The play Hamlet composed by William Shakespeare approximately 400 years ago, remains relevant to the contemporary world due to its philosophical contemplations of the human condition, and what it is to be human. Hamlet explores the transience of life, and the consequences madness has in regard to suicidal tendencies and whether it is best “to be or not to be”. Further, Shakespeare integrates the concept of the revenge, tragedy, a factor Hamlet is renowned for; and the physical and psychological obstacles such a deceit one must conquer in their ultimate search for the truth, elements which remain pertinent to society today.
Shakespeare’s exploration of the complexity of the human condition is explored through his main character Hamlet’s divided consciousness, and the perpetual calculations of how he sees himself, or how others perceived him to be; all of which are notions present in the adolescent members of society today. It is through the exploration of themes such as filial relationships, Hamlet’s self-perception in regards to his inaction of revenge, Shakespeare’s soliloquies and various literary and drama techniques which demonstrate this to the contemporary audience.
Hamlet is contacted by his associates; Bernardo, Marcellus and Horatio who timidly enlighten the Prince of their encounter with a ghost who claims to be the revered King Hamlet. The presence of the ghost sets the play in motion as the well-known revenge tragedy society knows it as today, and establishes elements of the human condition which are still problematic in the modern world. The “goodly king… so majestical” and his unanticipated death to Hamlet and the entirety of Denmark has Hamlet melancholic to the extreme of suicide, exposed through the first soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2.
This soliloquy reveals Hamlet’s divided consciousness as whether to commit such an unholy act, with knowledge that it is sinful. Hamlet protests to himself about God’s “cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter”, leading to Shakespeare’s reference to King Hamlet as Hyperion, contrasted against “my father’s brother” a satyr, by Hamlet himself to emphasise the psychological impact the hasty remarriage his mother had on Hamlet’s grieving over his father. Hamlet tortures himself over the newly forged relationship between his other and uncle, resulting in Hamlet blaming Gertrude for marriage of “such dexterity to incestuous sheets”.
This establishes Hamlet’s obsession with Ophelia and Gertrude’s forced reactions to events due to the oppressive patriarchal nature of Hamlet’s time, rather than the deceitfulness of man, also exploring Hamlet’s division of consciousness of who is more to blame; the “breeders of sinners” or the “satyr” (Claudius) and fraudulence of old friends. The perpetual calculations of percept of self, or by others, is evident in Hamlet’s feigned madness, and moments in his soliloquies where he harshly criticises himself for his inaction.
This negative self-image is relevant to society today as it influences one’s actions, or inaction to events in an individual’s life, as seen in Hamlet. Hamlet frequently labels himself a “coward”, “pigeon-‘liver’d” in the soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! ” This soliloquy illustrates Hamlet’s lack of confidence in his consciousness, exemplifying his low self-image, as Hamlet’s mind is divided between exacting revenge on a man who may be innocent, and the ghost who claims Claudius murdered his father.
This concept is reflective of Protestant theology, a study Hamlet may or may not have undertaken during his studies at Wittenberg. It states that the dead are to go to either heaven or hell; there is no purgatory, and yet, the ghost states “Thy knotted and combined locks to part… to ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list! ” creating doubt in Hamlet’s conscious decision to avenge his father’s death, a physically, but primarily psychological laborious task he commences.
Likewise, this notion of self-perception and external opinions relating to Hamlet’s behaviour is reflected through hamlet’s feigned madness and his old acquaintances Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being summoned by Claudius to “draw him on to pleasures… where aught to us unknown afflicts him thus, / that opened lies within our remedy”. However, Hamlet himself is well-acquainted with deception; and false concern, and acknowledges that they are not in Denmark purely for a visit.
When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question Hamlet, Shakespeare has done this in such a manner as to parody a Socratic dialogue. Both men propose possibilities; develop ideas according to the rational argument, and find their attempts of trickery upon Hamlet are thwarted by his uncooperative replies. Gertrude believes otherwise, assuming her hasty remarriage is the cause, but tells Ophelia “I do wish / that your good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s madness” (Act 3, Scene 1).
This feigned madness, however, is thrown into relief by the true madness of innocent Ophelia, reflective of deception and illusive appearances which are dominant in society to this day. The issue of suicide, regarding Hamlet’s genuine desire to desire, and the theory as to whether Ophelia committed suicide is relevant to modern society as suicide and mental illness are widely prevalent and in some cases incurable by safe means. The most well-known soliloquy by Shakespeare to date; “to be or not to be” explores “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer”.
The negative connotation of “suffer” indicates Hamlet’s tolerant patience towards his thoughts, followed by a metaphor in the subsequent line “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, to illustrate to the audience the nature of the difficulties which Hamlet faces, addressing the issues of his mother’s incestuous remarriage, and the intellectualisation of revenge. Shakespeare’s conscious use of this literary device is a hint to the malignant quality of “fortune” which awaits Hamlet in the latter acts of the play.
