Hamlet is a prisoner.(TM) Discuss
In Act 2, scene 2, Hamlet states that ‘Denmark is a prison’ whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern assertively disagree. This shows the problem of perception which arises when attempting to answer a question like the one in hand. Firstly, from the outset it is evident that Hamlet is a prisoner of ambition, and Rosencrantz reiterates this view when he says that it is ambition which makes Denmark a prison for Hamlet: ‘Why, then your ambition makes it one. ’tis too narrow for your mind.
‘ Rosencrantz argues that Hamlet’s ambition makes him a prisoner, trapped and unable to broaden his possibilities.
Yet Hamlet replies that it’s nothing to do with the physical space of Denmark, as if you shut him up in a nutshell, he could believe he was a ‘king of infinite space. ‘ The problem is therefore that Denmark provokes negative thoughts and Hamlet is too entrapped in achieving his dreams that he cannot ignore the ‘bad dreams’ that are holding him back.
An aspect in the way of Hamlets ambitions is his status or position. With his status as a prince, comes expectations and responsibility, further imprisoning Hamlet.
All he wants to do is to marry Ophelia and go back to school in Wittenberg, yet he can not do either as he was born a prince and ‘His greatness weigh’d, his will is not his own; for he himself is subject to his birth: he may not, as unvalued persons do, carve for himself… and therefore must his choice be circumscribed unto the voice and yielding of that body whereof he is the head. ‘ Hamlet reinforces his prisoner state as he states that Denmark ‘has my dying voice’, emphasising what extent he would go to for freedom.
He feels oppressed, both physically and psychologically, in his own country and he is not being neurotic as Claudius gets Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him and even tries to have him killed. This could also show that Hamlet is a prisoner of time as Claudius has his own plans for to be rid of him so Hamlet does not have time to procrastinate, which is however, his fatal flaw. Furthermore, given that royals often used to refer to themselves in the third person, Hamlet could also be saying that ‘being Denmark’ or being the rightful heir to the throne, with the attendant obligations, is like being constrained in prison.
Hamlet being a prisoner of his status explains why he is willing to be sent away to England; leaving Denmark means leaving his responsibilities behind. Moreover, Hamlet treats the heavy burden of the responsibility of avenging his late father’s death as a sort of prison sentence, as it has deprived him of free will and the option of choosing his own destiny in life. Despite Hamlet’s status as the prince of Denmark; he is also a prisoner as he is controlled. Any of the control he thought he had, fell away with the murder of his father.
Having his father, the king, be killed by his own brother, sent Hamlet into a state of feeling helpless and out of control. Cooped up in a palace with no real outlet, Hamlet deliberately toys with Ophelia’s emotions in order to feel in control of something since he cannot control the situation with Claudius. Most importantly perhaps and often considered Hamlet’s fatal flaw is the fact he is a prisoner of his own mind. To many, Hamlet is too much of an intellectual to play the role as a typical avenger ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here, but in a fiction, in a dream of passion. ‘ He is literally trapped in his thoughts and this is expressed in his ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy as he is rhetorically arguing with himself, listing the reasons not to live as a result of his mind engulfing every reason there is to live. His thoughts capture and imprison him, which also explains Hamlet’s inability to act out his revenge straight away, ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all’. Hamlet constantly rationalises and stops himself from acting with any degree of passion, ‘So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear’.
This tendency to contemplate his actions triggers his demise, as being so imprisoned in his mind ensures he is missing a vital element needed to be a renaissance hero; the ‘hand. ‘ His head or his intellect represents the past and the hand, or the action represents the future, and therefore Hamlets past, or specifically the extent of time his reminisces on his father’s death, stops him from actually taking action that would put his mind at rest. All these factors, plus others, leave Hamlet a prisoner of madness.
Yet on the other hand, it could be argued that Hamlet is not a prisoner and in fact this is emphasised by his ‘insanity’ as he was able to think up the clever idea if feigning his madness in order to gain information about Claudius. To be a prisoner you have to be imprisoned somewhere, and Hamlet certainly is not as he liberally chooses to leave the country with his own free will. Furthermore, the fact alone that he has freedom of choice shows he is not a prisoner and they are forced to conform to certain rules and regulations.
For example, even though it could be perceived that Hamlet is like a prisoner, unable to escape the mourning he feels for his father, this could instead be his choice, ‘But to persever/ In obstinate condolement is a course/ Of impious stubbornness? ‘ He is not a prisoner of his mind and although he does undoubtedly procrastinate in action, he still does use his ‘hand’ and well as his ‘head’ yet through using them together kills Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia, Laertes, Claudius and himself. In conclusion, clearly the evidence points towards Hamlet being a prisoner, even though on occasions he appears to act out of free will.
Nevertheless, this free will he is acting out of is not entirely free, for example, his killing of Claudius was not a free choice but the result of Hamlet being a prisoner of madness and ultimately trapped in the past. Yet regardless of whether Shakespeare intended Hamlet ‘To be’ a prisoner ‘or not to be’ a prisoner, as he is meta-theatrically trapped and held captive by the genre and its conventions, is was inevitable from the outset that he would suffer major problems which would lead him to become a prisoner unto himself.
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