William Shakespeare wrote his most famous tragedy “Hamlet” in the early 17th century with certain characteristics of its protagonist Hamlet that made him one of the best tragedies ever written in the history of English literature. The play illustrates the story of Prince Hamlet. He used to study in Denmark but is summoned back on the sudden death of his father. Hamlet returns and discovers that his paternal uncle Claudius has married Queen Gertrude and assumed the throne. Prince Hamlet desires revenge from his paternal uncle on the asking of his father’s ghost.
Critics and students of literature have analysed and interpreted the character of Hamlet in many ways due to the complexity and depth of emotion. The character of Hamlet grabs the attention of the audience due to notable characteristics which include:
- Intelligent and Thoughtful: The playwright demonstrates Hamlet as a highly intelligent person. He keeps his motives in front of him simultaneously facing the challenges of human existence and justice. He often questions the objects of nature around him.
- Emotional and Melancholic: Hamlet becomes emotional soon after his father’s death. However, he is not a pessimist. He struggles emotionally throughout the whole play.
- Indecisiveness and Inner Conflicts: He does not act suddenly or take any decision in haste. He wants to avenge his father’s death but he fears the consequences. He thinks many a time in the play about whether to take revenge for his father’s murder. There is always a conflict in his mind in this regard. It is hard for him to reach a conclusion.
- Complexity: Hamlet has many layers. It is not wrong to say that he is multifaceted. He is lovely, loyal, and kind but at the same time, he is angry, deceitful and cruel.
- Creative Poet: Hamlet is an artist. The writer portrays him as a poet. People around him also know him as a poet. His ability to express himself makes him different from the masses. He uses metaphors and imagery when he talks or writes letters.
Intelligent and Thoughtful
Hamlet is not only an intelligent character but also thoughtful. In fact, he is highly intelligent and educated. He thinks too much before finalising a decision. Hamlet often uses his intelligence in order to make an analysis of the world around him. There are many incidents in the play that prove Hamlet as an explorer of the philosophy of life. He tries his best to know more about human nature and its existence in this world.
He not only debates the philosophy of life with other characters in the play but also questions himself and tries to find answers. His nature is full of suspense and questions. The writer of the play mainly focuses on the complex nature of Hamlet. In this way, Hamlet remains a central focus of the play.
A lot of incidents are there in the play that proves intelligence is one of the major characteristics of Hamlet. Some of them are:
- Hamlet questions why he is there in this world in Act 1, Scene 2 of the play. He wants to know the purpose of human existence. He asks himself:
“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! / Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!”Hamlet – Act 1, Scene 2
- Some philosophical debates about Hamlet from the play are worth mentioning. Most of the time he talks to himself; therefore, he thinks about life hereafter in Act 3, Scene 1 he says:
“To die, to sleep; / To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.”Hamlet – Act 3, Scene 1
- It is the intelligence of Hamlet that tricks Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He pretends to be mad in Act 2, Scene 2. He confuses and misleads them through ticky wordings.
All these incidents prove that Hamlet does not only think about himself but questions the existence of the whole humanity. His ability to engage in deep philosophical debates and his use of poetic language to express his thoughts and emotions make him an intellectual and thoughtful character.
Emotional and Melancholic
Hamlet becomes emotional soon after the death of his father. Indeed, he was a poet before his father’s death but subsequently, he becomes melancholic too. Another reason that increases his pain is his mother’s marriage to his paternal uncle. Every time he speaks, he seems hopeless. His dialogues are full of melancholy and despair.
Mostly, he thinks about the afterlife. He is curious to know what would happen when he would die. He wants to know what happens after the death. In fact, it is Hamlet’s melancholic personality that creates a tragic tone in the play.
Many examples are there in the play that points out the melancholic personality of Hamlet which are:
- Hamlet knows about his father’s death in Act 1, Scene 2 of the play. He expresses his grief. In addition to the grief over his father’s death, he is shocked because of his mother’s hasty remarriage decision to his uncle. In a soliloquy, he expresses his emotions in the following words:
“O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.”Hamlet – Act 1, Scene 2
- Another incident in the play that helps us know the melancholic characteristics of Hamlet is when he expresses his disillusionment with the world. In Act 2, Scene 2, he says:
“How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world.”Hamlet – Act 2, Scene 2
- Hamlet laments the futility of human existence in Act 3, Scene 1. He says:
“To be or not to be”Hamlet – Act 3, Scene 1
- Hamlet goes to the graveyard and talks about the inevitability of death in Act 5, Scene 1.
Indecisiveness and Inner Conflicts
Hamlet cannot decide what to do and what not to do. For example, he wants to take revenge on his paternal uncle but he is not sure whether he wants to do so or not. He is burdened with so many conflicts. His overthinking stops him from doing anything. He also fears the consequences. Further, he justifies killing his uncle. He thinks that whether it is right to kill his uncle or not and whether he should do it. Moreover, he doubts his actions. He thinks about the positive and negative aspects of his actions.
