The Power of Beauty
According to the conventional plot formula, the forces of good are clearly arrayed against the forces of evil. Good and evil fight; good eventually triumphs. In Hamlet, William Shakespeare created an excellent cast of distasteful characters. The world of Elsinore is one of deception and death, a cesspool of the foulest vices of humankind. What is less clear is which main characters constitute the good side. Unfortunately for convention, Shakespeare takes the traditional “good” roles of the dashing young prince and virginal maiden, and skews them—giving them flaws. Although Hamlet and Ophelia are saved from being one-dimensional, their exposition necessarily reveals baser, more tainted personas. Readers come to recognize that in a corrupt world, the highest virtue is all too susceptible to the great fall; consequently, by the play’s end they should feel no admiration for the two tragic lovers – only pity.
At first, readers identify the moral high ground with Hamlet. Though his grieving can be construed as excessive, we recognize in Hamlet a sense of righteousness and supreme humanity. When Gertrude asks Hamlet why his father’s death “seems so particular” to him, he cries, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’” (I.ii.9). Hamlet’s sincere outrage is magnified because it follows the king’s self-important, hollow address. Furthermore, the respect and trust that Horatio, an utterly honest individual, shows Hamlet is evidence of the prince’s integrity.
Yet as Hamlet’s depression does not fade, the readers begin to see something terribly wrong. Events beyond his control push him towards the abyss of insanity and cynicism, and reveal the flaws at the core of his character. In his first and fourth soliloquies, Hamlet expresses his desire for suicide and only refrains because that act would be a sin. His anguish toward the world, however, is unrestrained: “What a piece of work is man…the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” (II.ii.42). Hamlet is depressed because he feels that Gertrude and Claudius have betrayed his father’s memory by marrying so soon after the funeral. Without the recourse of suicide, he is driven to desperate measures; the peaceful prince is now primed for murder.
Hamlet is not unaware of his own transformation. He readily turns his incisive gaze into himself. Commenting on fatal flaws in men, he gives some self-revealing insights:
Their virtues else – be they as pure as grace…Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. (I.iv.20)
Hamlet’s own fatal flaw – drawn out by the characters around him – is his desire for revenge. This dark intent soon consumes his being and virtues. But unlike Claudius, Hamlet is not a murderer at heart; he puts off the act as long as possible, failing to kill early on and end his vendetta with minimum bloodshed. He broods, paces, and makes long philosophical speeches. Like an actor who is ill-suited to his role, he needs multiple, blatant cues to action. The ghost of his father is compelled to reappear during Hamlet’s heated criticism of Gertrude: “Do not forget. This visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (III.iv.75). Again, Hamlet is wasting time by verbally attacking the queen instead of pursuing his assigned task. Only after seeing Fortinbras late in the play, willing to sacrifice many men and much riches for a measly plot of land, does Hamlet make a true resolution to act. Even though Hamlet kills Claudius in the end, it could be said that he neither provided the means nor opportunity. The poisoned sword was wielded by Laertes, and the king himself planned the fencing match. Hamlet’s lack of initiative demonstrates that he is not a true killer. He is driven to the act by extraordinary circumstances – Laertes’s treachery and Claudius’s betrayal of the queen.
As Nietzsche said, “He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster, for as you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes back into you.” Hamlet succumbed. Nowhere is that fact more evident than Act III, Scene iii when Hamlet has opportunity to kill the king while he is praying – and chooses not to because he wishes to send Claudius to hell. Hamlet is not some justice-seeker guided by a lofty system of values – his brand of revenge is ugly and very personal. Hamlet should neither be hated nor admired, for he is neither entirely responsible nor removed from the play’s final deaths. Though Hamlet finds solace in completing his task and selecting Fortinbras to rule his fellow Danes, he dies a broken man, having partially become the monster he strived so hard to kill. The “sweet prince” is only deserving of the reader’s pity.
Being a young woman in a corrupt, male-dominated court, perhaps it was inevitable that the seeming purity of Ophelia would turn out to be a farce – that she was brutally used as a pawn, ruined, and then cast aside like a dirty rag. The reader’s first encounter with Ophelia in Act I, Scene iii suggests nothing of the above. In fact, Ophelia seems to possess verve and wit, standing her own against her brother’s warnings about her growing relationship with Hamlet:
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.
Ophelia shows herself to be unusually perceptive. Although she outwardly speaks to Laertes, she also subtly criticizes Polonius, the courtier who states with a straight face that “brevity is the soul of wit” in the midst of a long-winded speech. Ophelia is not simply a pretty face with no mental faculties. She appears mature and reserved.
However, this rosy conception of Ophelia is soon destroyed when she agrees to Claudius and Polonius’ plans to spy on Hamlet. She knowingly – but also helplessly – allows herself to be manipulated. Regardless, the lovers’ conversation is revealing:
Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now time gives it proof. I did love you once.
Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
Hamlet means that beauty in women is usually a tool. Tools handled by unclean hands do not stay spotless. Polonius, despite his paternal affections, has thrust Ophelia forward to Hamlet with ulterior motives. Had he had a genuine desire to protect her, he would have sent her away to the countryside. Shakespeare shows Polonius’s conversation with Reynaldo in Act II, Scene i for a reason – to establish Polonius’s hidden shrewdness. Polonius knows what Ophelia means when she said that Hamlet made her believe he loved her – that they had sexual relations. Given the nature of her “protectors,” it is no wonder that Ophelia is not the pure woman she appears to be.
Further evidence of a full-blown relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is found in the Mousetrap scene. As Hamlet sits down at Ophelia’s feet, he makes numerous obscene references to “country matters.” Ophelia accepts the words comfortably, simply telling Hamlet, “You are merry, my lord” (III.ii.60). The low-key reaction would only be expected if the pair had been intimate before, and had exchanged such banter numerous times. Confirmation of this intimacy finally comes during Ophelia’s insanity-inspired singing: “Let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more” (IV.v.88). By this stage, she is miles down the road of lunacy. But at the core of lunacy is a grain of truth. That truth is the ugliness Ophelia let herself be subjected to at the hands of her fishmonger father; she allowed herself to be exploited. The beauty of the woman she could have been is forever overshadowed by the reality of her pitiful existence.
Hamlet presents a pessimistic vision of humanity that contradicts that of other great works of literature – like Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jay Gatsby is able to rise above the materialism of the Roaring Twenties. To the end, he manages to transcend his peers and aspire to his private green light – he is great. In stark contrast, Hamlet is preoccupied with suicide, ghosts and gravediggers. His appreciation of the world’s beauty is framed in the context of the quintessence of dust. Hamlet’s faults were not solely due to the noxious environment he lived and breathed in; rather, the environment was the trigger to an inner potential for evil, not the cause. Shakespeare suggests that this capacity for evil is in everyone, though civilization has kept it suppressed. The romantic conception of “hero” is not only too idealized – it is impossible. Though Hamlet cannot be admired, he never aspired to be. Above all, he was an honest man who recognized his own faults and sins. He was a man of flesh and bone and ideas, and probably was more real in the minds of readers in death than Jay Gatsby was in life.
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