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Dysfunctional Families and the Inadequate Role Played by Parents in “Hamlet”

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Through its various readings, “Hamlet”, has enticed more controversy than any other Shakespearean play. Written in Elizabethan times, Shakespeare succeeded in creating a tragedy that still holds relevance to the affairs of today, four hundred years after its initial appearance. Perhaps justifying its endless success, is the argument that there is no invited reading of the play, leaving it to the individual to determine an interpretation. However recently, dominant readings of the play have emerged based on the cultural assumptions, values and beliefs of modern times. Certainly by reading Hamlet in a 21st Century context, it is easy to recognise the presence of a dysfunctional family and the inadequate role which the parents play.

It is only natural that whilst we are children we idealise our parents as perfect beings, whose only reason for existence is to love and care for us. It is evident that Hamlet in his youth, adopted this idealistic attitude, as his reaction to his father’s death, or to a greater extent his mother’s hasty remarriage was somewhat of a surprise? Sally Porterfield explains his dismay from a Jungian standpoint, “the death of Hamlet’s father and his mother’s remarriage to his uncle represents the universal experience of parental discovery.” (1994, p.73) Very little sympathy is offered to Hamlet by either of his parents to which some may argue that Hamlet was mature enough to deal with the situation himself, as the grave digger determines his age to be of thirty, but Hamlet is portrayed throughout the play as an adolescent. Porterfield justifies this arguing that Hamlet is brought suddenly to the realisation of his parents’ imperfections and regresses to an earlier stage of his development in order to pick up the pieces that have been left behind. So with little, if any, support from his parents, Hamlet is left understandably confused and disturbed.

Hamlet’s reaction and eccentric behaviour is not created solely by his sudden realisation that his parents are not the perfect, idealized beings he once thought they were. His situation is in fact a common phenomenon experienced by the youth of today when a child faces the replacement of a parental figure. In a time where divorces have become a customary occurrence, more people can relate to Hamlet’s feelings today as opposed to Elizabethan times when remarriage would have been considered a rarity. In Hamlet’s case the example of Gertrude’s remarriage to Claudius, demonstrates the impact it has on the individual as he reveals in his first soliloquy, “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world.” (I.ii.133-134) Even today if parents are separated from marriage, especially by death, a child finds it difficult to accept a new parental figure. Often an individual will not accept such circumstances, and in retaliation will turn resentful towards their parents in various ways. Hamlet, whose source of faith is destroyed and feeling betrayed by his parents, adopts the nature of an adolescent ‘prankster’ who manages to maintain some sense of normality through “manic and frequently outrageous adolescent humour”. (Porterfield, p.2)

In his rebellion against his parents, Hamlet no longer sees Gertrude as the loving mother she once was, but for the first time sees her as a sexual being with her own motives and desires and he is enraged, “She married – O most wicked speed! To post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! / It is not, nor cannot come to good. / But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” (I.ii.156-159) It is obvious that Hamlet’s anger towards his mother, stems from her ability to move on from his father and remarry so quickly, whilst he himself is still in mourning. He sees this as an act of disloyalty towards him and his father and after exposing the truthful circumstances of his death, believes his mother to have betrayed both of them. It can be inferred therefore, that Hamlet’s madness is partly due to a fault on Gertrude’s behalf. Nowhere through the development of his mania does she console or comfort Hamlet but abandons him for the new love of her life, Claudius

Claudius, through his sly and deceitful nature, proves to be the catalyst for this family’s inevitable failure. His marriage to Gertrude appoints him as Hamlet’s new father figure which in itself also makes him Hamlet’s enemy. As aforementioned, children do not readily accept new parental figures into their lives, so understandably Hamlet confesses his dislike for Claudius, referring to him as “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (I.i,65) It is after all Claudius’ interference with Hamlet’s family that is the foremost contributor to Hamlet’s madness, and the epicentre of the family’s dysfunction. By removing this figure all could be restored to order, Gertrude could return to her former imaginative status as “a queen, fair, sober, wise” (III.iv,189) and Hamlet could return to his former sanity. Yet greedy of the rewards of his crime – the queen and the throne – Claudius succeeds in destroying the royal family and ultimately the political structure of Denmark.

Throughout the play the characters, particularly Hamlet, speak boldly of the courage and virtues of Hamlet’s father, the ex-King of Denmark. But is he the good father and courageous king Hamlet presents him to be? Many people don’t pick up the flaws in the Ghost’s role as a father figure. This is because all the attributes of a villain are so clearly evident in Claudius. When speaking to his son about his murder, the Ghost’s language is violent with hatred towards Claudius, and Hamlet, along with the audience, is filled with disgust and horror. It is the Ghost’s language which shapes our first impressions of Claudius, and also blinds us from the murderous instructions given by King Hamlet.

Hamlet never seems to reject his idealisation of his father, like he does with his mother. He continues throughout the play to award his father with nothing but praise and even compares his attributes to that of the Greek gods, “Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself, / An eye like Mars…” (III.iv.56-57) However the warrior king, who at this time has come from some purgatory, where he is being punished for the sins of a lifetime, is not content with discrediting his own soul, and orders Hamlet to avenge his death by killing Claudius. This indeed shows a different side of the father Hamlet portrays, and he may well be as evil as Claudius, in that he asks his son to become a killer.

Hamlet’s portrayal of imperfect parents is not constrained to that of Hamlet’s family but extends to Polonius and his two children. Polonius serves as an inadequate father whose relationship with his children Ophelia and Laertes, is based on occupational benefits rather than genuine integrity. His overly suspicious nature not only induces him to spy on Laertes while he is away in France, but also causes him to use his own daughter as a pawn, in order to learn the intentions of Hamlet. In the end it is his own folly that ultimately results in not only his own death, but the deaths of his children.

On first impressions Polonius appears to be a fool and that is what Hamlet surely makes him out to be; his lack of intellectual capacity limiting his ability to decipher Hamlet’s satire. Yet on reanalysis he comes across much more sinister. He lacks the courage of Claudius but, as Goddard points out, ‘pours the poison just as deadly.'(p.5) His advice, which always seems to try and catch Hamlet in the wrong, is in fact no that different in nature to the cause of Hamlet’s father and Claudius. Porterfield suggests that Hamlet sees in Polonius, ‘all the qualities he most despises and has refused to recognise in his own parents…It is no coincidence that he thinks he is murdering Claudius with that impetuous thrust. He is, indeed, on a psychological level murdering some aspects of the bad father he is seeking to destroy.’

Through the actions of the older generation of characters, it can be fair to say that the parental figures in Hamlet are quite less than perfect. Each parent possesses their own imperfections, which in today’s society would label them as bad or inadequate parents. The impact bad parenting and dysfunctional families have on the individual is portrayed through Hamlet, who evidently suffers throughout the play. Shakespeare’s certainly succeeded in constructing a play that’s relevance is identifiable despite what age it is read in.

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