Hamlet is the melancholy Prince of Denmark and grieving son to the recently deceased King. Thanks to Shakespeare’s skilful and psychologically-astute characterization, Hamlet is now considered to be the greatest dramatic character ever created.
From our very first encounter with Hamlet, he is consumed by grief and obsessed by death. Although he is dressed in black to signify his mourning, his emotions run deeper than his appearance or words can convey. In Act 1, Scene 2, he says to his mother:
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good-mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black ...
Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed ‘seem’,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show –
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
The depth of Hamlet’s emotional turmoil can be measured against the high spirits displayed by the rest of the court. Hamlet is pained to think that everyone has managed to forget his father so quickly – especially his mother, Gertrude. Within a month of her husband’s death, Gertrude has married her brother-in-law. Hamlet cannot comprehend his mother’s actions and considers them to be an act of treachery.
Hamlet and Claudius
Hamlet idealizes his father in death and describes him as “so excellent a king” in his “O that this too too solid flesh would melt” speech in Act 1, Scene 2. It is therefore impossible for the new king, Claudius, to live up to Hamlet’s expectations. In the same scene, he pleads with Hamlet to think upon him as a father – an idea that furthers Hamlet’s contempt:
We pray you to throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father
When the ghost reveals that Claudius killed the king to take the throne, Hamlet vows to avenge his father’s murder. However, Hamlet is emotionally disorientated and finds it difficult to take action. He cannot balance his overwhelming hatred for Claudius, his all-encompassing grief and the evil required to carry out his revenge. Hamlet’s desperate philosophizing leads him into a moral paradox: that he must commit murder to avenge murder. Hamlet’s act of revenge is inevitably delayed amid his emotional turmoil.
Hamlet After Exile
We see a different Hamlet return from exile in Act 5: his emotional turmoil has been replaced by perspective, and his anxiety replaced by cool rationality. By the final scene, Hamlet has come to the realization that killing Claudius is his destiny:
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
Perhaps Hamlet’s new-found confidence in fate is little more than a form of self-justification; a way to rationally and morally distance himself from the murder he is about to commit.
It is the complexity of Hamlet’s characterization that has made him so enduring. Today, it is difficult to appreciate how revolutionary Shakespeare’s approach to Hamlet was because his contemporaries were still penning two-dimensional characters. Hamlet’s psychological subtlety emerged in a time before the concept of psychology had been invented – a truly remarkable feat.