultaneously. The structure of the play evolves out of the themes of disease and decay, appearance and reality, fortune and providence, and finally revenge and deliberation.

The play opens with the three peripheral characters engaged in the evening watch at the castle of Elsinore in Denmark. For the last two nights, a ghost apparently resembling the dead King Hamlet is seen as the clock strikes one. The three characters, Horatio (whose significance is as Prince Hamlet’s closest friend), Marcellus, and Barnardo, are discussing the appearance of ghost when it appears once more. Horatio tries to question the ghost about his appearance, but it remains silent and finally vanishes. The present characters in failing to figure out the ghost’s appearance decide that the ghost’s son should try speaking to him.  While this is happening, Prince Hamlet is at the castle with his mother, Queen Gertude, and her new husband, King Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle). The topic of discussion is the death of Prince Hamlet’s father and its consequent impact on him. Within this context, Claudius is trying to convince Hamlet that prolonged mourning and grieving for the dead is not right. This leaves Hamlet in a more melancholic state where he is left alone to ponder. However, Hamlet begins to lament the effects of his father’s death rather than the rationale of his uncle’s words. But Hamlet is soon joined by his friend, Horatio whose intent of the visit is to inform his host of the ghost and also to persuade the same to meet it.

Running parallel to this plot is the story of Ophelia who is being courted by Hamlet. She is also the daughter of Lord Chamberlain, Polonius and the sister of Laertes. Both of these male characters are King Claudius’ sympathizers.

The play comes round to the reappearance of the ghost and Hamlet’s scheduled meeting with it. The ghost appears while Horatio and Hamlet are waiting and without any further initiative on the part of Prince Hamlet, shows willingness to speak to the prince. The intent of the ghost soon becomes clear. It conveys the secret behind its disturbed soul: King Hamlet was murdered and he died of poisoning rather than the serpent’s bite. The man behind King Hamlet’s murder is the present King Claudius and the intent behind the same is marriage to Prince Hamlet’s mother and the acquisition of the throne. The ghost is perturbed because the real cause of its death is not known and also that it feels cheated. Hence it now asks Hamlet to avenge his father’s death and bring peace to his ghost. Hamlet’s first reaction is of utter rage but as an afterthought, he plots investigation into the matter while making his friends pledge silence regarding this piece of knowledge.

Ophelia is the first to witness Hamlet’s condition and communicates it to her father, Polonius who in turn informs the king. As a general consensus, it is deduced that Hamlet has in actuality, gone insane but his insanity is attributed to Ophelia or grief upon King Hamlet’s death. The real reason is not suspected. However, King Claudius is prone to delving deeper into the matter and hence he asks two of Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to talk to Hamlet. Meanwhile, a group of players arrive in the town. Hamlet conceives the idea of putting up a play that would reenact the murder of his father. Through this, Hamlet hopes to gauge his uncle’s reaction and find out the truth regarding the ghost’s account.

Meanwhile, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to assign any reason to Hamlet’s insanity. Therefore the King decides to watch Hamlet around Ophelia. While Hamlet is alone, he contemplates the choice for existence, “To be or not to be”. Soon Ophelia visits Hamlet, in an attempt to return the gifts that he gave her. Hamlet so obviously completely disillusioned with the world displays disillusionment with the concept of love as well. Hamlet’s behavior leads Ophelia to believe that he has indeed gone insane. However, King Claudius is not so sure and wishes to send Hamlet to England, suspecting that Hamlet may be a threat to him.

At the night of the play, Horatio offers to watch the King for a reaction. During the scene where poison is poured down the victim’s ear (Claudius poured poison down King Hamlet’s ear), the King shows tangible and obvious distress. He calls for the end of the stage play. Claudius’ reaction assures Hamlet of the truth in ghost’s account. This is followed by Hamlet’s intent to visit his mother who refuses to discuss the matter fearing that Hamlet has come to see her in rage and that this would inevitably lead to her death. Hamlet’s mother falls into a fit of fear and cries for help. As a result, Polonius who has been hiding behind the tapestry all this while jumps out to help but is killed by Hamlet impulsively who assumed the person in hiding to be the King Claudius. Hamlet persuades the Queen to see and admit to her role in the crime of murder but she feigns ignorance.

As the suspicions of King Claudius are confirmed, he views Hamlet as an immediate threat and decides that he must be put to death by sending him to England and instructing the King there to accomplish the task. However, Hamlet is suspicious and reads the letter that he was to take to the King of England, which carries the request by Claudius for Hamlet’s execution. Hamlet escapes the fate decided for him by rewriting Claudius’ letter, substituting his name with the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Therefore, instead of Hamlet, the other two characters are put to death. Upon gaining the knowledge that Hamlet never actually reached England, Claudius brings Laertes into the plan. Laertes, who is already enraged over the death of his father, is persuaded to kill Hamlet with a poisoned rapier during a duel.

