Central Question of the Play
How does an individual react when he develops an obsession with destroying the powerful force ruling his country, yet risks experiencing psychological estrangement, occurring at multiple levels within himself, if he attempts to destroy that force? This is the central question that Shakespeare explores in his play Hamlet, which is a character study of an individual harboring just such an obsession, entailing just such a risk.
That Hamlet is obsessed with destroying the powerful force ruling his country (Claudius) is plainly evident in the play. But while this obsession initiates Hamlet’s behavior, it is his additional realization, that he risks psychological estrangement occurring on multiple levels as a result of trying to carry out his obsession, that shapes his behavior into the form that the audience sees, one that seems bizarre and incomprehensible.
The Nature of Hamlet’s Obsession
The reasons for Hamlet’s obsession with exacting revenge against Claudius are fairly straightforward. The ghost of Hamlet Sr. informed Hamlet that Claudius killed Hamlet Sr. and thus usurped him from his throne. In doing so, he emasculated Hamlet by robbing him of his central role model of masculinity, namely his father. He also committed the moral and political sin of regicide, and the familial sin of killing his brother and subsequently sleeping with his wife. Claudius also deprived Hamlet of his rightful kingship, since Hamlet was second in line after Hamlet Sr. In addition, Hamlet now knows that his love of his mother is corrupted since she is affectionate towards his emasculating enemy.
The Nature of Hamlet’s Risk of Psychological Estrangement
In attempting to kill Claudius, Hamlet risks enduring estrangement occurring within his self at multiple psychological levels. There are primarily five such levels of estrangement:
1. Religious estrangement: Hamlet feels self-actualized from following basic religious principles of living. This is shown by his lamentation that the everlasting had fixed his cannon against self-slaughter, thus preventing Hamlet from committing suicide at a time when he felt like doing so. If Hamlet were to kill Claudius, he would be violating a central religious principle against murdering another human being. This would make him feel guilt at having violated religious coda, thus representing estrangement at the level of his religious consciousness.
2. Moral estrangement: Hamlet is also principled in a moral, or more generally a normative, sense. To kill a king would mean violating his internal conviction against committing crimes that might harm the hierarchical order of a state’s government. His generally principled nature is shown by his refusal to gather together a mob to oust Claudius, as Laertes attempts to do later in the play, even though he knew that he had the ability to do so. The fact that he knew this is shown by the fact that Claudius explicitly knew this of Hamlet. One may safely assume that Hamlet’s understanding of how politics works is virtually identical to that of Claudius and Hamlet Sr. The general similarity in how these blood relatives think and feel emerges from both of them professing their psychological reliance on Gertrude’s support of them.
3. Estrangement from countrymen: It is true that Hamlet has both the capacity to organize a mob of supporters to overthrow Claudius and is loved by most of his countrymen (to the point where, as Claudius admits, Claudius cannot openly think, feel or act in a hostile manner towards Hamlet). However, Hamlet is unable to organize such a mob for this purpose due to his principled nature, which prohibits him from doing so. Without this option, the only way for him to avenge his father’s death is by himself alone taking action against Claudius. Essentially, then, he is one man up against a king and his army of soldiers, spies and friends. Against such odds, he faces the serious risk that palace intrigue could work against him. A suspicious Claudius could, for example, have some of Hamlet’s colleagues in the royal household go out and spy on him, or assassinate him. Thus, in attempting to kill Claudius, Hamlet risks estrangement in the form of his former colleagues of the royal household turning against him. Claudius could also have some of Hamlet’s friends try to kill him. This represents Hamlet’s risk of feeling estrangement from having his former friends turn against him. Also, Hamlet’s friends and colleagues do not know why Claudius deserves execution; they have no knowledge of his crime, and Hamlet either lacks the proof or the nerve to inform them of the crime. Thus, in trying to kill Claudius, Hamlet faces an estranging sense of unease from engaging in an endeavor of which his friends and colleagues feel is gravely immoral and unacceptable.
