The Theme of Family in “Hamlet”
In Hamlet’, Shakespeare presents families as destructive and flawed perhaps in order to create tragedy as the dysfunctionality of families encourages the necessary conflict for a revenge tragedy. Consequently, this may be one of the main factors for Hamlet’s descent into madness and drive for revenge. However, it could be argued that whilst the dynamics within both families are perhaps dysfunctional and flawed, it also remains positive and just. Shakespeare’s presentation of families as dysfunctional and flawed can be seen through the relationships between both families in Hamlet.
Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude is rather complicated in the sense where Hamlet’s resentment for his mother is clear from his interactions with her although, despite this Hamlet still holds her as of a higher status, perhaps due to the maternal bond they share. In this way, Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude is ultimately flawed as a result of Hamlet’s contempt for Gertrude’s hasty’ marriage to Claudius which is also a major cause of Hamlet’s distress.
In act 1 scene 2, Hamlet calls his mother cold’ due to her inability to share in the remorse and grief over his late father and contrasts her to a Niobe’ a character in Greek mythology who could not cease crying at the loss of her children, therefore in Hamlet’s eyes she is despicable. Although, Jones argues that Hamlet’s contempt of Gertrude is a result of a Freudian Oedipus complex’ as he obsesses over Gertrude’s sexual antics which is expressed thorough his anger when he is disgusted by the incestuous sheets’ and enseamed bed’ of Gertrude and Claudius. His inability to act on his desires and frustration that Claudius can do so is also a driving factor in his revenge plot. Despite this flawed familial betrayal, in act 3 scene 4 Hamlet still refers to her as good mother’, suggesting that he holds her on a pedestal as part of his moral duty towards her as his mother. In comparison, Hamlet parallels King Hamlet and Claudius as Hyperion to a satyr’, this depiction of his father as Hyperion’, Greek god of the sun juxtaposes Claudius’ depiction as a satyr’, a half human, half goat creature associated with drunkenness and lechery which demonstrates Hamlet’s disgust and hatred for his uncle over marrying his mother. Thus, this is illustrative of the family’s flawed and inherently dysfunctional nature.
On the other hand, Hamlet’s loyalty and high familial regard for both his father and mother shows that families are indeed functional at their moral core. Although, in Margaret Atwood’s critical interpretation of act 3 scene 4, Gertrude talks back’, Atwood implies that Gertrude says handsome isn’t everything, especially in a man’ which suggests that even before every tragic event in the play, their relationship was flawed and dysfunctional as she remained unsatisfied.
There is a recurring theme of deception between both families which indicates the absence of trust. This can be seen to occur first between Polonius and Laertes in Act 2 scene 1, when Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes as he suspects he is up to no good and is worried about their family reputation. He orders Reynaldo to put on him/ what forgeries you please’ and to breathe his faults so quaintly’ as to make it seem like they occurred independently of Laertes in order to teach him the importance of reputation. Polonius seems confident that this is the best way to check up on his son although this act of spying could create a sense of distrust of Polonius from contemporary audiences of the time due to the employment of spies within society under the order of King James I. This also reinforces the idea of surveillance. Greg Doran’s 2008 production allows the audience to watch the play from the perspective of security cameras which represents being under constant surveillance and the invasion of privacy familiar to contemporary and modern audiences alike.
In addition, this absence of trust for Laertes is also suggestive of Polonius’ own hypocrisy as advises Laertes to Look thou character’, which is ironic as this implies, he trusts in him however we know this is not the case. Moreover, the absence of trust can also be seen between Claudius and Hamlet as he employs two of Hamlet’s friends to spy on him to find out the true cause of his transformation’ and to reveal his lies’. However, it could be argued that Claudius is desperate for information and is more concerned with being found out by Hamlet as guilty in his brother’s murder as he is concerned with Hamlet’s wellbeing. Therefore, the deception within both families illustrate how flawed and dysfunctional the families in Hamlet’ really are as they feel compelled to resort to illegitimate means of gaining information due to the lack of trust and cohesion they fail to uphold as a family. In conclusion, families in Hamlet’ are indeed destructive, flawed and dysfunctional through means of deception and a lack of respect and communication all of which contribute to the revenge plot and the cause of Hamlet’s tragic nature.
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