The First Tragedy’s Soliloquy

December 9, 2020 by Essay Writer

Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 1 Scene II is his first of the play and, as a consequence, allows the audience to see his inner thoughts for the first time. The subjects of this soliloquy are numerous: his father’s death, his mother’s response to this death, his mother’s remarriage to his uncle and Hamlet’s own sense of anger at how his life worsened in a short space of time. Shakespeare uses rich imagery to portray Hamlet’s sense of inner turmoil.

Shakespeare begins Hamlet’s soliloquy with immediate ambiguity. The word ‘sullied’, meaning dirtied or spoilt, is used to describe Hamlet’s flesh. This word may be used because the incestuous relationship between his mother and uncle has corrupted his family name and the purity of his blood. However, there are two other, equally pertinent, interpretations of the word Shakespeare meant to use: firstly, ‘sallied’, meaning ‘attacked’ or ‘assailed’ relates to the context because Hamlet may feel he is the victim in these set of circumstances. This would be consistent with Hamlet’s morose state of mind in the soliloquy and his self-piteous nature. Secondly, the word may have been ‘solid’. This is consistent with the changing of states in the next two lines (‘thaw’, ‘resolve’ and ‘dew’). It is most probable that Shakespeare made this word intentionally ambiguous so as to fit two, or all three meanings.

These two lines are also the first use of imagery in this soliloquy. This fairly elaborate way of wishing his own end is more measured than a passionate, or violent, death wish. The changing of states, from solid to liquid, is more natural and shows the unpreparedness of Hamlet to do himself any significant harm. The statement is also one of passivity: Hamlet wishes he ‘would’ and has no plans. This reveals a lot about Hamlet’s current state: he is merely morose and not suicidal.

The next four lines are a further illustration of his downcast yet rational internal workings. He would contemplate suicide if it was not a cardinal sin and if it did not break the law of the land (suicide was at that time illegal). That he is not fervent enough in his conviction to break the law to follow through with his ideas is testament to his perception of his plight. That it would be in contradiction with God’s rule may be an excuse for his inaction, rather than a serious obstacle. His desperation drives him to apostrophise God and this also adds dramatic effect to the soliloquy. In his depression he is weary of all things: to Hamlet, the world seems to be devoid of hope (‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable…this world!’).

Shakespeare then uses a second piece of imagery. He compares the state of the country to ‘an unweeded garden…things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.’ A once beautiful garden has been allowed to deteriorate: this suggests that the situation in which Hamlet finds himself is due to the elapsing of time, rather than to any human factor. Shakespeare shows with this careful use of imagery that Hamlet does not yet suspect anyone for his predicament. There may also be a sense of self-deprecation here: Hamlet blames himself for not taking a more active role in the kingdom’s affairs and from preventing his garden from become controlled completely by those things rank and gross. This use of imagery may also relate to the state of Hamlet’s mind. Whereas before his mind was clear and his purpose in life was evident, now his state of mind has degenerated. This may allude to a loss of sanity.

Then Hamlet turns to his father’s death, as a natural result of considering the root of his country’s (and his mind’s) problems. The statements ‘That it should come to this!’ and ‘-nay, not so much, not two-’ create a strong rhythm and are both powerfully theatrical. With this, Shakespeare uses a third image when comparing Hamlet’s father, the dead King, to Hamlet’s uncle, the incumbent monarch. If Claudius is a satyr, Hamlet’s father is Hyperion. Hyperion was the Greek god of the sun: one of the lesser known Greek gods, he takes almost no role in the mythology accompanying the period, however, that he is god of the sun means he is all seeing and holds power over life and death. A satyr, half-man, half-beast, could not be more different in knowledge or power and so is a forceful contrast. This makes Hamlet’s opinion on his uncle, and on his deceased father, clear for the first time. It also has the effect of showing Hamlet to be highly educated, being well versed in Greek mythology. Hamlet continues to further complement his father with a grand statement, perhaps induced by the former comparison to a mighty Greek god: ‘he might…too roughly.’ These lines are overly grand both for theatrical effect and to show the audience what a powerful love existed between Hamlet’s father and mother, and consequently how incredible it was that his mother could have remarried so quickly. Hamlet continues to say, that his father’s love for his mother was matched by his mother, who seemingly fed off his father’s love and, instead of becoming sated, became hungrier for him. This almost reciprocal imagery between father and mother makes very clear the love between the two, and, in doing so, makes the previous month the more unbelievable. This thought is so abhorrent to Hamlet that he does want ‘to think on’t.’ The disjointed nature of this sentence illustrates the fragmented nature of Hamlet’s mind.

There is now a tonal shift, where Hamlet stops lamenting over his father’s death and begins to rage over his mother’s own fickleness. ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ begins Hamlet. In this, he compares his mother to all women: this misogynistic statement may be a coarse declaration brought about by Hamlet’s fragile mindset or an assertion betraying Hamlet’s true feelings. Hamlet shows how swift the Queen’s decision was to remarry by drawing on an example the entire audience could relate to: the shoes she had worn to her husband’s funeral had not even worn out before she remarried. There follows rich imagery. Firstly, the queen is compared to Niobe, a Greek mortal who cried for her children until she her grief turned her to stone. Hamlet then states, with some ironic comedy, that ‘a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourn’d longer.’ These two images serve as a delightful juxtaposition for the audience.

Then, Hamlet, with his third reference to Greek mythology, reveals more about his character, and his opinion on his uncle. By drawing on the differences between himself and Hercules, Shakespeare shows Hamlet to be a flawed hero. Such self-deprecation adds to the audience’s impression of Hamlet’s personality. Hamlet’s repetition of the speed with which his mother has remarried emphasises the point. He then uses a second hyperbole to describe his mother’s actions, this time stating that the salt, brought about by crying, had not left her eyes before she remarried. Shakespeare uses this as a further literary flourish: he wishes to portray Hamlet as outraged at such a brash move. Hamlet then refers, for the sixth time in the soliloquy on the rapidity of the marriage. Time is a key theme in this soliloquy: when referring to his mother and uncle, Hamlet speaks, with some vehemence, of the rapidity of their decisions. However, when he refers to his father, there is no such speak. ‘The past’, as it seems to Hamlet, in which his father was alive is referred to only positively. He refers to Hyperion and Hercules and, as a result, the audience’s impression of his father is one of overwhelming strength and nobility.

Hamlet concludes by saying he cannot talk of this in public, so ‘must hold [his] tongue.’ The distinction between Hamlet’s public and private personality is relevant to such a soliloquy. Although both personalities are consistent with each other, these soliloquies are the audience’s only opportunity to see Hamlet’s thoughts laid bare.

To conclude, this soliloquy is important in three ways. Firstly, it informs the audience as to what has happened in the past. It shows that Hamlet’s mother was in love with Hamlet’s father and gives some idea of Hamlet’s father’s personality. Secondly, it shows the audience what Hamlet thinks on these issues. Thirdly, as this is Hamlet’s first soliloquy, it gives the audience a good impression of his personality. Shakespeare’s use of imagery increases the audience’s understanding of Hamlet’s thoughts, and adds subtlety and originality to an oft performed emotion.

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