An analysis of the soliloquy in Hamlet
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, the eldest son of John and Mary Shakespeare, and lived until 1616. In 1582 he married Anne Hathaway and later became father to two daughters and a son. Hamlet was written around 1601-1602 in a time of great political turbulence. It has been commented that much of the contemporary feeling of the time is reflected in the play. The story of Hamlet can be traced back to an 11th century Icelandic poem that was re-told by Francois de Belforest (1570) as ‘Histoires Tragiques’, and was probably the primary text that Shakespeare used as a source.
Other writers at the time were John Webster, Thomas Middleton and Tourneur. Most revenge tragedies of this time are set in Spain whereas Hamlet is set in Denmark, at a time of political unrest. As Danson comments this ‘shows Shakespeare questioning a genre’s conventions in the process of using them’ (Danson, 2000, pg125). It is clear from the outset that Shakespeare’s Hamlet does not strictly adhere to the genre of the time. Hamlet’s father has been murdered by his brother, Claudius, who then goes on to marry his wife, Queen Gertrude.
Hamlet learns of the circumstances of his father’s death through the visitation of his father’s ghost who calls for revenge. Hamlet then devotes himself to avenging his father’s death but procrastinates and plunges into deep melancholy. The events that follow, and subsequently lead to his death, can be seen as a combination of his inaction and the hand of fate. The origin of tragedy can be attributed to the 4th Century BC Greek philosopher Aristotle, author of The Poetics.
Shakespeare’s tragedy follows the pattern of Arisotle who identified four stages of tragedy. The first stage is ‘harmatia’ which refers to a tragic flaw, the second stage is ‘peripeteia’ involving change of fortune, the third stage ‘aragnorisis’ occurs when the hero recognises his own flaw, and finally ‘catastrophe’ happens with the collapse of the hero’s world. (Class notes, Anne-Marie, 2002). Hamlet’s flaw is his indeciseiveness and self-doubt.
It could be argued that he is depressed, and it is his melancholic nature and prevarication that brings about such tragic events. The change of fortune could be seen as his father’s death, although we enter the play past this point so it is more likely to be when he accidentally kills Polonius and is then sent to England. With reference to ‘aragnorisis’, Hamlet is an intellectual who is continually analysing himself and so is fully aware of his flaw. Finally the ‘catastrophe’ at then end of the play is when the royal household are dead and Fortinbras reigns.
Revenge tragedy often includes a hesitating revenger, a ghost, a villain, complex plots, madness, murders, characters of noble birth, physical horrors such as poisoning, a play within a play; all of which can be applied to Hamlet. Lust and a suffering heroine (although this could loosely be applied to Ophelia’s plight) are the only elements not fully embraced. The key elements justice/injustice, order/chaos, purity/corruption, resolution/hesitation can all be found within Shakespeare’s play. However, Shakespearean tragedy is different to classical revenge tragedy.
Traditionally the motive and action are clear, the characters are straightforward and the play is more centred on the action there is not too much thought spent on the ideas of morality. Hamlet struggles with his conscience, he is an intellectual who reflects on ideas and examines what it is to be human. Where classical revenge tragedy is to do with action, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is to do with inaction. Shakepeare has been studied through the centuries as an influential writer of his time, whose work continues to invite critical comment. ‘There is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
If Hamlet has something of the definitiveness of a work of art, he has also all the obscurity that belongs to life. There are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies. ‘ (Oscar Wilde, 1890). Here Wilde highlights Shakespeare’s ability to produce a hero with whom the audience can identify. Hamlet’s character is so diverse as to reflect many aspects of the human condition. Olivier has seen in Hamlet a close link with Oedipus, who through no conscious decision of his own acts out the will of fate in killing his father and marrying his mother. ‘Hamlet was the prime sufferer from the Oedipus complex, quite unconsciously of course. (Laurence Olivier, 1937).
Hamlet too is led by a series of events that seem beyond his own contrivances. John Evelyn (1661) comments, ‘I saw Hamlet, Prince of Denmark played, but now the old plays begin to disgust this refined age. ‘ This could be couter-argued as Hamlet is a play that is refined and honed. It may have a brutal ending but the questioning that takes place appeals to the intellect and could only be seen as unrefined if the reader is challenged and offended by the insights shown. The issues that surround Hamlet are as relevant today as they were through all times.
This view is supported by Weimann who suggests: ‘We cannot critically approach Shakespeare from the same point of view as that of the Elizabethans-not should we attempt to do so. The experience of works of art is so essential and so organic a part of a man’s human needs and social nature, that we cannot and ought not to attempt to become a different being when watching Shakespeare’s dramas. ‘ (edited by Kettle, 1964, pg18). It is clear that Shakespeare is relevant to audiences of all ages who come to the play with their own complexities that can be identified with within the realm of the play.
