At its core, Hamlet is a play that focuses largely on interpretation. After all, much of the play’s conflict bases itself on the titular protagonist’s interpretation of the signs around him: can he believe in the words of the spectre that claims to be his father’s ghost? Can he have certainty of his own nerve in accomplishing the task set before him—avenging his father’s death? Even the audience to the play participates in Hamlet’s quest for understanding at times, as his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and sometimes even counterproductive to his purpose—at multiple points, Hamlet opts to postpone his revenge, for one reason or another. Given his various setbacks, the audience has reason to examine Hamlet’s gradual loss of sight of his ultimate goal over the course of the play. In so doing, they find that despite his expressed desire to carry it out, Hamlet somewhat easily strays from said goal. If his whole quest bases itself on interpretation of signs, then Hamlet’s method of interpretation merits some observation and analysis. Given that Hamlet so often diverges from his stated goal, it very well seems as if Hamlet is on a course of his own. Given the evidence in the play, it appears that he has set out with a particular, ulterior motive; and in order to better reach it, he deliberately interprets the signs around him to his advantage.
To claim that Hamlet follows his own quest—independent from his father’s—naturally implies that any commitment to the original task does not come from within him; that he feels no personal obligation to it. In the literal sense, this is true—it is the Ghost of King Hamlet that first imparts Hamlet’s task upon him. However, the play suggests that even at a subconscious level, Hamlet does not follow his father’s wishes simply out of a resolve to carry them out. The play script—specifically, a selection taken from Act I, scene five, lines 94-113—notes that immediately after receiving his father’s request, Hamlet appears to write something down, before proclaiming “So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word:/It is ‘Adieu, adieu, remember me’./I have sworn’t.” (I, v, 111-113) He refers to the Ghost’s last words to him moments ago, before he departed back to the realm of the dead. The phrasing of Hamlet’s lines implies that he wrote down these final words; but then, one must wonder why. After all, Hamlet seems to perfectly understand his purpose—he explicitly declares that he writes to “set it down/That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (I, v, 108-109) after murdering the King. Consider that, outside of the play, writing something down even when one already remembers it usually serves as a reminder for later. If Hamlet must write down his father’s last words, then he must logically feel a need to remember them; if he must make an effort to remember them despite vocally wishing to fulfill them, then it shows that deep down he lacks true adherence to his father’s wishes.
Indeed, the play has Hamlet acknowledge his lack of dedication later on: when he first thinks to stage The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet laments how passively he has acted up to that point in his vengeance. Recall how he takes specific note of how even the players he enlists—whose emotions are motivated entirely by fictitious events—have shown more enthusiasm than himself, even while the players lack “the motive and the cue for passion” he has (II, ii, 549). His recognition solidifies the previous implication that he carried such doubts from the very start; as such, a reading into his writing of the words reveals something less akin to reaffirmation than to false reassurance. His record of his father’s wishes served not to drive him forward, but to force him into a path he subconsciously felt no full commitment to. And after having recognized this lack of attachment by his own accord, Hamlet positions himself to follow a different path, discarding his self-imposed motivation.
To give Hamlet the benefit of the doubt, the possibility exists that he really does believe in the Ghost’s purpose; and that, as previously stated, his lack of confidence that “[his] sinews grow not instant old/But bear [him] stiffly up” has kept him in a reluctant state (I, v, 94-95). However, if Hamlet’s only problem were that he doubted his own nerve, then to have written down his father’s words logically ought to serve as a solid enough reminder to assuredly steel his quest. But even his initial proclamation to “remember” the Ghost carries hints of his eventual straying. For Hamlet does not content himself with committing his intended purpose to writing; he boldly states that he will “[wipe] away all trivial fond records” so that “[the Ghost’s] commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of [his] brain” (I, v, 99, 102-103). All by itself, the declaration may appear as a sincere, if overdramatic, wish to follow the Ghost. Coupled with the writing, however, the sheer bombast of the claim only further foreshadows Hamlet’s realization of his misaligned goals, with such an overwrought commitment bordering on the exaggerated. Thus, turning back on his seemingly ironclad resolve indicates that he has ultimately interpreted the Ghost’s message for his own, other purpose—in other words, he has deliberately followed the sign the Ghost provided in a way to better suit his motives.
Said motives begin to clearly appear later on, near the end of Act 3. Hamlet finds himself in a perfect position to slay Claudius, his father’s killer, thereby accomplishing his task and “remembering” his father; however, he stands down, as Claudius is in the midst of prayer, “and so he goes to heaven” if killed in that remorseful state (III, iii, 75). Once more, he does not heed the ghost’s words as an absolute, immediate command; rather, he takes Claudius’s prayer as a sign that he ought to pause at this point. If Hamlet by now has decided to follow his own path, and if he has done so by conveniently interpreting the signs around him, then how does this “sign” in particular benefit Hamlet? A closer reading of his initial intent may provide the answer: recall how he declares his intention to punish Claudius for “smiling and smiling” in the face of his treacherous deed. Taking into consideration how belatedly he follows his father’s desire—to avenge him for his untimely death—it reasonably follows that Hamlet goes after Claudius less because of the Ghost and more because of the personal slight against him. After all, he writes down his purpose earlier so that “it may be so in Denmark” (I, v, 110) that Claudius’s treachery will not go unpunished; that he will not allow Claudius this offense upon his own honor as prince of Denmark. Even Hamlet’s words betray these true motivations: immediately after writing the words, he proclaims that “uncle, there you are.” (I, v, 111) Note how the line focuses primarily on his uncle, rather than his father; his thought pattern suggests that his vengeance stems from a desire to punish Claudius, rather than to kill him for his father’s sake.
A personal desire for retribution comes across as much more self-interested than one for setting right a premature death. Thus, if Hamlet’s quest focuses on his own personal goals, then his penchant for relying on signs becomes a bit more apparent. The particular signs that stray him from immediate vengeance—a lack of guarantee of the Ghost’s word, Claudius’s prayer—would appear to him as potential impediments to his own brand of vengeance; after all, where he could quickly and cleanly end Claudius’s life, he chooses to impart on him the most hell-borne death he possibly can. In order to ensure Claudius truly suffers and pays for his crimes, Hamlet chooses to follow the course of action that will lead to a true damnation for his uncle; thus, he follows signs because they will lead him to the most advantageous path.
Shakespeare, William, and George Richard Hibbard. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
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