Hamlet And His Many Roles Essay, Research Paper
In the Shakespearean play, Hamlet, the title character portrays many roles, and all
of these roles intersect in one scene in the play, Act III, scene ii. This scene takes place at
the exact center of the play and if broken up into sections one can see a different aspect of
Hamlet’s personality for each one. The play-within-a-play scene suggests that Hamlet is
putting on his own play and reminds us that in real life, a person can play many roles.
Hamlet plays a different role with each character in the play, such as Polonius, Claudius,
Ophelia, Horatio, and the players. In the play scene, these characters are in the same place
at the same time. Bert States calls Hamlet “a succession of responses to rapidly changing
stimuli” (17). As he reacts with each character, he must move from role to role very
quickly. It can be asked which roles are parts of Hamlet’s true self and which are feigned?
Shakespeare uses references to plays and acting throughout the play to keep in
mind the theme of appearance Vs reality. Hamlet says, “Our indiscretion sometimes
serves us well, when our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us/ There’s a divinity
that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will” (V, ii.lns 8-11). He is referring to the
plot, the plan to alter the Murder of Gonzago, that he had earlier used to catch the
conscience of the king. Hamlet also refers to a play when speaking of his voyage with
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “being thus benetted round with villainies– or I could
make a prologue to my brains, they had begun the play” (V, ii. lns 29-31). Here, Hamlet
is claiming that his brain is working independently of his will and that a play is being, in a
sense, written for him. He is just acting out a role (Fisch 163). And once again, Hamlet
states: “You that look pale and tremble at this chance, that are but mutes or audiences to
this act” (V, ii. lns 339-340). In this quote, upon dying, Hamlet acknowledges that they
have all been taking part in a play.
In the study of Sociology, there is a theory that everyone has a number of roles
that they perform in their lives. Within the play, Hamlet’s most obvious roles are the
grieving son who must avenge his father’s death; Ophelia’s lover and later, arguably, her
damnation; the beloved prince of a proud heritage; the well-educated, sensitive
philosopher; and most obviously within the play: the madman. During the play scene, his
less obvious roles emerge. It can be argued whether these roles give depth to the layers of
Hamlet’s personality, or show how serious his madness had become. These less obvious
roles, which will be discussed more fully, are Hamlet as manipulator, critic, good friend,
comic, jubilant boy, mocking satirist, and revenger.
Hamlet’s role as a manipulator is the most interesting in this scene. It is through
his manipulations that all the other roles emerge. The whole purpose of the play scene is
for Hamlet to judge whether Claudius is guilty or if the ghost is lying. Therefore, Hamlet
must manipulate the events of the scene. Ruth Nevo states: “In the play scene, Hamlet
states his grand exposure of these inquiries” (50). Hamlet’s instructions to the players
reflect his intentions:
For in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. Oh, it offends
me to the soul, to hear a robustious periwig-pate fellow
tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of
the groundlings (III, ii. lns 5-11).
Hamlet is saying that mastery of passion is essential to initiate action, something he has
had much trouble with throughout the play. It is with control of his passion, Hamlet
begins the play scene so that he may “hold the mirror up to nature” (III, ii. ln 22). He will
reveal the inner truth of the guilty. Thus, through Hamlet’s imposed fiction, the Murder
of Gonzago, he will reflect the truth. This is the irony of Hamlet’s manipulations.
Another ironic twist is that while Hamlet will reflect the truth of others, he will mask his
own truth with riddling statements and jokes, Hamlet’s truth being his knowledge of
Claudius’ crime. In the end, the king breaks down and Hamlet’s ploy is successful. It is
his text that the players, the court, the king, and the queen all play. He is the master of
reality, making his will prevail (Nevo 52).
As the scene is broken down, the first role that is seen, besides the manipulator, is
Hamlet the critic. This role emerges as Hamlet is speaking to the players. One will notice
that his feigned or unfeigned, depending on opinion, madness in earlier scenes has been
replaced by calmness and rationality. He speaks as a well-educated nobleman who strives
for classical balance in life. Hamlet wants the players to be moderate and natural in their
depiction’s of life, not exaggerated, yet not dull. The speech that Hamlet gives the players
can also show that Hamlet can only find the balance and the ordered universe he seeks in
fiction. This is one of the three sections of this scene where it can be argued that Hamlet’s
true self peaks out. This may be the case because, with the players who are not involved in
his real life, Hamlet can be at ease and at his best.
After the players leave, Hamlet is left alone with Horatio. His remarks to Horatio
reveal his feelings for him. This is the second time Hamlet’s true self emerges and admits
that he is truly Horatio’s good friend:
…and blest are those whose blood and judgment
are so well commingled that they are not a pipe for
fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please.
Give me that man that is not passion’s slave, and I will
wear him in my heart’s core, aye, in my heart of heart,
as I do thee (III, ii. lns 68-74).
His speech to Horatio “gratifies our hope that Hamlet will pause somewhere in his busy
career of mayhem and self-involvement to acknowledge the services of a dear friend”
(States 188). This speech demonstrates Hamlet’s ability to recognize virtue when he sees
it. He also recognizes and envies Horatio’s ability to refrain from becoming “passion’s
slave.” This speech also proves that Hamlet has told his trusted friend everything about
Claudius and the ghost. Up until now, this had only been assumed.
