The Many Selves and Soliloquies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet
The literary world has long been engaged in heated debate regarding the character and tragedy of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Yet, it seems to me that Hamlet is more of a mercurial force than he is an elusive one. Hamlet is whoever he must be, at whatever time he perceives he has to so be, to suit his purpose, sometimes in accordance with, at other times in opposition to his natural inclinations. Poetic and introspective, brooding and enigmatic, yet, poignantly philosophical, the protean character of Hamlet has the power to tug at the heart of any audience. Yet, no analysis of Hamlet’s character can adequately capture the spirit, the essence of the man; his is one that hovers on that inane brink of self-knowledge which, by virtue of our humanity, eludes us all at some point in our lives. But perhaps the soliloquies of Hamlet, apart from building the structure of the play, can also, if nothing else, suggest the complex and chameleonic beauty, along with the human strengths and tragic frailties of the selves of one of Shakespeare’s most endearing and enduring characters.
The Soliloquies of Hamlet are among the chief glories of the play, according to Betty Bealey. Dr.Bealey goes on to add:
Of the 4,000 lines in Hamlet, about 40 per cent are delivered
by Hamlet himself, and of these, his seven soliloquies make up
210 lines. These soliloquies may be compared to seven pillars
that hold up the arches of the play. It is significant that there is
no soliloquy in the last act (Beatley xxxii
From this point of view, the soliloquies are structural constructs of the play. Yet, the same can be said in relation to the characterization of the Danish prince. The many facets of Hamlet’s personality, the kaleidoscopic selves he confronts and reveals are portrayed in his soliloquies. They also aid in the creation of atmosphere in the play, both in terms of the cultural and the artistic. According to the philosophy of the Elizabethan period, it is the ability to think and reason which determines the place of man in the chain of being, within its concept of the universal order. It is this dialectic which separates man from the animal. It can thus be said that man traverses the realm between angel and beast, in terms of his consciousness. According to E. M. W. Tillyard:
The conflicts of mature Shakespearean tragedy are those
between passions and reason. Shakespeare animates these
conflicts by stating with unique intensity the range of man’s
affinities whether with angel and beast…in other words by
his living sense of man’s key position in the great chain of
being (Tillyard 76).
From Tillyard’s perspective, Hamlet is animated by Shakespeare’s consciousness of man’s being in action like an angel, in apprehension like a god, and yet capable of all baseness. He considers Hamlet’s reference to his mother’s “O’er hasty marriage” of “O heaven, a beast that want discourse of reason/ would have mourned longer” (I. II. 150-151) as an apt voicing of this concept.
Consequently, Hamlet attempts, through his soliloquies, to use discourse in a bid to reconcile the contrarieties of his world, along with the multifaceted individualistic ethos of his being. The first soliloquy (I.II.129-59) strikes a startling note of intense despair, evoking an atmosphere of pathos in the audience. Hamlet, deeply sorrowful at the death of his father, has to contend with the feeling of utter disgust at his mother’s haste to “incestuous sheets” (127). Already, we find Hamlet having to confront contrarieties that initiate great internal conflict and anguish in him. Long before Horatio even suggests it, the audience knows that a “flood,” one of an indomitable nature, is already upon the “sweet prince.” Structurally, this soliloquy acts as an exposition in its forthright presentation of information as to the whole plot. Already, the intellectual and introspective aspects of Hamlet’s character have asserted themselves.
) In Act I.V. 92-112, Hamlet, left in solitude on the stage in the wake of the ghost’s departure, swears an oath of vengeance. In these lines, according to Beatley, his course of action is determined. His feeling towards his father, “poor ghost”; towards his mother “O most pernicious woman”; and towards his uncle, “smiling damned villain” are sharply indicated. Hamlet questions the illusively deceptive nature of man with his “one may smile, and be a villain” (8). This disparity between seeming and being, parallels both Horatio and Hamlet’s uncertainty as to whether the ghost is indeed the dead father of Hamlet, or an evil spirit come to ” tempt Hamlet toward the flood”; thus Hamlet’s dilemma is not founded solely in self, but rather in the epistemological conceptualization of his world.
According to Ruth Anderson, Hamlet is a noble and vigorous character, but he possesses a tragic weakness, in that of the tendency of the heart and imagination to blind the intellect (Anderson 162). Hamlet is indeed of a poetic imagination, a poetic self. This is revealed in the beauty of his words in praise of the earth and its “majestical roof fretted with golden fire.”
