In Shakespeare’s tragedy

In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, meaning is both subjective and transient, changing as a reader applies different ideas to the text. Thus, Shakespeare’s examination of humanity enables the play to transcend contextual dynamics and remain relevant to modern audiences, thus providing the play with arguably the strongest textual integrity of all Shakespearean tragedies. Hamlet reveals this textual integrity in its exploration of the universal search for identity, the significance of a natural order, and the inevitable confrontation with mortality, reflecting the enduring philosophical questions that arose in the Elizabethan era.

As captured in the first line of the play, “Who’s there?”, the ubiquitous search for identity is an essential theme of Hamlet, highlighting the unity of meaning within the play and allowing it to retain its relevance in the modern era. Utilizing the notion that “to know a man well were to know himself”, Shakespeare employs Hamlet as an archetypal model of a ‘Renaissance man’, an ‘everyman’-like figure that confronts the audience’s notion of self. This fundamental identification with Hamlet is reinforced through the restricted view of the action of the play, which achieves, as Victor Cahn describes, “the dramatic equivalent of first-person narrative”. Through this identification, Hamlet’s self-questioning – “what is this quintessence of dust?” – challenges the audience to re-evaluate their conception of self. However, Shakespeare goes further than merely questioning the nature of identity. He also examines the maxim “to thine own self be true”. This notion that, as Barbara Burge discusses, “man’s essential dignity is the result of his being himself”, is explored through Shakespeare’s characterization of Ophelia. Arguably a more tragic character of the play than Hamlet himself, Ophelia’s role is entirely submissive, as captured in her statement to her father “I shall obey you”. This reflects the patriarchal dominance of Shakespeare’s contextual atmosphere. Subtly and blatantly chastised by her father as he proclaims “you do not understand yourself”, her identity is belittled by the men that surround her, forcing her to deny her true self. Consequently, upon the death of the man on whom she relied to define her, she descends into madness. In this state, she is finally able to assert her humanity: the broken syntax and innuendo in “you tumbled me and you promised me to wed”, represent a rejection of the societal pressures that caused her deteriorating mental state. Shakespeare thereby highlights the tragedy of her denial of her true identity in favour of a more dutiful and submissive facade. In this way, Shakespeare confronts his audience with a play that coherently and consistently acts as “a glass where you may see the inmost part of you”, forcing them to reconsider their notion of identity and the importance of being true to oneself.

The upholding of moral and political order, a reflection of the Elizabethan notion of a Great Chain of Being, also demonstrates integrity of the play as an integrated whole. Following the typical structure identified by Tzvetan Todorov, the narrative of the play opens with the disturbance of an initial equilibrium – the murder and deposition of King Hamlet, a violation of the Divine Right of Kings that causes time to be “out of joint”. Exalted and idealised by his son as “wholesome”, King Hamlet becomes epitomic of the ordained natural order. Thus, the gruesome imagery of his murder via a “leperous distilment” becomes a metaphor for the wider moral degradation of the Kingdom of Denmark, later overtly denounced as an “unweeded garden”, where “things rank and gross” grow. The catalyst of this perversion of moral order, and therefore the symbol of the corruption of the Great Chain of Being, is Claudius. A quintessential Machiavellian figure, Claudius acts as a vessel for Shakespeare’s social commentary on those who allow their conscience to be defeated by ambition. This is accentuated by the juxtaposing representation of the praiseworthy King Hamlet and the deceitful Claudius in the classical allusion “hyperion to a satyr”. Most importantly, Claudius’ death symbolically allows the protagonist to triumph, over both Machiavellianism and the corruption of Denmark, thereby restoring God’s harmonious order and the aesthetically expected Todorovian equilibrium. Thus, the integration of theme and structure in the examination of natural order serves to highlight the unity of the Hamlet as a whole.

Similarly, the contemplation of death has an omnipresent presence in Hamlet, by forming the basis of the conflict of the play and providing the medium for its tragic resolution. However, while Shakespeare explores the inexorableness of mortality, emphasising that “all that lives must die” through continuous imagery of death. More significant is his entwined reflection upon what meaning death holds for the living. Shakespeare examines, as Robert Ornstein describes, “the debt that the living owes to the dead”, with the appearance of the ghost acting as a dramatic catalyst for Hamlet’s consideration of his duty of revenge his dead father. Through his characterization of Hamlet as a procrastinator, Shakespeare is able to confront the philosophical and moral ambiguity of such a duty, as evident in the insistent dichotomies of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, such as “to suffer…or to take arms”. Here, Shakespeare challenges contemporary Christian principles by questioning the potential advantages of “self-slaughter” over committing murder, for the sake of revenge. Additionally, through Shakespeare’s representation of Claudius and Laertes as swift to act, both men become hindrances to Hamlet, highlighting his contrastingly careful consideration of his actions in taking revenge. This is apparent in the juxtaposition of Claudius’ statement that “revenge should have no bounds”, and Hamlet’s reminder that morally ambiguous actions “would be scanned”. Such permeating techniques, in exploring our duty to the dead, underscore the unity of the play and resonate with audiences over differing contextual backgrounds.

Shakespeare, in his paradigmatic revenge tragedy, explores the humanity’s search for identity, significance of a Todorovian natural order, and the preordained confrontation with mortality that were pervasive notion during the Elizabethan era and Renaissance humanist movement. However, the consistently relatable and style of writing employed has allowed the play to transcend contextual restraints over time and has allowed it to stay relevant across a wide range of audiences, revealing the play’s essential textual integrity.