“I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live” Hamlet says, after the ghost reveals that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius. It is all very dramatic, very intense, and the audience is leaning forward in barely concealed anticipation, waiting, watching intently. What will Hamlet do next? They can practically imagine Hamlet, sword in hand, stabbing Claudius and fulfilling his revenge mission, for Hamlet appears very much committed to fulfilling his father’s wishes. Hamlet has said “Now to my word”. It will be quick.
And yet, the audience must wait four more Acts for Hamlet to finally kill Claudius. He is labelled ‘a contradiction’ for being guilty of saying one thing but acting in a different way. Witness Ophelia’s funeral in Act V Scene I: here, Hamlet confesses “I loved Ophelia”, yet this is the same man who rejected her “I loved you not”, calling her a “jig”, “ample” and “lisp” and accusing her of hypocrisy “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another”. The Hamlet we see in this ‘nunnery’ scene is radically different to the Hamlet in Scene V, who claims that “forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum”. However, this is not the only instance of Hamlet contradicting himself- let us take a look at some other examples:
Piotr Sadowsk, in “Dynamism of Character in Shakespeare’s Mature Tragedies” writes:
“Hamlet’s conciliatory address to Laertes before their duel… the prince offers an extraordinarily accurate self-analysis of his transitional, exostatic character, as broad as Laertes’s static character is narrow. Hamlet acknowledges the contradictory impulses in his personality: his present static regret and appeal to Laertes’s forgiveness (“Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong.” 5.2.222) and his former exodynamic “madness”… from which Hamlet now distances himself”
However, arguably, it would be wrong to see Hamlet’s contradictory characteristics as wholly negative faults. Hamlet’s contradictions arguably make him more complex, more realistic, more human. Hamlet is, like any one in the world, a mystery. In effect, we can see Hamlet in full colour- he is not fixed in character or thought, but rather, like us, he evolves, learns, changes. Though he is a fictional character, he is realistic enough in our minds.
Perhaps this is merely a modern way of looking at things, but each version of Hamlet is different depending on your perception of him. It is this complexity that surrounds the whole play- “Hamlet” itself is a puzzle, it is covered in layers, surrounded by an air of intrigue; its true message is a secret perhaps only Shakespeare knows. One might find faults with Hamlet, with the play itself, but you can fault all works of art. It is the contradictions in Hamlet which, rather than spoil his character, actually enrich it.
I would love to hear what you think! Do you know any other examples of Hamlet being contradictory in the play?
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