Impossibility of Certainty in Hamlet

The Impossibility of Certainty in Hamlet “Doubt is that state of mind where the questioner faces no single answer nor the lack of one, but rather a choice between a pair of alternatives. ” – Harry Levin in The Question of Hamlet It is appropriate that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is regarded as the Bard’s greatest dramatic enigma, for misunderstanding is the unavoidable condition of Hamlet’s quest for certainties. Not only is Hamlet bewildered by puzzling visions and by commands seemingly incapable of fulfillment, but he is also the victim of misinterpretation by those around him.
The dying Hamlet urges the honest Horatio to “report me and my cause aright To the unsatisfied”, because none of the characters except for Horatio have caught more than a glimpse of Hamlet’s true situation (V. ii. 371-372). We as an observing audience, hearing the inner thoughts and secret plots of almost every significant character, should remember that we know vastly more than the play’s characters. In Hamlet, we cannot pretend that we are unaware of what happens next or how it all comes out essay writer prank. This is Shakespeare’s richest source of dramatic irony.
However, the characters are faced with rival options: to revenge or not to revenge, whether a Ghost comes from heaven or from hell. It is this doubt, this hesitancy in the face of two possibilities, that is central to Hamlet at every level. Hamlet is a play of misunderstanding and impediment. Its central theme is the elusiveness of knowledge and certainty. From the very first scene, the play establishes uncertainty through the interrogative dialogue between Barnado, Francisco, Marcellus, and Horatio: Barnardo: Who’s there? Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself Barnardo: Say, what, is Horatio there? Horatio: A piece of him. (I. i. 1-24) Having established a mood of fear and uncertainty, the apparition of the Ghost causes Horatio to declare “It harrows me with fear and wonder” (I. i. 51). This antithetical placement of words heightens the paranormal and eerie setting of the play. The “portentous” Ghost acts as an omen for what is to come (I. i. 121). The seemingly extravagant monologue where Claudius appeals to his subjects to accept the validity of his marriage to Gertrude hints that the new King is putting on a facade.

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Claudius uses many oxymoronic phrases to try and reconcile the death of Old Hamlet and Claudius’ subsequent marriage to Gertrude such as, “With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage” (I. ii. 12). This rhythmically balanced but significantly dissonant sentence serves to highlight that there is something suspect and “Rotten” in the state of Denmark. Claudius further enforces the idea that nothing can really be trusted. Similarly, the relationship between the actions and internal thought processes of human beings is evident in the scheming Polonius.
Polonius is also a man with little integrity capable of great deceit. He tells his son Laertes, “To thine own self be true” (I. iii. 84). But later Polonius enlists Reynaldo to spy on his son, stating, “Your bait of falsehood take this Carp of truth” (II. i. 70). This metaphor and the oxymoronic placement of “falsehood” and “truth” exemplify the presence of duality in the play. He dismisses Reynaldo saying, “You have me, Have you not? ” (II. i. 75). The uncertainty and lack of trust within the play is reflected in the chiastic syntax of this sentence.
Polonius is distrusting of his own servant. The allusions to ancient Greece and Rome throughout Hamlet further support the ideas of duality and deception. Hamlet, in a simile, compares his father to Claudius like “Hyperion to a Satyr” (I. ii. 144). Hamlet later has the Players recite lines referring to the “ominous horse” of Troy (II. ii. 479). Polonius makes a reference to Brutus’ betrayal of Julius Caesar (III. ii. 109-110). All three of these references contribute to the duality and deception evident in the play.
A Satyr is only half a man, the Trojan horse is heralded as one of the most treacherous and deceitful means of conquest, and Julius Caesar is murdered by people he thought were loyal to him. David Bevington notes in his commentary on Hamlet that the name Claudius stems from two words. The first is the verb claudo, meaning “to imprison”. The second is the adjective claudus, meaning “disabled, wavering, or uncertain” (Bevington). It goes without saying that a character whose name literally means “uncertain” highlights the theme of doubt that is apparent through the whole play.
The arrival of the Players and their presentation of “The Murder of Gonzago” in Act 3 also demonstrate duplicity within the text. Hamlet modifies the play within a play to have it reflect the murder of his father. This dramatic device conjures up the notion of appearance versus reality. The duality of Claudius, Polonius, and Hamlet demonstrate the lack of certainty and absolute truth within the play. The perpetual search for meaning and questioning of the established order within the play reflects the unattainability of truth and certainty in greater society.
Hamlet’s numerous soliloquies of self-questioning and self-loathing paint an image of a man overcome by excruciating self-observation. Morris Weitz notes that Hamlet’s speeches show signs of existentialism (“How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world”, I. ii. 137-138), relativism (“For there is nothing good nor but, but thinking makes it so”, I. ii. 268-270), and moral subjectivism (“Vicious mole of nature…in their birth…wherin…they are not guilty since nature cannot choose his origin”, I. iv. 27-29).
Although the Greek Sophists had dabbled in these concepts, and Socrates had once said, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing”, this questioning of the societal and philosophical norms of the time was revolutionary and unparalleled (Weitz). The King at the time of Hamlet’s publication was James I, who had affirmed the “Divine Right of Kings” to rule. At a time when the sovereignty of the Monarchy reigned supreme, Hamlet’s questioning of the afterlife, (“To be, or not to be…what dreams may come”, III. i. 64-74), lamentation at the inequality n the world (“Th’ Oppressor…that patient merit of the unworthy takes”, III. i. 79-82), and rejection of the superiority of Monarchs (“Our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows”, II. ii. 282-283), is a testament to the elusiveness of certainty and truth in the play. The themes of duality and deceit and the search for meaning and order are central to the essential message of Hamlet that certainty is unattainable. This duality makes up the entire structure of Hamlet, proving that, “A double blessing [truly] is a double grace” (I. iii. 58). Works Cited Bevington, David M. Introduction.
Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet ; a Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968. 1-12. Print. Levin, Harry. “Interrogation, Doubt, Irony: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. ” The Question of Hamlet. New York: Oxford UP, 1959. 48+. Print. Weitz, Morris. Introduction. Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964. Vii-Xiii. Print. Bibliography Bevington, David M. Introduction. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet ; a Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968. 1-12. Print. Levin, Harry. Interrogation, Doubt, Irony: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. ” The Question of Hamlet. New York: Oxford UP, 1959. 48+. Print. Weitz, Morris. “Hamlet: Philosophy the Intruder. ” Shakespeare, Philosophy, and Literature: Essays. Ed. Morris Weitz and Margaret Collins. New Studies in Aesthetics 10. New York: Lang, 1995. 17-33 Weitz, Morris. Introduction. Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964. Vii-Xiii. Print. West, Rebecca. “A Court and World Infected by the Disease of Corruption. ” Readings on Hamlet. By Don Nardo. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 1999. 106-11. Print.

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