Hyperion to a satyr; (Act One, Scene Two)

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In ‘Hamlet’, William Shakespeare depicts his tragic hero as tormented by both internal and external conflicts. Hamlet is torn between the need to revenge his father’s death and his contemplative, intellectual nature. This conflict frames the development of Hamlet’s character, leading to a series of conflicts with other characters, and ultimately the tragic death of the eponymous hero.

For me, the play’s most important conflict is between Hamlet’s contemplative nature and his desire to revenge his father’s death. From what appears to be his father’s ghost, he learns that the King was murdered by Claudius, his brother and Hamlet’s uncle. Shakespeare depicts Hamlet as worshipping his father; he often describes him more like a god than a man:

“So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr;” (Act One, Scene Two)

Shakespeare effectively uses juxtaposition in this early soliloquy of Hamlet’s to compare Old Hamlet to Hyperion-the Titan god of light, who represents honour and virtue- traits belonging to Hamlet's father, the true King of Denmark. This is the first time the strength of Hamlet’s love for his recently deceased father is revealed to the audience. Having awareness of this helps the audience to sympathise with Hamlet when the Ghost exhorts him to revenge his ‘unnatural’ death. He worships his father as a god like figure, but to murder someone in cold blood is against Hamlet’s nature. This internal conflict leads to Hamlet procrastinating and repeatedly considering the consequences of his actions and the incompleteness of his knowledge. This conflict is exacerbated by his uncertainty over the Ghost’s identity:

“Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,

Be thy intents wicked or charitable,” (Act One, Scene Five)

Shakespeare uses antithesis here to highlight the ambiguous nature of the Ghost: Hamlet is unsure if it really is his father’s spirit and not an evil spirit instead. This relates to one of the play’s most important themes: the difficulty in distinguishing between reality and appearances. This uncertainty over the Ghost’s moral identity means that Hamlet is left uncertain over the consequences of his actions; if he is tricked into murder he could lose his soul. It is these uncertainties which lead to his procrastination and contemplation, preventing him from killing Claudius until he is also close to death.

In the play’s most famous soliloquy, Shakespeare depicts the conflict between the passive and active aspects of Hamlet’s character. When he asks ‘To be, or not to be’ Hamlet is reflecting on the painful nature of the human experience and why so many of us accept suffering instead of taking our own lives. Unlike the other soliloquies, Hamlet does not refer directly to his own situation here; indeed, he does not use the first-person at all in this famous speech. However, the philosophical problems considered do relate to Hamlet’s own conflicts:

“Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?”

Shakespeare’s use of imagery here is particularly effective in highlighting the impossible and unbearable nature of the situation in which Hamlet finds himself. In this first metaphor, the experience of life is compared to being on a battlefield while painful weapons are fired through the air; hurt is inevitable and unavoidable it suggests. Passive acceptance of such sorrow hardly seems attractive. However, the attempt to take action is not depicted in more appealing terms. Shakespeare’s brilliant metaphor suggests someone attempting to do battle with the sea- a futile and impossible task that would surely lead to their death. This helps to convey Hamlet’s worry that attempting to take action against Claudius will lead to his own death.

As this famous soliloquy progresses, Hamlet considers how people are affected by our uncertainty over the nature of the afterlife. He questions why anyone ‘would bear the whips and scorns of time’ when they could easily end their suffering through suicide. Shakespeare’s imagery initially portrays death as a sleep:

“To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to,”

This metaphor is effective as it conveys death as peaceful and an escape from the world’s hurts. As in much of the play, Hamlet here associates the body with suffering and sin. However, Shakespeare soon alters this metaphor by adding in dreams to represent the possibility of the afterlife:

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause”

Hamlet decides that it is this uncertainty and fear about the nature of the afterlife that makes us stretch out the suffering of life so long. This relates to the theme of the impossibility of certainty. Consideration of the uncertainty of the afterlife leads to excessive moral sensitivity, which makes action impossible. This mirrors Hamlet’s own situation where uncertainty over the Ghost’s identity leads him to contemplation and prevents him from acting.

