The Active versus the Contemplative Life
As the hero of a revenge tragedy, conventionally, Hamlet ought to be a man of action, not of thought; what thoughts he does have ought to concern carrying out the deed he is dedicated to accomplishing. Shakespeare’s hero, however, is a contemplative man. He thinks about the actions he will take and whether taking them will be morally right. He worries about the authenticity and authority of the Ghost. He contemplates the absurdity of war and the meaning of honor when he sees Fortinbras’s army marching to fight in Poland for a tract of land. He meditates on the difficulties and pains of being alive and the fearsomeness of death in his ‘‘To be or not to be’’ soliloquy. When he has the opportunity to slay Claudius when he finds him at prayer, he forbears for fear of sending him to heaven. Still, Hamlet ultimately proves quite active. He kills Polonius; he performs feats of derring-do aboard his ship when it is attacked by pirates; he leaps into Ophelia’s grave and grapples with her brother; and he is an excellent fencer, as his final duel with Laertes shows.
Nearly every character in Hamlet spies on another character or at some point conceals something. Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in France and is killed himself when he hides behind the arras to spy on Hamlet as he speaks to Gertrude. He also counsels Claudius to watch with him as Hamlet and Ophelia converse. The king orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet. Ophelia is used by the king and her father as a bait for their spying. Hamlet himself, in his attempt ‘‘to catch the conscience of the king’’ and authenticate the Ghost’s report, devises a complex series of surveillance strategies, including feigning madness and presenting a play during the performance of which he watches the king. Aboard the ship to England, Hamlet engages in espionage that allows him to discover the plot against his life. Horatio, too, at Hamlet’s request, becomes a spy during the performance of The Mousetrap.
A common type of play performed on the Elizabethan stage was the revenge tragedy. In a revenge tragedy, one act of brutality gives rise to a counteract, which gives rise to another, until all the characters are murdered. Usually, the murders are grim and treacherous. Hamlet is a complex example of a revenge tragedy. Hamlet is a man with greater consciousness than the typical heroes of revenge tragedies usually possess, and he struggles with the role of avenger that is cast upon him. After Hamlet’s father dies, his father’s ghost visits and reveals that he was murdered by his brother, and he calls upon Hamlet to avenge his murder. Parallel revenge plots are also present, as the old King Hamlet had defeated Fortinbras, the king of Norway, in a war, and at the beginning of Hamlet, the young Fortinbras plans to avenge his father’s death by warring on Denmark. After Hamlet kills Polonius, that man’s son, Laertes, returns to Denmark in order to avenge his father’s death. The king suggests the climactic duel between Laertes and Hamlet as a way of accomplishing that revenge. In the end, Hamlet not only takes vengeance on the king but also avenges himself against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had become the king’s agents in his attempts to murder Hamlet.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007