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Free Study Guide-Hamlet by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes Summary
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Hamlet's character dominates the play, lending the tragedy its greatest philosophical and metaphysical dimensions. Shakespeare has brilliantly raised Hamlet above a stock figure of an avenger; as he answers the call of revenge, he also proves he is an intellectual aristocrat. As a scholar and a thinker, Hamlet often reveals the high quality of his mind, pondering many weighty matters. He is also a perceptive student of drama and obviously well read in the classics.

Hamlet is a noble and sensitive hero, an ideal Renaissance gentleman with a fair "mould of form." His refinement of spirit is evident when he criticizes Claudius for his drunkenness. His sensitivity is seen in his horror over his mother's too rapid remarriage to the new king. His humility is seen in his love for Ophelia; he cares little for the fact that she is socially beneath him.

Hamlet is, however, a tragic hero and victim. When the play begins, Claudius has already violated the natural order of the kingdom, and Hamlet, although profoundly disturbed, is only partially aware of the evil that has been perpetrated by his new stepfather. Although he has weaknesses, Hamlet never has a part in the creation or evolution of evil in the play. His fatal flaw is his procrastination over avenging his father's death. Although he finally achieves vengeance and justice, it is at a terrible cost, for every major character is killed as a result of Hamlet's past hesitations.

Hamlet is an emotional young man, deeply disillusioned by his mother's incestuous marriage to his uncle and full of grief at his father's sudden death. He is so disenchanted with life that he views it with disgust and disappointment, saying that the world is "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. . .an unweeded garden." The revelation by his father's ghost that he was murdered by Claudius aggravates Hamlet's distress. The ghost's demand to "revenge his foul and most unnatural murder" and to not let "the royal bed of Denmark" become "a couch for luxury and damned incest" thrusts upon Hamlet a duty to take extreme action. Unfortunately the Prince's mind at the moment of revelation is unstable from grief, and the ghost's command is almost more than he is able to bear. While he is at first full of fire to exact revenge, Hamlet quickly realizes the heavy burden of the duty given to him and says, "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!"

Hamlet's feelings of inadequacy set him apart from Shakespeare's other tragic heroes, who tend to act confidently and immediately. Hamlet, however, is charged with a responsibility that he does not really know how to fulfill. As a result, he is unsure of himself and unable to arrive at a quick decision and take action. Despite his determination to carry out revenge, he procrastinates too long and allows time to slip by without doing a thing to avenge his fathers death. He gives up an ideal opportunity for killing

Claudius because he cannot bring himself to strike at him while he is kneeling at prayer. He apathetically allows himself to be taken to England even though he knows of Claudius' evil intentions to get rid of him. Hamlet is very aware of his indecisiveness and inaction and criticizes himself for these weaknesses. In fact, he contrasts his own lack of follow through with the determination of young Fortinbras.

The real problem is that Hamlet has been given a task that is essentially foreign to his nature. He is not a passionate person, but believes that reason and moderation should rule supreme. Furthermore, he finds that he has been thrown into an emotional situation that demands a decision against which his morals revolt. Raised a Christian, he believes in forgiveness rather that in revenge; therefore, the responsibility for avenging his father's death completely transforms him, and he pretends to be mad in order to fulfill the dreaded task. In fact, he is so worried about the act of vengeance that at points in the play he often seems to be really mad; but Hamlet is in control of his craziness and acts normally when he wishes to do so. Even Polonius, recognizing that the Prince is pretending, realizes that there is a method in Hamlet's madness. In truth, the madness provides Hamlet with a means to hide his own irresolution while his mind struggles to reach a decision.

As Hamlet frets over his own lack of inaction in avenging his father, his reason gives way to passion. His first soliloquy is not a logical assessment of his situation and the alternatives that he has, but an impassioned outpouring of deep grief and bitter disgust, culminating in a stoic acceptance of heartbreak and silent inactivity.

His second soliloquy constitutes a passionate response to the player's speech and a passionate denunciation of his own irresolution. As he continues to fail to take action, Hamlet's melancholy deepens, and his character deteriorates; in his misery he is often bitter and sarcastic. He even reflects on the futility of life and contemplates suicide in the famous line, "To be, or not to be, that is the question."

His mind remains doubt-ridden and perplexed at the uncertainties of life until the very end of the play. Finally, as the tragedy moves towards its end, Hamlet becomes more stable and resolute, resigning himself to God's will. He tells Horatio that "there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, `tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come - the readiness is all."

Although Hamlet is a very complex character, he seems much more accessible than most of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. Many critics judge him as the bard's best character, an imperfect, but perfectly drawn, "melancholy Dane;" his great weaknesses are that he simply does not know how to do the thing he must do and, therefore, procrastinates about it until it is too late. In the end, his humanity destroys him and everyone he loves; but most members of the audience identify with this tragic hero and see at least a little of themselves in Hamlet.

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