Analysis of Hamlet’s soliloquies and its purpose they serve

Soliloquies in Shakespeare’s tragedies either reveal the character of the speaker or point to a new phase or development of action or sometimes both the ends are combined. They are essentially connected with the action of the play as it advances. But about the Hamlet’s soliloquies, Kolbe remarks that they “are not as frequently in drama, a complete unveiling the character. They are rather searching glimpses into one other side of himself. That is to say, he is not dramatically revealing himself to us: in accordance with the character of the plays, he is analysing himself to himself. This is a psychological consideration of great importance yet it is often missed,” “his may be generally true of the Hamlet’s soliloquies. He is, as it were, “putting a case”.

But, Schucking says that the first soliloquy after the break-up of the king’s council perhaps the most important for an understanding of Hamlet’s character. At least it shows us what Hamlet was like before the ghost appeared and laid a heavy charge upon him. He appeared to be very deeply shakes by his mother’s hasty marriage. We may quote Schucking: “He is a man of high moral ideal; for if he had not a profound faith in mankind, combined with the strongest impulse towards what is good, he could never have been so greatly disillusioned. Moreover his veneration for his father commands our sympathy, but other less pleasing qualities are apparent in him too. Hamlet is physically weak (cf… ‘no more like my father that I to Hercules, I. ii. 135) and his emotional reaction at this moment is not solely due to a violent temperament. Others of an idealistic outlook similar to his might will, seeking the cause of their disillusionment at the inquiry of their fellow-men, come to recognize the fact that such, themselves included, is all mankind. But not so Hamlet. In his protest there is surprising amount of denunciation. He not only looks at things crudely and relentlessly but he constantly pronounces judgement on them (cf. ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’). Although to a certain extent he is merely torturing himself, for instance, in regarding his own mother as a lascivious wanton, his incentive against her is nevertheless unmerciful. It is clear that Hamlet, However deeply he may suffer, is not the kind to bear a great misfortune silently and with resignation; he kicks against the pricks and his opinions are affected by his irritation. His description of his uncle, for example, accords very little with the impression that the audience have received of the king.

At the same time a characteristics side of Hamlet is revealed by his surprising volcanic outburst, which denotes the white heat within. It is true that in the council-scene he had made no pretence of indifference but has shown by his costume, his behaviour (cf. I, ii. 70 sqq.0 ) and his laconic observations what a gulf he feels between himself and the others; yet he remains reserved about what move him most deeply. His feelings are evidently not too strong to pre- vent him from exercising a certain caution.

Schucking seems to a be a little too hard upon Hamlet. In this soliloquy he condemns his mother, perhaps a son of today might not have taken such an uncompromising attitude if it be thought so. The standard of moral judgement has changed or relaxed. But Schucking leaves us of account Hamlet’s fine sensibility, and the nature of the shock, devastating in its effect, which his mother’s hasty marriage gives him. Hamlet analyses the matter thoroughly, not dispassionately but with reference to himself. His cynicisms his uncontrolled reaction to his mother’s frailty. To some critics this brooding on his mother’s incestuous marriage looks like an obsession with Hamlet, but it seems to be the key-note to his character. The news of the appearance of the ghost comes part on this soliloquy. The confirming of his suspicion by the ghost’s revelation and the significant change (antic disposition) in his behaviour should be kept in mind.

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The second soliloquy at the end of the second Act reveals more of his developing character under the reaction to the task of revenge, laid upon him by the ghost, and is more directly related to the action of the play than the soliloquy. It is concerned with the play as a device to catch the conscience of the king. The Hecuba scene seems to have galvanized his conscience into action. There is unsparing self-reproach, but it is a visualization of the wrong done to him. He is going to act now:

“I’ll have these players

Play something like the murder of my father

Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his look:

I’ll tent him to the quick. If he but blench,

I know my Couse.”