Meanwhile Ophelia, upon hearing of her father’s murder by Hamlet, falls insane and commits suicide by drowning. At her funeral, grieving Laertes jumps into the grave, followed by Hamlet. They have a consequent fight right in the grave and Hamlet later apologizes for such crude behavior. However, with an already existent ulterior motive, Laertes challenges him to a duel, which Hamlet accepts. Since the resultant duel was not supposed to be fair and impartial in spirit, the duel instrument is poisoned. After the first half where Hamlet emerges victorious, the King uses his backup plan. He poisons a cup of wine and offers it to Hamlet. Hamlet refuses the wine. However, the Queen drinks it before the King can stop her. As a result of the potent poison, she dies. During the second half of the fight, both Hamlet and Laertes are hit by the poisoned rapier. However, before they succumb to the poison, Laertes announces to the audience that both he and Hamlet are injured by the poisonous weapon for which the King is to be held responsible. And Hamlet lunges at the King with the rapier and kills him. This culminates in the end of the tragic play with Horatio’s farewell speech to his dead friend as the closing words. The themes stated above are incorporated within the dialogues throughout the play. This paper deals with separate themes in a distinct manner.

DECAY AND DISEASE

In the opening moments of the play, the reference is made to the sickness a.k.a figurative disease of the heart and the soul. The references to the theme of disease and poison are made throughout the play in order to depict sickness of heart that when engulfs an individual or an object; incongruence with nature and tangible distress is displayed in the least. In addition, other acute forms of emotional imbalances result in most irrational and inhuman behavior. Moreover the sickness of heart is also shown as an omen or signal of things to come. As Francisco states right in the beginning, “’Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart” (1.1.9) to convey his distress. A little later, Horatio makes an analogy to the sickness of the moon to convey that he viewed the appearance of the ghost as an omen for what lay ahead. When Horatio describes the moon that “Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse” (1.1.120), he is referring to the conditions in Rome just before the murder of Julius Caesar. He believes that the appearance of the Ghost is a portent to Denmark, as the sick moon was a portent to Rome. Sickness is also identified with mental and physical health and disease. Later, as the King Claudius scornfully narrates the thoughts spoken by Fortinbras “by our late dear brother’s death”/ our state to be disjoint and out of frame”, (1.2.19-20), he points towards not only Denmark, but also its state of health. A little later he refers to disease as ignorance explaining that the King of Norway is “impotent and bedrid” (1.2.29) and so he does not know that Fortinbras is about to attack Denmark.

There are places where disease is referred to as a universal phenomenon. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet says of the general state of the world, “things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it” (1.2.136-137). He feels that the whole world is diseased. This is a clear development in the structure of the play. First the disease felt by an individual on a micro level for himself (Francisco words) then disease felt as possessing meaning in states of things, then it is referred to as a phenomenon that describes the state of a nation and finally, in a progression, as a phenomenon that describes the state of the world. The pattern is carried throughout the play, thus forming the cradle of the play to indicate that there is always a sign that indicates that there is something wrong with the whole process and this sign is referred to as ‘disease’. As Laertes says to Ophelia “ The canker galls the infants of the spring/ Too oft before their buttons to be disclosed” (1.3.30-40), nature displays inherent signs that indicate towards the end. Laertes warns her away from her relationship with Hamlet. The “canker” is a worm, and to “gall” is to break the skin. “Infants of the spring” is metaphorical for early spring flowers, and their “buttons” are their unopened buds. In Laertes’ view, Ophelia is the young, innocent bud. The “canker” or worm is her love for Hamlet. Since Hamlet cannot marry Ophelia, he can only break her heart. Then she would resemble the flower bud, which has been eaten by a canker, hollowing out her heart. Worse, she could be seduced by Hamlet and be publicly shamed. Then that same worm that had hollowed out her heart would have broken the surface, ruining her reputation. This is a lucid description of disease indicating that there is something inherently wrong with the development of love without certain constants that can tarnish the much-coveted outward veneer. (This image of a disease working its way from inside to outside is repeated when the Ghost describes how Claudius’ poison worked within his body). Later in the play, a reference is made again to the disease as a phenomenon, “some vicious mole of nature” (1.4.24) that works from inside to destroy the outward reputation of a nation or an individual. In the very next scene, the ghost speaks of how poison works from within to create tarnish the outward appearance.

Hamlet following the Ghost into the dark indicates that disease has engulfed the state of Denmark: here disease being a portent. As Marcellus states “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90). Coming back to the mutilation of outward appearance by induction of a disease, the ghost describes his death, “ Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole, / With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, / And in the porches of my ears did pour / The leperous distilment (1.5.61-64). The poison inducted a disease that turned his blood into a harmful liquid, which in turn tarnished his outward appearance by giving scabs and sores.

