Hamlet: Individual and Society

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A text of timeless appeal is marked by effective construction of characters to support its main ideas. Discuss this statement making detailed references to the play. Hamlet, a text of timeless appeal, is largely driven not only by the sophisticated and intricate construction of its characters, but also by elements of structure and language which allow us to perceive and evaluate the fundamental ideas inherent within the play.

The construction of Hamlet’s soliloquies, the constant presence of disease imagery and the overlapping revenge threads within the play assist in the creation of memorable, flawed characters that personify the themes of revenge and corruption. Furthermore, the interactions perpetuated by Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes and Gertrude serve to highlight the intensity of awareness in grappling with key dilemmas within those themes that resonate with audiences past and present.

Thus Hamlet’s timeless appeal can be largely perceived through the presentation and actions of key characters within the play but remain linked to other aspects of the play which assists in its distinctiveness. The characterisation of Hamlet is the key centrepoint of the play’s timelessness due to the extended dramatisation of his inner moral dilemmas. Hamlet the character encapsulates the context in which he was created: namely, Jacobean England in the early 1600s where it was embroiled in social anxiety over the rise of the Renaissance in slow rejection of divinity and the Catholic Church.

However, the Elizabethan conception of the natural order, symbolised by the divine superiority of the King, remained largely intact and the disturbance of this natural order would have catastrophic consequences for the play. Hamlet best expresses the nature of this disturbance through his first soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 2. He bemoans how the world had become “an unweeded garden/that grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature/possess it merely. This metaphor establishes what would become a disease-riddled motif characterising the nature of corruption on not only society but also other characters like Claudius, and effectively outlines his personal view on the corruption of society which Hamlet struggles with throughout the play. With such an intimate insight into Hamlet’s worldview, the audience can then sympathise with his eventual resolve to end the corruption once and for all with the killing of Claudius, ustifying it once again in the language of disease, “is’t not to be damned/to let this canker of our nature/come in further evil? ” Thus as Hamlet is characterised as a brave crusader against the foibles of society, his use of disease imagery ties together the fundamental dilemma of despair over corruption in opposition to taking decisive action. The idea that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” is further supplemented by the theme of revenge, a moral dilemma which Hamlet engages with and thus illuminates the timelessness of the play.

The Ghost in Act 1 Scene 5 who arose from purgatory commanding Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” only serves to trouble Hamlet. According to Protestant tradition, purgatory did not exist and any such spirit, even if it took the form of his beloved father, who claimed so were to be regarded with suspicion. Thus Hamlet responds to the command of revenge not in the form of immediate action, but in the form of decrying the corruption of individuals and society, calling Claudius, “O villain, villain, smiling damned villain! The antithesis of a smiling villain serves to highlight the paradoxical concern of concealing one’s true identity in a society that is in degradation from deception, and reinforces the characterisation of Claudius as a deceitful villain embodying the notion of corruption. As he continues to curse Claudius, it becomes clear that his attempt to take revenge is complicated by his own philosophical disposition where he “must like a whore unpack my heart with words”, a simile which reinforces his character as one beset by immense anguish of a dilemma he can only respond to in language as the thought of killing goes against his moral conscience.

As critic Richmond notes, he is tortured by the crassness of the world and the crudities of the actions he must undertake; this effectively positions the audience to sympathise with Hamlet’s moral pains and signify the timelessness of the play by the way of Hamlet’s portrayal of the circumstances. In contrast, the characters of Laertes and Fortinbras provide character foils to Hamlet’s own unwillingness by willingly taking on revenge in their different ways, illuminating the complexity of revenge and corruption as themes that drive the play’s timelessness. Laertes slots into the role of venger upon the death of Polonius by Hamlet, declaring that “I dare damnation…only then I will be thoroughly revenged for my father”. This use of highly modal bombastic language, characteristic of the revenge tragedy genre in Shakespeare’s time, heavily contrasts with Hamlet’s less impressive claim that “My thoughts be bloody, or nothing worth”, highlighting the starkly different approaches to revenge. The characterisation of Laertes’s as hotheaded and lacking moral conscience in his pursuit of revenge thus raises the question on the apparent weaknesses within Hamlet’s character to carry out his own act of revenge.

Similarly, Fortinbras adds a political layer to the multiple revenge plots within the play by directing his revenge for his own father’s death over a scrap of land that even Hamlet deems an “egg-shell”. However, Hamlet sees this “delicate and tender prince” as someone who is motivated by honour which drives him to action. He notes, “rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument/but greatly to find quarrel in a straw/when honour’s at the stake. The juxtaposition of the cause versus the motivation reflects on Hamlet’s own inadequacies in action which Fortinbras easily excels in, and this parallel is the catalyst for Hamlet to finally cast aside his own doubts about revenge to carry out the act. Through the juxtaposition of the actions of different characters on the notion of revenge, Hamlet thus compels audiences to investigate the complexities within the play, which enhances its overall timelessness as a play which examines the plight of characters who are all ultimately brought down by the corrupting influences of revenge.

Thus, it can clearly be seen that a text of timeless appeal is driven by the construction of sophisticated and flawed characters, but also by the nature of their language and their place within the play. The characters collectively personify themes of revenge and corruption through the language depicted on how they carry out their actions throughout the play. Subsequently, as Hamlet continues to endure as a distinctive, timeless text, it highlights key dilemmas which continue to compel audiences past and present.