“To be or not to be – that is the question” Hamlet famously declaims in the third act of William Shakespeare’s longest drama, and one of the most probing plays ever to be performed on stage. Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ was written around the year 1600 in the final years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who had been the monarch of England for more than forty years and was then in her late sixties.
The prospect of Elizabeth’s death and the question of who would succeed her was a subject of grave anxiety at the time, since Elizabeth had no children, and the only person with a legitimate royal claim, James of Scotland, was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and therefore represented a political faction to which Elizabeth was opposed. Hamlet’ and many other Shakespeare plays from this period, unsurprisingly, explore this theme of the transfer of power from one monarch to the next, particularly focusing on the uncertainties, betrayals, and upheaval that accompany such shifts in power, and the general sense of anxiety and fear that surround them. These themes of disorder, dilemma and indecision, madness and revenge and the discrepancy between appearance and reality are mainly explored through the main characters, principally Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia, and through the plot itself.
Therefore, the first two acts in this drama are paramount in introducing the characters, and thus also themes, of Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’ for it to be regarded as one of the greatest plays ever to be written and staged in universal drama. As one critic, T. S. Elliot, remarks in his book ‘On Poetry and Poets’, “the opening scene of ‘Hamlet’ is as well constructed as that of any play ever written… “. Immediately, from the opening of the play, Shakespeare establishes a mood of anxiety and dread by using fragments of conversation, for example, ‘Nay, answer me, stand and unfold yourself’ and ‘Long live the King!
The verses do not flow and their broken rhythms generate an atmosphere of unease, apprehension and confusion; this, and the fact that the play begins with the question ‘Who’s there? ‘ and is followed by six more in the next twenty lines, reveals from this early point of the play the notion of distrust and uncertainty that is prevalent throughout the play. In addition, the supernatural appearance of the ghost on a chilling, misty night outside Elsinore Castle indicates immediately that something is wrong in Denmark.
The ghost serves to enlarge the shadow King Hamlet casts across Denmark, indicating that something about his death has upset the balance of nature. The appearance of the ghost also gives physical from to the fearful anxiety that surrounds the transfer of power after the king’s death, seeming to imply, as Horatio sees it, a dark and frightening future for all. In addition, Horatio in particular sees the ghost as an ill omen, an ‘extravagant and erring spirit’, boding violence and turmoil in Denmark’s future.
The introduction of this character in the scene is important in signalling to the audience that there can be no doubt of the Ghost’s existence or of its striking resemblance to the last King of Denmark, the valiant warrior, King Hamlet. This is due to the establishment of this character as a good-honoured man who is also educated, intelligent and sceptical of supernatural events. Before he sees the ghosts, he insists, ‘Tush, tush, ’twill not appear’, and even after seeing it he is reluctant to give full credence to stories of magic and mysticism.
However, on seeing the ghost, Horatio’s ability to accept the truth at once, even when his predictions had been proven wrong, indicates the fundamental trustworthiness of his character. His reaction to the ghost functions to overcome the audience’s sense of disbelief, since for a man as sceptical, intelligent and trustworthy as Horatio to believe in and fear the Ghost is far more convincing than if its only witnesses had been a pair of superstitious watchmen.
In this subtle way, Shakespeare introduces Horatio from the first scene of the play not only to inaugurate the themes of disorder and uncertainty but also to represent the audience’s perspective throughout this dark and ghostly scene. In a seemingly stark contrast, the second scene of the play is devoted to the apparently jovial court of the recently crowned King Claudius.
If the area outside the castle is murky with the aura of dread and anxiety, the rooms inside the castle are committed to an energetic attempt to banish that aura, as the king, queen, and the courtiers desperately pretend that nothing is out of the ordinary. Claudius’s opening speech appears relaxed, level-headed, eloquent and persuasive. In spite of this, Shakespeare signals to the audience, long before they hear Claudius confess it, that the King’s public mask conceals a troubled mind.
The merriment of the court seems superficial largely due to the fact that the idea of balance Claudius pledges to follow is unnatural. Claudius’s speech is full of contradictory words, ideas and phrases, beginning with ‘Though yet of Hamlet our late brother’s death / The memory be green’, which combines the idea of death and decay with the idea of greenery, growth, and renewal. He also speaks of ‘defeated joy’, ‘an auspicious and a drooping eye’ and ‘dirge (a lament for the dead) in marriage’, ideas which are at unease with one another, theatrical means of hinting at the hypocrisy Claudius embodies.