When the king and queen arrive with the court, Hamlet becomes the comic. He
plays on puns and makes jokes. This is unlike what the court has recently seen from its
melancholy prince, though most of Hamlet’s jokes hide a darker meaning than the court
may realize. The king immediately asks Hamlet how he “fares.” Hamlet playing on the
definition of the word “fare” to also mean “dine,” jokes: “Excellent, i’ faith; of the
chameleon’s dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed: you cannot feed capons so”
(III, ii. lns 93-94). Hamlet replies that he “eats the air,” a pun on the word heir, as
chameleons were thought to do, and that is not a good way to feed capons, castrated male
chickens. This is a hint that he suspects Claudius, in naming him successor, of stuffing him
with promises the way a capon is fattened before being butchered (Fisch 162).
Hamlet also plays the court jester when Polonius reveals he was once an actor.
Polonius announces that he once played Julius Caesar. “I was killed in the Capitol,” he
says, “Brutus killed me.” Hamlet replies, “It was a brute part of him to kill so capitol a
calf there” (III, ii. lns 102-104). He is making a joke, but his pun on Brutus unwittingly
foreshadows the “brute part” he will play later that night in Polonius’ murder.
Hamlet then engages Ophelia in a bantering conversation full of sexual innuendoes:
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs
(III. ii. lns 115-117).
Taken at face value, this conversation seems light and merry, even if it is vulgar.
However, in order to wound his mother, Hamlet makes Ophelia “her proxy, treating her
like a harlot, with deliberate and brutal sexual contempt, forcing their dialogue of
innuendoes to bear the worst constructions” (Nevo 51). Her reactions are cautious and
deferential, suggesting that his changed attitude has her completely dumbfounded. When
she remarks that he is “merry” he seems to become mad again stating: “What should a
man do but be merry? for, look you, how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died
within ’s two hours” (III, ii. lns 123-125). “Nay”, Ophelia replies, “Tis twice two months”
(III, ii. ln 126), provoking Hamlet to a cynical speech on how long a man can hope his
reputation will last after he dies. Ophelia’s remarks cause Hamlet’s jester act to fade and
his melancholy to reappear temporarily. Hamlet is then distracted from this mood by the
start of the play.
After the king betrays himself to Hamlet and the court leaves with him, Hamlet and
Horatio are left alone. Hamlet assumes the role of the jubilant boy. This is the third time
that Hamlet’s true self appears. Hamlet sings:
Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play;
For some must watch, while some must sleep:
Thus runs the world away (III, ii. lns 265-268).
He could not be more delighted, he jokes with Horatio about joining a theater company.
“I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” he declares, and calls for the theater’s
musicians to play their pipes (III, ii. lns 280-281).
Hamlet’s celebration is interrupted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet’s
jokes make it nearly impossible for them to deliver their message, that the queen has sent
for him. With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet switches roles yet again. Here, he
becomes the mocking satirist. Hamlet challenges Guildenstern to play a wooden flute, he
reveals that it is as easy as lying. He also remarks that he knows Guildenstern has been
manipulating him, exactly what Hamlet is guilty of in this scene:
You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops;
you would pluck out the heart of my mystery;
you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass:
and there is much music (III, ii. lns 355-359).
Hamlet is asking if he is easier to play upon than a pipe. He states, “Call me what
instrument you will, though you fret me, you cannot play upon me” (III, ii. lns 361-363)
This is another pun because “frets” are the finger-rests on stringed instruments (Rose
120). Polonius then arrives and Hamlet makes a fool out of him in front of Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern. Hamlet is showing them that although they cannot play upon him, he
can make any of them sound whatever tune he pleases (Rose 120).
The last role that Hamlet portrays is the revenger, tense but quietly determined.
Though one may comment that this is the same as Hamlet the grieving son, there is a
difference. Hamlet as the grieving son, witnessed in earlier scenes, did much whining and
analyzing, but could not decide to act. He is now behaving rationally and with a purpose.
In his last and shortest soliloquy, he states:
Tis now the witching time of night, When churchyards yawn,
and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world:
now I could drink hot blood, and do such business as the
day would quake to look on (III, ii. lns 379-383).
Hamlet has again set himself to the task that he was supposed to have done a long time
ago. Now, instead of the mad passion that he displayed after hearing the ghost’s tale,
Hamlet appears to be ready to attempt a clear, rational path of action. But, remembering
that he must meet with his mother, he reminds himself to be gentle with her.
Hamlet is now apparently at his peak: Claudius has been “convicted,”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been put in their place, Polonius has been made a fool
of, and the ghost has been vindicated. Hamlet has truly been acting in a play all along and
all the pieces are finally fitting together. Hamlet has run out of excuses, at least up until he
comes upon Claudius trying to pray, and he has learned what he needs to know through
his manipulations. It is Hamlet’s rapid shift from role to role that allows him to get what
he needs to know. It also allows the reader to fully understand the differences in Hamlet’s
behavior as he interacts with each character. It is no wonder that the character of Hamlet
has fascinated people for centuries, he could be a cast of characters by himself. The play
scene highlights the significance of each role and what purpose it serves in Hamlet’s quest
for truth and revenge.
Fisch, Harold. Hamlet and the Word: the Covenant Pattern in Shakespeare. New York:
Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1971
Nevo, Ruth. “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging.” Modern Critical
Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. ed. Harold Bloom. New York:
Chelsea House Publishers. 1986.
Rose, Mark. “Reforming the Role.” Modern Critical Interpretations: William
Shakespeare’s Hamlet. ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. ed. Louis B. Wright. New York, NY: Washington Square
States, Harold. Hamlet and the Concept of Character. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins
University Press. 1992.