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Without the soliloquies we have little knowledge of Hamlet’s state of mind

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Hamlet’s soliloquies are a direct insight into his thoughts; they give us a greater understanding of his mental state and his motives, Shakespeare uses them to great effect by giving the audience a direct connection with Hamlet and thereby heightening our awareness of his growing unease and inner torment. Hamlet’s character during the beginning of the play is one of virtue and integrity, fearing the consequences of the task put upon him by his father, and questioning the moral integrity of said task.

We witness his search for flaws in the King’s request and the anguish he suffers as a result of the debate between upholding his father’s honour and acting according to his own conscience. As the play progresses, Hamlet becomes increasingly perplexed and introverted, whilst displaying an entirely different persona to all but Horatio, who we come to realize is the only character he regards as an ally.

Hamlet’s soliloquies are not vital to our understanding of his mental disquiet, it is clear from his actions that he is disturbed, however they do make us aware of his internal conflicts in a far more defined way, changing our interpretation of his “madness”, than his behaviour does. Hamlet’s first soliloquy reveals him to be untrusting of Claudius, thinking of him as “a little more than kin, and less than kind” and expressing his belief that Claudius is not of the same ilk as Hamlet himself is. This phrase is addressed to the audience, and thus separates Hamlet from the other characters.

It’s instrumental to our understanding of the relationship between Hamlet and his uncle, but even without this insight into Hamlet’s thinking we are wary of Claudius through his displacement of responsibility from himself by referring to Gertrude as “our queen”. His pompous demeanour initiates our immediate dislike towards him, and through his “one auspicious, and one dropping eye” we reach an understanding of his insincerity. This is almost immediately further confirmed when he casts his doubt upon the extent Hamlet’s grief, telling him “your father lost a father; that father lost, lost his”.

We know that Hamlet is old enough to be king, and thus we can infer from Claudius’ manipulation of language that he is suspicious of his intentions. Hamlet’s next soliloquy discloses the extent of his mental distress. He thinks of his father as a “Hyperion” and this idealisation of the dead King contrasts starkly with Hamlet’s previous comment about Claudius. He expresses his disgust at the “most wicked speed” at which Gertrude yielded to “incestuous sheets”, and we see the degree to which his despair is consuming him when he contemplates “self-slaughter”.

However, he later repeats himself, telling Polonius that there is nothing that he “will more willingly part withal” except his life. Although at this point in the play we know that much of Hamlet’s madness is supposedly feigned, there is a measure of truth in this statement- we know that he would genuinely prefer death to the trauma of the burden of his responsibility. Contextually, we know that Hamlet wishes to go “back to school in Wittenberg”, hinting that perhaps he feels out of place in a political environment and also that he does not wish to spend time with either his mother or his uncle.

This view of Elsinore as more of “a prison” than a shelter could itself be construed as Hamlet being appalled by the actions of Claudius and Gertrude. During the soliloquy, his revulsion at the situation prevents him from maintaining a train of thought, and he constantly interrupts himself. However, we can gage Hamlet’s feelings towards the marriage his mother to Claudius at many other points in the play, as they are not restricted to his soliloquies. Indeed, he later accuses Gertrude of “a bloody deed” to her face.

He tells Horatio how he shall “not look upon his [fathers] like again”, and the loss of clarity in his mind is reinforced when he tells Horatio he sees the king “in his minds eye”. In his soliloquy, Hamlet refers to the world as “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” and though without this information we would not have such a clear picture of his desolation and misery, we could take from his actions further on in the play that he must be deeply wounded and Claudius’ request that he stay in Elsinore must have angered him and added to his emotional turmoil at having to “hold [his] tongue”.

Hamlet’s soliloquies can, at times, be misleading. After conversing with his father’s ghost, he announces that he will “wipe away all trivial fond records… and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain… I have sworn’t” but he later alters between definitively deciding to murder Claudius and refraining from doing it when the opportunity arises. He procrastinates over the act of committing regicide, and tortures himself with thoughts of the moral invalidity of taking vengeance.