4. Estrangement from his Mother: This is probably the most important form of estrangement that Hamlet risks feeling in attempting to kill Claudius. There are several points to be said about this. In order to kill Claudius, Hamlet must, of course, realize that Claudius killed his father. In doing so, however, he must also realize the self-unsettling fact that his mother unwittingly fell in love with such a vile man, a man who not only is immoral but has successfully emasculated Hamlet by killing his father. In killing Claudius he also risks estrangement from her, since she might forever view Hamlet as the man who killed her lover and a just king. After all, she might never believe in Claudius’ guilt, either from Hamlet not being able to convince her of his guilt, or because a sense of psychological denial might prevent her from realizing this fact about Claudius. And even if she does realize it, she will feel hurt. Just as Claudius and Hamlet Sr. feel pained by Gertrude’s hurt, so would Hamlet, who as a blood relative to the other men thinks and feels similarly to them. For this reason, Hamlet feels inhibited from deliberately destroying the man his beloved mother loves. There is also the prospect that a suspicious Claudius could influence a naive Gertrude to hate Hamlet, or to approve of or to support palace intrigue against the potential assassin. In this case, Hamlet would feel the double sting of his mother, who once loved him, becoming both his enemy and Claudius’ supporter. Another form of motherly estrangement that Hamlet would feel from killing Claudius would result from him contradicting his mother’s expectation of what his personality is like. Gertrude believes that Hamlet is “sweet.” But by killing Claudius, Hamlet would be cruel. This would disturb her self-actualizing conception of the nature of Hamlet’s personality, and the realization that this disturbance has occurred would be to Hamlet a source of psychological estrangement.
5. Estrangement from women in general: Just as Hamlet’s countrymen and colleagues might turn against him as a result of palace intrigue, so could his lover, Ophelia. In addition, in realizing the fact of Claudius’ crime (which he must do in order to avenge his father’s murder), he realizes some “facts” about women that disturb him. Specifically, the “facts” that Hamlet realizes are that women might, because of their emotional characteristics, unwittingly commit serious, immoral mistakes and that women put on men psychological pressures that can interfere with men’s ability to do what is morally right. Gertrude’s marrying of Claudius the murderer, as well as how her psychological impact on Hamlet’s mind hinders his ability to kill Claudius, are manifestations of these facts. These facts disturb him by making him feel weary and estranged of womens’ emotional weaknesses, which in turn make him feel weary of women in general. That weariness of women threatens his sense of self-actualization, because it is much more difficult for him to carry on a normal sex life if he feels estranged by women in general; a heterosexual man who is unable to carry on a normal sex life with women feels anti-self-actualized.
Taken together, these five illustrate the risk Hamlet faces that, in attempting to kill Claudius, he will likely experience psychological estrangement occurring on multiple levels. He would feel estrangement of his bond of motherly love, his bond of womanly love, his bond of friendship, his bondage to his religious and normative principles, and his bond to his professional colleagues. So many different forms of estrangement occurring simultaneously would completely destroy his psychological sense of identity. The realization that he faces such enormous pressures shapes his seemingly bizarre behavior in the play, and makes him struggle against the awesome weight of his obligation to destroy Claudius. All of this, of course, is in addition to his basic fear of being executed if his attempts at killing Claudius go awry.
The Nature of Hamlet’s Thought Process
After the ghost informs Hamlet of Claudius’ crime, Hamlet realizes that he is in a catch-22 situation psychologically. If he does not kill Claudius, he may forever be locked in the painfully stressful mental state in which his obsession puts him. But if he attempts or succeeds in killing Claudius, he risks experiencing psychological estrangement so intense that it could destroy his sense of identity. Whether he does or doesn’t kill Claudius, he faces enormous psychological pain.
Why He Feigns Insanity
Hamlet feigns insanity because it allows him to do several things that he otherwise would be unable to do:
With respect to Ophelia, Hamlet would like to express his intense, irrepressible anger towards her without arising suspicion in her or in others that he is in a hostile rational mental state. This would help prevent others in the royal household from speculating that Hamlet was rationally planning hostile actions such as killing Claudius. (The specific nature of this anger will be discussed later).
With Gertrude, Hamlet would also like to express his anger towards her, as well as possibly kill her or make her go insane, without arising suspicion in others that he possesses a hostile rational mental state. In addition, he would like to confront Gertrude with the premises of Claudius’ crime, without her thinking that he actually believes in them, so that she might somehow think about them and realize that Claudius is guilty. Thus, she will no longer love Claudius (thus providing Hamlet with the psychological freedom he needs to kill him) and she will not believe that Hamlet believes that Claudius is guilty. If she believes this, she might purposely or inadvertently pass on this fact to others, leading to Hamlet’s demise. Also, however, Hamlet does not want to confront Gertrude with the crime in a rational way, thus forcing her to make a difficult choice between Hamlet and Claudius, with disastrous psychological results for Hamlet if she chooses against him.
With respect to friends or colleagues, Hamlet would like to express his anger towards them without arising suspicion that he is in a hostile rational mental state. He also wants to be able to punish them or hurt them for supporting or potentially supporting Claudius, while going free on basis of insanity.
Feigning insanity also allows him to express his anger towards Claudius, while expecting lenient treatment.