Further, “slings and arrows” imply weapons which strike from a long-distance, which could indicate the undetected quality of Hamlet’s fortune’s foe. Metaphors, and extended metaphors in this soliloquy are used to portray Hamlet’s indecision of whether “to die: to sleep;” is the appropriate action. The line “to die: sleep;” is an extended metaphor establishing that sleep represents death, further used to describe Hamlet’s inaction by the comparison of Hamlet to sleep (also known as a state of physical inaction, rest, or being oblivious).
The way Shakespeare portrays Hamlet’s nature and motivations behind his desire to commit suicide are alive and applicable to society through the fact that suicide, and the world’s desperate attempts to solve it, is still evident. It is with Hamlet’s contemplations of suicide that he ponders the transience of life, exemplified through the discovery of Yorick, the court jester’s skull. Yorick serves as a reminder to Hamlet of the finality of death, after his brooding contemplations of suicide, Hamlet now literally looks death and the consequences of it, face to face.
Hamlet’s eventual maturity towards death and his ability to accept the inevitability of it is significant to the modern world as the issue of life and death, and the certainty of it still haunts the back of our minds. This realisation accompanies images of great men such as “the noble dust of / Alexander… Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay”. The characterisation of Ophelia as the quintessential obedient daughter, emphasised through her name meaning “serving woman” and her father’s order to dent Hamlet the right to see her, establishes her as one of two women of the play as vulnerable to the abuse of man.
Gertrude has a maternal and marital responsibility to her son, Hamlet, and husband, Claudius and is subsequently torn between it. Man forcing women to choose is also portrayed in Ophelia between her lover, Hamlet, and role as the obedient, submissive daughter to Polonius, sister to Laertes, respectively Ophelia has no control over her body, relationships or choices, exemplified through the line “I shall obey my Lord”.
To some extent, the responsibility of women is still encompassed in society together through the choices women must make – whether to obey the rules of parents, and ultimately side with them, or a lover or friend, as seen in Hamlet. Ophelia’s vulnerability in the hands of Hamlet is contrasted against Gertrude’s raging sexuality which is “incestuous” and in Hamlet’s eyes revolting. Hamlet states “you cannot call it love, for at your age / The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble”.
Hamlet’s obsession with the mistakes of women or primarily his mother’s sex life is employed by Shakespeare to taint the audience’s perception of Gertrude, and position her as the possible murderess of King Hamlet. This is relevant to modern society as King Claudius and Gertrude in a sense cling to the dead concept that their love will conquer all, which Hamlet doubts is love at all, as a modern teenager would cling to the thought of ‘true love’.
Hamlet remains significant to the contemporary world through the exploration of revenge. In the modern world it is very common to discover acts of violence or ‘crimes of passion’ out of revenge for affairs, deception or other factors. Shakespeare explores revenge as a result of human motivations, to portray that regardless of the context, the main components of a person is the craving of revenge when we are wronged, to be suspicious of one’s motives and speculate on death.
Hamlet’s fierce need to avenge his father’s death is the key motivator of the play, despite Hamlet’s time spent in inaction. This is relevant to society today as we are also obsessed with the idea of revenge being “sweet”, as seen in television, and the media. However, Shakespeare has the modern audience question whether revenge is always sweet, or is it, in Hamlet’s case; a bittersweet affair obtained at a high price such as the death of his mother, Gertrude, himself, and close associates such as Laertes.
In Hamlet’s mind the only way to prove the ghost as truthful in his accusations of poison administered to King Hamlet’s ear, is to “catch the conscience of the King” through Shakespeare’s skilful utilisation of a play within a play, or as Hamlet titles it “The Mouse Trap”. With Hamlet’s inaction, Shakespeare uses the juxtaposition of avengers; Hamlet against Fortinbras and Laertes, to highlight Hamlet’s inaction, and calculating thoughts towards revenge.
Hamlet too compares himself against his fellow avengers, stating “Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause”. This filial duty the three men undertake highlights Hamlet as being morally aware of the atmosphere around him, adopting an “antic disposition”, while Laertes is rash and rampant in his revenge, and Young Fortinbras is illustrated as cowardly through Claudius’ line “he hath not failed to pester us with a message”, portraying Laertes as a childish, ignorant man.
Additionally, the character foils of Hamlet, Laertes and Young Fortinbras was introduced by Shakespeare to portray three sons having a similar story; three young men associated with royal courts, losing their fathers in violent ways, yet they react differently. Hence, the play Hamlet composed by William Shakespeare through the main characters philosophical contemplations of the human condition, explores the concept of the transience of life, the consequences of madness and suicide and themes of revenge to portray Hamlet as a timeless text which remains pertinent to the contemporary world.