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Doubt in Hamlet

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In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, doubt is one of the most important themes. In fact, the whole play is based on the story of a ghost who claims to be Hamlet’s father, and nobody can be sure if what he says is the truth. In this essay, I am going to focus on the theme of doubt throughout the play. I will first speak about the opening scene, and then I will talk about the ghost, which is a supernatural element used by Shakespeare to create doubt in the play. I will also analyse the passage in which Hamlet declares his love to Ophelia. Finally, I will briefly discuss Hamlet’s sanity. What happens in the opening scene is very relevant and foreshadows the atmosphere of the whole play. The sentinel Bernardo comes to relieve Francisco. After an exhausting night of guarding, and because of the dark night, they cannot see each other properly at first. With the first question of the play asked by Bernardo, “Who’s there?” (1.1.1), the audience is directly sent into an atmosphere where everything seems uncertain. Moreover, this is a scene in which “what we are aware of is the frosty night, the officers keeping watch on the battlements, and the foreboding of a tragic action.”

And I think that when the audience knows the reasons of the presence on stage of these characters, the impression of uncertainty and doubt about what is going to happen is reinforced. The presence of the ghost, which is a supernatural element, adds something to the mood of suspicion which was already introduced in the very first lines. The supernatural element is a very good way to introduce the doubt that is going to haunt Hamlet during the whole play. At first, Horatio seems to be the only one to be doubtful of the existence of the ghost: “Tush, tush, ‘twill not appear” (1.1.28). When Hamlet sees the ghost and listens to him, we can see in his speech that he is directly convinced. When he says “O my prophetic soul!” (1.5.41), we can assume that he was already suspicious about his uncle’s good intentions before he sees his father’s spirit. I think that the last scene of the first act is one of the most important ones because it is when the ghost demands Hamlet to “[r]evenge his [father] foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.25).

By asking revenge, the ghost introduces here the main plot of the play, which is going to be based on that revelation. We do not know if Hamlet can trust the phantom’s accusations, if the ghost accuses Claudius because he has proof of Claudius’s guilt or just because he is deducing. Hamlet cannot be sure of any of those questions, and I think that it is this doubt introduced by the ghost that makes Hamlet incapable of action and revenge. The plot of the play focuses on the one hand on the impossibility to know the truth, and on the other hand on the necessity to know the truth to act with justice and with honour. As D.G. James says in his essay, “[c]onscience requires that we do is right; but then, what is right or wrong in these circumstances?” We can thus say that Hamlet is right to hesitate. It is only in the second act that Hamlet begins to doubt, and begins to think that “[t]he spirit that [he] ha[s] seen/ May be the devil” (2.2.575-6). When Hamlet realizes that it “may be a deceiving spirit”, he decides to stage that play to trap Claudius.

But “when his guilt was proved beyond any doubt, Hamlet still did not kill him; he left him alone, giving a reason, plausible enough in Hamlet’s eyes, in the eyes of his audience, and in our eyes […]” (Hattaway, p83). As I said before, the reason why Hamlet does not revenge his father when he has the possibility to do it is one of the numerous questions that this plays asks, and that remains without any explicit answers, except from speculations. An interesting passage is the one in which Polonius reads to the Queen and the King Hamlet’s letter, and in which he declares his love for Ophelia. “’Doubt thou the stars are fire,/ Doubt that the sun doth move,/ Doubt truth to be a liar,/ But never doubt I love.” (2.2.116-119). In his letter, Hamlet tells Ophelia that she can doubt the most believable things, but that she cannot doubt his love. In “Doubt the truth to be a liar”, there is a personification of truth. With this figure of style, it seems that Hamlet asks Ophelia and the audience to doubt about everything; in fact, if we see the truth as a liar, nothing can be trusted anymore. It adds thus again the same sense of doubt that is present throughout the play.

And I also think that the doubt that is present in Hamlet’s letter foreshadows the fact that Hamlet is going to reject Ophelia’s love later in the play. It creates the effect that the audience is not able anymore to distinguish what is the true or what is not. Moreover, the fact that the characters and the audience do not really know if Ophelia “drowned herself wittingly” (5.1.12) makes us ask questions about death in itself. Death is supposed to be something we cannot doubt, but here again Shakespeare manages to make the audience doubt about the most believable things. Another doubt that subsists throughout the play is the one about Hamlet’s sanity.

It is after he has seen his father’s spirit that Hamlet decides to “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.173), which means to feign madness in order to carry out his vengeance and not to be suspected by Claudius. However, I think that at the end of the play we can be sure that Claudius was Hamlet’s father’s murderer, but we cannot be sure about Hamlet’s sanity at all; it remains one of the most important doubts at the end of the play. In conclusion, I would say that the whole play of Hamlet is founded on doubt. In fact, the main plot is built on a doubtful accusation of a ghost, which is something that we cannot even be sure exists. Moreover, doubt is present in different passages throughout the play, like in the opening scene. Doubt is also present in Hamlet’s speech, and Shakespeare manages to introduce the theme of doubt almost everywhere in his play.


Hattaway, Michael, Hamlet (Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987) Jump, John Davies, Shakespeare: Hamlet: a casebook (London: Macmillan, 1968) Shakespeare, William, Hamlet / edited by Harold Jenkins (London; New York: Methuen, 1982) The Norton Shakespeare / Stephen Greenblatt, general editor; Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, [editors]; with an essay on the Shakespearean stage by Andrew Gurr (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997)

[ 1 ]. All the quotations I am going to refer to in this essay are from The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997). [ 2 ]. John Davies Jump, ‘The Opening Scene of Hamlet’, in Shakespeare: Hamlet: a casebook, ed. by T.S. Eliot (London: Macmillan, 1968), p119. [ 3 ]. Michael Hattaway, ‘Moral and Metaphysical Uncertainty in Hamlet’, in Hamlet, ed. by D.G. James (Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987), p82. [ 4 ]. William Shakespeare, Hamlet / edited by Harold Jenkins (London; New York: Methuen, 1982), p125.

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