Why He Stages the Play
Hamlet’s decision to stage a play in order to “catch the conscience of the King” results from his obsession with gathering information about whether or not Claudius’ committed the crime. Why is Hamlet “obsessed” with doing this, as opposed to merely being “interested” in gathering such information? The reason is that whatever Hamlet learns from such information, that is, whether it proves or disproves Claudius’ guilt, Hamlet will feel great psychological relief from the information.
If he disproves to himself that Claudius killed the king, then Hamlet will be instantly relieved of his obsession to kill Claudius, along with the intense psychological stress it induces within him. At worst, he will still feel the substantial but much more manageable stress he felt, before he met the ghost, from his response to his mother’s over-hasty marriage to Claudius.
In addition, proving that Claudius is guilty has great psychological advantages for Hamlet. For one thing, such proof will prove to him that his endeavor to kill Claudius is justified. Thus, he will not be engaging in his risky, dangerous undertaking for no reason. Such proof will also spare a principled Hamlet from the agonizing possibility of engaging in a crime that violates many moral, political and religious principles if it is not justified. Such proof will also justify Hamlet’s inner maintenance of the painful sense of resentment he feels towards Claudius, Gertrude and others within the royal household. It will also provide Hamlet with the opportunity to use hard evidence to prove to his friends and loved ones that Claudius is guilty. This might make them support Hamlet in his endeavor, thus providing him with the psychological support he needs to carry it out.
Thus, disproving the ghost’s message promises Hamlet instant relief from his pain, and proving this message will nurture him by enabling him to justify his obsession and to possibly use such proof as a means of acquiring peer support of his endeavor. From Hamlet’s psychological standpoint, then, obtaining further information about whether or not the ghost was true to his word is a win-win undertaking.
Why Hamlet Berates Ophelia
Hamlet (see estrangement #5 above) sees in his mother a manifestation of the premise that an unthinking woman, guided by her emotions, might through her actions inflict great stress upon men. At the same time, such a woman might unknowingly make it very difficult for such men to deal with that stress. The enormity of the stress that Gertrude puts upon Hamlet makes Hamlet develop a substantial resentment towards her. Since to Hamlet, Gertrude embodies the weaknesses of women in general, Hamlet’s resentment towards Gertrude is also projected against women in general. Ordinarily, Hamlet would not greatly resent women, but since in this case they have cornered him into an extremely stressful situation, he becomes exasperated. In his state of stress, the petty resentments he might have previously harbored towards woman for their “mercurial” emotional nature turns into a full-fledged resentment or hatred.
This explains why Hamlet berates Ophelia to the point of driving her insane and towards her untimely death. Ophelia serves as a punching bag, representing women in general, which Hamlet attacks as an outlet for his general resentment of women. He also attacks her as an outlet in general for the tremendous stress his obsession causes within him. She is a convenient target because, being a woman who loves him, she does not fight back against Hamlet (in addition, Hamlet’s insanity also prevents her from doing so). In addition, the straining of his love bond towards Ophelia, although a form of estrangement, helps to pre-empt the even greater psychological pain that he would endure if she were to turn against him from knowledge of his obsession. After all, if the love between them were weakened, the impact of that kind of love rejection followed by her support of Claudius would be lessened. And, of course, this behavior is an excellent means of creating the impression of insanity. Also, however, such rejection, by eliminating love from his consciousness, may harden his personality to the point where he is better able to hate Claudius and to exact revenge against him.
Why He Treats Gertrude the Way He Does
Hamlet wants to achieve two goals with respect to Gertrude. One is to express his anger against her, which he harbors for essentially the same reasons that he had it for Ophelia. Two is to somehow induce her to stop loving Claudius. This latter development would eliminate the possibility that Hamlet might feel estrangement from motherly love in attempting to kill or from succeeding in killing Claudius. After all, in killing Claudius, Hamlet would not be killing the man his beloved mother loves. Gertrude would also not condemn Hamlet for killing or attempting to kill Claudius if she did not love Claudius. Thus, Hamlet would have the psychological freedom he would need to kill Claudius and thus relieve him of his obsession
Hamlet meets goal one by treating Gertrude angrily, as his feigned insanity permits him to do.
However, goal two is decidedly more difficult. One means of achieving it would be for Hamlet to kill his mother or make her go insane, which he has the license to do thanks to his feigned insanity. Thus, she would stop loving Claudius. However, he cannot do so because he harbors a basic psychological inhibition against destroying his own mother. Also, he needs his mother’s love much more than he needs Ophelia’s love. While Ophelia’s love is self-actualizing since it is a lover’s love, Gertrude’s love is much more self-actualizing and essential for him since it is that of his mother. (The evidence for this arbitrary reliance on his mother’s love comes from his father and Claudius both professing of their powerful need for Gertrude’s love and approval.. Hamlet, being their blood relative, will likely feel the same). To destroy his mother would be to attack his own identity.
