Shakespeare's Ambiguous Hamlet Essay

3182 words - 13 pages


    That ambiguity exists within the Shakespearean drama Hamlet is a fact accepted by literary critics. Ambiguity of both word and action occur in the play. Let us examine the problem.

Ruth Nevo in “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging” explains the ambiguity present within the hero’s most famous soliloquy:

The critical problem arises from the perception that the speech apparently confuses two issues. Since we know what Hamlet’s obligatory task is, we cannot but register the possibility that the taking of arms and the “enterprises of great pitch and moment” refer to the killing of Claudius, though the logic of the syntax makes them refer to the self-slaughter which is the subject of the whole disquisition. And conversely, because self-slaughter is the ostensible subject of the whole disquisition, we cannot read the speech simply as a case of conscience in the matter of revenge – Christian revenge and the secular sanctions and motivations of honor. Whether Hamlet is talking of his revenge or of his desire for death, or of both, one substituting for the other as mask for truth (or truth for mask) therefore becomes the problem that this speech poses. (46)

 

Other examples of ambiguity are found in this tragedy by the Bard of Avon. D.G. James says in “The New Doubt” that the Bard has the ambiguous habit of charging a word with several meanings at once:

 

“Conscience does make cowards of us.” There has been, I am aware, much dispute as to what the word means here. For my part, I find not the least difficulty in believing that the word carries both its usual meaning and that of “reflection and anxious thought.” It is a platitude of Shakespeare study that Shakespeare could, with wonderful ease, charge a word with two or three meanings at once; there is hardly a page of Shakespeare which does not illustrate this; and, in any case, the word “conscience” means for us all both a command to do what is right and anxious reflection as to what is, in fact, the right thing to do. If I had to choose (what I feel under no compulsion whatever to do) between the two meanings proposed, I should unhesitatingly choose the former and usual meaning. (43)

 

Harold Bloom in the Introduction to Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet expounds on the ambiguity and mysterious conduct of the hero during the final act:

 

When Horatio responds that Claudius will hear shortly from, presumably that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been executed, Hamlet rather ambiguously [my italics] makes what might be read as a final vow of revenge:

 

It will be short. The interim is mine.

And a man’s life’s no more than to say “one.”

 

However this is to be interpreted, Hamlet forms no plot, and is content with a wise passivity, knowing that Claudius must act. Except for the scheme of Claudius and Laertes, we and the prince might be confronted by a kind of endless standoff. What seems clear is that the urgency of the...

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