Moreover, disease is not alone a function of evil but might also emanate from goodness. This might be an indirect reference to his mother who is probably not as evil as Hamlet’s uncle but that got swayed in the moment. In the words of Hamlet while he is bantering with Polonius, “For if the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing a carrion” (2.2.181-182). The central point to this theme is that disease has different ways to manifests itself signaling a number of things in a number of ways. However, the challenge is to eliminate the disease and reverse or cure the decay that sets in as a result.

APPEARANCE AND REALITY

The central point in introducing copious ways of deception and falsehoods is to communicate to the audience the reality of this life, which does not evolve out of inherently present goodness and truth but out of eliminating the falsehoods and evil even at the expense of a portion of the former.

The usage of this theme begins with the appearance of the ghost, which is not a reality but appears to be so. Horatio emphasizes the point that the nature of a ghost is such that it “usurps” a right that belongs to humans alone thereby creating deception its very form. “ What art thou that usurp’st this time of night, / Together with that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march?” (1.1. 46-49). The Ghost has brought horror to the peaceful night in which there was “not a mouse stirring,” and the Ghost has wrongfully usurped the “form” of an admired king. In order to eliminate this deception, it is necessary to cure the evil, which in this case is a reference to the deeds of the King Claudius. Later in the next scene, Hamlet upon hearing of the ghost suspects too that there is a deception in his form. In his view, the ghost’s appearance is pointing towards uncovering the truth from the shrouds of deception. “ Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes” (1.2.256-257).

Upon meeting the ghost, Hamlet too is horrified. In appearance or form, the ghost is just a being in his father’s face. However, in reality it is a dead soul floating because it is not at peace with himself depicting all the nuances of death itself. “ Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death, / have burst their cerements” (1.4.47-48). Hamlet thus cries. The Ghost appears in armor, but in imagination there is the “ponderous and marble jaws” of the sepulcher (a stone coffin) rise, and out comes the dead one, trailing strips of white cloth (the cerements).

Later on, the concept of deception is broadened to include human behaviors. As Polonius says, in an attempt to convey his ability to discover the real truth about his son’s behavior in France, “And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, / With windlasses and assays of bias, / By indirections find directions out” (2.1.61-63). The theme of deception progresses in usage to include crafty methods of extracting truth where asking for and telling the truth both are impossible phenomena. Speaking of Hamlet, the King tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “ To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather, / So much as from occasion you may glean, / Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him thus” (2.2.14-17). King Claudius is using deception and shrewdness to find out the truth about Hamlet’s apparent insanity. He needs to know if Hamlet suspects the truth about King Hamlet’s death, but he misleads Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that whatever it is that’s wrong with Hamlet, it must be something other than his father’s death, something “to us unknown.” Also, the King wants Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to conceal their real intentions. They are not supposed to just ask Hamlet what’s wrong, but hang out with him, and “draw him on to pleasures,” and see what they can pick up without Hamlet actually knowing that they’re trying to pick up anything. However, the element of uncovering the deception is introduced when Hamlet catches them offhand by asking, “Were you not sent for?” (2.2.274). Hamlet asks this of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to their surprise and consternation. They were supposed to probe his mind, but he has turned the tables on them, and already possessing the knowledge about his father’s murder, is able to detect the real reason behind their apparently friendly visit. Hence he implies that they are spies for the king. In the same spirit, Hamlet accounts the tale of ‘Aeneas’ to narrate the deception behind the murder in the tale (using it as an analogy). “The rugged Pyrrhus…/ When he lay couched in the ominous horse” (2.2.452-454). Thus begins Hamlet’s recitation of ‘Aeneas’ tale to Dido, . . . especially when he speaks of Priam’s slaughter. “ Pyrrhus comes out of the horse and kills “old grandsire Priam”.

Hamlet has been called a “claustrophobic” play because of the ways the different characters spy on one another, but “spying” is only one form of deception in the play. There is also Claudius, the incestuous fratricide, playing the part of the good king, and Hamlet himself decides to “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.189). The play has put Prince Hamlet in a position to see through all of this deception and to discover the truth, although, to discover the truth, Hamlet himself must use deception.

FORTUNE AND PROVIDENCE

Where the events occurring in the beginning of the play are characterized by deceit and deception, the latter half is symbolic of fate’s hand in twists and turns of events. In the beginning, Horatio cries out to the Ghost, “If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, / Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid, / O, speak” (1.1.133-135). Horatio is urging the ghost to speak and to divulge any information that he might know. This suggests that fate is not inevitable. A little earlier, however, Horatio seems almost certain that the appearance of the Ghost is a terrible portent, similar to that time in Rome, just before “the mightiest Julius fell” when “The graves stood tenet less and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets” (1.1.115- 116). This shows that though the earlier events are characterized by deception, fate is always in the background more prominent later on in the twist of events. Here Horatio conceives of fate as a disaster that threatens a whole country.