Thus, since Hamlet cannot induce his mother to stop loving Claudius by killing her or driving her insane, as he did with Ophelia, he must somehow bring about this stoppage while leaving her alive and sane. He attempts to do this by confronting his mother with the premises of Claudius’ crime, in the hopes that she will somehow think about them, realize that Claudius is guilty, and thus stop loving Cladius, all without thinking that Hamlet believes these premises on the inside. Ordinarily, Hamlet would not do this because in confronting her with these premises he would be obliging her to choose between he and Claudius, a decision that would be psychologically disastrous for Hamlet if she chose against him. However, since Hamlet confronts her with these premises in a state of feigned insanity, she has no reason to believe that the rational Hamlet believes them on the inside. Thus, she will not be obliged to make that difficult choice because the circumstances that would cause that obligation, namely her realization that the rational Hamlet believes in them and that she knows that he knows that she knows he believes in them, don’t exist, thanks to Hamlet’s feigned insanity.
Ultimately, even this attempt fails. Gertrude fails to respond to these premises with recognition of them and a subsequent conclusion that she no longer loves Claudius. What happens next?
Why He Procrastinates
Hamlet procrastinates in the play, such as during the protracted Players’ scene or during the clown’s graveyard scene, for the essential reason that his psychological feelings confuse his ability to confront his destiny. He finds it very difficult to decide whether to kill Claudius or let him be, due to his catch-22 psychological situation.
The Play’s Ending in Light of the Preceding Discussion
The penultimate decision that Hamlet makes with regard to Claudius is to not kill Claudius, but to let Claudius be and let fate and divine forces take over his awesome responsibility. He makes this decision mainly as a means of quickly escaping the intense psychological stress under which he finds himself and, instead, entering the much more psychologically peaceful state of earthly denial. Although this reason may seem arbitrary, Shakespeare clearly emphasizes the importance of such a motivation to escape pain, per se, in Hamlet’s decision-making. He does so by emphasizing the Player’s scene, which, although it does not efficiently advance the plot, emphasizes that Hamlet is obsessed with gathering information about Claudius, and therefore that Hamlet is obsessed with disproving Claudius’ guilt. The concrete advantage of disproving such guilt is that it quickly resolves Hamlet’s pain, thus showing that the sheer motivation to escape the pain of his obsession is prominent in Hamlet’s decision-making calculus. Escaping in denial also seems to be Hamlet’s best option at this point since, having previously confronted Gertrude with the premises of Claudius’ crime, she apparently failed to respond to these premises with recognition of them and contempt for Claudius.
Ultimately, of course, Hamlet decides to kill Claudius. He does so for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, his mother, in drinking Claudius’ drink and thus poisoning herself, becomes conscious of Claudius’ treachery. She communicates her knowledge of this to Hamlet (“The Drink, the drink, I am poisoined”) and thus her implied withdrawal of all support of Claudius. This eliminates the threat of motherly estrangement, virtually paving the way for Hamlet to kill Claudius. Also, however, Laertes informs Hamlet of his knowledge of Claudius’ treachery in the very end, as well as his distaste for Claudius, thus removing the threat of friend estrangement. Previously, as well, Hamlet had shown Horatio the proof of Claudius’ treachery, thus further mollifying this type of estrangement threat. In addition, Claudius’ treachery is itself immoral, thus justifying Hamlet to kill him on principle. Also, the convenience and suddenness by which Hamlet came upon his opportunity to kill Claudius (Claudius prepared the poison, weapons, setting, etc.) allowed Hamlet to kill Claudius on impulse, thus sparing him of potential indecisiveness that protracted consideration might cause him. Finally, since Hamlet was mortally wounded, he had nothing to lose.
Brief comments on Other Plot Developments
1. The probable dramatic purpose of showing Hamlet in the doldrums prior to knowing of his father’s murder is to lend credibility to the idea that Hamlet’s obsession causes him intense psychological stress. After all, one might imagine that if Hamlet could get this depressed before hearing of his father’s murder, he would likely become extremely high-strung once he learns of his murder.
2. In theory, Hamlet could have killed Claudius while feigning insanity. Thus, he would escape estrangement, because his people would blame his action on his insanity, not on malicious intent. He does not do this, however, because he is subconsciously inhibited from deliberately killing the man whom his beloved mother loves. When he lunges at Polonius behind the curtain, thinking that the person behind the curtain might have been Claudius, he does not know exactly who is behind the curtain and thus, had he killed Claudius, he could not have done so deliberately.
