Hamlet may be the most complex character any playwright has ever placed
onstage. Over the centuries critics have offered a multitude of explanations
for Hamlet's behavior, but none of them has wholly been able to "pluck
out the heart of my mystery," as Hamlet himself puts it. Eighteenth-
and nineteenth-century theatergoers saw him as the classic ideal of the
Renaissance courtier, poet, and philosopher. You can make a case for this
view, since Hamlet often sees immediate events in a larger perspective.
Ophelia's "O what a noble mind" speech is one of many suggesting
that Shakespeare meant us to think of him this way.
Yet Hamlet is a deeply troubled young man who may strive for philosophy and poetry, but has in fact,
by the end of the play, caused a good many violent deaths. While the earliest view was that Hamlet is
simply a victim of circumstances, later critics saw him as a beautiful but ineffectual soul who lacked the
strength of will to avenge his father. Passages in the play provide justification for this point of view, most
notably in Hamlet's own soliloquies. Detractors of this view point out the cruel and barbaric aspects of
Hamlet's behavior- his badgering of Ophelia, his rough treatment of Polonius' corpse, his reason for
refusing to kill Claudius at prayer, and most of all the callous and seemingly unjust way he has
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death. To these commentators, either Shakespeare had badly
assimilated such crudities from his source material, or Hamlet is himself a crude and unpleasant
character, and his poetic speeches merely sugarcoat the bitter pill.
As the study of psychology developed into a science in the late nineteenth century, critics began
applying its precepts to the play, viewing Hamlet as something close to a manic-depressive whose
melancholy moods- as his failure to take revenge continues- deepened into self-contempt. This attitude
draws some historical support from the Elizabethan belief that every human is dominated by one of four
mental conditions called humors, each caused by the dominance in the body of one internal organ and its
secretions. Hamlet, the notion runs, would have been seen by Shakespeare's contemporaries as a victim of
the melancholy humor, which was especially associated with thinkers and philosophers. The trouble with
this interpretation is that it does not explain Hamlet's frequent jokes and his many attempts at action.
The advent of Freudian psychology provided an additional twist to the "melancholy"
interpretation. Freud's disciple Ernest Jones asserted that Hamlet was a victim of what Freudians call the
Oedipus complex, that is, a desire to take his father's place in his mother's affections, a desire that would
naturally trigger intense feelings of guilt if the father suddenly died. Jones' version, which partially
inspired Sir Laurence Olivier's film adaptation (1948), is made believable by the intense overemphasis
Hamlet puts on his mother's actions, despite the ghost's commands.
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