THE PORTRAYAL OF HAMLET AS AN OUTSIDER ALLOWS SHAKESPEARE TO CRITIQUE THE VALUES OF SOCIETY.
I know not “seems.”
Shakespeare succeeds in highlighting the shortcomings in society’s morals through contrasting the prevailing attitudes with Hamlet’s views. The shortcomings of the individuals in conflict with Hamlet are merely a microcosm of something systemic in society. Hamlet criticises mankind and society; furthermore, he acts on those views with integrity, albeit after much deliberation and with tragic consequences. Hamlet is possibly one of the most celebrated characters of the literary universe, but that doesn’t mean he is perfect or strong enough to overcome the difficulties that society imposes on him ultimately resulting in tragedy.
Hamlet’s casting as an outsider is made clear to us almost immediately. Hamlet’s line ‘I am too much in the sun’ has often been explained as a pun on son, but Shakespeare may also be pointing to the fact that Hamlet does not wish to be part of the sunny merriment that now surrounds Elsinore. He is described both by his mother Gertrude and himself as being dressed in black, very much unlike the rest of Elsinore. Shakespeare questions the integrity of those in high society by casting Hamlet as an outsider. Hamlet says that he does not recognise ‘seems’, asserting his own authenticity in contrast to the deceit of his mother and uncle.
There is no doubt but that Hamlet feels socially alienated from the culture of Elsinore. The most jarring example is regarding his mother’s behaviour. Hamlet fails to hide his disgust at the celebrations to mark the marriage of Claudius to Gertrude as they swept through the castle so hastily after the death of King Hamlet that ‘the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables’. Hamlet criticises Danish society under King Claudius, stating ‘The dram of evil doth all the noble substance of a doubt to his own scandal. [meaning A tiny spot of evil casts doubt on their good qualities and ruins their reputations.]. While Hamlet is Shakespeare’s main instrument to highlight the shortcomings in his society, he also intermittently uses others such as the watchman Marcellus who declares after witnessing the apparition that ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’.
Hamlet’s conflict with Gertrude highlights Shakespeare’s attitude to betrayal. Gertrude’s fall from grace in Hamlet’s eyes had tarnished all of humanity, in particular, womanhood: ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’. Whatever ills of humanity had worried the humanist Hamlet have now been magnified tenfold due to the shock at Gertrude’s behaviour placing her beneath ‘a beast that wants discourse of reason’ [meaning an animal devoid of human qualities such as reason]. In the Closet Scene, he describes his mother as ‘stewed in corruption’. The same can be said of the court of Elsinore and of wider society as seen by Shakespeare.
Shakespeare tragically contrasts the society that Hamlet lives in with the unfulfilled yet endless potential. Hamlet refers to a wide range of man’s vices. During his ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy Hamlet asks ponders why man puts up with life: ‘Th’ oppressors wrong […] the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of th’ unworthy takes’. He refers to the dishonesty of the world: ‘To be honest as this world goes is to be one man picked out of ten thousand’. In relation to mankind he refers to them as a breed of ‘sinners’ and ‘arrant knaves’, none of whom are to be believed. However, the possibilities of man as seen by Hamlet are far beyond what he sees in real life: ‘how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties […] admirable in action […] like a god […] paragon of animals’. The likes of Claudius, Polonius, Laertes and Fortinbras also highlight the shortcomings in society with its betrayal, spying, attitude to women and petty regard for human life. Hamlet extends his ‘smiling villain’ accusation to the entirety of Denmark when he concludes ‘at least I am sure it may be so in Denmark’.
Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, in particular in the Nunnery Scene, shows that there is much unfairness in Hamlet’s society. Ophelia is presented as someone who is being manipulated and is not shown the respect she deserves by her brother and father. Laertes warns Ophelia of relations with Hamlet. Polonius selfishly uses Ophelia for his own ends. It is reported that Ophelia ‘speaks things in doubt that carry but half sense’. He speaks of women making monsters of men and of women’s ‘paintings’ where the painting insinuates cover-up, betrayal, secrecy, lies and the movement from ‘is’ to ‘seems’. These themes are addressed dramatically as we see in Branagh’s 1996 cinematic production. We witness the aggression from Hamlet as he shouts ‘get thee to a nunnery’ to the distraught Ophelia. In the Nunnery Scene there are few answers for Hamlet. Just some confirmations of what he already knew. That spies are at work in Elsinore. That he couldn’t even trust the woman he had loved. That he was now an ‘outsider’ to her too. He does however make a resolution that ‘all but one, shall live’ face to face with Claudius in the one way mirror of Branagh’s production. Not only did Hamlet love Ophelia before, he also loved the world as he saw the potential of man. Ophelia’s rejection of Hamlet is seen by him as a mirror of Gertrude’s rejection of her dead husbands’ memory. Now that his humanist vision has been scarred, he cannot love anymore. While Hamlet is an outsider as far as a corrupt society is concerned, he isn’t perfect. He isn’t capable of overcoming every vicissitude – and that results in tragedy for all characters.
On a personal level, Shakespeare’s critique of society has expanded my awareness both of the values of my own society and perhaps more importantly an awareness of ourselves as individuals, our own shortcomings and the contribution we make, positive or negative, to society. Despite the four hundred year gap since the scripting of Hamlet, the ills and weaknesses of mankind have not changed. Still there exists corruption, unfairness and betrayal. Our potentials are still barely tapped in the face of the many hardships of life. Despite the finesse of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the forces at work in a corrupt society, the real world is even more complex. While Hamlet’s isn’t perfect and possibly even insane, his anguish is genuine to the bone and entirely justified.