Although Kiernan stated that: ‘Shakespeare can be thought of in all his work as a preserver, modernizer, transmitter of the values of an older time for the benefit of a later one. ‘ (edited by Kettle, 1964, pg 51), it could be argued that these values that are preserved are values that have always existed within a civilised culture. The plot of Hamlet falls into three main sections. The first section shows us the true nature of the situation where we see a rapid and dramatic progression from foreboding to Hamlet’s full knowledge of the events surrounding his father’s death.
In the second stage is Hamlet’s departure to England where the tension is built as Hamlet’s fate becomes uncertain. Dramatic tension increases again when we head towards the final scene where the stage is set for conflict. At the end Hamlet’s nobility is acknowledged through Fortinbras who in the final speech declares, ‘Let four captains bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royal;’ (line 374), and orders the soldiers to fire in honour of the dead. Shakespeare frequently uses the dramatic device known as the soliloquy, which originates from Greek religious ceremonies.
The soliloquy is presented as thoughts spoken aloud where no one else is present and is used by Shakespeare to reveal his character’s inner most thoughts to the audience. It provides a means of exploring thoughts of character, revealing the deep psyche of the character and also as a means of showing their relationship with others. There are eight soliloquies within Hamlet, one of which is spoken by Claudius; the rest are performed by Hamlet. The first soliloquy appears early on in Act 1 Scene 2. Marecllus and Barnardo have seen a ghost resembling the late King Hamlet and tell Horatio, who then sees the ghost for himself.
He sees this apparition as a sign of forthcoming disaster and explains to the sentries of the preparation being made for war; Fortinbras is planning to regain the lands lost when King Hamlet killed his father. They agree to tell Hamlet about the ghost. We are next in the great hall of Elsinore Castle where Claudius (the late King’s brother) is making a show of his grief for the loss of his brother and joy with his marriage to Queen Gertrude, ‘With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,’ (Act 1 Scene 2).
It is apparent that the new King now holds full political power. Hamlet is clearly not impressed with his uncle’s display, or his mother’s lack of grief. Through the use of the soliloquy the audience is given their first insight into Hamlet’s emotional state. Hamlet wishes he were not alive, ‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt’, (line 129), but suicide is forbidden by God. ‘O God, God, How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable’ (line 132) highlights the depth of Hamlet’s despair and wretchedness.
The repetition of ‘God’ as he cries out and the use of adjectives fully convey his weariness. The use of commas slows the pace of the line causing it to be read with extra weight. It is clear on introduction that Hamlet is depressed. We then are given the reason why; his father has been dead less than two months. Hamlet then goes on to describe his late father, ‘So excellent a king’ (line 139) and compares him to Claudius, ‘Hyperion to a satyr’, that is he was a sun-god compared to Claudius who is a half-man, half-goat.
He then recalls the powerful love between his father and mother ‘so loving to my mother that he might not beteem the winds of heaven visit her face too roughly’ (line 140). Next Hamlet becomes disgusted by his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle and compares Gertrude to a senseless animal, ‘a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer, (line 150). Finally he condemns the marriage ‘It is not, nor it cannot come to good. ‘ (line 153) but decides he must stay silent on the matter, ‘But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue. ‘ (line 158).
As is consistent with Shakespeare’s techniques, this soliloquy is pregnant with imagery, some of which are recurrent themes, such as the metaphor of the ‘unweeded garden’. Here Hamlet is comparing Denmark to a garden that is uncared for and has become chaotic. In Act 3 Scene 4 Hamlet uses the same imagery when he is talking to Gertrude persuading her to confess her sins, ‘… do not spread compost on the weeds to make them ranker’. Hamlet also makes classical allusions, as seen when he uses the simile, ‘Like Niobe, all tears,’ (line 149); Niobe was the Queen of Thebes.
He also refers to Hyperion and Hercules. Personification is employed with, ‘frailty, thy name is woman’, (line 146), as a means of Hamlet expressing his disgust at his mother’s actions and declaring that all women are weak and fickle. The punctuation and rhythm of this soliloquy lends to Hamlet’s sate of mind. Repetition, commas, question marks and exclamation marks all add to the tone, i. e. Hamlet is in a great state of agitation. ‘The disjointed rhythm and dislocated progress of Hamlet’s thoughts convey to us his inner turmoil. ‘ (Wood and Wood, 1998, pg18).
In this first soliloquy Hamlet is depicted as distressed, upset and wretched in his misery over the death of his father and this hasty marriage of his mother to his uncle. His thoughts of suicide and apathy of life clearly convey to the audience his state of depression. Act 3 Scene 1 contains Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy where he reflects on death and the afterlife. Preceding this Hamlet has arranged for some travelling players to perform in front of the King, having added some lines himself in order to catch out Claudius in his guilt, ‘The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Act2, Scene 2, line 557).
This purpose of this soliloquy has been identified by Wood and Wood as ‘to establish Halmet as characteristically detached, reflective, analytic, thinking and moral-as somebody tempermentally unlike the active, simple-minded figures of Old Hamlet, Fortinbras and his son, and the rash Laertes. ‘ (Wood and Wood, 1998, pg 35), and this can be seen clearly in his thoughts. The opening to this soliloquy is open to debate over interpretation: ‘Commentators differ as to where Hamlet’s To be or not to be; that is the question refers to the proposed killing of Claudius or to the killing of himself.