Then a doubt about the evil purpose of the ghost crosses his mind:

“The spirit that I have seen’

May be a devil; and the devil hath power

To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,

Out of my weakness and melancholy,

As he is very potent with such spirits,

Abuses me to damn me; I’ll have grounds

More relative than this: The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The delay in the execution of his task has been so much complained of by critics. The point is that it would have been physically impossible for Hamlet to accomplish his revenge, following the revelation of the ghost. Supposing he had done so (if it had been possible at all) there would have been no tragedy of Hamlet. There is the Ophelia affair, there is the counter-move of the king (sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet); thee is the “lenten entertainment” of the players. They certainly contribute to the development of the action of the play and they are a necessary part of it. Here is Hamlet taking advantage of the players to make sure of his ground acting. As Kolbe points out, Hamlet is a man of scrupulous discrimination and fastidious sensibility and must satisfy the demands of truth, honour and justice. Whatever Declay is there, it is occasioned by Hamlet’s scrupulous considerations and no less by the intervening phases of action. Note that Hamlet is getting ready for action when the second Act is barely ended. Schucking’s comment is very relevant : “Now we are once more at the heart of the affair, and scenes like that of the player’s declamation, appearing at first glance to have little organic connection with the plot are at once charged with meaning, for through them Hamlet has again become himself. And what a self ! in the autobiography of John Bunyan there is a passage in which the author confesses that there had been a stage in his a spiritual development when he felt a veritable loathing for himself. Such self-disgust can only arise in a personality mercilessly honest, that will admit of no self-deception concerning derelictions of duty due to its own weakness; one that relies for moral support on self-respect, and collapses like a gem man deprived of his crutch once this has been taken away. Such an unusual nature Hamlet reveals to us.” We agree with Schucking that “this soliloquy is one of the greatest movements of the tragedy.” Yes, Hamlet is “a personality mercilessly honest.”

Then we come to the soliloquy-“To be, or not to be” in the first scene of Act III. Much has been written about this soliloquy-and we shall refer to it later. It has been pointed out that this is out of place here. It should rightly be substituted for the soliloquy (‘O’ that this too solid flesh would melt’) in the second scene of Act I. After the visitation of his father’s ghost the reference to the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, seems to be pointless-that is how it has been taken by some critics. But here we note the fundamental difference between this soliloquy and the other two soliloquies. It is more or less an objective analysis-a speculation about death, whether death is preferable to “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” But there is reference to the task yet to be executed:

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn away,

And lose the name of action.”

There is a short soliloquy at the end of the second scene, Act III, and there is another at the end of the third scene. Hamlet is now on his way to his mother. “Tis now the very witching time of night.” The night seems to stir his imagination with awe and mystery, and sense of evil augury. He will speak daggers to his mother, but use none. Then he comes upon his uncle at prayers. He might have killed the king now, but spares him-and that for valid reason. We quote Schucking again: “That the reason given here by Hamlet not carrying out his revenge are perfectly sincere and genuine can not be doubted. If the superstition of the Elizabethan times, which accorded an immense significance to con- duct at the moment of death be taken into account, there is no cause for seeing in his own explanation any subjective grounds on the score of which Hamlet is merely excusing to himself his inability to act.”

There is one more soliloquy at the end of the scene iv, Act IV. It occasioned by his seeing young Fortinbras on his journey to invade Poland. There is the repetition of his self-reproach but his position is clarified. He lists his reason for revenge:

“Sith I have cause and will and strength and means,” to do’t. He has ‘excitements’ of both his reason and his blood to the deed of vengeance. “A father-killed, a mother stain’d” are the strongest motive that ever could have been. There Is one sentence of Lily B. Campbell, which very clearly sums up the position: “Hamlet was apparently chosen to execute the public vengeance delegated by God to his representatives, the rules,” The final scene of revenge (which involves Hamlet’s own death) is a vindication of this position; and Hamlet’s speech (‘you that look pale and tremble at the chance’), his appeal to Horatio ‘to tell his story’ and lastly, the tribute paid to Hamlet by Fortinbras should be recalled here.

The soliloquies are not isolated; nor are they unconnected with the progress and development of the action. They are linked together; and if they have much to do with self-analysis, they reveal also important phases of Hamlet’s character. They fulfil more than their right function in the play. (T.S. Eliot).



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