Consequently, as a result of this clear dishonesty, this scene portrays as dire a situation as the first scene does. While in the first scene Shakespeare illustrates the sense of disorder, fear and danger through the guards’ panicked and forceful exchanges and the appearance of the ghost, the second scene hints at the corruption and weakness of Claudius, through the incongruities in his speech and the fallaciousness of the setting around him. Contrary to the dishonesty of Claudius’s character is the way Hamlet is introduced through the first two acts.
Prince Hamlet, devastated by his father’s death and betrayed by his mother’s marriage, is introduced as the only character who is unwilling to play along with Claudius’s gaudy attempt to mimic a healthy royal court. His words to Claudius are cryptic so that he can be rude to the clever Claudius whilst giving little away to the court. His first words, ‘A little more than kin and less than kind’, suggest how Hamlet feels that he is neither kindly disposed towards his uncle, nor does he think that he is of the same kind, meaning from the same honourable class.
His next response, ‘Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun’ adds more emphasis to this dark and mysterious side of Hamlet as he hints of his awareness of all the that is ongoing ever since his father’s death. The war of words is apparent in this scene between the two characters of Claudius and Hamlet as is the audience’s sense that both of these characters know the truth but due to political concerns and fear of confrontation they do not openly say it, thereby highlighting a central theme in the play: that of the conflict between appearance and reality.
While Claudius pretends to be unaware of the reasons for Hamlet’s anger and hatred, Hamlet in his uncertainty on how to exact revenge, is afraid to take decisive action and thus has to be content with making scathing comments in the hope of provoking some sort of admittance by Claudius of fowl play.
His seven soliloquies are all centred on the most important existential themes: the emptiness of existence, suicide, death, suffering, action, a fear of death which puts off the most momentous decisions, the fear of the beyond, the degradation of the flesh, the triumph of vice over virtue, the pride and hypocrisy of human beings, and the difficulty of acting under the weight of a thought ‘which makes cowards of us all’. Thus, they probe his own situation, his mind and the problems attached to being human in a society characterised by duplicity and hypocrisy, and being an active agent in a moral universe.
Hamlet’s first soliloquy in Act one Scene 2 opens with the emphatic line: ‘O that this too too sullied flesh would melt’, a cry of anguish and a longing for dissolution, which is however followed by an acknowledgement of the fundamental Christian injunction against suicide, thereby precluding escape from the burden of life. This question of the moral validity of suicide in an unbearable painful world haunts the rest of the play, reaching the height of its urgency in perhaps the most famous line in all of English Literature: ‘To be, or not to be- that is the question’.
In this scene Hamlet mainly focuses on the appalling conditions of life, railing against Claudius’s court as ‘an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature/ Posses it merely’. The listless tempo of the words ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable’ conveys his weariness. The speech contrasts dramatically with Claudius’s flowing lines as its verse starts and stops, punctuated by expressions of pain and confusion.
This disjointed rhyme serves to reflect the dislocated progress of Hamlet’s thoughts which convey to the audience his inner turmoil. Moreover, in this soliloquy, Hamlet’s bewilderment and disgust at his mother’s hasty remarriage and sexual depravity is revealed as he proceeds to a comparison in which his sanctified father is contrasted with his repugnant uncle, ‘Hyperion to a satyr’, the sun god is set against the mythical half-human, half-beast noted for sexual appetite.
This disgust is not only apparent in the imagery but also in the sounds of Hamlet’s words. Hissing sibilants convey the young man’s nausea as he imagines his other and his uncle in bed together: ‘Oh most wicked speed, to post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets’. The intensity of Hamlet’s disgust here underlines how impossible he finds it to come to terms with the incestuous union of his mother and his uncle and the indecent haste of his mother’s re-marriage.
In essence, Shakespeare uses this soliloquy to encapsulate and foreshadow several of the ideas, concepts and images that dominate this play: disillusionment so severe that suicide seems to be the only alternative, insincerity that leads to dramatic theatricality, Hamlet’s inability to express his feelings publicly or to replace his words with action which lead to further frustration, anger and passion, and a desperation and weakness that amounts to a betrayal of human decency, far beyond any religious considerations.
