Research Paper: Hamlet the Psychology of Inaction: Interactions

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The Psychology of Inaction: Interactions with the Prince of Denmark in Shakespeare's Hamlet

Though William Shakespeare was writing his masterful histories, comedies, and tragedies long before the science of psychology had begun to develop in any formalized and purposeful way, there is a great deal of psychological depth and even conscious analysis at work in many of the Bard's texts that makes for very interesting psychological fodder for modern minds. In Hamlet, much of the play's action is actually driven by the main character's inaction; it is Hamlet's lack of ability to make decisive decisions that lets much of the action take place, and even many of the actions that Hamlet does take seem to place him in a role of reduced responsibility, calling into question his decision making processes and the psychology form which they are derived. Hamlet's relationship with and towards Claudius is one of the clearest examples of this throughout the play, as it is Claudius' murder of Hamlet's father that sets the play and its title character on their courses of destruction and tragedy. Gertrude, Hamlet's mother and now the wife of his usurping uncle, is also a significant character in terms of understanding Hamelt's psychological state of mind, and the question of how much decision making is based on perception rather than on objective realities. Sexual feelings for Ophelia also complicate Hamlet's decision making process and add to his indecisiveness. *All in all, Hamlet is plagued by doubt throughout the play regarding the best course of action and even what he thinks to be real at certain times. +Hamlet's indecisiveness is clearly demonstrated in his interactions with other characters.

Inaction at Work

The fact that Hamlet is left so indecisive and in many ways inactive due to his psychological confusion drives the play forward, as is made quite clear from early on in the play. The first time he is left alone onstage, he comments, "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!" (Act I, scene i., lines 136-7). Many different psychological states could be read into this statement, most notably depression, but regardless of the exact diagnosis that might be made of Hamlet it is clear that this psychological state is leading to a definite indecisiveness and confusion on his part. If truly all of the world and its offerings seem "stale" and "unprofitable," than there is no real course of action to be taken -- everything is utterly useless. The famous "To be or not to be" speech that is in many ways the height of Hamlet's despondency, at least in terms of his indecisiveness, makes this quite clear as Hamlet struggles with what is "nobler in the mind" -- Hamlet is driven not necessarily in terms of true nobility, but in terms of perceived nobility, having largely set aside worldly ends and settled for whatever peace he can scrape together in his mind (III. i, 63-4).

This peace isn't much, however, as Hamlet is confronted with the person of his uncle Claudius and the several related evils he has committed -- killing his own brother, Hamlet's father, and taking both his brother's wife (Hamlet's mother) and throne, and thus setting the stage for Hamlet's revenge and confusion. Much has been made of the supposed Oedipal nature of Hamlet's relationships with Claudius and Gertrude, but even leaving this aside it is clear that the many different relationships Hamlet bears to Claudius -- nephew, step-son, prince and claimant to the throne, avenger, etc. -- could cause a great deal of psychological conflict and confusion. As Laertes mentions, "his [Hamlet's] will is not his own" -- he must also think of what is good for the state, and this in part stops him from acting on his beliefs without more solid proof (I. iii., 20). Somewhat contrary to this view of a confusion of different impulses, others have seen Hamlet's hesitation when it comes to dealing with Claudius as a matter of pure logic, especially when he see Claudius vulnerable at prayer: "and am I then revenged, / To take him in the purging of his soul, / When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?" (III. iii., 86-8). Seeing this as a matter of pure and functional logic, Michael Schroeder claims that, "it is contradictory to want to take revenge and not have it," thus it would be contradictory for Hamlet to Claudius in this instance (pp. 13). This is likely an oversimplification of Hamlet's though process, as there are many other influential factors besides his desire for revenge, but this does demonstrate how even the simplest of human desires can lead to psychological confusion on the basis of real interpersonal relationships.

Hamlet's relationship with his mother is at least as complex as his relationship with Claudius, if not more so, and causes Hamlet explicit confusion when he is unsure of his mother's feelings and motives, and begins to question his own. It has been suggested that, "the intensity of Hamlet's need to idealize in the face of his mother's failure [to differntiate between Claudius and Hamlet's father] makes his father inaccessible to him as a model" (Adelman, pp. 13). Hamlet, Adelman argues, cannot become the man he is supposed to be because his mother's apparent lack of differentiation makes it unclear which man he is supposed to be. This uncertainty can be seen in Hamlet's meeting with his father's ghost, though he is strong in his talk prior to the actual meeting, showing no real fear at the news that his father's spirit has been appearing to the guards on watch, his initial reaction upon actually seeing the form of his father is to cry out, "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!" (I. iv., 42). Hamlet is literally asking to be defended from his father, and perhaps is asking in subtext to be defended from his father's wishes -- the duty of revenge that is about to be laid at his feet. When Hamlet confronts his mother later in the play, after having just slain Polonius, his resolve seems strong until the intercession of his father ghost yet again, telling him to, "step between her and her fighting soul," and take a calmer course with Gertrude (III., iv., 124). Even in trying to fulfill his father's wishes, it seems, Hamlet fails, though Gertrude's reaction to Hamlet's discussion with the ghost questions the prince's sanity -- something he himself is forced to question as he views his treatment of his mother.

Aside from these two central relationships, arguably the most important relationship and interaction between hamlet and another character in the play comes between he and Ophelia. Ophelia has been Hamlet's expected bride for some time; there is both a sexual and a romantic desire for Ophelia on Hamlet's part, while at the same time Gertrude's comment near the end of the play that, "I hoped thou [Ophelia] shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife," shows that Hamlet's marriage to Ophelia would have also reflected a way to fulfill his familial, social and national duties by choosing a wife with whom to continue his father's line (V., i., 240). This relationship is complicated still further by Ophelia's father's position in the court: once an adviser and official to Hamlet's father, Polonius now serves in the same capacity to Claudius, calling his and his daughter's loyalty into question in Hamlet's mind. At one point in the play, according to some readings of the text, Hamlet deliberately adjusts his behavior and his expressed attitudes, "such as to suggest both to Ophelia and to her father that his brain is turned by disappointment in love" (Bradley, pp. 130). Later, however, Hamlet tells Ophelia, "I did love you once," indicating that this love is now over and is… [END OF PREVIEW]

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