In the course of commenting about how just one fault can ruin a man’s reputation (which has been stated in the mention of earlier themes), Hamlet correlates that the fault can be “nature’s livery, or fortune’s star” (1.4.32). In other words, the theme is related to the development in the theory that the fate plays an important part in determining an individual’s actions and the outcomes of those actions. However, intentions are clearly an outcome of man’s own thought processes. This explains the murder of King Hamlet where Claudius had certain intentions and fate aided him. However, fate intervened and turned against the King and brought a twist to the events with the sending of the ghost. However, Hamlet’s thinking seems to be that the fault is something that happens to the man, rather than something that he deliberately chooses. This might explain his delay in seeking revenge from his uncle because the fault might have “happened to him”. Hamlet is shown to believe in the turn of events as guided by fate. A little later in the same scene, when his friends are trying to keep him from following the Ghost, because the Ghost may be an evil spirit, Hamlet exclaims, “My fate cries out, / And makes each petty artery in this body / As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve” (1.4.81-83). This theme is further developed into the structure of the play to include more characters who reinforce the significance of fate to provide an explanation of the latter events, for instance the tragedy of Prince Hamlet’s death, which also signifies death of truth and righteousness. Other characters such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also display an understanding of fate and its effects on individual lives. Upon Hamlet’s greeting them and asking after them, Guildenstern answers, “Happy, in that we are not over-happy, on fortune’s cap we are not the very button” (2.2.228- 229). Of course, the button is at the top of the cap. Hamlet then guesses that they are not the soles on Fortune’s shoes, either, and this leads to Guildenstern’s joke that he and Rosencrantz live in Fortune’s “privates.” Hamlet responds, “O, most true; she is a strumpet” (2.2.235-236). This was actually not just a joke but a prevalent concept about the ways of Fortune or Providence. It was a common idea of the time that Fortune resembles a whore in its treatment of human beings in that she is most likely to screw lives rather than aid in the form of good luck. This theme is present in the entire script to develop explanations for the climax. Later in the same scene, the theme comes up again. First Player is reciting a piece that Hamlet has requested, about the death of “old grandsire Priam” at the hands of “hellish Pyrrhus.” After First Player has described the merciless killing, he comments:

“Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods, In general synod take away her power; Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel, And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven, As low as to the fiends!” (2.2.493-497).

Here the fortune is depicted with a wheel. The wheel is upright, and Lady Fortune stands beside it, keeping it spinning. People are often trying to jump on to the wheel, so that they will rise up, but those on the top of the wheel are about to be thrown off the other side. The idea is that the destinies are merely random, and it is foolish to attempt to change that through human effort. At first things might seem to work out but if fate has something else stored for an individual then even the highest intelligence and brilliant planning and cunning cannot accomplish results. The First Player’s speech asks the gods to change all that, so that justice will rule the world, not chance. Again this is an accurate description of the developments of the play.

REVENGE

The concept of revenge is introduced in its most traditional form: as is socially acceptable. “An eye for an eye…”. The ghost tells Hamlet that it is his duty to take revenge, “ So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear” (1.5.7). A moment later, the Ghost repeats the message, but more strongly. He says that if Hamlet ever loved his father, he will “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.25). Hamlet promises to prove his love and do his duty. He tells the Ghost to tell the story of the murder, and the revenge will follow, “Haste me to know’t, / May sweep to my revenge” (1.5.29-31).

However there is a shift to deliberating rather than taking immediate action. In enacting the play, Hamlet realizes that he is still pondering the issue and calls himself a coward. He tries to work himself up into the white heat of hatred. But as he is calling King Claudius a “bloody, bawdy villian,” Hamlet realizes that he's still talking, rather than doing, “O, vengeance! Why, what an ass am I!” (2.2.581-582). Despite all of this, Hamlet decides that instead of taking revenge right away, he will find out if the Ghost is really telling the truth. This is the first time he has expressed any doubt about the Ghost, so it looks like he feels that he ought to take revenge, but does not believe in it.

CONCLUSION

The play is characterized by the apparent notion of revenge within the central theme of “To be or not to be” and within the context of the minor and diverging themes. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s way of communicating that even the most righteous decisions are not easy to take. Moreover, being right does guarantee success. However, it is important and almost a duty to uncover deceptions for the truth and cure the world of its various diseases. While attempting to do this, an individual might encounter either Fortune’s help or wrath.

REFERENCES

  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 1999. 

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