Hamlet begins Shakespeare's major phase, and perhaps it is fitting that his greatest play is a tragedy of youth. All Hamlet's emotions, his capacity for love, dialectical thinking, pity, hate and contempt are later dramatized in the adult universe of Macbeth, Othello, and Lear. Such is the awesome power and depth of Hamlet: it sustains the rest. Although their protagonists arouse our wonder, fear and admiration, none perhaps but Hamlet touches the heart so deeply, for his tragedy reminds us of Donne's whose Meditations reverse convention wisdom, so the universe becomes the microcosm and the mind, the macrocosm capable of anything.
It is simplistic to say a play of such depth has a single dominant theme or even multiple ones. But by placing Hamlet in contact with an evil ghost, what may Shakespeare's intention have been? Certainly Hamlet's triumph over the spirit causes in us the same awe that cowed Horatio, and is it not also true that today, man seems pitted against forces that threaten annihilation?
The essence more specifically Hamlet poses:
To be or not to be, that is the question.
How can we exist when the ghosts of pollution, nuclear destruction, pornography, and information management threaten to overwhelm. The irony discussed in this study suggests that we absolutely cannot allow ourselves to be engulfed or enslaved by the horror of passivity. Shelly understood that when he wrote his Defense of Poetry. Despite the pain and "thousand natural shocks" that flesh and spirit must endure, Hamlet attempts synthesis--he understood so well that "the unexamined life is not worth living," and his "apology" is to examine, to test, and to affirm and in so doing, rejects the evil of complacency; living in such a way that "flights of angels" will take him to a "purgatory" that offers the promise of redemption.
Hamlet in his final soliloquy asks perhaps the most important question of his life:
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unsus'd.
The answer constitutes his purgatory. Rejecting the ghost that demands subservience to conventions of private revenge, Hamlet chooses instead to question that doctrine or any other that prevents growth. Paradoxically, pain is a necessary condition for that growth. Hamlet I believe recognizes that his destiny must take his course directed by many 'fortunes'...the church, God, the new science, family obligations, politics, etc. If the "time is out of joint," Hamlet comes to understand that man is more than a beast: he has the potential to examine, and in so doing, perhaps he accomplished more than even he realized:
I am dead Horatio. Wretched Queen, adieu.
You that look pale and tremble at this chance
That are but mutes or audience to this act
Had I but time--as this fell sergeant, Death
Is strict in his arrest--O I could tell you--
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead...
Before Hamlet we that look pale and tremble are mute: we do not know the exact condition of Ophelia's soul or whether Gertrude fully repented, but what vindicates Hamlet is his willingness to accept a Providence (whether theocentrically or homocentrically defined) that paradoxically manifests its intent through the instrumentality of a malevolent ghost; that is the play's irony. The magnitude of Hamlet's victory, what he could tell use but cannot, is his Purgatory. We all must go there ourselves; we must ask our own questions. The ghost may wound, but it cannot destroy him.
Hamlet of course is a bloody revenge tragedy, but also a dramatization of the vindication of the human spirit. Such is the play's moral irony. The rest is silence until we question...
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