Characterization in Hamlet Essay

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Characterization in Hamlet

If Shakespeare's ability at characterization is one of the hallmarks which have made him an enduring power in English literature, and Hamlet is among his most well-loved artistic works, centered by one of his most complex characters, then this essay delves into a deep and often murky water. Hamlet was written around 1600 AD, in the time when Queen Elizabeth's death seemed imminent and the question of succession was in doubt; the chief claimant to England's throne was James of Scotland, a member of a political faction in opposition to the ailing Queen's. Many of Shakespeare's works of that period seem to address the theme of political succession, notably Julius Caesar to which parallels with Hamlet can be drawn. It is evident, therefore, that, though ostensibly set in late-medieval Denmark, Hamlet is fraught with the themes and ideology of renaissance England, most evident in Shakespeare's attention to characterization. Characterization itself, the descent of art from the realm of the divine into the realm of humanity, is a renaissance theme, and it is by this inner examination of psychology and psychosis that Hamlet is chiefly characterized. Hamlet is a renaissance man trapped in a medieval world, at odds with the paradigms of action around him and tortured by a need for rational conviction.

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In studying the contrast of renaissance ideologies imposed on a medieval setting it is interesting to note that, according to T.S. Eliot, Hamlet was derived from an earlier play, by a playwright named Thomas Kyd, in which

it is clear that in the earlier play the motive was a revenge-motive simply; that the action or delay is caused & #8230; solely by the difficulty of assassinating a monarch surrounded by guards; and that the "madness" of Hamlet was feigned in order to escape suspicion, and successfully. (Eliot 1922)

Essay on Characterization in Hamlet Assignment

By contrast, Shakespeare's Hamlet is himself his own delay, and his madness a much more complicated situation. The reader is abducted from this straightforward, action-movie type plot of Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, into a world of complex characters, continuously questioning themselves and their own existences; from the medieval world of Don Quixote's beloved and improbably virtuous knights in tales of chivalry and closer to Joyce's internally self-paralyzed, over-rationalizing characters. It is not conscionable that one of Kyd's action heroes could believably contemplate suicide, and yet for Hamlet the question of suicide revolves near the center of his motivations as an actor.

Much of this 'roundness' of character can be attributed to the frequent suspicion the reader has that more is going on in Hamlet's mind than he will admit, or perhaps than he even knows. Therein lies one of the strengths of the famous "To be or not to be…" soliloquy. Hamlet approaches the idea of suicide obliquely, never referring to himself directly, but showing by his mannerisms of speech that the question is central to him. This dissonance between two methods of 'showing' in storytelling -- which ultimately serves to display a character's inner motivations -- is a prime example of what in renaissance thinking later evolved into Freudian thinking, and later even is represented as standard fare in any good fiction-craft textbook. Furthermore, Hamlet's increasingly convoluted attempts to intellectualize the act of revenge present another layer of unplumbed psychological depth in the character.

A modern psychologist would say that Hamlet rationalizes, and it is true. The reader is led to ask: why is Hamlet rationalizing? What is he avoiding, or afraid of? Hamlet is afraid of action, understandably queasy about taking another man's life no matter how just it may seem. Hamlet is a renaissance man, more concerned with the sanctity of biological life than the medieval man who brooded only on the sanctity of a spiritual soul; and where one of Don Quixote's fictional heroes might have dropped a glove and challenged a duel instantly, Hamlet is tortured by both fear and uncertainty. So Hamlet does as any renaissance man might have done, he employs the Socratic method in endless debates and dialogues with himself, leaning on every excuse to put off what is required of him.

In some senses, it may be said that Shakespeare used Hamlet to make a satire of the elaborate sophistries sometimes present in renaissance rationale. As the play progresses, Hamlet's rationalizations become increasingly contradictory. At first, Hamlet is loathe to act on the ghost's word because he cannot assure himself of the nature of the afterlife and spiritual beings. Later -- with the bird in the hand so to speak -- he declines to murder Claudius because Claudius is praying, and Hamlet would not want Claudius to die in a state of grace and go to the happy afterlife which his father King Hamlet had not. In the "To be or not to be…" soliloquy it becomes evident that Hamlet's desire for suicide is so that the need for action might be precluded. In fact, he presents suicide as perhaps the only noble action possible for a rational man, who, by suicide, is taking action against the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." He is rationalizing to himself that by allowing no action, he will be taking the best action of all. Yet, throughout much of this delay in action, the sophistries are in tune with the Socratic method, a classical paradigm recently re-discovered at the time and much in vogue in the Renaissance.

Another difficult element of Hamlet's character is his madness, which, though supposedly feigned, is often so real as to call the question. In fact, the most appropriate question might be at what point is a man who has rationally decided to act in such a way as to harm his own aims, as well as his relationships, no longer sane? (Spark Notes Editors, 2007) Hamlet does just this, as his madness not only destroys his relationship with Ophelia, Gertrude, and others, but also it is the most direct source of Claudius's suspicions. If it can be said that the murder of Polonius was an act of madness, then that madness is itself responsible for Claudius's attempt on Hamlet's life.

From the point-of-view of a critic of characterization, it is shown that Hamlet has consistent traits which are still capable of surprising the reader. Certainly, madness is not unexpected -- as evidenced by his endless philosophizing, intellectualization, and treatment of his close relations. Yet the will to sudden, violent, murderous action is surprising in the face of his continued indecisiveness about the main violence he has set to commit. The murder of Polonius is, perhaps, another attempt at escape by Hamlet. He hopes and wishes that Claudius is the one behind the curtain and so that his -- Hamlet's -- deed will have been done almost by accident, in a removed circumstance, with a heavy drape between he -- Hamlet -- and the murder. The reader is led to peer far deeper into Hamlet's subconscious than any other 'simple' murder in a simple play would lead.

The most important element of that madness in relation to renaissance ideology is that Hamlet is not a knight in a book of chivalry. Much rather, he can not be considered a hero at all, and at best an anti-hero. He is human, he is flawed, and he is certainly not in the category of 'scared art' -- despite some Christian overtones -- of which almost all art up until the renaissance was a part.

Yet, though he is an anti-hero, there is sympathy for Hamlet. This is most well created by the evil circumstance he is thrust into, and his ostensibly noble cause. Also, by Hamlet's characterization as a human being like any other -- for what sane man would not hesitate to commit a cold-blooded murder -- which leads the reader to identify with Hamlet. Finally, Shakespeare hoped… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Characterization in Hamlet" Essay in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Characterization in Hamlet.  (2010, April 1).  Retrieved May 29, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Characterization in Hamlet."  1 April 2010.  Web.  29 May 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Characterization in Hamlet."  April 1, 2010.  Accessed May 29, 2020.