As Act II comes to a close, hamlet delivers his longest soliloquy, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I (II.II.549-607).” In this speech, inspired by the First Players lines about the fate of Priam and the plight of Hecuba, the scene is a harrowing one. Hamlet stingingly accuses himself of cowardice for failing to mete out vengeance. He works himself up into a virtual paroxysm of frustrated fury. Yet, this speech never falters into illogical rambling. It is a virtual construct of superbly crafted literature, yet another attestation to his superb intellect and learning. Despite his emotional outburst, he actively makes plans to insert a speech into the murder of Gonzago and thereby test the king’s guilt. The soliloquy ends on a note of triumphant anticipation: “the play’s the thing/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” After much analysis, confusion and internal chaos Hamlet is finally resolved to act, ironically within the Act of the players. It is interesting that he essentially looks to art as a mediator between the doubt of certainty and uncertainty to distinguish and establish truth. His action here parallels that of Ovid’s Philomel who fashions a work of art as a medium to become the agency of her liberation, her absolution. Hamlet too is seeking this, albeit ironically, from the clutches of his own selves
‘The Play’s the thing’ wherein Hamlet will attempt to reconcile his doubts with the dictates contained in the inescapable mantra to “remember.” The humanist element of Hamlet’s self shows itself here quite clearly. The enquiring nature of his mind uses his learning to probe, using ideas, and words in his discursive odyssey. Hamlet’s ‘Mousetrap’ reveals a toying cruelty in his character. Here we see another self of the protagonist, one that can be just as conniving as Claudius’. There abides in Hamlet many contradictions, he can be both impulsive and irresolute. He can murder Polonius without a moment’s hesitation, and yet it would seem that the murder of Claudius is at last thrust upon him. His sense of humor shows itself in a fondness for the ironic and the satirical, while at the same time he can be supremely cynical. These attitudes are displayed in his attitude towards both Polonius and Osric. A strain of cruelty is visible in Hamlet too. Even Horatio is moved to exclaim, “why what a king is this!” when Hamlet tells how he sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. His treatment of Ophelia in the nunnery scene also illustrates this quality.
The most famous of the soliloquies, “To be, or not to be,” occurs in III.I.56-88. There is an almost disquietening calm here. It is as if we are in the eye of the hurricane. There is a great dignity of self here, in Hamlet. We are graced with the sight of the philosopher-prince. The speech does very little to advance plot. The tone of this soliloquy is a searching and meditative one .It has a universal and timeless quality that suggests a core of stillness at the very heart of the play. (It occurs in the ninth of the twenty scenes into which the play is conventionally divided.) It is this soliloquy that more than any other, that creates the image of “the melancholy Dane (Beatley xxxiii).
Beatley also contends that “Hamlet considers the problem of suicide” yet abandons the idea of seeking his own death. However, this seems to be dramatically irrelevant, Hamlet does not seem to be sunk in the depths of melancholy as he is in his first soliloquy. The primary question in “To be or not to be” cannot be suicide. Hamlet has been roused to action with his anticipation of the ‘Mousetrap’ as a means to test the ghost’s words. Prior to this soliloquy, Hamlet is instructing the players and telling Horatio of his plan with much excitement. Hence it is not consistent with the movement of the plot or the character for Hamlet to be debating suicide at this point. The metaphors all seem to suggest that Hamlet’s choice is between suffering the ills of this world and taking resolute action against them
It is also interesting that Hamlet vocalizes his dilemma in the infinitive construction of “To be or not to be.” He sees the issue as primarily a metaphysical one. Hamlet seems to be failing the moral question as to whether or not he should effect private revenge, against his king, blood-relative, and his sovereign. Platonic and Aristotelian thought espouses “Being, as the definitive essence of what a thing is.” According to this doctrine there is no middle question. A thing is or is not. Hamlet is essentially trapped. The moral code from which he cannot escape is basically medieval, but his instincts are with the Renaissance (Beaty, Hunter, Paul 1308). The intense, philosophical personality of Hamlet is clearly visible here. They contend that he is bounded by his unthinking acceptance of church and state, yet, he is being forced to find a new orientation, while bound by ethics all his own, to avenge his father’s wrongful death.
In wake of the success of the ‘Mousetrap’, prior to his interview with the Queen, Hamlet delivers another soliloquy, the shortest in the play (III.II.380-92). Hamlet admonishes himself, that on meeting with his mother, “I will speak daggers to her, but use none.” Essentially, Hamlet vows to not physically hurt his mother, but to do so mentally. So conscious is he of the mental faculties. Again, a subtle cruelty is revealed in the character of Hamlet. He is very much aware of the modern concept of psychology.