3. Although Hamlet feigns insanity in order to throw off suspicion of his true, hostile intentions to kill Claudius, there is one person who sees through them, namely Claudius. One might believe, that since Hamlet thinks like Claudius, that Hamlet would not believe that feigning insanity will throw off suspicion, since he knows that Claudius will eventually harbor that suspicion. This is true, but one must keep in mind the term “eventually.” Hamlet knew that Claudius would not harbor this suspicion until later (as opposed to immediately if Hamlet had not feigned his insanity). Thus, it was part of Hamlet’s calculation that feigning insanity would not permanently remove suspicion of his ulterior motives, but simply buy him time to prepare his murder of Claudius and to vent his anger at those whom he resented. In addition, Claudius’ eventual development of this suspicion and his eventual assassination attempt at Hamlet are both dramatic devices meant to conclude the play in a manner that re-enforces the themes associated with Hamlet’s response to his obsession. After all, they lead to the final assassination scene that re-enforces these themes.
4. An important theme in the play is the inability of many of Hamlet’s people in the royal household to understand or psychologically accept the information that proves Claudius’ crime. This inability strengthens the risk of psychological estrangement that Hamlet might feel in attempting to kill Claudius or succeeding in doing so. There are various manifestations of this theme. Gertrude’s lack of recognition when Hamlet confronts her with the premises of Claudius’ crime is one. Polonius’ inability to understand why Hamlet seems insane is another, which reflects his general naivete in understanding things. The main dramatic purpose of the play’s opening scene is arguably to illustrate this theme. In it, Shakespeare portrays Hamlet’s friends are naively friendly and loyal (and thus psychologically too na?ve to accept the information proving Claudius’ guilt, except for Horatio in particular). They are also unable to grab the ghost physically, and cannot induce the ghost to tell them of his message, as if only Hamlet has the ability to deal responsibly and effectively with the ghost’s information.
Results of this theme include Hamlet treacherously changing the names on the letter calling for his execution to actually call for Rosencranz and Guildensterns’ execution. It is Hamlet’s revenge for the resentment he feels against them for spying on Hamlet and supporting Claudius. This morally double standard behavior results from his colleagues’ misunderstanding Hamlet’s motivation and justification for his behavior. Hamlet’s killing of Polonius is also a manifestation of this result.. If Polonius hadn’t misjudged Hamlet, he would not have been in his risky position behind the curtain at that time in the first place. Thus, the misunderstanding of information by his fellows in the royal household inadvertently cause them to engage in estranging behavior vis-?-vis Hamlet, inducing Hamlet to respond violently and resentfully towards them.
Central Themes of the Play
>From the above we derive the central themes of the play. Among them are:
1) The intense psychological pain that Hamlet’s obsession, per se, causes him.
2) The ignorance and obliviousness of his countrymen to Claudius’ guilt.
3) His tendency to feign insanity in order to conceal his obsession and to be able to express the intense feelings brought about within him by the obsession and the lack of support he faces from his countrymen in carrying it out.
4) His obsession with gathering information to prove or disprove Claudius’ guilt.
5) That the ignorance of his countrymen to Claudius’ guilt is an important obstacle Hamlet faces in trying to destroy Claudius.
6) The loneliness that Hamlet feels from having an enormous responsibility but being largely alone in knowing about it and shouldering it.
7) That if Hamlet does discover proof of Claudius’ guilt, he must be careful to whom and under what circumstance he communicates it. Otherwise, he may be informed upon and subsequently destroyed.
8) Sheer procrastination is one way for Hamlet to deal with the stress of his catch-22 psychological situation.
9) His tendency to violently profane Ophelia and Gertrude’s love for him.
10) That Hamlet, despite his desire to extract revenge against Claudius, is also actively looking for ways to relieve himself of the psychological pain that harboring his obsession causes him, even if seeking psychological refuge in such ways might mean giving up on the endeavor altogether.
11) That Hamlet’s awareness, of the high risk of personal estrangement that he faces from his endeavor to extract revenge, is for him a source of great stress.
12) That the ignorance of his people of Claudius’ crime and their discomfort at knowing it may cause them to commit the morally double-standard act of rejecting Hamlet and supporting Claudius.
13) That despite his fear of rejection by his countrymen, Hamlet still has the capacity to take out on them the anger he feels against them for potentially or actually committing this double-standard act.
Virtually every scene or element in the play relates to these themes. In other words, the purpose of Hamlet is simply to delineate and comment upon an individual’s psychological response to feeling the rare type of obsession that Hamlet feels in the play.. The above themes are phenomena associated with that response, or with Shakespeare’s model of that response.