Hitherto I have supported the latter reading, but I now think that both are somehow included, or rather surveyed from a vantage not easy to define. ‘ (Wilson Knight, 1p61, pg 304). However, it also appears that Hamlet is questioning whether or not life is worth living whether to commit suicide, ‘Here Hamlet is considering whether to kill himself’ (Peck and Coyle, 1995, pg 59). ‘Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ (line 58) seems to ask the question-is there any point in struggling?
Hamlet proceeds to talk of death as sleep and how it would end ‘The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks’, (line 62), but then becomes troubled over what awaits us after death, ‘The undiscovered country whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will,’ (line 79). He finally decides that thinking prevents action, ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all… and lose the name of action. ‘ (line 83). The imagery used reflects Hamlet’s confused state of mind, for example with the mixed metaphor ‘Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,’ (line 59).
This ‘sea of troubles’ image is later returned to in line 86, ‘And enterprises of great pitch and moment with this regard their currents turn awry’, reinforcing with the words ‘pitch’, ‘moment’ and ‘current’ the image of an wild and unruly ocean. Death is compared to uncharted land where no one has ever returned, ‘This undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns (line 79), emphasising Hamlet’s fear of the unknown. Again Shakespeare uses personification to add dimension and bring alive characteristics of Hamlet’s state of mind, ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,’ (line 83).
The imagery within this soliloquy is not as extensive as the previous one analysed, covering three main themes of the sea, sleep and unexplored lands. The whole piece revolves around the subject of death reflecting Hamlet’s spiralling depression and sense of matters being out of his control: ‘This soliloquy is very unlike the others Shakespeare gives Hamlet. There is a dejected uniformity of tone and tempo, none of the passionate agitation associated with someone wrestling with complex confused feelings. (Wood and Wood, 1998, pg 35). The final soliloquy is in Act 4 Scene 4.
Fortinbras has sent his captain to Claudius to request permission for their troops to pass through Denmark to fight for a small part of Poland. Hamlet meets the captain on his way and quizzes him about his mission, after which Hamlet reflects to the audience. This soliloquy has been identified as one where Shakespeare ‘gives us a much more penetrating insight into the processes of Hamlet’s tortured thinking’, (wood and Wood, 1998, pg99).
As with the other soliloquies mentioned, this begins with an opening exclamation of despair, ‘How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge! (line 1), and ends with a firm decision of action, ‘Oh from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody or nothing at all, (line 65). Here Hamlet criticises his delay in revenging his father’s death and then prompted by his encounter with the captain, he resolves to focus and head towards his goal of revenge.
He is seen to philosophise about the nature of man through the extended metaphor of man being compared to a beast, which we have seen in Act 1 Scene 2, ‘What is a man is his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? (line 2) and examines the reason for his hesitation ‘Now whether it be bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th’event’ (line 39). He is questioning if he is thinking too much about what he should do rather than just doing it, which has been suggested that procrastination is his tragic flaw. He goes on to compare himself with Fortinbras who for less reason than he has gone into battle and sent his men to their death. This soliloquy typifies Hamlet’s character. Shakespeare employs a lot of powerful imagery using themes that has been encounter elsewhere within the play.
Sleep and death are again united with the simile ‘Go to their graves like beds,’ (line 62) effectively the horrific simplicity and innocence of their sure demise. Alliteration is used, ‘death and danger dare,’ (line 52) to add aggression to the speech, and personification with ‘divine ambition puffed,’ (line49). Repetition of ‘great’ brings out the depth of self-loathing in the tone of Hamlet’s self-berating, ‘Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honour’s at stake. ‘ (line 53).
Hamlet is disgusted that when he has so much to avenge for, ‘a father killed, a mother stained,’ (line 56) he does nothing and yet Fortinbras, for the sake of honour, has sent twenty thousand men into battle of a piece of land worth nothing. At the end of his rant Hamlet again vows decisive action, which has become his hallmark. This soliloquy perfectly reflects Hamlet’s state of mind as he has become less apathetic and more engaging in his anger and self-disgust at his inaction.
Although Hamlet is harsh on himself, Danson considers him a ‘hero of thought’; Hamlet’s ‘conscience’ may make a coward of his resolution to enact a swift revenge, but it also makes him a hero of thought-of intense self-consciousness-itself. ‘ (Danson, 2000, pg125). In conclusion, Shakespeare uses the soliloquy to full effect in portraying to the audience the progression of Hamlet’s thoughts. Without the soliloquies the audience would be missing vital pieces of the plot as the play centres around Hamlet and his madness, feigned or otherwise. Hamlet’s speeches allow the audience into the very working’s of Hamlet’s mind and decision making process, also revealing progression of the plot.
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