What Preceded the Storm
When Hamlet sees Fortinbras’ army headed for combat in Poland he is moved to deliver a striking monologue about the battle raging in his soul. Passion and anger drive Hamlet to avenge his father’s murder at any cost, while logic and reason turn him away from blindly following his feelings. In the scene after he kills Polonious, Hamlet must decide to end his quest for revenge, or follow through with his murderous plans. This soliloquy sees Hamlet turn away from the logic, which has stifled him, and embrace the irrational passion, which will guide his actions for the rest of the play.
Much of the speech sounds like the locker room chant before a big football game: “I have cause, and will, and strength, and means, to do’t.(IV.iv.45)” Hamlet appears to be psyching himself up to revenge his father’s death. Inspired by the bravery and strength of the soldiers, he rebels against his previous inaction, going so far as to call it bestial. But the notion that his soliloquy is simply a riveting pep talk does not hold up under scrutiny. The speech is full of irony and contradiction that allude to the complex meaning of Hamlet’s words.
At the beginning of the monologue Hamlet says that his reason will lead him from his apathetic state into action. According to him, this divine ability to reason is what separates man from beast.
” . . . What is man if the 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,
. . . gave us not that capability . . . to fust in us unused.” (IV.iv.33)
Yet it is his “large discourse” and reason that compel Hamlet to murder, the most bestial and least divine of actions. This contradiction illustrates the conflict between Hamlets desire to act and the logical thought that drives him away from his purpose. Another example of this appears later in the passage where Hamlet describes his inaction to the reader by saying that he “Let all sleep (IV.iv.59)”. He then goes onto praise the soldiers’ bravery by saying that they “Go to their graves like beds (IV.iv.62)”. Hamlet uses the same imagery to describe the inaction he hates and the action he longs for, making his opinion of the soldiers’ willingness to act unclear. Perhaps Hamlet values the soldiers’ blind deeds no higher than his own apathy.
Evidence to support this notion can be seen throughout this passage. Hamlet repeatedly declares his respect and admiration for the army moving into battle before him. Yet even as he utters their praises Hamlet points out the folly of their actions. He knows it is useless for so many of them to fight and die for the tiny worthless piece of land that they will be defending. Clearly, Hamlet is deriding the bravery that he claims to envy and desire. Hamlet defines honor by saying that a great man is slow to anger, but quick to fight when his honor is at stake. This dubious statement conveys Hamlet’s feeling that honor is nothing more than an excuse for men to act out their passions. Hamlet’s lack of respect for honor stems form his belief that it allows men to do what they feel, rather then what they think. On close inspection Hamlet’s remarks turn out to be insightful commentary criticizing irrational action.
From this vantage Hamlet’s speech appears filled with “godlike reason”. Cryptic language veils the internal struggle that Hamlet wages throughout the passage. He questions the benefits of bravery and quick action, which he will need to act out his revenge. He questions the value of honor, which is his reason for revenging his father. In fact, all of Hamlet’s logic leads him to the conclusion that it would be best to forget about settling the score and move on with his life.
But if logic dictates that Hamlet should forgo revenge, why would he suddenly be moved to clash with his enemies? Hamlets course of action is not determined by the resolution of the conflict in his head, but by the outcome of the struggle between his mind and heart. Early in the passage Hamlet wonders whether the cause of his inaction is “bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking (IV.iv.40)”, alluding to the forces of passion and rationalization which influence him. Later, Hamlet notes that both his “blood” and “reason” his are stirred by the situation he has been thrust into. As it becomes clear to him that logic dictates inaction, Hamlet faces the question of whether he should follow his mind or his emotions. In the last line of the speech Hamlet chooses emotion, declaring “From this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.(IV.iv.66)” Blood refers not only to the blood he will draw an the act of revenge, but also to the emotions that he decides will guide him.
After the monologue Hamlet is no longer a creature of reason and intellect, he is an animal acting on instinct and passion. By denouncing logic and reason Hamlet disables his primary means of procrastination. Thought it marks the beginning of success in his quest for revenge, this speech probably necessitates Hamlet’s tragic end. He chooses to ignore god’s gifts of thought and wisdom in favor of using raw emotion to motivate himself to revenge his father’s murder. Hamlet seems to be selling himself to the devil in return for being able to see justice done against his father’s killers.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. Norton Critical Series. 2nd Edition. New York: Norton, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. The Arden Shakespeare. 3rd Series. Walton-on-Thames, 1982.
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