Hamlet (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism)

Hamlet (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism) - William Shakespeare, Susanne L. Wofford Some of the themes that appear quickly are madness, family, vengence, and women's place in society. Some of these have appeared in the other plays we have read. Madness in both King Lear and Macbeth. Family in King Lear and vengeance in Macbeth. Women's roles were touched on in King Lear, but never really explored. Gertrude remarried only two months after the death of her husband, (and I thought in Kelly in the movie Cast Away remarried too soon) and she seems completely bewildered by Hamlet's grief. I could not find a definite answer about how long the Elizabethan mourning period would have been, but I'm pretty sure it was longer than two months. For all that Gertrude truly seems to love her son, she is almost manipulative in her attempts to get him to conform to her new family, demanding that he cast away his grief, and trying to trick him into happiness by sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to attend to him (and spy on him) and even in the way that she seems to want Hamlet to be in love with Ophelia "And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish/That your good beauties be the happy cause/Of Hamlet's wildness: so shall I hope your virtues/Will bring him to his wonted way again,/To both your honours." She almost seems to be reassuring herself that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, and that is why he is crazy. Whether she truly wanted Hamlet to marry Ophelia, or just wanted a simple explanation for his madness, I don't know. As for Ophelia, she seems to be at the mercy of the men in her life. Polonius and Laertes telling her to avoid Hamlet, Hamlet coming upon her and frightening her. Polonius and Claudius using her as a tool to find out more about the nature of Hamlet's madness. Hamlet rejecting her and humiliating her. Hamlet seems to have lost his faith in women when Gertrude married Claudius, so in some ways Gertrude is just as responsible for Ophelia's fate as all the men in the play.

In my opinion, the biggest theme in the entire play is uncertainty. This is demonstrated by the first few lines where Bernardo asks who is there and, instead of answering, Francisco replies by asking the same question. This is quickly resolved, but it shows the uncertainty that reappears throughout the play. The characters don't know what the ghost is, Hamlet doesn't know if the ghost is honest, Horatio doesn't know what the ghost said to Hamlet. Ophelia doesn't know if Hamlet loves her. Gertrude doesn't know why Hamlet is angry with her. In some of Shakespeare's other plays, we are aware of things happening that the main characters are not. In Macbeth, we know that Macduff will do anything for revenge for the death of his family. In King Lear we know that Cordelia is the only one that truly loves Lear, we know that Edgar is innocent of the things he is accused of, and we know that Edmund will betray Gloster. Hamlet is different, in that, we learn the information along with Hamlet. We don't know if Claudius is really the old King Hamlet's murderer until Hamlet finds this out himself. Because of this the play seems like a first-person book. And yet we are never certain (at least I'm not) whether Hamlet is faking madness, or if he's truly crazy.

Ophelia certainly is a weaker character. Her position is much closer to that of real women in Shakespeare's time. Lisa Klein said of her; "If Ophelia was so dim, what on earth made Hamlet fall in love with her?" In line with that question Lisa Klein wrote a story from Ophelia's point of view, where Ophelia was a much stronger character. We read what was going on in her head, so she doesn't seem so helpless.

Ophelia's innocence and helplessness illustrates that, crazy or not, Hamlet was sacrificing innocent people who relied on him in order to get revenge. As Amanda Billiard says (http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/opheliacharacter.html) "Her frailty and innocence work against her as she cannot cope with the unfolding of one traumatic event after another. Ophelia's darling Hamlet causes all her emotional pain throughout the play, and when his hate is responsible for her father's death, she has endured all that she is capable of enduring and goes insane. But even in her insanity she symbolizes, to everyone but Hamlet, incorruption and virtue. "

There are instances of the "appearance vs. reality" theme all throughout Hamlet. Gertrude appears to be strong, but when Hamlet confronts her she is revealed to be weak. Laertes seems to be a strong, independent young man, yet he is easily manipulated by Claudius, and seems unable to cope with the loss of his family. The ghost appears to be real because multiple characters see it, but is it? It speaks only to Hamlet, and when it reappears in Gertrude's chambers, only he can see it. What we are shown in regards to Hamlet's feelings for Ophelia is so contradictory that I really don't know what to make of it. Ophelia's account of Hamlet's actions in act II. scene I makes us believe that he really does care for her, the letter from Hamlet to Ophelia that Polonius reads in act II. scene II also seems to confirm this. Then in act II. scene III. everything we had seen of their relationship is thrown into doubt. Hamlet is rude to the point of cruelty: "You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not." And in act III. Scene II. Hamlet is rude to Ophelia again, insulting her virtue: "Lady, shall I lie in your lap?" After Hamlet kills Ophelia's father, she looses her mind, going crazy, and ultimately drowns, apparently by suicide. In spite of his previously professed indifference to Ophelia, upon her death, Hamlet seems to remember his love for her: "I lov'd Ophelia; forty thousand brothers/Could not, with all their quantity of love,/Make up my sum.--What wilt thou do for her?" and "'Swounds, show me what thou'lt do:/Woul't weep? woul't fight? woul't fast? woul't tear thyself?/Woul't drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?/I'll do't.--Dost thou come here to whine?/To outface me with leaping in her grave?/Be buried quick with her, and so will I." Hamlet was largely responsible for Ophelia's fate.

Although we all make mistakes, to love someone means that you do as much as you can to protect them. Hamlet did not protect Ophelia. I never questioned Ophelia's love for Hamlet, but I did question how much Ophelia knew of what was going on. Ophelia was young and innocent and naïve and kind and fragile, but I don't think she was stupid. She was observant enough that she was the first to notice Claudius standing at the moment the players depicted a murder being committed: "Oph. The king rises. Ham. What, frighted with false fire!" Why wouldn't she be observant enough to put two-and-two together and consider the possibility that Claudius himself might have been a murderer? Could she have been aware of these things and still have been innocent, naïve, kind and fragile?

I believe that Hamlet was already aware, or at least suspected he was being spied on. Whether this may have been indicated by Ophelia in a gesture that the audience was not made aware of, or he simply guessed I don't know, but I still feel that, if he loved her, he had a responsibility to protect Ophelia. A responsibility that he failed. Perhaps if Ophelia had made sure he knew that she loved him he might have responded differently, in a way that would have cost Ophelia less, but Gertrude had shaken his faith in women to a degree that I don't know if he would have believed Ophelia's words.

I think that the fact that Hamlet made sure that the ghost was telling the truth before acting would help us feel the act is justified, but even so I do not like revenge. I think that if Hamlet had been acting to bring Claudius to justice I would have liked him better, but because he was working to exact revenge I found I did not like him as well. I'm sure it's different for everyone, but the differences between revenge and justice and which side a character takes makes a big difference in whether I will like that character or not.

(This review is made of a patchwork of discussion posts I made for an online Shakespeare class.)