Nothing is simple and direct in Hamlet. Explain

Unlike the other major tragedies, Hamlet poses certain grave problems. Dowden says that “it must not be supposed that any idea, any magic phrase will solve the difficulties presented by the play, or suddenly illuminate everything in it which is obscure.” Often has the play been called a Sphinx, i.e., an enigma. Though extremely popular on the stage, the play has proved to be very baffling. According to Matthew Arnold, “Hamlet is a piece which opens, indeed, simply and admirably, and then: “The rest is puzzle.”

Quite a number of critics of the nineteenth century as well as of the twentieth have called the play an enigma. W. S. Kenny in his Life and Genius of Shakespeare observes:

“It is a type of the endless perplexity with which man, stripped of the hopes and illusions of this life, harassed and oppressed by the immediate sense of his own helplessness and isolation, stands face to face with the silent and immovable world of destiny. In it the agony of an individual mind grows to the dimensions of the universe; and the genius of the poet himself, regardless of the passing and somewhat incongruous incidents with which it deals, rises before our astonished vision, apparently as illimitable that inexhaustible as the mystery which it unfolds…. It is manifest that Hamlet does not solve, or even attempt to solve, the riddle of life. It only serves to present the problem in its most vivid and most dramatic intensity. The poet reproduces Nature; he is in no way admitted into the secret of the mystery beyond Nature; he could not penetrate it; he only knew the infinite longing and the infinite misgivings with which its presence fills the human heart.”

Kenny presents a panoramic view of the play-vast and inscrutable, where man, pitted against the universe and its mystery, sands helpless and forlorn.

John Masefield thinks that “nothing is simple and direct in Hamlet.” Un- like the other tragedies, Hamlet is shrouded in mystery, which it is difficult to unravel. Mrs. Jameson finds in Hamlet an epitome of the vastness and grandeur of humanity, which heightens the mystery. “In him, his character and situation there is a concentration of all the interests that belong to humanity. There is scarcely a trait of frailty or of grandeur which may have endeared to us our most beloved friends in real life that is not to be found in Hamlet. Undoubtedly Shakespeare loved him beyond all other creations.”

Hamlet’s character has been the inscrutable problem with a number of critics. But not the centre of interest has swung round, and critics find the play itself to be obscure.

The character of Hamlet cannot be reduced to a formula. Goethe observes:

“Shakespeare sought to depict a great deed laid upon a soul unequal to the performance of it…. A beautiful, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off; every duty is holy to him-this is too hard. The impossible is required of him-not the impossible in itself, but the impossible to him. How he winds, turns, agonizes, advances, and recoils, every reminded, every reminding himself and at last almost loses his purpose from his thoughts, without ever again recovering his peace of mind.”

Goethe represents Hamlet as a noble but weak-willed, sentimental hero. And we know that Goethe’s theory does not stand the test of scrutiny. Dr. Johnson has also thought along similar lines when he says that “Hamlet is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an agent.”

Warder refers to the external difficulties that Hamlet has to encounter. The King was surrounded by his courtiers and formidable Swiss guards. Hamlet could not call his father’s ghost in a witness-box, and accuse Claudius publicly of the murder. For nobody would accept the story of a ghost as gospel- truth. Everyone would have voted Hamlet mad.

Coleridge and Schlegel and the exponents of the “weakness of will” theory and suggest that Hamlet’s delay is due to irresolution. “The native hue of resolution is sickled o’er with the pale cast of thought.” An idealist, he has a h intellectual cast of mind. His intellect, generalisations, and speculations al ways retard his action. “Hence great, enormous, intellectual activity, and a consequent aversion to real action, with all its symptoms and accompanying highly qualities.”

Schlegel echoes Coleridge’s feelings :

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“The whole [Play] is intended to show how a calculating consideration Hamlet is a which aims at exhausting, so far as human foresight can, all relations and possible consequences of a deed, cripples the power of acting hypocrite to himself; his farfetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his want of determination….. He loses himself in labyrinths of thought.”

Ulrica and Hudson have formulated the “Conscience theory” Again Hamlet’s delay. It is conscience that makes a coward Hamlet. He can not forget that Claudius is the brother of his and the husband of his mother. Believing as he does in divine right of Kings, he can not lay his hands upon a person, no is his King, whatever be the means of his ascending the throne. He is scrupulous. Moreover, he knows that the murder of the King will be interpreted as his ambition to inherit the throne. People would say that the crown, and not public justices is his real motive.

Bradley says:

“The direct cause [of delay] was a state of mind quite abnormal and induced by special circumstances a state of profound melancholy. Now Hamlet’s reflectiveness doubtless played a certain part in the production of that melancholy, and was, thus, one indirect contributory cause of his irresolution. And, again, the melancholy, once established, displayed, as one of its symptoms, an excessive reflection on the required deed. But excess of reflection was not, as the theory makes it, the direct cause of the irresolution at all, it is to be considered rather a symptom of his state than a cause of …. It is downright impossible that the man we see rushing after the Ghost, killing Polonius, dealing with the King’s commission on the ship, boarding the pirate ship, leaping into the grave. Executing his final vengeance, could ever have been shrinking or slow in an emergency.”

Hence Bradley suggests that Hamlet is a man of action, whose melancholy accounts for his energy as well as his lassitude.

Grebanier in The Heart of Hamlet finds no melancholy, no lassitude, no morbidity in his hero. “To know how Hamlet feels about life we must watch not what he says about it so much as what he does living it. Look at him in this way, and you will find him not melancholy, not complex-ridden, not pessimistic, not even disillusioned basically-but a healthy, vigorous man, much in love with life, who, given the slightest opportunity, is happy, cheerful, companionable and kind.”

Ernest Jones in his Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis and Hamlet and Oedipus suggests that Hamlet’s hesitancy was due to some special cause of repugnance for his task and that he was unaware of the nature of his repugnance.” His repugnance is due to his repressed Oedipus Complex. He wished for the death of his father, so that he might monopolise his mother’s love and affection.

Dover Wilson in What Happens to Hamlet says that Hamlet must have overheard the conversation between Polonius and Claudius, in which Ophelia was sought to be used as a decoy.



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