Although the development of these ideas is gradual, the important role the first two acts play in illustrating the various concepts and in underlining their importance from early on, mainly through Hamlet’s soliloquies, cannot be exaggerated. A presentation of this can be seen through comparing Hamlet’s thoughts and actions in act one scene two to that of act two scene two, where he makes his second soliloquy. Again, Hamlet speaks in riddles, this time to Polonius.
Although his words sound like nonsense, a thread of bitter satire runs through it giving the audience the impression that Hamlet’s remarks indeed are not madness, but forthright contempt, privileged rudeness in a court where no one speaks the truth. For example, importantly Hamlet declares, ‘I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly’, that is, he is only ‘mad’ at certain calculated times, and the rest of the time he knows what is what. And, although he presents himself as sounding mad, a closer look at the directions reveals they do in fact point in one and the same way.
Furthermore, in this scene, the longest by far in the play, Hamlet makes his second soliloquy following his involvement with the players. The presence of actors and the idea of ‘a play within a play’ points to an important theme: that real life is in certain ways like play-acting. Hamlet professes to be amazed by the player king’s ability to engage emotionally with the story he is telling even though it is only an imaginative recreation. He berates himself for displaying less passion when overwhelmed with grief and outrage than that displayed by an actor who is merely producing a performance.
His self-disgust is evident through the insults he hurls at himself, calling himself among other things ‘a rogue and pleasant slave’ and through his questioning of himself: ‘Am I a coward? ‘ As his indignation reaches its zenith, assonance, rhythm and repetition illustrate the intensity of emotion, portraying his ever-worsening inner turmoil that threatens to erupt in the climax ‘Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindles villain! ‘ only to collapse into a state of exhaustion due to the continual failure to take action.
The theme of dilemma and indecision is clearly dominant here, and it is due to Hamlet’s apparent lack of willingness to take action here that many view ‘Hamlet’ as a play of words and emotion rather than action. One such critic, who takes this view, T. S. Elliot, remarked that ‘Hamlet’ presented a character ‘dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible because it exceeds the events that occur’, the absolute opposite of Macbeth. Yet, in contrast to these interpretations, Hamlet by the end of the play evolves from a dreamer to a man of action. While the play begins with Hamlet contemplating his father’s death and later on, in the graveyard scene, death itself, in the key image of the play where he holds Yorick’s skull, Hamlet by the end of the play is no longer just like a student of the concepts of death.
Instead, he becomes the tragic action hero who finds a ‘divinity’ working through action. Although it is true that the impulse for his actions is imposed on him by other characters or by events, another interpretation see Hamlet as nevertheless extremely active: he listens to the ghost (which his friends refuse to do), he adopts a coarse attitude verging on insubordination, he violently rejects Ophelia, he thwarts one after the other plots aimed at revealing his plans, he stages for the court a show which is nothing but a trap in which he hopes to catch the king, he confronts his mother in a scene of extreme violence, and he fights Laertes.
Engaging further in pure physical violence he kills Polonius, sends his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, kills the king, and is indirectly responsible for the death of Laertes. In conclusion, through the first two acts of the play, Shakespeare is very successful in introducing the main characters and themes of the play.
While his introduction of Horatio and the ghost in the first scene is very important in establishing a mood of distress and anxiety, as well as touching on the themes of uncertainty and disorder, Shakespeare’s following scene builds on that to a great extent through the contrast between Claudius and Hamlet, the conflict between appearance and reality and through Hamlet’s first soliloquy of the play.
In this soliloquy not only are Hamlet’s true emotions revealed to the audience but with it many of the central themes and concepts of the play are explored, such as the concept of severe disillusionment leading to the idea that suicide is the only viable option. It is thoughts and emotions such as these that are gradually developed in the novel; and which has led to ‘Hamlet’ being regarded by many critics as the most powerful and probing play Shakespeare has ever written.
The different interpretations of Hamlet and the play in general is only a natural consequence to the ambiguity and uncertainty that Shakespeare creates from very early on in his play. As one critic, John Dover Wilson remarks, ‘Hamlet’ is very much like ‘a dramatic essay in mystery; that is to say, the more it is examined, the more there is to discover’.
In that context, the first two acts of this drama have served not only as a very effective means of introducing the main characters and themes of the play, but also through the beautifully crafted soliloquies, Shakespeare probes the most daring aspects of the psychology of man and the history of human thinking through pieces of pure poetry, written in blank verse, sustained by a rhythm now smooth, now rugged, by a fast or a slow pace, offering his audience surprises in every line.