Sunday, May 5, 2013

More thoughts on Hamlet

I have decided to let Hamlet rest for a little while and move on to another play, but before doing so, I wanted to write a post summarizing my current interpretation of the play, along with my questions, doubts and conflicting hypothesis.

One of the greatest characteristics about Hamlet and at the same time, the cause for its difficulty and depth, is its uncertainty and ambiguity. Almost all characters and events can be interpreted and understood in different ways. It is a great thing because it offers a wide range of creative possibilities. That’s the reason the performances and adaptations of this play are always so different from each other. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing new versions of this play: the words might be familiar but I still feel I’m experiencing something new, and I love that.

The problem comes when one tries to analyze the play. I have already accepted that I will never have a final answer to all my questions and that is a good thing but at the same time, kind of annoying. 

In a previous post I wrote a little about Hamlet’s delay in executing his revenge. I thought Hamlet was a very contradictory character because he is constantly delaying and making excuses for executing his plan but at the same time acts impulsively and has no problem in killing other people.

David, a fellow blogger, commented that maybe there is really no delay and that this was not a problem when the play was first performed because people knew it had to have five acts and therefore Hamlet could not kill Claudius early because then there would be no play. And that is true and I’ve read a lot of people agree with this idea. On the other hand, and what may be a problem for this theory, is that Hamlet actually refers to this delay and is tortured by it. At one point, the Ghost actually has to remind Hamlet of the task he has given him:

Ham.     Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
               That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by
               The important acting of your dread command?
               O, say!

Ghost.   Do not forget. This visitation
              Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.

(Act III, Scene IV)

I have realized I tend to believe that there is indeed a delay and a reason behind it. Why? Well, I think it is mainly because of Hamlet’s behavior throughout the play. I feel there is something strange about his demeanor, not only because he is hurting for the obvious reasons, but also because he doesn’t seem to be capable of fulfilling the Ghost’s request until extreme circumstances force him to do so. It is only at the end, when his mother is dead, that he kills Claudius and even then it is a sudden and impulsive action, not a planned one. 

I also asked myself if Hamlet is really crazy (and if that is partly the reason for the delaying of his revenge) or if he just pretends to be, in order to get what he wants, manipulate others or even distance himself from the ones that are trying to help him. I tend to believe the latter. Declaring him crazy is to oversimplify such a complex character. So, in my humble and inexperienced opinion, Hamlet is not crazy because that would be too easy and there wouldn’t be so much debate regarding the true nature of his character. I have read some people think he acts the way he does because he is just too sensitive for the corrupt, manipulative and deceiving world he lives in. Maybe he is delaying his actions because he has to come to terms with them. I don’t think I completely agree with this theory. Hamlet does show from the start certain disdain for the court and a sort of inadequacy in it, but he also shows his ability to be as deceiving and manipulative (and cruel) as the others. He kills Polonius without really knowing who he was attacking and he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths without problem. And he is misogynistic. Yes, I know that word may be a little strong and we don’t know if he was always like that, but from what we can see in the play, he is definitely prejudiced and violent towards women. He is especially cruel to Ophelia, who is basically the victim of everyone in the play. Therefore, I don’t think he is too “pure” for what is required of him.

Then, why is it he has so much trouble? So far, what I feel most inclined to believe, is that he is having trouble with accepting the reality of his situation. He doesn’t lack the tenacity or courage, if you will, to avenge his father. I think he just can’t face the reality of what is going on. And to be completely honest, I don’t know what bothers him most: the fact that his father was murdered by his uncle or that his mother married him and loves him. I don’t know who he feels most betrayed by and maybe that is also his problem. 

Anyway, I know this subject has been discussed over and over again and I’m not providing something new, I’m just writing my impressions and doubts, but I feel that organizing such thoughts and sharing them is an important part of my experience with this particular play. 

This is not the end of Hamlet for me, I just need to leave it for a while so I can move on with my project and also to be able to come back to it with fresher eyes and maybe a new perspective, just like when I finish translating something and leave it alone for some time before proofreading it; that way it is easier to see things better and clearer.

As always, please feel free to comment, give me your opinion or debate with me. It is all part of the process I very much enjoy.


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

This was a thought-provoking post. I tend to agree with you that Hamlet was only pretending to be crazy, and the delay surely had something to do with his mother.

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Thank you! I definitely think there are some unresolved mommy issues...

David Bates said...

Excellent insights! You are wise to write it all down as it occurs to you.

Yes, the "delay" is referred to. That's the thing with "Hamlet," and much of Shakespeare: You come up with a theory, only to have a piece of the text from elsewhere in the play shoot it down. But I don't think we're going to find anything that redeems him with regard to how he treats the women in his life. Branagh really brings that out. I think too much can be made of the "mommy" thing, though ... Olivier really went overboard with it, in my opinion. Freudian analysis was very fashionable at the time.

I see you're reading "The Tempest" next. Wonderful play! I played Gonzalo in it a few years ago. Loved the character, and the whole experience. The shipwreck scene was a nightmare to put together though. It's been long enough now that I can laugh about it. :-)

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Thank you for the comment, David! I really want to see a performance of The Tempest, do you have any recommendations? Have you seen Julie Taymor's adaptation with Helen Mirren as Prospero?

David Bates said...

I haven't seen Taymor's. It was released on DVD while we were in the middle of rehearsals, so I made a point of avoiding it and I just never got back to it. Her "Titus" was extraordinary, so hers is the one I'd go to. Those BBC productions from the '80s were pretty turgid affairs, if you ask me. I've seen the play only once, on stage, and for a number of reasons it was magical: Final performance of the season, outdoors on a crisp fall evening, and the understudy for Ariel was called to go on (and she was amazing).

Caro said...

Excellent post. It certainly raised a few issues with the character of Hamlet that I'll be thinking about as I keep plowing through my re-read.
Regarding his delay in killing Claudius, I might be going out on a limb here, but I think it's likely that part of his hesitation was due to the fact that Claudius was the king, however horrifically he had reached that position. Shakespeare was a writer firmly positioned in the Baroque, which as a culture could imagine nothing worse than commiting regicide. It didn't matter at the time if the king was a despicable person - he was the king, and that was the be all, end all of the situation. The fact that he was part of his family can't have been easy, either. Gertrude wasn't the only person he felt betrayed by.
I completely agree about Hamlet being a misogynist. It's hard to find a Shakespeare character that isn't, actually, at least to some degree.
I look forward to more of your thoughts!

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Thank you Caro! I like your theory about the regicide, that actually makes a lot of sense considering the context of the time the play was written.