Hamlet dares us, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to “pluck out
the heart of my mystery.” This mystery marks the essence of Hamlet’s character
as, in spite of our popular psychologies, it ultimately does for all human
personalities. Granting this, we can attempt to chart its origin and outward
manifestations. Ophelia tells us that before the events of the play Hamlet was
a model courtier, soldier and scholar, “The glass of fashion and the mould of
form, / Th’ observed of all observers.” With the death of his father and the
hasty, incestuous remarriage of his mother to his uncle, however, Hamlet is
thrown into a suicidal frame of mind in which “the uses of this world” seem to
him “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” Though his faith in the value of
life has been destroyed by this double confrontation with death and human
infidelity, he feels impotent to effect any change in this new reality: “It is
not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break my heart, for I must hold my
tongue.” All he can do in this frustrated state is to lash out with bitter
satire at the evils he sees and then relapse into suicidal melancholy.

It is in this state that he meets the equally mysterious figure of his
father’s ghost with its supernatural revelations of murder and adultery and
its injunction upon Hamlet to revenge his father’s murder. While this command
gives purpose and direction to Hamlet’s hitherto frustrated impulse towards
scourging reform, it also serves to further unsettle his already disturbed
reason. Whether or not the ghost was actually a devil, its effect upon Hamlet has
In the two months after his meeting with the ghost, he puzzles the court
with his assumed madness but does nothing concrete to effect or further his
revenge. His inability to either accept the goodness of life or act to destroy
its evils now begins to trouble him as much as his outward hysteria and
depression does the court. He first condemns his apparent lack of
concentration on his revenge as the sign of a base, cowardly nature. The
advent of a company of players, however, gives him an idea for testing the
truth of the ghost and the guilt of Claudius. He plans to have the players
perform a play which reproduces Claudius’ crime and observe Claudius’ reaction
to it, thereby dispelling his own doubts as to the proper course of his
action. Having momentarily silenced his shame at his inaction, however, he
immediately relapses into his former state; he meditates upon suicide and then
lashes out with satiric cruelty at Ophelia.

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The performance of the play is successful in revealing Claudius’ guilt to
Hamlet, and Hamlet reacts to this proof with wild glee. His old friends
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had returned that day to Elsinore to help
further Claudius’ investigation into Hamlet’s disorder and had thereby
alienated Hamlet’s affections, enter with a message from Hamlet’s mother that
she wishes to see him immediately. His coming visit with his
mother inspires him with a murderous rage appropriate to the hellish time of
night. Once more in the power of hell, he accidentally comes upon the praying
figure of Claudius but does not take this opportunity for revenge because of
the devilish rationalization that such revenge would not damn Claudius’ soul.

But the truth seems to be that Hamlet’s murderous rage is misdirected at his
mother rather than at Claudius, even though Hamlet is now fully convinced of
his guilt. Coming to his mother’s room with the intent to punish her with
verbal daggers for her unfaithfulness, her unwillingness to listen to him
releases his murderous impulse against her. In a moment of temporary insanity
he manages to exercise enough control to deflect the blow designed for her to
the direction of an unexpected sound, killing the hidden figure of Polonius.

In the ensuing scene he all but forgets the body of Polonius in his urgency to
arouse his mother’s guilt for her treatment of his father and injury to his
own trust. All he knows is that his mother’s behavior has
contributed to wrenching the time “out of joint” for him, and that he has been
Once he is reconciled to his mother, the whole of reality appears to him
in a different light. Where before his will was “most incorrect to heaven,”
the “Everlasting” seeming to be the creator of sterile farces and imposer of
harsh laws, he now can accept heaven’s purposes and ally himself with them as
heaven’s “scourge and minister.” If Hamlet’s nausea with life as well as sex
seems to the modern intelligence to have a hidden psychological basis, Hamlet
raises the discussion of his nature to the ultimately more profound level of
religious existential confrontation. Seeing the hand of heaven in his
accidental slaying of Polonius as well as in the exile to England which will
result from it, he is able to accept this turn of events with new confidence
Though Hamlet does not appear outwardly changed, as witnessed by his
contemptuous treatment of Polonius’ body, continued obsession with the horror
of death and with the obligations of honor, the change in attitude begun in
his mother’s room continues to develop while on shipboard and is responsible
for his actions there. Inspired by his restlessness, he rashly discovers the
letter ordering his death, forges a new commission which substitutes for his
death the deaths of Claudius’ accomplices, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,
returns the commission unknown, and, in a sea fight with pirates, manages to
free himself from the Danish ship. In all of this he sees “heaven ordinant”
and this teaches him that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough –
hew them how we will.” Recognizing by this that humanly conceived plots are
doomed to fail, he places himself completely in the hands of Providence.

Nonetheless, his first actions upon his return do not seem to indicate
any real change in his nature from our last view of him in Denmark. He is
still overly sensitive to the decomposition of the body after death and, in
his treatment of Laertes at the funeral he so rudely disrupts, he still shows
a cruel insensitivity to the feelings of anyone he believes to have wronged
him. This insensitivity also extends to his lack of any qualms about his
murders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as was also true of his earlier
murder of Polonius. If Hamlet had once been a model human being disillusioned
in life by the double blows of his father’s death and mother’s remarriage, his
oversensitivity to these evils of existence has warped his nature into an
equally extreme insensitivity to all those whom he suspects of impurity. He
cruelly torments his mother and Ophelia, bitterly mocks Polonius, Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern and then wantonly kills them without a qualm and with the
attempt, in the last two cases, of ensuring their eternal damnation, and he
refrains from killing Claudius for this same evil reason. In terms of
vindictive cruelty and wanton slaughter, he stands far more condemned for evil
than Claudius and in danger of his own eternal damnation.

This warping om a sensi i s nat re into ane cspable of inhuman evil is
perhaps the clearest proof of the evils of existence, though Hamlet must now
be numbered among the evils to be punished by cosmic justice. But if Hamlet’s
actions condemn him to death, his growing perception of reality finally
redeems his soul in our eyes. Though Claudius has planned Hamlet’s destruction
and Hamlet has proof of this, he has returned to Denmark without any plan for
his revenge, even warning Claudius rudely of his approach. In “perfect
conscience” now about the sin of regicide%2
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