William Shakespeare is known rather well as the creator of contradictory characters that are able to represent the complex system of psychological aspects of human nature and show how its conflicting sides such as the power of reason and passionate desires can coexist in one personality. The objective of this paper is to trace how this opposition of reason and emotions of Hamlet develops throughout the storyline of the play and to explore whether this opposition existed at all.
When Hamlet appears in the play for the first time, he describes his inner state like “'Tis not alone my inky cloak…/ Nor customary suits of solemn black,/ Nor the dejected 'haviour of the visage/ Together with all forms, modes, shapes of grief,/ That can denote me truly” (Shakespeare, 2012, 1.2.79-85). Such a melancholic condition of his personality can be considered a normal reaction to his father’s death, and it cannot describe him is a weak character capable of making irrational decisions.
The main change of Hamlet’s attitude and behavior comes after his meeting with the ghost of his murdered father. The news that Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, has killed Hamlet’s father, brings out a strong emotional response from the young man as he promises the ghost to “wipe away all trivial fond records/ All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past… And thy commandment all alone shall live/ Within the book and volume of my brain” (Shakespeare, 2012, 1.5.106-110).
The ghost played the decisive part in starting the process of Hamlet’s inner struggle. Leithart (2006) asserts if not taking into account that the ghost tells the truth, it “ is doing just what Hamlet feared, tempting him toward a mortal sin… though the temptation takes time to seep in”, and from this turning point, it is possible to trace how this opposition of mind and passion resulted in a tragic finale. Affected by the terrible news, Hamlet gives such an emotional promise to punish the killer and to avenge his father that it can bring the reader to a thought that he will proceed to action straight away.
Regardless of the shock caused by revelation of the truth about who was the real killer, Hamlet’s reasonable doubt prevails over the desire to follow emotions. He takes time to investigate this case to confirm his suspicions. The voice of the rational mind is still capable of stopping him from thoughtless actions. Rothman (2013) gives two explanations of this delay – the first one is “that Hamlet waits because he is a sane person in an insane world.” Indeed, any rationally thinking person would not go and kill somebody only because the ghost has told to do so. The second reason that stops Hamlet from the immediate execution of his father’s murderer is the need to “confront his own thoughtful… nature” (Rothman, 2013). This is when Hamlet’s conflict with himself arises. He feels the duty and the desire to avenge his father’s death and, at the same time, understands that he should not give in to his feelings and he must act reasonably.
It is clear that initially, Hamlet is not inclined to murder or commit any act based on passionate impulse. He doubts the words of his dead father, although they evoke a strong emotional response in him. With telling his friends that no matter “how strange or odd soe'er I bear myself” (Shakespeare, 2012, 1.5.190), Hamlet asks them not to react to it, because instead of following his desire to avenge his father’s death right away, he wants to reveal whether the ghost has told him the truth or not. He knows that his actions will seem unusual and irrational or maybe even insane to others. For example, in the scene with Ophelia, when she cannot understand what he tries to tell her, she exclaims: “O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!” (Shakespeare, 2012, 3.1.163), but he understands that it is the only way he can achieve his goal.
It is impossible to state that Hamlet’s only emotion-based decisions have caused the tragic final. The analysis of his actions after Claudius saw the play and it became obvious that he was the murderer of Hamlet’s father brings to the conclusion that reasonable thinking maybe also has brought the Prince to his death. Hamlet follows Claudius to his chamber with the desire to kill him and finds him sitting on the floor praying. Seeing this, Hamlet immediately abandons the wish to kill, thinking that this is not the appropriate way for Claudius to die, even though Hamlet has waited for such a perfect moment.
