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Free Study Guide-Hamlet by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes Summary
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LITERARY CRITICISM FOR HAMLET BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

VARIOUS INTERPRETATIONS OF HAMLET

The Approach of Wilson Knight

Until the 1930s, the evaluation of Hamlet was mostly a continuation of the nineteenth century approach to the character of its tragic hero. After Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy was published in 1904, an entire generation of critics remained obsessed with Hamlet's delay in killing Claudius. They blamed the whole tragedy on the fact that it took the Prince too long to act on his revenge. They never acknowledged the basic premise that Hamlet was a sweet and noble prince, that Claudius was a treacherous villain, and that the tragedy of Hamlet lay in the fact that a "good" character was destroyed because of an "evil" usurper.

In 1930, Wilson Knight's The Wheel of Fire questioned the delay premise. Instead, Knight described the story of Hamlet as an "Embassy of Death" with the Ghost being a true devil, setting all the evil doings within the plot in motion. He even questioned if Claudius was truly a treacherous villain. He referred to the image of Claudius at prayer, repenting of his crimes, while Hamlet refuses to kill him, not wanting his soul to go to heaven. Further, Knight stated that Hamlet was a very unpleasant person -- rude, callous, and sometimes ruthless -- to his mother, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Knight thinks that most critics have over sentimentalized Hamlet's being. Many critics do agree that Hamlet embodies both good and evil. Although he is basically innocent and pure, he has been tainted by the evil around him. As a result, his procrastination leads to further ruin.

Hamlet Seen Solely as the Victim of External Difficulties

To see Hamlet solely as the victim of external problems is the simplest approach to the play. Many critics argue, however, that Hamlet's tragedy is not a result of the supposed weaknesses/flaws in his character or even mistakes in his judgement/action, but from the evil and intolerable situation into which he is cruelly thrust. With his father dead and his mother remarried to his enemy, Hamlet has no one to turn to for help; therefore, he is totally a victim of circumstance. The critics further argue that the external situation prevents him from taking swift action. After all, Claudius is an extremely powerful man now that he is King; any person would have faced enormous difficulties in scheming against him. They excuse Hamlet's lack of action, and in so doing, make him a much less interesting character.


The Romantic Interpretation of Hamlet

The Romantic critics of the nineteenth century, led by Coleridge, were more interested in the character of Hamlet than in the plot construction of the play. For them, Hamlet was one of the greatest artistic creations ever drawn by an author or playwright. They saw Hamlet as an individual torn apart by doubt and fearful of taking action. As an idealist, Hamlet was unable to deal with the harsh realities of life; as a result, he paid a tragic penalty. These critics often quoted Hamlet's own words in support of their interpretation.

Many Romantic writers came to identify themselves with Hamlet. Coleridge went so far as to admit that he had much of Hamlet in himself, for, like the Prince, he was more prone to thought than to action. In fact, many Romantics felt that Hamlet's overdeveloped intellect made it impossible for him to act. Instead, he became a sentimental dreamer, just like many of the Romantics.

The Psychoanalytical Approach

The psychoanalytical approach focuses on the neurotic tendencies of Hamlet and judges him to suffer from an Oedipus Complex. In ancient Greek mythology, Oedipus is the unconscious instrument of an old curse, a destiny to murder his father and marry his mother. Today, many psychologists feel that there are many sons who have developed erotic feelings for their mothers and, as a result, they resent and hate their fathers. Normally, these feelings about their parents are repressed, pushed into the unconscious; but from time to time, these feelings may overcome repression and re-emerge due to crisis situations. The psychoanalysts believe that Hamlet's possessiveness towards his mother proves his Oedipal Complex; they defend their arguments in specifics from the play. Hamlet explicitly urges Gertrude not to have intercourse with Claudius; moreover, he advises her to curb her desire to have sex as well. The psychoanalysts then argue that Hamlet's repressed Oedipal Complex prevents him from killing Claudius. They feel that Hamlet procrastinates because, in his subconscious, he does not really want to murder the man who killed the father that he so envied. They also argue that it is Oedipal Complex prevents him from committing himself to Ophelia.

The Historical Approach

The historical approach holds that only those theories prevalent in Shakespeare's time should be utilized to interpret his texts. Supporters of this school of thought argue that the clue to Hamlet's madness and his hesitancy in killing Claudius lies in his melancholic disposition. Indeed, Shakespeare calls Hamlet the "melancholy Dane." The malady of melancholy was well known in the Elizabethan age, and several treatises were written on the subject. Shakespeare had probably read or heard about these treatises, which state that the primary characteristics of melancholy are sadness, fear, distrust, doubt, despair, and diffidence. Sometimes the negative feelings are interrupted by a false laughter or sardonic humor.

Hamlet displays all these traits of melancholy. He is extremely sad over the death of his father and hasty remarriage of his mother; he is fearful and distrusting of the Ghost; he behaves with diffidence as he procrastinates about taking revenge on Claudius; he falls into despair over his inaction, even contemplating suicide. But from time to time, Hamlet jests sardonically with people he dislikes, making it seem that his mood fluctuates between depression and elation. While Hamlet's behavior can be reasonably explained in terms of melancholy, it is an extremely simplistic approach to the problems of the tragic hero.

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