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Imagination and Evil Spirits in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

January 20th, 2011 Comments off

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Around the late 1590s, Shakespeare penned the “most powerful and influential tragedy in the English language,” Hamlet. (“Hamlet”) Set in Denmark, this play tells the story of Prince Hamlet, who takes revenge on his uncle Claudius for murdering Hamlet’s father, taking over the throne, and marrying the Queen, Hamlet’s mother. But can it truly be summed up in one sentence? Throughout Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, an intense, deep course is charted; with supernatural elements, treachery, revenge, insanity, moral corruption, death, and victory. Woven together in beautiful language, it is a fascinating read. Samuel Coleridge’s 1818 lecture on Hamlet is one that truly explores this deepness and explains it in equally deep fashion. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he says, the balance between real and imaginary is disturbed: “his thoughts, and the images of his fancy, are far more vivid than his actual perceptions, and his very perceptions, instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations, acquire, as they pass, a form and a colour not naturally their own. Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities.” (Coleridge) In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there is an overbalance between the real and imaginary, towards the imaginary. This overbalance of the imaginative power is specially seen in the person of Hamlet, when an already-suspicious mind is met at an opportune moment by a Satanic spirit; then when his mind becomes warped, shaken by the supernatural apparition of his murdered father, and constantly occupied with shadows; and his clouded brain throws a mist over everything common-place.

In Shakespeare’s play, Prince Hamlet first appears on the scene with skeptical doubts about his new stepfather and many suspicions. His already doubting mind becomes completely shattered when his dead father’s ghost appears and warps his view of reality. He remains home after the funeral of his father, and begins to suspect his stepfather, King Claudius, thinking that Claudius is treating him far too personally, calling Hamlet his own son. “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” (I, ii, 65.) He also suspects his mother for marrying Claudius so soon after her own husband’s funeral: “That it should come to this! But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two: So excellent a king.” “Why, she would hang on him, As if increase of appetite had grown By what it fed on; and yet, within a month, Let me not think on’t: Frailty, thy name is woman! A little month…married with mine uncle, My father’s brother, but no more like my father Than I to Hercules.” He also notes the incestuous part of the marriage: Claudius married his sister-in-law, and the Queen, in marrying him, married her dead husband’s actual brother. (I, ii, 135-155) So far, we see that Hamlet has somewhat validated reasons for suspicion. Marriage of the dead King’s wife to the dead King’s brother not two months after the King’s death is indeed odd. However, objectively looking on things, this is no actual proof or reason for Hamlet’s final and ultimate belief, that King Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father. So, when Prince Hamlet is finally met by the spirit who puts on the form of his dead father, a mind brooding with suspicion is a perfect fertile setting for the words of the ghost to settle well in.

Hamlet’s mind becomes shaken upon seeing the ghost, so much so that he threatened his friends with death when they tried to stop him, warning him away from the ghost. (I, iv, 85.) He is desperate to hear the words of the ghost, his mind thirsting for what he already has suspicions for in his mind. Upon the word revenge, and murder, he is aroused; when the ghost declares, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder;” so much so, that he immediately replies upon the spot, “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge.”

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Imagination and Evil Spirits in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Part 2)

January 20th, 2011 Comments off

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(I, iv., 30.) He not only listens to the ghost’s lengthy epilogues but also takes them up with fiery emotions. Mr. Eliot, a critic whose main goal was to show that Shakespeare took on a work too much for him, notes how “Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.” (Eliot) After he sees the ghost, his emotions rise to overflowing and he acts very oddly with those he knows, making no sense at times. He is bold and brazen, unkind and uncouth; alternating between all at once. Some in King Claudius’ court interpret it as lovesickness for Ophelia, who eventually loses her own sanity and kills herself, and Hamlet is called insane. In his emotional state, Hamlet even doubts himself: “Yet I, a dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak, Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, And can say nothing.” (II, ii, 575.) “In effect Hamlet is creating a paronomasia of performance, moving from politeness to brutality; and it seems to come out almost unbidden.” (Brown) He comes to such a low point that he becomes suicidal, his warped mind eventually turning suicidal to solve his problems. “To die: to sleep; No more; and, by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d.” (III, i, 60.) Mrs. de Grazia, PhD in English, observes of Hamlet’s problem: “Hamlet falls short of dialectical self-realization,” and “advances against his own until in the final scenes, he is ‘bandied from pillar to post’ and ends up ‘sandbanked.’” (Grazia) He talks to himself constantly, fails to kill King Claudius at an opportune moment, kills another by mistake, and eventually dies from a poisoned stab wound in a duel fought with Ophelia’s brother, Laertes. In the end, the idea planted by the spirit in his already-suspicious mind influences him enough to cause the deaths of not just one, but several people.

The turning of Hamlet’s mind and heart to the surreal is the very work of an evil spirit, who works in men’s minds to cause evil. In the play, Hamlet ponders this very fact: “The spirit that I have seen May be the devil: and the devil hath power To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps Out of my weakness and my melancholy As he is very potent with such spirits—Abuses me to damn me.” (II, ii, 605.) But he did not take this thought to heart and try to rid himself of the Satanic overclouding from his soul. It eventually led him to do desperate actions, and his own sad death. “Through Hamlet, this tragedy affirms the world of the mind over against the world of matter, the unresolved and independent conscience over against the answers that can be provided by others or demanded by society in its political, religious or familial manifestations.” (Brown) With truly beautiful language and eloquent poetry, Hamlet is a fascinating read; but once read through in its entirety, it is depressing and dark as well. The reader is taken up in the downward path of Hamlet’s life, and into the very intricacies of his fertile, but infected, mind. Mr. Coleridge said that in the conversations found in this play is “a proof of Shakespeare’s minute knowledge of human nature.” (Coleridge)

References

Brown, John Russell. “Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet.”

Connotations. http://www.uni-tuebingen.de/connotations/BROWN21.HTM

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other English

Poets.” Shakespeare and His Critics. 2001. http://shakespearean.org.uk/ham1-col.htm

Eliot, T.S. “Hamlet and His Problems.” Bartleby Great Books Online. 2010.

http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw9.html

Grazia, Margreta de. “Hamlet’s Thoughts and Antics.” Early Modern Culture. 2001.

http://emc.eserver.org/1-2/degrazia.html

“Hamlet.” Wikipedia. May 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet

Shakespeare, William (2006). Hamlet. New Jersey: Wiley Publishing

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