Hamlet thinks that his father’s killer should die “at gaming, swearing, or about some act/ That has no relish of salvation in't” (Shakespeare, 2012, 3.3.96-97). Thinking that Hamlet’s emotional outburst could overcome his rational mind and suggesting that he would have killed Claudius at that moment, it is possible to assume that it, perhaps, could have saved many lives. Although Hamlet’s idea that it is unfair for Claudius to reach Heaven by being killed while praying since he “took [his] father grossly, full of bread/ With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May” (Shakespeare, 2012, 3.3.85-86) is reasonable. It demonstrates that when it comes to choosing the most appropriate way of vengeance, Hamlet is completely capable of rational thinking and total control of his emotions.
As the story moves on to the next scene, it becomes clear that all the hatred and anger suppressed before have found their way of realizing themselves. While having a rough conversation with his mother, Hamlet reaches that kind of emotional state that it seems that he is able to kill his mother at that moment. Thus, the accidental witness of this, Polonius, cries out from his hideout to stop him and eventually takes over all Hamlet’s rage by being killed by the Prince.
According to Eric Levy (2008), “Hamlet allows emotion to provoke him to unthinkingly violent action, as when stabbing blindly at the figure hidden behind the arras” (p. 139). Although it becomes evident as the play progresses that the only motive to kill the unknown person behind the curtains is Hamlet’s absolute belief that it is Claudius standing there because when he answers his mother’s question of whom has he killed, he says “ I know not:/ Is it the king?” (Shakespeare, 2012, 3.4.32).
It is obvious that at that moment, Hamlet’s mind is so obsessed with the desire to kill his uncle that he does not even assume that any other person could have been standing there. The delay of the fulfillment of his father’s order makes Hamlet lose control of his anger supported by the controversy with his mother and her betrayal as that is how he sees her marriage with Claudius. If it has not been for this emotional pressure on his mind, probably, he would have not committed such an impulsive murder.
As the story moves on closer to the end, it is noticeable that Hamlet’s final decision to act and finally avenge his father’s death has been made with the help of rational and analytical comparison of him and the men of Fortinbras who were ready to die in the fight any moment easily. Levy (2008) emphasizes that Hamlet “so little trusts emotion to prod him to action that he even invokes the opposite tactic of exploiting thought as a goad of emotion” (p. 139) as Hamlet says “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (Shakespeare, 2012, 4.4.69).
As now, when even his thoughts are directed to completing the revenge in the final scene, Hamlet lets himself turn again to anger and lust for blood as he initially kills Laertes in a duel, and then stabs Claudius. Eugene England (2006) states that only while dying, Hamlet comes back to his reasonable thinking and
yearns to return to the time when he could still choose “to be”… he pleads to Horatio “Had I but time – as this fell sergeant, death,/ Is strict in his arrest – O, I could tell you –/ But let it be” (5.2.337-8, my emphasis). But Hamlet has far too long chosen “not to be” in every way… choosing the violent death he knew was the usual consequence. (p. 61)
Therefore, it is clear that the decision in favor of emotions was made long ago. All Hamlet’s hesitations and tries to quell his passions by reason were in vain because at heart, he must have already known what he wanted to do and no reasonable argument could have turned him away from his desire.
This brings the idea that Hamlet knew what he was doing and understood what he was choosing from the beginning. Coleridge (1854) says that Hamlet “vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought” (p.145). This idea might be true, but it is impossible to deny that even though based on the emotions, Hamlet’s decision to kill his uncle was made rationally and consciously and the need to do it was clearly understood and accepted.
Following the course of events brings the conclusion that even if there was a contradiction of mind and emotions in Hamlet’s character, the major decision was dictated by his feelings. Hamlet understood the importance of his mission of revealing the truth, avenging his father’s death, and saving his country from the king, who was a murderer. Hamlet tried to act in the most correct way. That is why his every reaction that starts as a passionate impulse is subdued later by the rational mind, but in the end, it becomes clear that emotions have much greater power over him. Through the example of Hamlet, Shakespeare reminds that it is more important to follow one’s reason while solving vital problems and shows that decisions based on emotions and irrational thinking can lead to such tragic consequences.