The time is out of joint./O curséd spite, that I was ever born to set it right. This essay will examine Hamlet’s dramatic struggle to “set time right”. The issue will be divieded in two parts, one the upset to Denmark and Elsinore, the other the struggle to repair it; each shall be dealt with in turn. From the opening few lines of Hamlet we know that things are not ‘right’ in Denmark. The opening Act of the play is an unfolding litany of portents and signs until in Scene 5 the Ghost tells Hamlet of the murder by Claudius. We have already heard, in his first soliloquy, of Hamlet’s struggles; in this case his depression and suicidal thoughts. This is typical of Hamlet’s struggle in the first part of the play, the struggle is an internal one. It is only later that the struggle becomes an external, physical one. We will also see that Hamlet’s struggle is more than just one of revenge, it also encompasses life over death and love over hate before returning to revenge.
The first line of Hamlet, Barnardo’s peremptory “Who’s there?” when he approaches Francisco’s guard post, rather than the more usual challenge of the guard, tells us that the soldiers are nervous in their duties. When Horatio and Marcellus arrive they also give us signs of upset with their talk of the war with Fortinbras of Norway. Marcellus enquires :-
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war,
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week:
What might be toward that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day,…
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…ue to his 1948 film version of the play, “This is the story of a man who cannot make up his mind.” In the final analysis that may well be Hamlet’s struggle.
1 Germaine Greer, Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986), p. 58
2 Laurence Olivier(Director), Hamlet (Rank Film Distributors, London, 1948)
Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. London:Macmillan, 1957.
French, Marilyn, Shakespeare’s Division Of Experience. New York:Summit Books, 1981
Greer, Germaine, Shakespeare. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1986
Kott, Jan, Shakespeare Our Contemporary. London:Methuen, 1695
Olivier, Laurence (Director), Hamlet. London:Rank Film Distributors, 1948
Rowse, Alfred Leslie, The Annotated Shakespeare. London:Orbis Publishing, 1978
Shakespeare, William, Hamlet. London:Macmillan Education, 1973
The Central Question of Hamlet
The Central Question of Hamlet
Hamlet’s tragedy is a tragedy of failure-the failure of a man placed in critical circumstances to deal successfully with those circumstances. In some ways, Hamlet reminds us of Brutus in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Hamlet and Brutus are both good men who live in trying times; both are intellectual, even philosophical; both men want to do the right thing; both men intellectualize over what the right thing is; neither man yields to passion. But here the comparison ends, for though both Brutus and Hamlet reflect at length over the need to act, Brutus is able immediately to act while Hamlet is not. Hamlet is stuck “thinking too precisely on th’ event-“.
Hamlet’s father, the king of Denmark, has died suddenly. The dead king’s brother,Claudius, marries Hamlet’s mother and swiftly assumes the throne, a throne that Hamlet fully expected would be his upon the death of his father. Hamlet’s father’s ghost confronts Hamlet and tells him that his death was not natural, as reported, but instead was murder. Hamlet swears revenge. But rather than swoop instantly to that revenge, Hamlet pretends to be insane in order to mask an investigation of the accusation brought by his father’s ghost. Why Hamlet puts on this “antic disposition” and delays in killing Claudius is the central question of the play.
But Hamlet did not swear to his dead father that he, detective-like, would investigate. Hamlet swore revenge. And he has more than enough motivation to exact revenge.
Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon-
He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother;
Popped in between th’ election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage-is’t not perfect cons…
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…play that is flawed, not our understanding of it.
The central question of the play is, then, a question without an answer if one is seeking the answer within the play. Shakespeare was supposed to supply us with an answer, or at least with a reason why there is no answer. He offers us neither. Instead, this most celebrated of Shakespeare’s plays offers us a literary mystery which has captured the attention of all who have come into contact with it. It’s time to file the question under “Unsolved Mysteries.” But for those who persist in analyzing the plot of the drama, or Hamlet’s psychology, or both in order to explain this particular enigma, I suggest that you’re looking in the wrong place. Try history.
*A. C. Bradley, “Shakespeare’s Tragic Period-Hamlet,” Shakespearean Tragedy, MacMillan and Company Limited, 1904, pp. 70-101