The State of Mind of Hamlet in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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The State of Mind of Hamlet

 
The Elizabethan play The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark is one of William Shakespeare's most popular works.  One of the possible reasons for this play's popularity is the way Shakespeare uses the character Hamlet to exemplify the complex workings of the human mind. The approach taken by Shakespeare in Hamlet has generated countless different interpretations of meaning, but it is through   Hamlet's struggle to confront his internal dilemma, deciding when to revenge his fathers death, that the reader becomes aware of one of the more common interpretations in Hamlet; the idea that Shakespeare is attempting to comment on the influence that one's state of mind can have on the decisions they make in life.

As the play unfolds, Shakespeare uses the encounters that Hamlet must face to demonstrate the effect that one's  perspective can  have on the way the mind works. In his book Some Shakespeare Themes & An Approach to Hamlet, L.C. Knight takes notice of  Shakespeare's use  of these encounters to journey into the workings of the human mind when he writes:

       What we have in Hamlet is the exploration and implicit

       criticism of a particular state of mind or consciousness. In

       Hamlet, Shakespeare uses a series of encounters to reveal the

       complex state of the human mind, made up of reason, emotion,

       and attitude towards the self, to allow the reader to make a

       judgment or form an opinion about fundamental aspects of human

       life. (192)                  

Shakespeare sets the stage for Hamlet's internal dilemma in  Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet when the ghost of Hamlet's father appears and  calls upon Hamlet to "revenge his foul and most unnatural murder"  (1.5.24).  It is from this point forward that Hamlet must struggle  with the dilemma of whether or not to kill Claudius, his uncle, and if  so when to actually do it.  As the play progresses, Hamlet does not  seek his revenge when the opportunity presents itself, and it is the  reasoning that Hamlet uses to justify his delay that becomes paramount  to the reader's understanding of the effect that Hamlet's mental perspective has on his situation.

In order to fully understand how Hamlet's perspective plays an  important role in this play, the reader must attempt to answer the  fundamental question: Why does Hamlet procrastinate in taking revenge  on Claudius?

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  Although the answer to this question is at best somewhat  complicated, Mark W. Scott attempts to offer some possible  explanations for Hamlet's delay in his book, Shakespeare for Students:

Critics who find the cause of  Hamlet's delay in his internal meditations typically view the prince as a man of great moral  integrity who is forced to commit an act which goes against his  deepest principles.  On numerous occasions, the prince tries to make  sense of his moral dilemma through personal meditations, which  Shakespeare presents as soliloquies. Another perspective of Hamlet's  internal struggle suggests that the prince has become so disenchanted  with life since his father's death that he has neither the desire nor the will to exact revenge. (74)

Mr. Scott points out morality and disenchantment, both of which belong  solely to an individuals own conscious,  as two potential causes of  Hamlet's procrastination, and   therefore he offers support to the idea that Shakespeare is placing important emphasis on  the role of   individual perspective in this play.  The importance that Mr. Scott's  comment places on Hamlet's use of personal meditations to "make sense of his moral dilemma" (74), also helps to support  L.C. Knight's  contention that Shakespeare is attempting to use these dilemmas to  illustrate the inner workings of the human mind. 

In Hamlet, Shakespeare gives the reader an opportunity to  evaluate the way the title character handles a very complicated  dilemma and the problems that are generated because of it.  These  problems that face Hamlet are perhaps best viewed as overstatements of  the very types of problems that all people must face as they live  their lives each day.  The magnitude of these "everyday" problems are  almost always a matter of individual perspective.  Each person will  perceive a given situation based on his own state of mind.  The one,  perhaps universal, dilemma that faces all of mankind is the problem of  identity.  As Victor L. Cahn writes, "Hamlet's primary  dilemma is that of every human being: given this time and place and  these circumstances, How is he to respond?  What is his responsibility?" (69).  This dilemma defined by Mr. Cahn fits in well  with the comments of  both L.C. Knight and Mark Scott, because it too requires some serious introspection on the part of Hamlet to resolve, and also supports the idea that Shakespeare is using Hamlet's dilemma  to illustrate the effect that perspective, or state of mind,  can have  on  a given situation.

Hamlet's delay in seeking revenge for his father's death plays an important role in allowing Shakespeare's look into the human mind to manifest itself. If Hamlet had killed Claudius at first opportunity, there would have been little chance for Shakespeare to develop the internal dilemma which all three critics, L.C. Knight,  Mark Scott, and Victor Cahn, mention in support of  the widely held  view that, in Hamlet, Shakespeare is attempting to make a comment  about the complexity of the human mind, and the power that a person's  mental perspective can have on the events of his life.

Works Cited

Cahn, Victor L.  Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, and Romances.  New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. 

Knight, L. C.  Some Shakespeare Themes & An Approach to Hamlet.  San Francisco: Stanford University Press, 1966. 

Scott, Mark W., ed.  Shakespeare For Students.  Detroit: Gale Research Inc.,  1992. 

Shakespeare, William.  "Hamlet." Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs.  Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995.  1129-1230.


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