The Nature of Hamlet's Tragedy

As a play, the part of Hamlet is portrayed by an actor and we would expect the piece to be detached from "real" life. In fact, the reason why this play has survived and is regarded as the greatest play in the English language is because it is universally linked to "real" life.

The tragedy in Hamlet is not simply one dimensional because the play operates on several levels.

It is in one sense a political play, as Hamlet is ordered to carry out an act of vengeance on a head of state, who is above the law. (Where do you go for justice if the criminal is the head of the justice system, as Claudius would be, as absolute monarch?) There is no chance of a trial on the death of Old Hamlet. Hamlet has no platform for accusation of Claudius. Shakespeare is accurate in his description of the passions and relationships which pervade the court - they are still relevant today in any contemporary news item of injustice and suffering at the hands of corrupt regimes.

The title of the play in the first printed editions was "The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark", which suggests that the play was both a tragedy and a history. Hamlet's social station is Royal, he is a Prince of the Blood. (Elevated feeling in Shakespeare's theatre was associated with elevated people) Thus the play operates on another level as a class drama - one individual operating in a corrupt environment - and its cultural setting is also significant.

It is also a psycho-drama, being dominated by one character who operates as a sacrificial victim and also as a victor. As a victor he "runs" the action (Hamlet's character has half the total lines in the play) and as a victim, he is killed. Everyone else in the play responds to Hamlet or reacts to him in some way. He appears in thirteen of the twenty six scenes and controls the play, appearing at the centre of a series of meetings and encounters throughout the action. The prince is "visited" by others and remains almost constantly on stage, except for a brief time before the duel scene. These meetings should lead inevitably to a final confrontation with the antagonist, Claudius, but Shakespeare cleverly avoids this by having Claudius use Laertes as his own substitute. Hamlet thus avoids the confrontation until it is almost accidentally thrust on him during the duel scene, almost as an afterthought. The psychological development of the main character is traced through the major soliloquies which allow Hamlet to control the audience's perceptions of his world and the corruption within it. He is very aggressive towards the audience, especially in the "Rogue & peasant slave" speech, in which he uses informal/colloquial language to challenge himself in class terms, and also in gender terms, calling himself a "whore" and a "drab".

In general terms all the soliloquies are dominated by variously phrased questions. The play is dominated by questions, almost all the main characters beginning their parts with a question (sixteen in the first scene). The play is about secrets, with the audience trying to solve problems. Hamlet is our agent - trying to find answers to specific problems and also to philosophical issues, like death. All the characters ask questions and the whole play is a continuous interrogation. In this respect, it is very contemporary, as it is a mirror of life. The questions asked are fundamental to our own search for truth.

By the end of the play the interrogations have been replaced by certainties and declarations.

Hamlet was one of the most experimental plays of its time, using the conventions of the new Revenge drama, introduced by Thomas Kyd, and also introducing many new words into the language. There are 400 unique words in Hamlet as well as 170 which are completely new to the language. In "Rogue and peasant slave" there are 11 "new" words: horrid, muddy mettled, unpregnant, defeat, tweaks, pigeon-livered, region, malefactions, organ, assume and relative.

Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope