Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a character that is so immensely multi-dimensional, that it is hard to confine him to one specific characteristic. While the Queen Mother is servile, Claudius deceptive and Polonius downright obsequious and foolish, Hamlet is rather a composition of contraries where he is never stagnant in his position and moves in different and, at times, unpredictable wavelengths than the other characters. He is as equally sardonic as he is serious, with soliloquies that are both cathartic and candid, and every single move of his is so strategically put down that he is, quite possibly, the most dynamically modelled hero to lay foot on the Shakespearean stage.
Hamlet struggles with finding identity throughout the play, where he is completely shelved between two moral and societal obligations of accepting his mother’s incestuous marriage to his uncle and his dead father’s command for vengeance. For Hamlet, the world is enshrouded with false sympathy and a lack of empathy and this becomes difficult for him to find his own pedestal to stand on, and thus, through his soliloquies, Shakespeare parallelises a controversial character burdened by tremendous pain and sorrow. This is presented in Hamlet’s very first entrance, where his mother and step-father reason his grief to be bereavement for his father’s death, ‘‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, / To give these mourning duties to your father’. Hamlet is presented as the grieving son, but this is only what the world sees, when in actuality, he is more complicated than that; Hamlet is mourning for the loss of his mother. He is repulsed by her quick marriage to his uncle soon after his father’s death, satirically remarking how ‘The funeral bak’d meats/ Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables’. This lack of self dignity and power, as well as the seemingly disparaging of his late father’s image by the Queen Mother makes Hamlet question the loyalty and strength of all women, heightening the level of contempt that Hamlet feels towards the female kind, ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’. Thus, Hamlet allows the world to see him as the superficial being, for he knows that they could never truly understand the complicacies that lie beneath his disposition, and therefore, the beautiful quality of Hamlet’s mind and its actual state is only revealed to the audience and no one else.
When the Ghost appears and discloses the events preluding the King’s death, Hamlet quite literally takes on an ‘antic disposition’ where his actual self becomes disparate to the self that he deliberately wants the world to see. Here, the contrary nature of Hamlet’s character is more than a shield to hide from the cruel and demanding world as seen before, because this is more strategic and presents his wary judgement, where he questions the sincerity of the Ghost’s accusations for he knows that it could easily be a malevolent spirit that would wreak havoc on Hamlet’s life. He also understands that to make such a heavy claim of murder against the throne is a crime itself, if not justified and so, he investigates this further. Thus, despite the promise made to the Ghost swearing to deliver vengeance on his murderer, Hamlet delays this so as to evidence the accusation and this contrary action is very commendable, for Hamlet becomes the true executioner of justice – the rightful kind of justice.
The most beautiful contrariness presented in Hamlet’s character is through one of the most famous soliloquies ever written, as Hamlet debates on whether to live or to die, ‘To be or not to be – that is the question’. He is surrounded by traitors and murderers that he is completely marooned from reality. He suffers so much that he questions whether life is truly worth living, ‘Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and then deliberates over the prospect of death and how a relieving prospect it is, ‘To die – to sleep – / No more; and by a sleep to say we end / The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to’. And yet, Hamlet stops and this reverie of an endless sleep is disturbed with the realisation that death is not the end, for there still lies uncertainty and a world that is completely unknown to him, ‘But the dread of something after death – / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn/ No traveller returns – puzzles the will’. This similar contradiction possesses itself in another one of his famous soliloquies, as he muses over the wonder of man, the power and beauty, ‘What a piece of work is man!’ only to realise, once again, that man is simply dust, with allusions to a biblical saying in the Genesis, ‘For dust you are; and unto dust you shall return’. Hamlet, here not only presents the overwhelming burden of a man unable to live and unable to die, but also presents the human contradiction in which, despite how grand and majestic we are, we all end up as a dust in the earth; our lives are only transient and never truly significant.
But, it is not only Hamlet that is contradictory in his actions, but characters such as Ophelia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are liable to dubious natures as well. Ophelia, being told not to love Hamlet, is a character that is repressed by parental decisions and orders and thus, she allows her father, Polonius, to spy on a conversation that should have been a private conversation between two lovers. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also become tools to an attempt on Hamlet’s life, despite being university friends with Hamlet. Even if their actions are controlled and operated by society, Shakespeare still points out how Hamlet’s contrary nature was rational while theirs simply highlights the extent to which humankind is servile to a superior force, and thus, it is only when you have the mind of Hamlet that you can come out of this blatant servitude.
The play largely surrounds itself with Hamlet trying to stay afloat in a world that submerges him by constantly opposing and scheming against him. He is forced into a world that makes him wish for death, but he still has his head over the water and is able to become the judge and jury in the very end of the play as he exhibits the punishment on Claudius for murdering his father and all the other characters for being silent, if not unconscious, accomplices to Claudius. Thus, the contrariness contrives the best part of Hamlet’s character and is the very undertone that makes him stand out as the proper judge, jury and executioner of the play; it is the contradictions that makes Hamlet the complete marvel that he is.