Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Humans are rational beasts, bestowed with a superior intelligence. Yet even with this unique ability, humans are flawed. They experience complex and persuasive emotions that interfere with their reasoning skills. Protagonists in comic books, plays, movies, and other fictional works can be perfected and turned into what are known as "heroes." Heroes can be described as idealistic, courageous, moral, decisive, fair, and selfless; they are "the good guys" that are against evil. Hamlet, the protagonist in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, does not fit into the above description of a hero, and should be labeled as an "anti-hero."
By a specific definition, an antihero is the "hero" of the play or novel, but this protagonist has negative attributes apart from the classic hero figure. Such negative aspects may include a violent nature or a tendency to use coarse language. An anti-hero can be described as pragmatic, inconsiderate, greedy, rebellious, cowardly, insubordinate, reluctant, and morally suspect. Hamlet himself acknowledges that he has these flaws. The play begins with Hamlet's learning of his father's murder at the hands of Hamlet's uncle Claudius. Although the murder of Hamlet's father and the marriage of his mother, Gertrude, to Claudius are obviously quite devastating, Hamlet's reaction to the situation with those around him seems rather cold, whiny, and over dramatized. Instead of growing from a difficult situation and overcoming obstacles, like a true hero would, Hamlet constantly complains that he is unable to commit suicide because God "fix'd / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter" (1.2.135-136)! Heroes by definition are brave, upstanding, and selfless; yet Hamlet does not have these qualities. In Act II, Hamlet states, "You cannot take from me anything that I will more / willingly part withal, -except my life, except my life, except / my life" (2.2.227-229). In short, Hamlet lacks the confidence and self-assurance that heroes and leaders need.
When confronted by his father's ghost, Hamlet is told that "If thou didst ever thy dear father love- / . . . . / Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder" (1.5.27-29). The late king is even denied the chance to repent before facing God's judgment: "Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, / Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd, / No reckoning made, but sent to my account / With all my imperfections on my head" (1.5.82-85). At the meeting between Hamlet and his father's ghost, Hamlet is given a purpose in life: to avenge his father. But even with this newly acquired information about the truth behind the death of his father, Hamlet hesitates to act on merely the apparition's word, which is understandable. Yet that does not stop him from feeling ashamed of himself: "(O! vengeance!) / Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave / That I, the son of a dear father murdered, / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, / Must like a whore unpack my heart with words, / And fall a-cursing like a very drab" (2.2.569-574). In an attempt to reassure himself that what he plans to do is just, Hamlet arranges to have traveling players act out the murder of his father in a play called The Mouse Trap while he, Hamlet, observes Claudius' reaction to it. When it is clear that Claudius has a guilty conscience, Hamlet gains the confidence to kill Claudius.
His first opportunity to avenge his father comes while his murderous uncle is praying. Hamlet refrains from killing his uncle at this time because Claudius would have the luxury denied the late king. If Hamlet had killed his uncle during prayer, his uncle would have been sent to heaven because he had repented his sins. Hamlet sees that if "A villain kills my father, and for that, / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To heaven. / Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge / . . . . / Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, / And that his soul may be as damn'd and black / As hell, whereto it goes" (3.3.79-98). In the scene, it is clear that Hamlet wants his incestuous uncle to suffer horribly for eternity. Though Hamlet's courage is a bit more present in this scene, true heroes do not take revenge, and surely do not encourage torture or gratuitous suffering.
The second occasion when Hamlet thinks of killing his uncle is during a fight with his mother over her sins against her late husband and God. During this argument, Polonius, while hiding behind some curtains, is alarmed when Gertrude screams. Startled by the unforeseen presence, Hamlet stabs Polonius, assuming the figure to be Claudius. When discovering his mistake, Hamlet feels almost no remorse and even places the blame on Polonius, stating, "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! / I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune; / Thou find'st to be too busy in some danger" (3.4. 36-38). Heroes do not kill the innocent, and if it were to happen by accident, there would be obvious remorse, not a nonchalant and cold response as in the case of Hamlet.
Hamlet's negative characteristics also include his rudeness towards others, including the fair Ophelia. Young girls are vulnerable, and his cold disposition towards the woman who loves him is not reflective of a hero. He personally lists his bad qualities and refuses to marry her: "I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, / with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put / them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them / in. . . . Go thy ways to a nunnery" (3.1. 131-136). Such heartless abandonment pushes Ophelia to commit suicide. To further his offenses, Hamlet has the nerve to confront her grieving brother, Laertes, claiming that he suffers from her loss more than Laertes. Hamlet states that he loves Ophelia: "Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum" (5.1.265-267). Along with the two current deaths that involve Hamlet, he later arranges for the deaths of his former friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and again has no guilt or acknowledgement of blame: "They are not near my conscience. Their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow" (5.2.62-63).
Throughout the play, Hamlet takes no responsibility for his evil actions, yet curses the rest of the world for their faults. When Horatio offers to make an excuse so Hamlet will not need to spar with Laertes, Hamlet ironically states, "Not a whit, we defy augury; . . . / If it be now, 'tis not to come; / if it be not to come, it will be now; if it not be now, yet it / will come: the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of / what he leaves, what is 't to leave betimes" (5.2.209-213)? In other words, Hamlet says that it is the will of God and the plan of destiny that determine when a person dies, so one should not try to prevent it or be upset when it comes. If he were true to his words, he would not be as upset with his father's murder, because obviously since it happened, it is God's will. Before starting the sparring match, Hamlet follows his mother's good advice and apologizes for his actions at Ophelia's funeral, yet it is a hollow apology because he once again takes no blame. Instead, he blames his "madness. / . . . Never Hamlet" (5.2.221-222). In the climactic final scene, Claudius plants poison in Hamlet's drink, Hamlet inadvertently kills Laertes, Gertrude drinks the poison meant for Hamlet, and Hamlet fulfills his promise to his father's ghost by slaying Claudius.
During Elizabethan time, revenge was widely accepted. Knowing the audience would empathize with Hamlet, Shakespeare uses revenge to justify Hamlet's actions, thus making him a sympathetic protagonist and for many a hero. On the other hand, Hamlet kills three people in the play, encourages Ophelia's suicide, and arranges the deaths of another two people. Hamlet kills Polonius, mistaking him for Claudius; he also arranges Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's death; and at the end of the play, accidentally kills Laertes and kills Claudius out of revenge. In place of remorse and guilt, this anti-hero has denial and apathy. Though he blames the victims themselves or the will of God, he adds insult by hiding behind others' assumptions that he is mad. In the play, Hamlet has many soliloquies, which allow the audience into Hamlet's state of mind. They show the audience that Hamlet is not mad but that he is well composed, eloquent, controlled in his thoughts, and very intelligent.
I have come to the conclusion that Hamlet is an anti-hero because he is weak, cowardly, hesitant, selfish, indifferent, sadistic, and hypocritical, all of which are opposing characteristics to what a hero is supposed to be. Some may consider Hamlet a hero. But the audience can see Hamlet for who he really is. He is a man, obviously not a mature man, of the same flesh and blood that everyone else is made up of, yet one who would rather take the easy way out and die instead of dealing with the obstacles in his life: "For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, / . . . / When he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin" (3.1.77-83)? A true hero would.