Thesis: Hamlets Emotion

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Hamlet's Emotional State

The Oxford American Dictionary defines an emotion as "a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one's circumstances" (Oxford). Throughout Shakespeare's Hamlet, the prince of the title experiences many different emotions, among them depression, melancholy disillusionment, and disconnectedness, as he attempts to come to terms with his father's death and his mother's incestuous and illicit marriage. Though some, notably T.S. Elliot in "Hamlet and His Problems," have charged that Hamlet's emotional state is not justified by his circumstances, an objective examination of the text provides evidence that says otherwise (Elliot). In fact, Hamlet's emotional state is not only justified, but is much more essential to the events of Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece than his intellect or any other dramatic element. The extreme circumstances that Hamlet finds himself demand extreme emotional reactions, and these drive the play.

The guards' dialogue at the very start of the play is evidence that there is indeed something rotten in the State of Denmark. According to Theo Lidz, the conversation in Act I, scene one is full of corruption, deceit, passion, ruthlessness, and ambition in degrees that Hamlet is not used to (Lidz 70). This creates the confusion that quickly becomes apparent in Hamlet's character. Knowing that his mother is involved at the very heart of the situation makes it especially hard for Hamlet to handle this situation; he has try to find meaning, direction and a stable identity in the midst of all evil about him (Lidz 74). It is Hamlet's attempt to find or restore stability and meaning to his world that drives Hamlet and the play forward -- his extremely confused and overloaded emotional state forces him to try and sort things out.

The sudden marriage of Hamlet's mother to his uncle creates a deep emotional disturbance for the melancholy Dane. Russell Leavenworth assumes that Hamlet suffers from Oedipus complex, which Freud famously described as the desire for a young boy to kill his father and become sexually involved with his mother. After his father's death, Hamlet expects to become the most important person in his mother's affections, but to his great disappointment his mother has remarried replaced Hamlet's father, whose place Hamlet is ready to take, with his uncle (Leavenworth 85). Hamlet interprets this as a betrayal by his mother, which leads to feelings of frustration and anger. These emotions mix with the love Hamlet bears his mother both as a son and perhaps sexually as a result of his Oedipal complex, creating even more confusion and causing him -- through a building of his anger -- to lash out at her. He expects her to cradle him and take care of his needs in reaction to his emotional display. He needs this in order to feel safe in the chaos of his world since his father's death. When his mother does not react in the way he expects, Charlton maintains that he becomes disillusioned and hostile toward his mother, and suspicious that Gertrude might have been in the plot to kill his father (Charlton 77). This new wrinkle in his emotional state has a huge affect on the relationships of the play and on the plot, ultimately leading to several deaths.

Confused rage is not the only emotion associated with sexual frustration n this play; both Ophelia and Hamlet display melancholia during certain parts of the play. Ophelia and Hamlet had been in love, and it is apparent that Ophelia at least still is, but she is warned by her father Polonius that Hamlet might just very well take her virginity and marry another. The love that they cannot fully share is mocked by what they do share; both of them lose their fathers, and both ultimately die because the frustrations and conflicting emotions they have, which manifest as melancholia, leave them seeing death as the only escape for an intolerable situation (Charlton 109). In the first scene of Act II, we see how Hamlet reacts to the events in Act I. He has already told the audience that he plans to appear insane to further his investigation, but his sudden untidy appearance in Ophelia's room, as described by her, is still surprising and frightening. His actions may be the result of the way Ophelia offended Hamlet, by repelling his letters and denying him access to her (Lidz, 46). Ophelia's "repelling" of Hamlet causes him to become depressed and even more confused. This may be why his letter to her (II, ii, 119-123) might mean that he will commit suicide unless Ophelia takes him back (Lidz 85). Because Hamlet lost the only person he still truly loves in his initial rejection by her, he becomes even more enraged and antic when she repels him again after her father's accidental murder. If Hamlet were not antic after he killed Polonius he might have begged Ophelia's forgiveness. Instead, Hamlet loses Ophelia when he kills her father and thus he becomes more enraged with himself and even more determined to avenge his father's death. In the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship, the confused and conflicting emotions of both parties contribute to the inevitable advancement of the play.

Hamlet's relationships with women are perhaps the primary outlet and source of his emotions, but they are note the only ones. Hamlet vents his anger with Claudius after he already had words with Gertrude. This anger is somewhat more practical and less purely emotional; he is looking to solve the problems of the kingdom and also the problems within himself (his depression). Because there is less pure emotion in this reltionship, it actually drives the plot less than might be expected -- Hamlet is more fixated on the actions of his mother and Ophelia, for whom he has stronger emotional ties, than he is on the actions of his usurping uncle. Still, the on/off antic disposition is shown again; stress builds up then vents. This is the emotional cycle apparent for much of the play's action.

Hamlet is most clearly mad when he is angry -- reflecting the similar meaning these two words have today. Most of the time, however, he is able to feign madness without actually succumbing to it, reflecting that he is more in control of his wits. Anger is simply one of the most extreme emotions that Hamlet portrays; grief and melancholia leave him more in control.

In "Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in Hamlet," Lidz has a very interesting opinion of what Hamlet means when he says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "I am not mad north-north west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw" (I, ii). This could mean

Don't worry, I'm not so mad that I don't know one tool from another, as well as one bird from another (and I'm bright enough to confuse you with this remark.)" Lidz's interpretation of this line follows similar logic and makes it far more emotionally charged:: "I know who the hunter is (hawk; Claudius) and who the hunted is (heron, Hamlet)." Despite the intellectual wit he displays in his feigned madness, however, his statement to Polonius reveals his continuing emotional disturbance: "You cannot sir, take away from me anything that I will more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my life" (I, ii,212-214). This tells us that Hamlet is in a precarious state, despite his wits (Lidz 234). It is not intellectual madness, but extreme emotional disturbance, that drives Hamlet's actions.

Throughout the play Hamlet uses intellectual word-play in order to appear insane. His faked insanity serves as a sort of cover for his plot of revenge against the man that killed his father. Most of the time when Hamlet seems to be acting mad, he is using the freedom afforded to him by his supposed madness, to mess with Polonius and Claudius by displaying his wit in playing with words and phrases:

Pol. What do you read, my lord?

Ham. Words, words, words.

Pol. What is the matter, my lord?

Ham. Between who?

Pol. I mean, the matter you read, my lord.

II, ii, 190-4).

Then Hamlet goes on to describe a book about a gray old man that is, basically, an imbecile; which one can only come to conclude refers to Polonius. The great thing about Hamlet's words are that they are witty enough to fool Polonius, and to the audience Polonius appears to be a fool. It is Hamlet's way of demonstrating that his madness is feigned, and that he is in control. Yet while he is busy proving this, his emotional state continues to deteriorate.

Hamlet is cunning enough to "test" Claudius, to see if what the ghost told him was the truth: "The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" (I, ii,580-581) (Lidz, 150). These are not the actions of an insane person, they are those of an intelligent and cunning one, but one who is emotionally unsure his future and the future of his mother and the kingdom. On the issue of Hamlet's… [END OF PREVIEW]

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