On his way to his mother’s closet, Hamlet finds Claudius at prayer. He makes the momentous decision not to kill him. There is a great measure of suspense here, in what turns out to be the best opportunity Hamlet has to exact his revenge. Hamlet spares the king because he appears to praying, when in reality he is just going through the motions, merely acting. “Now might I do prat” is a soliloquy in which we see a shift in Hamlet’s rationalization. He is essentially caught up in an intricate plot of revenge, one that is beyond the realms of the physical.
Hamlet’s final soliloquy (IV.IV.32-66) is one inspired by the appearance of Fortinbras and his army, crossing Denmark on their way to Poland. Hamlet engages in an intense analysis of his mercurial self. He subjects his character and behavior to a probing, searching examination. An intensely humanitarian side of Hamlet reveals itself. We see a great contrast between the character of Hamlet and Fortinbras. The latter knows what he wants and is fighting for it, a small piece of land, which the former laments “is not tomb enough and continent/ To hide the slain…” Hamlet is given to much philosophizing and over-analyzing. We witness the delicate sensitivity of Hamlet when he laments, “to my shame I see/ the imminent death of twenty thousand men (59-60).” Yet, it is here more than ever that Hamlet becomes decisive. Though he is self-accusatory, warring with selves, his tone here is one of firm resolution, merciless in his judgment of himself. Ultimately his exhortation of an active self, and his growing resolve in his summon of “bloody thoughts” are graced with an inner assurance.
Perhaps it is here more than any other that Hamlet’s fate becomes a tragic one, for it is here that he, in effect, lays down his mutable self, to assume one out of necessity which, though it be of men, is really not of him. He is forced into a sad sacrifice of self. His intrinsic being becomes an almost Macbethian one. Yet, we know, we acknowledge that this is essentially not Hamlet. However, one is forced to question whether or not we really truly get to see who Hamlet is. From the very inception of the play we meet the prince embellished in unordinary circumstances. The many selves he assumes are all in response to these circumstances. There has been and there continues to be much contention as to the authentic being of Hamlet. Norman Holland embraces a somewhat Freudian perception of the prince:
Confronted with an Oedipal problem, Hamlet retreats to an earlier
stage of development…Hamlet adopts a child’s technique of
retaining his power over his body’s productions—delay
he withholds from his demanding parent (ghost) what he
is supposed to give (the act of revenge) until the last moments
of the play when he must do it or never…a typical defense…is
doing and undoing, an expression of an aggressive impulse
followed by an attempt to undo the …expression. We see
it in his obsessive ruminations (To be or not to be) (Holland 346).
Added to this and other psychoanalytical interpretation of Hamlet’s selves, is the allegation of insanity. Yet, the moments we spend with Hamlet in his solitude and soliloquies, we find a man with the propensity to be mutable, but only according to his will. While it is true that his moral and epistemological dilemma has embroiled him in the depths of an internal conflict, the charge of madness has very little grounds. Hamlet assumes this so-called madness, to deal with a maddening situation. It is merely a mask to protect himself from Claudius, until such a time as he is able to verify the veracity of the ghost’s allegations. There is a “secondary gain in mental disease—an avenue of safety” (Stoll 56). When he discovers the truth, he delays, until such a time as he can kill the villain “drunk asleep” or in a state where he has fallen out of grace. Hamlet is an idealist, a perfectionist, almost; perhaps, it is this characteristic which bears the germ of his self- defeat.
… There are times when we are all forced to contend with the intricacies of our external and internal lives, stunned by the realization that we are merged into the fabric of a macrocosm over whose designs we have very little sway. Save for the vestiges of a self, daring “to be” we do the best we can, by virtue of our learning, our world, and our selves. Hamlet has arrived at this convergent plane of acceptance and defiance through much probing, questioning, philosophizing, and ultimately, through acting. It is through discursive reasoning that Hamlet seeks to reconcile the contrary elements of his world. Yet, ultimately, Hamlet seeks a recovery of self via the realm of art. He draws his last breath in pain admonishing Horatio to “draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story.” It is to art that Hamlet looks for validation, for absolution. Yet, it is this very world which has distorted and fragmented the self of this noble being, whom one writer contends has not been made “a perfectly comprehensible man” (Stoll 127). Perhaps, it is this incomprehensibility that speaks to his humanity, above all else.