Hamlet also doubts his decision to take someone else’s life. He does not want to do so for the sake of justice if it is not right. Hamlet’s internal conflicts are evident throughout the play. These moral conflicts portray the central themes of the play. These conflicts also contribute to Hamlet’s tragic end.
Indecisiveness is one of the significant characteristics of Hamlet. It is also the central conflict of this play. His inability to act decisively ultimately leads to his downfall and tragic end. Some examples from the play where these characteristics of Hamlet are evident are:
- The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in Act 1, Scene 5 and tells him that his brother is behind his murder. Hamlet does not act immediately despite making a decision of avenging his father’s murder. He does nothing until the end of the play.
- Hamlet does not commit the murder of his paternal uncle while he was praying in spite of having an opportunity to take revenge for his father’s death in Act 3, Scene 1 of the play. However, he thinks that Claudius would go to heaven. He does not want to send him to heaven but to hell. He says:
“Now might I do it pat, now he is a-praying; / And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven; / And so am I revenged.”Hamlet – Act 3, Scene 1
- Hamlet realises his indecisiveness in Act 4, Scene 4 of the play. He decides to act more decisively in the future because indecisiveness costs him too much. He says:
“How all occasions do inform against me, / And spur my dull revenge!”Hamlet – Act 4, Scene 4
- Hamlet accuses his mother in Act 3, Scene 4 of the death of his father but again he doubts whether his action of condemning her for her actions was right or wrong.
A Complex Character
There is no denying the fact that complexity and multifaceted are two major characteristics of Hamlet. He is a character with many layers. Here is a comparison between both positive and negative traits of Hamlet that make him complex:
|Intelligent||Emotional and melancholic|
Hamlet is a man of contradictions. His complex nature makes him a compelling character. In the whole play, the audience does not reach the conclusion of whether Hamlet is going to take the decision or not. He doubts himself and the audience also doubts his decision. He seems determined to avenge his father’s murder but his actions suggest that he would give up soon. It is one of the main reasons for Hamlet’s downfall.
Some important references from the play in respect of complexity as one of the major characteristics of Hamlet are:
- One of the most quoted soliloquies in Act 3, Scene 1 of the play reveals Hamlet’s struggle with his own existence. He says:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles.”Hamlet – Act 3, Scene 1
- Hamlet questions himself and does not know whether to reply positively or negatively. He cannot come to conclusion on different occasions in the play which increases the complexity of his characters. He seems confident at one moment but soon he loses his confidence. He makes a decision but at the very next moment, he gives up his implementation.
- Hamlet’s indecisiveness and moral conflicts are also examples of his complex character. He is torn between his desire for revenge and his fear of damnation. Moreover, he struggles to make a decision about what to do. This internal conflict is a major theme of the play and reflects the complexity of Hamlet’s character.
In spite of all the aforementioned characteristics, Hamlet is an artist. The writer gives him words containing metaphorical language and poetic expressions. Thus, he conveys his thoughts and emotions artistically throughout the play.
Hamlet expresses his emotions many a time in the play. Even when he expresses his inner conflicts, he uses poetic language. His speeches are often filled with metaphorical expressions and vivid imagery. All these ingredients reflect his creativity and poetic sensibility.
For ready reference, the following examples are there in order to prove Hamlet as a creative poet:
- Hamlet makes a comparison between his father and the Greek mythological figure Hyperion in Act 2, Scene 2. He uses Hyperion as a metaphor for his father. He says:
“So excellent a king; that was, to this, / Hyperion to a satyr.”Hamlet – Act 2, Scene 2
- One of the most remembered soliloquies that Hamlet delivers is: “To be or not to be” in Act 3, Scene 1. He further mentions: “To sleep, perchance to dream”, which means that death might bring relief from the pain of existence.
- Hamlet uses another metaphor to express his inner self in Act 4, Scene 4 of the play. It reveals the powerlessness of Hamlet. He says:
“How all occasions do inform against me, / And spur my dull revenge! What is a man, / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more”.Hamlet – Act 4, Scene 4
- Hamlet writes many letters to Ophelia. Every letter contains poetic language and versification. The use of similes and metaphors in every letter shows Hamlet’s intense love for Ophelia. He expresses his emotions in a creative and poetic style. For example, in a letter, he writes
"Doubt thou the stars are fire, / Doubt that the sun doth move, / Doubt truth to be a liar, / But never doubt I love."
In this way, the playwright depicts intelligence, thoughtfulness, melancholia, indecisiveness, complexity, creativity and poetry as major characteristics of Hamlet.