Shakespeare’s Use of Ambiguity Throughout Hamlet Is Crucial to Our Understanding of the Play’s Key Ideas

Updated on November 30, 2018
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Billy Zhang has read and academically studied a handful of Shakespeare's plays. Hamlet was an evocative exploration into the human psyche.

Shakespeare’s continuous use of ambiguity throughout the play heightens our understanding of an individual’s struggle with a tortured psyche and emotional turmoil from the conflict of revenge in a changing world. The protagonist, Hamlet displays an ambiguously divided nature as his tradition dictates the necessity of avenging his father’s murder but his renaissance sensibility shrank from the idea in horror as illustrated through his acute inner anxieties and mental anguish. Therefore, ambiguity is part of an essential framework of the text in ultimately revealing revenge as a dynamically destructive force, and in Hamlet, an unbeatable enemy.

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Hamlet's Ambiguous Inaction

Hamlet’s ambiguous ‘inaction’ depicts the exploration of the universal emotional and psychological costs of an unforeseen calamity. The play begins with an interrogative tone with the first line of dialogue being the terse question, ‘who’s there?’ These first words foreshadow the questions and ambiguities that will plague Hamlet’s search for truth and justice and thus establish a setting of uncertainty. Questioning is a feature of his soliloquising throughout – until his resignation. Moreover, his encounter with the ghostly apparition triggers an ominous mood in the play. This is seen in the metaphor of Denmark as a rotting garden, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ which ominously alludes to the moral and political corruption now existing under Claudius’ rule. This coupled with symbolism of the midnight setting, would resonate with the Elizabethan audience as an uncertain and suspicious time. It is unclear whether this ‘dreaded sight’ is an ‘illusion’, a ‘spirit of health’ or a ‘goblin damn’d’. This accentuates the difficulty in distinguishing the appearance of a situation from its reality. Additionally, Hamlet is initially eager to take immediate revenge for his father’s murder, “I with wings as swift as meditation and thoughts of love will sweep to my revenge.” The employment of the simile demonstrates Hamlet’s quick commitment to avenge his father and the imagery of flight shows his naiveté regarding the impediments to action. His vengeance is driven by the demands of duty, honour and filial responsibility. However, Hamlet is caught in an ambiguous world, between different attitudes and values. For Elizabethans, revenge was expressly forbidden by Christian faith, however sympathy was given if it related to an heir’s legal duty to avenge a father. Consequently, Hamlet questions the dichotomy of man revealed within the confliction between duty and morality.

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Unconscious Dynamics in Human Nature

Furthermore, Shakespeare's complex characterisation of Hamlet in a state of perpetual ambiguity accentuates his dramatization of the unconscious dynamics in human nature that drive the poisonous revenge. This is most evident to the reader through Hamlet soliloquies, as they give insight into Hamlet’s deep obsession in over analysing and thus his indecision. Hamlet in his ‘to be, or not to be, that is the question’’ soliloquy ponders on the problematic state of existence. He debates on whether he must endure the sorrow of life or end them with a death, ‘to die, to sleep - / to sleep, perchance to dream.’ The repeated use of caesura, which creates a pause and a break from the rhythm, emphasizes the Renaissance man humanism by highlighting his contemplation of humanity and the absence of a simple solution. Additionally, the repetition of ‘to die, to sleep,’ establishes the ambiguous undertone throughout the soliloquy on whether there is ‘a dreamless sleep,’ or a spiritual retribution for committing the sin of suicide. In addition, Hamlet is plagued with the burden of various contemplations and questions, ‘the dread of something after death, / the undiscovered country.’ This sense of unknown and questioning of uncertainty highlights his introspective character that restricts his ability to act. Moreover, Hamlet’s soliloquies are suffused with revealing the inner workings of the Christian mind. Hence, Shakespeare’s characterisation of Hamlet with a multilayered complexity of personality and language helps escalate the play’s unfolding revenge tragedy so that Hamlet’s victimhood is both individual as well as representative of humanity. Therefore, Hamlet’s moral and religious challenges adds a cultural and anthropological dimension to the play and thus contributes to the timeless and universal interest in Hamlet.

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Limitations Illustrated By Hamlet's Sense of Self-Knowledge and Fatalistic Mood

Moreover, Shakespeare emphasizes the limitations of dictating our own lives through Hamlet’s sense of self-knowledge and fatalistic mood at the end of the play. Hamlet resigns to a sad yet stoic tone and results in a conclusion that ‘there’s a divinity that shapes our ends.’ This coupled with his spondee response, ‘let be’ to his earlier dilemma ‘to be, or not to be’ soliloquy highlights his eventual acceptance of the inability to control our fates. Also, Shakespeare reinforces this lack of control by ending the play ambiguously on who should rule. This would resonate strongly with an English audience who lived in an uncertain time as Queen Elizabeth I had no heir to the throne. Therefore, Shakespeare’s ambiguous ending is a disturbing realization of the limitations on life and a challenge to audiences on a metatheatrical level to consider the extent to which they are playwrights or actors in the drama of their own life.

Ultimately, Shakespeare use of ambiguity throughout the play is used to dramatize the uncertainty in life and the unconscious forces driving revenge. Hamlet’s ambiguous resolution invites us to reflect on our own deepest conflicts and desires and leaves us not only moved by his tragic dilemma, but also enlightened. Thus, the play continues to have textual integrity as it still engages the mind and heart and explores humanity in ways that will remain forever relevant and confronting.

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    © 2018 Billy Zhang

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