A critical theory is characterized as a social philosophy concerned with criticizing and changing the whole system, as opposed to conventional theory, which is only concerned with understanding and describing the society. The critical theory delves beyond the surface of social life to discover the expectations that prevent people from having a full and realistic understanding of how the world functions. This paper is a reflection and criticism of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet within a historical and social context. Within the social context, there are various difficult questions concerning human existence in a profound world and the predicament of a person that must undertake crucial responsibility for actions of free will. Hamlet can be viewed as an explorer of the questions concerning existence such as the meaning of mankind, who he is, and the life’s meaning, as he attempts to come into terms with the death of his father. Therefore, hamlet can be said to be an exceptionally existential person. Hamlet is portrayed as a young man with radical contradictions. The play portrays him as a man with so many negative qualities like hate, violent, obsession, indecisiveness and hastiness. On one hand is cautious while in the other, he is reckless. He is characterized as tender, but violent, and courteous, but uncivil. Despite his characteristics, he is perceived as a prince among men; a catastrophic hero.
The impression that Hamlet first portrays sets the play’s tone. The observer can see his messed hair, pale face and penetrating eyes. In addition, he is shown completely dressed in black that illustrate his mood of grief for his father’s death. The visible attire worn by Hamlet cannot be overlooked. According to Mack (51), Hamlet’s attire gives a theatrical extension to the verbal imagery. Not only does his inky cloak signifies his grief for his father, but also marks his character as a depressed and melancholy man. The attire also marked Hamlet’s being, in which the reality and appearance are in agreement. However, Hamlet clearly says that the overt grief signs did not correctly convey the extent of his inner sorrow “For they are the actions that a man might play, But I have that within which passes show, These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (Shakespeare 1.2.84-6).
Hamlet is painted as a person that contemplates hard philosophical questions. After receiving the revelation from his father’s ghost that Claudius, his uncle was responsible for his death, Hamlet gets set to prove his uncle’s guilt before taking any action against him. He is shown overusing his intellect while disregarding his emotions and what he believes to be “right”. Due to his extreme logic, he delays his revenge against his uncle until at the end of the play when he killed Claudius, thereby proving his progression into a correctly existential person. In trying to answer as to what Hamlet’s problems were, the reasons for his delay, whether he was not certain concerning the correct course of action, if he was not sure of his father’s ghost or fearful of damnation, Paris (36) argues that the delay of Hamlet to avenge his father’s death resulted from his incompetence to cope with the presenting situation, and his disenchantment, introspectiveness and hesitation were all explainable in psychological terms. Hamlet’s tenacity was blinded by the pale cast of thoughts because he underwent inner struggles that prohibited him from assuming any strategy or set of beliefs willingly.
Under historical context, there are evidences of a group of abnormal mental processes where a child develops a wish to espouse the parent of the opposite sex. For example, for the boys, they would wish to twist their father’s necks and sleep with their mothers. According to Jones (264), Hamlet’s problems center on a sexual issue. He is portrayed using Ophelia as an exit for the disgust he felt towards his mother that married his uncle, Claudius, after his father’s death. Jones (264) notes that Hamlet had a repressed wish to espouse his mother, which can be considered a psychological disorder. According to Jones (265), hamlet had a warm affection for his mother as a kid, and contained aspects of concealed sensual quality, while on the other hand the Queen had a passionate fondness for him “The Queen his mother lives almost by his looks” (Shakespeare 4.7.12-13). Eliot (98) argues that Hamlet is conquered by an inexpressible emotion as it is in surplus of the realities as they seem. His bewilderment at the deficiency of objective equivalent to his feelings is a continuation of the bafflement of Shakespeare, his creator, in the face of his artistic issue. Eliot (98) continues to show that Hamlet was up against the struggle that his own mother occasioned his disgust, and although she was not a sufficient equivalent for it, the disgust enveloped and exceeded her. Therefore, hamlet was not able to understand his feeling or objectify it, thereby remaining to poison his life and obstruct his actions. There was none of his actions that satisfied his feelings. However, Hamlet attempted to wean himself from his mother by falling in love with Ophelia, despite the fact that the old desirability of his mother was still present. He chose Ophelia because she had contrasting characteristics from those of his mother so she could least remind him of his mother. Unlike his mother, Ophelia had unreflecting simplicity, naïve piety and was obedient.
Paris (36) disputes Jone’s argument that Hamlet suffered from a sexual problem by saying that it does not seem so on the surface because through different psychological protective mechanisms, his hopelessness, doubt, depression and other expressions of the conflicts are conveyed on to topics that are increasingly tolerable and permissible like anxiety concerning the success and failures of the world, immortality and the deliverance of the soul, as well as philosophical considerations regarding life’s value and the world’s future.
In the start of the play, the actions of Hamlet are out of pure handled logic and intellect. He only trusted in the power of his intelligence by suppressing his emotional and natural instinct. Despite the fact that he had an emotional reaction after seeing his father’s ghost, he failed to believe that it was his father “Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell / Why thy canoniz’d bones, hearsed in death, Have burst their cerements …. Say, why is this? wherefore? What should we do” (Shakespeare 1.4.46-48, 57). Though his intellect told him that the ghost was not possible, his emotions were different, but he stifled his emotions and retained his doubt about it. This is when he planned to re-enact the murder of his father to confirm the validity of the assertions the ghost had made.
Hamlet was anxious, uncertain and tensed, which caused him to doubt the supremacy of reason alone to address his problems “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 “he is contemplating the thought of suicide and wishing that God had not made suicide a sin” (Shakespeare 3.1.58-61). It is then that Hamlet realized the impotency of reason to handle the depths of human life in the world. This could be the main reason that he went ahead to fake madness due to the realization that he did not possess the emotions to avenge the death of the king. It was during his madness that Hamlet was capable of acting out of sensation without fear of what he did or said. Although he met the death of his father with uncontrollable indignation, he did not show regret when he killed, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
When Hamlet was commanded by Fortinbras to meet Norwegian captain, he encountered nothingness and alienation. The captain was honest by telling him that the armies of the nations would battle over a small piece of land that even though it did not have any profit, it had the name (Shakespeare 4.4.98-99). This realization made Hamlet become dumbstruck when he thought that Fortinbras was going to sacrifice the lives of many men for the said substandard piece of land. He continued to struggle with his inability to avenge his father by killing Claudius despite knowing that he was guilty, and wondered how Fortinbras was capable of sacrificing people’s lives over the pointless purpose. It is through this scene that Hamlet realized the manner in which humanity was brutal, leading him to ponder the notion that there was no human that is safe. From this realization, he decides to kill “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth” (Shakespeare 18.104.22.168). He felt that for someone survive in this evil world, he did not have to base everything on reason, and decided to be like Fortinbras and Laetes who did not hesitate when executing their thoughts. Even though in the entire play Hamlet is portrayed as a character that is slow to act, at the end, he had learnt so much about life and existence that he decided not to continue depriving himself the revenge he so badly wished for, thereby becoming existential.
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Mack, Maynard. “The world of Hamlet.” Yale Review 41.502 (1952): 23.
Paris, Bernard J. “Hamlet and his problems: a Horneyan analysis.” Centennial Review (1977): 36-66.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. 2009 http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1524/pg1524.txt