The central dilemma in Hamlet is the character and life s journey of a man whose mind is in paralysis.
To what extent is this an adequate summary of Hamlet?
Hamlet certainly is a play with complex themes and issues. As we read through the rich script we uncover many dilemmas and issues that have great bearing on the direction of the play, and the consequences of the character s actions.
One such character is, of course, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. It is around this man that the play revolves, and his thoughts and actions are closely followed and developed as the play progresses. It has been said that the central dilemma of the play is that Hamlet s mind is in paralysis, meaning simply that he is incapable of action, his mind incapable of derivative thought.
While this is extremely important for the play, the reason that this occurs can clearly be seen as a more important part of the play. All the other themes contribute to the task of making Hamlet appear paralysed in thought and action. He is not however a man without motive for his apparent indecision, and eventual action.
However what does appear to be the central theme in Hamlet is the revenge tragedy dilemma. This central issue is the seed that has spawned the generation of the other themes of the play. Hamlet s father has been murdered in cold blood by the scheming and adulterous Claudius by pouring poison into King Hamlet s ear while he slept, in order to succeed him to the throne. A ghost in the form of Hamlet s father appears to Hamlet, revealing to him that the King of Denmark is corrupt and a murderer, and that he must revenge his death. However the ghost was very specific in saying that he must revenge his death without implicating his mother, or corrupting himself.
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven
-Act I Scene 5.
The circumstances surrounding the death of his father, and his discovery of the fact through meeting with the ghost, are the reasons for his apparent paralysis of the mind. Hamlet has many issues to face here, the first being the question of ethics revenge and honour versus moral purity. In his soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 2, he questions himself, and asks himself why he fails to act, and asks how a player can fight with such conviction a cause that is not his own, when he, with a cause so worthy of action, does nothing.
what would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have?
-Act II Scene 2
Throughout the play, there is a constant comparison drawn between Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras, both of whom have similar scores to settle, as their fathers have been slain also. These comparisons frequently made between the characters highlights Hamlet s apparent inaction. When Laertes father is killed, he is furious, and is willing to commit the highest form of treason (killing a king) without even gaining the proof that Claudius is indeed the murderer. Fortinbras is ready to invade Denmark, in the name of family honour. The comparisons show the different attitude to the issue of revenge. Hamlet is made to seem the weaker man of the three, he himself questions his own courage his soliloquy in act two. However is can be said that Hamlet is the only one of the three who would wait for the right time to strike, rather than acting purely on impulse.
The next main reason for Hamlet s inaction is his uncertainty of the ghost s true motives. He does not know for certain whether it is really the ghost of his father, or a spirit of another kind.
the spirit I have seen
May be a de il, and the de il hath power
T assume a pleasing shape
Act II Scene 2
As a result of being unsure of the ghost s true motives, he is unsure of Claudius guilt. He cannot bring himself to act on the ghost s words until he is certain that Claudius is guilty. A common feature of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy was that the avenger must wait until a public opportunity appears to prove the villain s guilt. This comes in the form of the players, and Hamlet plans to prepare a play for Claudius depicting the murder of King Hamlet, in order to play on Claudius conscience and determine his guilt.
I ll have these players
Play something like the murther of my father
Before mine uncle. I ll observe his looks,
I ll tent him to the quick: if a do blench,
I know my course
Act II Scene 2
Another common feature of the revenge tragedy theme was that the villain was always hoist with his own petar , or killed as a result of his own evil plan. Shakespeare has provided this in the form of the battle at the end of the play, where Claudius is run through with the poison sword, and made to drink from the chalice he himself poisoned.
When Hamlet receives the grave commission from the ghost, the ghost tells him also that he must not let his course of action implicate his mother or taint his own soul. How can he expose Claudius as a fraud without implicating his adulterous mother? An impossible task for Hamlet.
Another major reason for Hamlet s delay is the fact that if Claudius were to be killed privately, many would see it as an act of ambition for the throne, rather than purifying Denmark. Even his friends, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, believe Hamlet is motivated by ambition.
