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Of all of Shakespeare?s characters that I have studied thus far, Hamlet is an enigmatic standout. The complexity of so intriguing a character as Hamlet commends the immense skill of Shakespeare to create characters that seem almost more real and believable than people we meet daily. It is doubtful that many others could combine the eloquence and wit that emanates from the character of Hamlet, who captivates his audience with such charming presence. In a grand display of his linguistic capabilities, Hamlet delivers the passage:
I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation
prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the
King and Queen molt no feather. I have of late, but
Wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all
Custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily
With my disposition that this goodly from, the
Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most
Excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
O?erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
With golden fire: why, it appeareth nothing to me
But a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
How infinite in faculties, in form and moving how
Express and admirable, in action how like an angel,
In apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the
World, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what
Is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me;
Nor woman neither, though by your smiling you
Seem to say so. (II. ii. 301-319).
Wrapped up in this passage is a complete portrayal of the intimate machinations that are contained in Hamlet?s person. The passage portrays an intimidating and real Hamlet who is passionate and intelligent, thinks deeply on serious matters, and can, in a seemingly simple speech, sum up the circumstances that affect him in the whole of the play.
Firstly, the quoted passage reveals a Hamlet that rises as an intimidating figure whose high level of intelligence is seen indirectly, as if masked. We, the audience, are immediately captivated by Hamlet, who strikes us as one of those kinds of people that we dare not match wits with in real life, but we are happy to be voyeurs of. Hamlet?s thoughts move in a chess-like fashion where what he reveals to us only intrigues us as to what is kept hidden. Prior to this passage, Hamlet is all ?fun and games,? treating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as dear chums. Yet, if ?Hamlet? were a comedy, we could appropriately have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand mouths gaping while Hamlet delivers a devastating checkmate with the introduction, ?I will tell you why.? Hamlet?s hair-splitting intelligence reveals his awareness of every facet of his circumstances, and also his clever dealing with his present situation, mentally staying one step ahead of everyone else. As if a psychic, Hamlet assures Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that their secret deal with the King and Queen will not be revealed so that they need not ?molt no feather.? As Hamlet describes the state he is in, no more than what is already known is revealed, though more is hinted at. In fact, Hamlet feigns a digression from revealing the cause of his black mood and plunges into an ?epic? depiction of his present temperament in comparing the earth and ?majestical? sky as a dull background to the thoughts in his head. Hamlet then seems to lose himself in the moment and brings up the nobility of man, which also becomes an unworthy thought for Hamlet?s head. Yet, within these strikingly meaningless illustrations of earth, sky, and man hides the truth of Hamlet?s meditations. In the descriptions of earth and sky, Hamlet is showing his disgust with the world. This is overshadowed by Hamlet?s boredom with man, which is actually his distaste of his uncle, the king, and his mother, who is the ?woman neither,? which ?delights not? him. Left naked, the shamed Rosencrantz can only deny everything outright. Thus, Hamlet intimates his thoughts of disgust with the world and the king and queen.
While Hamlet only hints at the other machinations in his head, he does display strong feelings in his foggy discourse. From this complex passage, the audience is not only captivated by Hamlet?s intelligence, but also by his passion. In diminishing the earth as a ?sterile promontory,? Hamlet evokes images of a man whose state is somewhat on the edge, a jagged figure drenched in drama. Paralleling the dramatic ambiance, Hamlet immediately switches to a dialogue of the sky, declaring it a ?brave o?erhanging firmament,? majestical roof fretted with golden fire.? Hamlet paints our mind?s eye with a glowing picture of a breathtaking panorama, and then immediately cuts into a scene of ?foul and pestilent congregation of vapors,? which strikes us with a modern conception of a nuclear wasteland. Hamlet?s juxtaposition of extreme descriptions with his seemingly macabre disposition wrenches us from one polar end to the other, impressing us with his intense passion. Nevertheless, like a true chess grandmaster, Hamlet saves the best for last; Hamlet?s masked dialogue of the king and queen strikes with the greatest force. In proclaiming the grandeur of man and then rejecting the figure, along with woman, Hamlet gives confession of the true reason for his dark mood: his abhorrence with his uncle?s regicide and his mother?s part in the circumstances. Hamlet?s final line of the quoted passage contains the essence of his mood in its economy and suggestiveness. In its first seven words, ?man delights not me; nor woman neither,? the line severs any additional meaning and simply states the morbidly pure sentiment of raw hatred that Hamlet finds embedded deep in his heart. Juxtaposed against the lavish descriptions of earth, sky, and man, Hamlet?s last line cuts cleaner than paper and wounds its audience with a profound impression of Hamlet?s hatred. It is this hatred that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to perceive, and knowing this Hamlet shows his contempt for the two interrogators with the patronizing and diffusing words, ?though by your smiling you seem to say so.? Hamlet uses his wit to dance around nearly every character in the play, while displaying a vibrant spirit that is unleashed in words.