When Hamlet eventually does act with the intention of murdering Claudius, he is frantic and not in control of his thoughts. His frustration regarding his personal trauma at having lost a mother and his disinclination towards action manifests itself in a frantic attack, an action entirely the opposite to his regular analytical thought process. However, in other instances, without the soliloquies we would have far less doubt of Hamlet’s madness. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, Hamlet openly considers the value of universal life.

He also expresses the longing to return to dust; a precursor of his later soliloquy where he contemplates the same idea. We feel a real sense of Hamlet’s disturbed nature- whether he is actually mad or not is debateable, but that he is troubled by the weight of responsibility is unquestionable. The mention of the “quintessence of dust” is not fully expanded on at this point, but is effective in illustrating Hamlet’s mental decline. He questions whether “to be or not to be” and expresses a longing for the “sleep of death”, but a fear “of something after death”, preventing such actions.

This is evidently caused by his father being trapped in purgatory and Hamlet’s moral disagreement with the act of murder. It is further confirmed that Hamlet is concerned with the veracity of his every action, and that through this he is essentially trying to construct his own fate. He then goes on to say that “conscience does make cowards of us all”, nevertheless Hamlet’s conscience only confounds him and he subscribes to this premise by deciding not to take his own life, suggesting that the reason for this is that he knows nothing about death save its’ finality.

In another of his soliloquies, Hamlet resolves to “speak daggers to [Gertrude], but use none”. However, he also decides not to kill Claudius during the day, suggesting his confirmed knowledge of the act of murder alone being against his principles. Although Hamlet’s moral righteousness initially prevents him from acting, the nature of revenge and the idea of vengeance altogether is downplayed in the Lutheran philosophy he was taught at Wittenberg- the concept of Hamlet not wanting to commit murder because it goes against his moral judgement.

Hamlet himself can be perceived as a character with a genuine need for both the preservation of his own moral dignity, and the obsessive need to reassert the cohesion of a functioning family unit. These character traits are not only represented in the soliloquies but in his actions during the play as a whole. Hamlet’s final and most rhetorical soliloquy displays more clarity and objectiveness in his thought pattern. It is crucial to our understanding of Hamlet’s mental condition as it represents a change in his philosophy of “thinking too precisely” to one of “mass and charge”.

Realizing the “bestial oblivion” of his procrastination, he compares himself with Fortinbras, who is willing to sacrifice thousands of men for minimal material gain, something Hamlet would never be capable of doing. He invents a connection between them through the defence of their fathers’ honour, trying to convince himself that Fortinbras is a man of moral integrity in order to persuade himself that he, like Fortinbras, is a man of action.

He parallels honour with “egg-shell” and “straw”, yet determines that he is willing to act for such a principle, deciding that “my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! ” Without this soliloquy we would not fully appreciate the change in Hamlet and his reversion to a more feudal viewpoint. Hamlet’s soliloquies are primary in conveying his delay in acting upon his responsibility, they show clearly his preoccupation with his own self and the extent of his introversion through his isolation.

Being the only release of his true feelings, they supply the audience with Hamlet’s own experience of the tragedy and his response to the other characters. Hamlet’s greatest problem is overcoming his inability to act without careful scrutiny of a situation- he tells Horatio that he will act “insane”, yet at several instances in the play we are forced to question the authenticity of his “act”, we are never entirely sure if his madness is intentional or feigned, despite periodically hearing his innermost thoughts.

Although Hamlet is the ‘hero’ figure of the play, the persistent interrogation of his own self disclose more about him than his interaction with the other characters- his need to “hold my tongue”, coupled with Denmark being a “prison” verify his bitterness at having to keep his feelings secret. This need for his sentiments to remain suppressed inside him leads to our more sensitive awareness of Hamlet’s predicament and the reason behind his actions.

Without the soliloquies, the plot of the play would still be the same, as would Hamlet’s actions (assuming what is said in the soliloquies was still thought by Hamlet but not disclosed to the audience), but our perception of the human element of Hamlet’s actions, and our ability to understand his state of mind would suffer.

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