Hamlet: Denmark is a prison
Rosencrantz: Why, then your ambition makes it one.
Act II Scene 2
Besides this fact, Hamlet wants more than merely Claudius death. He wants Claudius to fall victim to the purgatorial damnation that betook his father. According to the beliefs of the time, this can only be achieved if the deceased are denied their last rites and confessions before they die.
This theme of the revenge tragedy is the reason that the other themes of the play are relevant. It is this theme that links the remainder of the play together, drawing the other themes together.
The theme that most closely relates to the revenge tragedy dilemma is the issue of the corrupting power of evil. The appearance of Claudius marks the beginning of the corruption of Denmark. It is here that the way in which Claudius murdered King Hamlet becomes important. The spreading of the poison from King Hamlet s ear and head to the rest of his body provides a powerful image representing the spread of evil through the State of Denmark. Those closest to the source of evil are corrupted first, namely Gertrude and Polonius, and then slowly the rest of the State.
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears he did pour
The leprous distilment
-Act I Scene 5
The gaining and manipulation of power is another important issue in Hamlet. Claudius has murdered King Hamlet in order to take his place on the throne. When this occurs, and the spread of evil across Denmark begins, we see much manipulation of the right to power happening everywhere. We see Polonius trade his moral dignity, family and honour to maintain his position of power as the King s chief adviser. He uses his own daughter, Ophelia, as a pawn in a political game. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern betray their friend, Hamlet, in order to gain favours with the King. This can be seen as a side issue of Hamlet rather than one directly relating to the central revenge theme. It is, however, a frequently re-occuring theme, and quite clearly an important one if one is to understand Claudius motives for killing King Hamlet, and Polonius for giving his family and morals away at the whim of his King. For this reason a summary not mentioning the issue of the abuse and manipulation of power can hardly be seen as adequate.
Throughout the play, both the characters and the audience is forced to question what is real and what is not. This theme of appearance versus reality is an extremely important one, and is explored in almost every scene of the play. Everything Hamlet encounters in the play is to be questioned by Hamlet and the audience. Firstly the ghost: is it truly the ghost of his father, or an evil spirit? Is Claudius guilty of the murder of King Hamlet, or was his succession to the throne honourable? Can Hamlet trust Ophelia? Can Hamlet trust anybody? This relates closely to the revenge theme as it is one of the major reasons for his delay, because he questions and scrutinises everything and everyone around him. It has been said that there is a general air of uncertainty throughout the play. This is done to make the audience feel that everything is not as it seems.
Seems , Madam? Nay, it is. I know not
-Act I Scene 2
Many of the events that transpire in Hamlet seem largely to be propelled by chance, for instance the discovery of the letter carried by Rosencrantz and Gildenstern that warranted his death, or Hamlet s killing of Polonius. Following the death of his father, Hamlet finds himself questioning the meaning of his life, and whether there is anything really worth living for.
When our deep plots do fall, and that should learn us,
There s a divinity that shapes our ends
-Act V Scene 2
In order to mask his intentions of killing Claudius, Hamlet decides to put on a fake show of madness to make his uncle and others believe he is mad. He lies another important issue of the play: the question of Hamlet s madness. It is important to note here that Hamlet can never be seen as truly insane he never completely loses touch with reality. Even in his most erratic state, after meeting with the ghost, he still has the presence of mind enough to make the decision to put an antic disposition on . However Hamlet displays a feigned madness, in order to conceal his intentions from Claudius and others.
to define true madness,
What is t but to be nothing else but mad?
-Act II Scene 2
The common theme of the revenge tragedy is the thread that joins the other themes and issues together, creating a whole story, rather than a collection of issues. Henceforth it can be said that the revenge of Hamlet s father is the central dilemma in Hamlet. The character and life s journey of a man whose mind is in paralysis is merely another facet, although an important one, of this overall situation. For this reason this statement is not an adequate summary of Hamlet. It describes only one part of a much more complex situation, revolving partially around a central theme of revenge tragedy.