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Provocative, Enigmatic, Popular

Provocative, Enigmatic, Popular

Of all the plays written by Shakespeare, Hamlet has enjoyed the greatest popularity (and perhaps the greatest love) over the years. Its first performances, probably soon after 1600, were successful, and it has seen consistently successful revivals throughout the centuries since. The title role is one that most actors aspire to play, and they regard success in that part as the ultimate achievement of a career. Every schoolboy recognizes the soliloquy beginning "to be, or not to be," and numerous quotations from the play have become cliches of everyday speech.

Hamlet is not only Shakespeare's most popular play, it is generally conceded to be his most provocative and enigmatic one, as witnessed by its thousands of performances in theatres of all nations and ages. (There is a French Hamlet, an English Hamlet, an Italian Hamlet, and a Russian Hamlet, each different in personal and national idiosyncrasy, but all profoundly true to Shakespeare's ideal of the inscrutable spirit of the Prince of Denmark.) Both men and women seem to identify with Hamlet's confused search for justice and with his ultimate awareness of his own frailty. Most simply, the story may be defined as a man in search of his soul, but who never finds it.

Writing in an age which put little value on originality, Shakespeare rarely invented his own plots. The story of Hamlet goes back to the Viking age in Denmark. The story was first written down by Saxo Grammaticus in the twelfth century, later translated into French, and thence to a dramatized version on the Elizabethan stage, which was possibly Shakespeare's first acquaintance with the plot. In its early form, Hamlet was strictly a revenge play, and Shakespeare re-created the character of the protagonist, changing the old revenger into the most complex character the Bard ever created a prince of the Renaissance: courtier, scholar, soldier, disillusioned idealist, and a contemplative man rather than an active one. He re-created Hamlet as a complex individual whom we ponder over in attempting to explain his inability to take decisive action; his treatment of Ophelia; his madness, real or feigned; and a host of other questions. Others had told the story; Shakespeare created the character. It is because Hamlet is what he is that he delays his revenge until the last moment.

But what, or who, exactly, is Hamlet. First, it must be remembered that he is a young man in anguish, not only that his father has died, but that his mother has married her late husband's brother and done so with unseemly haste. The rest of the court has adjusted to the changes; it has conformed. But Hamlet, like many present-day students who feel society is at fault in its compromises, protests. Hamlet has a sense of deeper reality, i.e. moral and spiritual awareness. It is, however, the ghost's revelation which takes him to the greatest depths of anguish, and the revelation of his father's murder imposes a mission upon Hamlet revenge.

Not only is Hamlet unusually sensitive to moral and spiritual values, his predicament is unusually complex. As an aristocrat, he is inevitably influenced by the code of honor, which demands speedy vengeance for such a wrong as the murder of his father. On the other hand, Christianity (and the play is explicitly Christian) condemns revenge. The problem is made more acute in Hamlet's case by the fact that the king is God's viceroy. Rebellion is always sinful, the Elizabethans felt, and perhaps more so against a wicked king since he might be a scourge sent by God to punish the nation's sins. Thus, Hamlet's dilemma is intensified, and this dilemma carries through the action of the entire play.

Thus, as we struggle to understand Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character, perhaps the best thing to remember about all the different approaches and definitions of character is simply this: each age looks at Hamlet and finds there—itself.