Why do we love Hamlet so much? Certainly he is Shakespeare's single most-perfect creation, and among the ranks of Falstaff, Iago, Macbeth, as the Bard's most-memorable creatures. But why do we love him so much? It's kind of an odd question, "We love him because he's Hamlet!" is the answer I guess, but it is what makes Hamlet Hamlet that I'm pondering, coming off my re-read of this great tragedy.
, we are posed the famous dichotomy: "to be or not to be?" But somehow throughout the play, everything defies being/not-being. If a tragedy is something which didn't have to happen, Hamlet
is the ultimate tragedy, which goes so far beyond the the tragedies of Seneca and Sophocles that it renders the definition almost anachronistic. Hamlet is the ultimate tragic figure, he has such freedom throughout the entire play to escape his "fate" that we are puzzled as readers what really compels him to his death. He could leave Denmark, sneak back to Wittenburg, he could rally the public who adores him more than Claudius to his side to overthrow the villain-king, he could simply sit by and wait for Claudius to die at which point he would be the natural heir. Instead he is paralyzed by the knowledge of his father's murder. He is not simply a "prince who thinks too much" but a prince who knows too well, he cannot reconcile his life with the knowledge he has.
What is curious in Hamlet, is his lovable villainy. Hamlet is perhaps more a hero-villain than he is a villain-hero. He is the agent, if not actor, of the play's eight deaths (including his own): the wicked trick played on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the insanity and suicide of Ophelia, the stabbing of Polonius, the fatal sparring of himself and Laertes, the accidental poisoning of Gertrude, and the last-moment murder of Claudius. Despite his crimes, he is shockingly detached. He is unmoved by his murder of Polonius, and even his mother's death elicits only a "Wretched Queen, adieu." He is the quintessence of disinterest, and when he is confused and mourning, it is a cerebral kind of mourning: more perplexed by the confrontation of his disinterest and the conventions of how interested he should
be. Hamlet loves no one. His relationship with the previous Hamlet is a distant one, his father (in the form of his ghost) clearly has nothing in common with his son besides his name, his urge of "Revenge, Hamlet!" is expecting a revenge hero of the philosophical prince. By Act V his mourning for his father is decidedly ended, and replaced with a matured poise and reconciliation with death. We do not believe Hamlet when he tells Laertes he loved Ophelia, his nonchalance and cruelty in their courtship has illustrated his disinterestedness in her. Even Horatio he seems not to love, though he know Horatio loves him - his urging of Horatio away from suicide is not to preserve his friend's life but to preserve his own sullied reputation!
But despite his crimes and faults, readers and audiences love Hamlet. I suspect it is because we so identify with him. Hamlet is a dual-character, both young university man of 20 and matured man of 30 (in Act V, according to the gravedigger); he is solipsistic as a child but with the awareness of a philosopher; the cunning of Iago with the playful wit of Rosalind or Falstaff. But most importantly he alone is aware of his own consciousness, which seems without circumference. No one understands Hamlet except Hamlet, Horatio comes closest but still falls short. Hamlet is everything we are, but everything we are still somehow falls short of the Danish Prince. We feel grossly misunderstood, we feel that we are alone in our understanding of our Selves - and that is precisely the case of Hamlet. But Hamlet is still and enigma to us, he is the impetus of self-transformation: he is always changing yet always distinctly himself. He is nearly the conceptualization of himself, defying the imprisonment of language, slipping out from under definitions, escaping out the window when we shut the door behind him. He is infinite, but he is tragic: he meets his end with full knowledge and with cold distance.
O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.
Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very
substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.
A dream itself is but a shadow.
Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a
quality that it is but a shadow's shadow.
A shadow's shadow
- what a concept! And that is what Hamlet is, a shadow of a shadow. He is the darkest umbra of our consciousness, he is the villain and victim of himself. There is no true villain worthy of Hamlet, except Hamlet himself.
for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.
Hamlet is the shadow to the light of thought. He is in full acknowledgement of his freedom, but he chooses instead to see only his prison. Hamlet writes his own tragedy: the end shocks us, it seems beyond what should have happened, and only Hamlet himself could have conceived the bloody end which is the culmination of his own shadowy thoughts.
Opposing the likes of the prized prince to the manikin man Claudius is almost to approach farce, it is an absurd mismatch of wits. But Hamlet undoes himself, as we all undo ourselves. What compels us toward our own destructions if not our knowledge? Is not the seduction of tree of knowledge the origin of our first fall? Our ambitions make us deliberately overlook our risks - we are aware of them, but they are peripheral when our eyes are landed on a prize. By Act V, Hamlet is detached from his family drama. His few weeks at sea seem to have cured his melancholy, yet he returns by his own volition to the fateful prison of Denmark, to the eightfold fatality of Denmark. He returns to kill Claudius, though by Act V we are not sure why, and it seems it is only the impetus of inertia and not the passion of revenge.
without the Prince of Denmark" is a synonymatic phrase for meaninglessness. What would the play be without the prince? Not only does he speak approximately a third of (what I believe is) Shakespeare's longest play, but he nearly writes the play himself - what of the remaining 2/3 of dialogue is not about
Hamlet? In King Lear
the tragedies of Lear and of Gloucester are mostly divergent, only commingling in the final scenes: they exist in the same world but neither Edgar nor Lear writes the play. Hamlet literally writes the play of "The Mousetrap," though we suspect the largeness of Hamlet also rivals his creator in writing his own play, Hamlet
. We are endeared by Hamlet's otherness, his intellect, his strangeness. He loves no one, he is widely loved, but scarcely understood. Hamlet is aloof, enigmatic, villainous and heroic. We love Hamlet, but Hamlet will never love us back.