Shakespeare helps the audience to reflect on the development Hamlet’s character through his use of subplots. In Act Four we see Laertes and Ophelia’s differing reactions to their father’s death. Just like in the first act, the audience are presented with children reacting to the death of their father. Shakespeare develops Ophelia and Laertes as extreme versions of two contrasting aspects of Hamlet’s personality – the active and the passive: Laertes rashly vows to take revenge, whatever the consequences; Ophelia collapses into madness. Laertes’ disregard for the consequences of his actions can be seen when he confronts Claudius:

“Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!

I dare damnation.”

Shakespeare’s use of alliteration here highlights Laertes’ complete disregard for the effect his actions will have on his soul. This is in stark contrast to Hamlet, who is always considering the consequences of his actions, particularly on his soul. This helps to develop the theme of the moral nature of revenge. Both characters wish to seek revenge for their father’s death, but only Hamlet is weighed down by the moral consequences of doing so. Through his character, I feel that Shakespeare is suggesting that the most important consequences of our actions are not to be found in this life but come after ‘we have shuffled off this mortal coil’.

In addition to his internal conflicts, Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as experiencing conflicts with a series of other characters. Undoubtedly, the most important of these conflicts is the one that Hamlet experiences with Claudius- his uncle, the King, the murderer of his father and his mother’s new husband. From the play’s outset, even before Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost, the audience are made aware of the tension between the two characters by the way Hamlet informs his antagonist that he is ‘‘A little more than kin, and less than kind.’ This intelligent pun suggests Hamlet’s feelings; as both nephew and son in law to Claudius he is more than a normal family relation. However, he does not look on him kindly, or believe that he and Claudius are of the same ‘kind’. At this point the audience feels great sympathy for Hamlet as he is depicted as alienated within Elsinore; he appears to be the only character still mourning his father, or objecting to the marriage of Gertrude and Claudius (Even though he does not do this openly at this point). Shakespeare’s audience would consider such a marriage to be incestuous, creating further sympathy for the protagonist.

Shakespeare’s characterisation of Claudius reinforces the audience’s sense of sympathy for Hamlet. He is depicted as a manipulative, Machiavellian ruler. He is able to easily bend others, such as Laertes, to his purpose, and, unlike Hamlet, will do whatever it takes in order to satisfy his ambitions. His powerful rhetoric is presented by Shakespeare early in the play when he attempts to convince Hamlet that continuing to grieve over his father’s death is unnatural and an offence to God:

‘Fie! ‘tis a fault to heaven,

A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,’

This is hypocritical, as Claudius’ marriage to Gertrude would be seen as an offence to God and nature by an Elizabethan audience. Furthermore, Claudius’ act of regicide would be viewed as extremely unnatural by the same audience. It was believed that the King was God’s representative on Earth, and he sat at the top of a hierarchy that was a natural as the rising of the sun each day. Indeed, the idea that Claudius’ incestuous and regicidal acts are an offence to nature is conveyed through the frequent images of disease and decay in the play. Hamlet, in his first soliloquy, feels that Denmark is like ‘an unweeded garden’ populated entirely by ‘things rank and gross in nature’. This imagery is effective in highlighting how Claudius’ rule is corrupting the whole of Denmark. This is reinforced by Shakespeare’s description of the murder of Old Hamlet:

“With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,

And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leperous distilment,”

The method of the murder works as a metaphor for Claudius’ poisoning of the whole of Elsinore and Danish society. Here, Shakespeare is exploring the theme of how an unjust and unnatural ruler can pollute the whole of the society they rule over.

Hamlet- troubled, thoughtful and procrastinating- is an unusual hero. Yet, what makes him most admirable is that the audience are aware that, despite living in a world of corruption, disease and lies, he ensures that his soul remains untarnished. By doing so, he has resolves his internal conflict and develops into a truly heroic figure.

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