As mentioned before, Hamlet?s actions appear very deliberate, as one playing chess. Though we can interpret some of Hamlet?s thoughts and feelings, we are kept in a constant doubt as to whether what we perceive is the part, or the whole. It almost seems diminishing to say that Hamlet is complex, but in thinking so we realize of the charms of Hamlet. His characterization is a puzzle, whose pieces appear mixed with pieces of other puzzles. In other words, Hamlet is not a figure you can characterize as having one easily defined personality. In the quoted passage, Hamlet uses several different tones of speech that illuminate different facets of his person. Hamlet?s first line brings to light a cunning Hamlet who comes off a touch brash, disclosing his knowledge of Rosencrantz?s and Guildenstern?s secret motive as if they did a poor job of hiding it. Next, starting with the words, ?I have of late,? Hamlet switches to a softer, and appealingly pitiable tone of sensitivity that contains no aggressiveness, as in his previous tone. The tone in this line is also tinged with a hint of melancholy, supporting the impression of a pitiable character lost in a current drama. Following this is a passionate and cheerful tone of one who finds profound pleasure in the grandeur of nature, philosophizing on the ?most excellent? and ?majestical? sky. Distinct from the introspective depression seen in the tone previous, Hamlet shows himself a noble and inspired extrovert, proclaiming optimism through an appreciation of nature. Hamlet?s bright character is then suddenly snuffed out by a contradicting morbid line of bitterness, denouncing the grand sky as an ugly cloud of gases. Like two successive scenes on a roll of film, Hamlet?s tone is once bright, and then as dark as night. The next scene on this film-strip also pops up abruptly, conflicting with the dark tone seen just seconds before. Hamlet now praises the magnificence of man, showing us a wise and admirable Hamlet who heaps praises on humanity, burying with spirit and zest. Hamlet?s last change of tone emanates apathy, once again totally conflicting with its previous tone. In an impressive flurry of tone changes, we sit stunned and in awe at Hamlet?s rapid change of ?masks,? confusing us as to how many facets exist to Hamlet?s personality; we realize the complexity of Hamlet?s character that does not fail to mesmerize. Previous to this quoted passage, Polonius establishes the elusiveness of Hamlet?s dialogue in commenting, ?How/ Pregnant sometimes his replies are! A happiness/ That often madness hits on, which reason and sanity/ Could not so prosperously be delivered of? (II. ii. 210-14). We, the audience, sit stunned at Hamlet?s relevant ravings.
Finally, a fiftieth reading of the quoted passage decodes the puzzling innuendoes that hide behind the seemingly schizophrenic sequence of images. The first five lines of the passage are a statement of the present situation that has brought Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into Hamlet?s company. Hamlet?s ?anticipation? is simply Hamlet?s awareness that the king and queen have taken notice of his black mood, and have taken measures to discover whether his prolonged mourning is solely mourning. The next image of the earth differs from the first in that several issues are hinted at. In describing the earth as a ?goodly frame,? Hamlet is referring first to his good homeland, Denmark, which he cannot help but love as his native country. The following ?sterile promontory,? however, refers to his home as a stagnant cliff eagerly jutting out into the water, alluding to Hamlet?s rejected wish to school in Wittenberg (I. ii. 119-20). Perhaps reading a bit far into the image, the earth can also possibly refer to Hamlet?s dead father?s present place of underground rest, which is ?sterile? by disallowing Hamlet?s father to avenge himself. The following image is of the sky, which seems to refer to Hamlet?s uncle, the king, in being described as a ?majestical roof fretted with golden fire.? This description appears respectful, but sarcastic undertones resonate an embellishment for the hated uncle. Inferring the king as a ?brave o?erhanging firmament? appears somewhat of a challenge by Hamlet, who has the intention of murdering his ?brave? uncle, his father?s murderer. These assertions gain weight with Hamlet?s line, ?foul and pestilent congregation of vapours,? if we take into account the hatred that Hamlet harbours towards his uncle-king. The following image of man seems an encompassing one that is linked to Hamlet?s mood that changes in accordance to Hamlet?s current company. However, Hamlet?s questioning, ?yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?? touches upon the many introspective soliloquies where Hamlet ponders much about himself, and the immoral actions of others. As well as being a questioning of man, Hamlet?s question also hints at Hamlet?s obsession with death, which pervades the whole play. Finally, Hamlet?s declaration of his displeasure with man and woman is an obvious declaration of the hatred he harbours for his uncle and his mother. Yet, the simplicity of Hamlet?s statement implies a duality of meaning. Though ?man? is an obvious reference to his uncle, the term can also refer to Hamlet?s constant self-criticism; and woman can also be a reference to Ophelia, who later rejects, betrays, and literally refuses him physical ?delight.? True to his complex nature, Hamlet?s images touch upon the several important factors of the plot of ?Hamlet.?
I must now confess that though I have heard countless mention of the famous ?Hamlet,? I have gone through the whole of my education without any tangible encounter with the play, until now. I must also confess that professor Stockholder?s accompanying lesson unveiled the character of Hamlet as one of my ?literary liberators? (Stockholder, 116). Oddly enough, I found Hamlet to be less of a character that ?allows for a kind of self-validation,? (116), and more of a character that reinforces my own confusing introspections. Nevertheless, I found every aspect of the play captivating, and found my eyes opening ever wider with every reading of the quoted passage. Luckily, I have found ?Hamlet? through my studies and will, in future, definitely be rereading Shakespeare?s ?words, words, words?(II. ii. 194).
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1987).
Stockholder, Kay. English 365: Shakespeare. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997).
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