Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hamlet: The Theatrical Psychological Masterpiece

Hamlet illustrates the most important of Shakespeare’s basic contributions to the development of modern thinking:  his sharp departures from the emphasis of ancient literature on Fate and also from medieval attitudes toward morality, the Church, and state.  These were the key influences on European authority figures, faith as a means of controlling the population-at-large, and power.  Hamlet in Hamlet is the struggle of an individual in the grips of a moral dilemma who must learn to make his own decisions against self-doubt, grief, betrayal, and family ties.

The play itself is rich theatrical fare, including superb speeches, violent action, royal demonstration and presentation, an after-life ghostly spirit, a play within a play, a treacherous attempt at murder by poison, and eight tragic deaths.  The quality that makes Hamlet an enduring work of genius is that its lines have become a permanent fixture in the English language, and may be the most-often quoted work of our time.  It has been redone in modern language and also resurfaced as a Disney cartoon and a Broadway hit:  The Lion King.

    In psychological terms, Hamlet offers a rare insight into the possibilities of revenge by way of a possible Oedipal nature.  Although Hamlet is commanded to avenge his father’s death as the play opens (“a murder most foul”), the object of his wrath is his uncle Claudius.  In other words, Hamlet must kill a man who bears the same genetic lineage as his own father.  In panic at the meaning of the message and the order that he has been given, Hamlet pretends insanity and mistreats his sweetheart, Ophelia.  In his attempts to convince himself of his uncle’s guilt (as well as the true identity and nature of the ghostly figure of his father), Hamlet unveils the most eloquent opening lines of contemplation and self-analysis in literature:

        To be, or not to be: that is the question:
        Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
        The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
        Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
        And by opposing them end?  To die: to sleep;
        No more; and by a sleep to say we end
        The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
        That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
        Devoutly to be wish’d.
To further aggravate his fears, a visiting troupe of actors provides Hamlet the opportunity to put his doubts to the test and determine Claudius’s guilt.  The mental traumas and torments continue for the major characters as the play reaches its climax, and the grand scheme of revenge is clearly a full-blown irrational motive without restraint:

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”  The king’s hurried exit from the performance only convinces Hamlet of the action he must now take to fulfill his father’s ghostly command.  In response to Hamlet’s actions, his mother confronts him, but finds herself verbally brutally condemned by her raging son.  In a moment of assistance to the queen, Ophelia’s father Polonious, the chancellor, comes to her aid, but is stabbed by Hamlet in a case of mistaken identity.  Ophelia, overcome by the death of her father by her lover’s hand, as well as his erratic behavior, commits suicide. 
Her surviving brother, Laertes, swears revenge on both his own father and unfortunate sister.  A duel is arranged with a secret poisoned sword between Laertes and Hamlet, and a second poisoned weapon is in waiting:  a cup of wine.  The queen, unknowing the plots of treachery, drinks the wine by mistake and dies.  In the struggle of the sword fight, Hamlet receives a mortal wound, but the men exchange weapons, and Laertes is also killed.  In a final gesture, Hamlet fulfills his horrible mission and stabs the king, then dies.

1 comment:

Shiananda said...

Thanks for the great commentary on this!