Classics · Shakespeare

Hamlet Acts II & III

I decided to combine these two because A) Act II is only two scenes, and B) Act II sets the stage, so to speak, for Act III. Many questions are asked in Acts I and II that are answered in Act III, such as:

Did Claudius kill Hamlet’s father? Hamlet speculates that the ghost may have been an evil spirit sent to lure him into murder, but Claudius’ actions in Act III – his reaction to the play within a play and his prayer for forgiveness – indicate that he is in fact guilty.

Has Hamlet actually been driven insane, and if so, why? I hesitate to apply modern psychology to a character from hundreds of years ago, but it seems to me that Hamlet is mentally ill without being insane. He is suffering from serious internal conflict, anguish, and what we might consider depression or bipolar disorder today. The famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy expresses suicidal impulses that a mentally healthy person would not have. However, he seems to be aware of his surroundings and in control of his actions. His behavior is erratic and at times horrifying, but every decision he makes has a reason for it, and his scheme to use the play to discover his uncle’s guilt or innocence is too clever to come from insanity. Unless you interpret the ghost as a hallucination (which doesn’t seem to be the case, since several other characters also saw it), there’s very little to suggest he’s “gone mad”.

Does Hamlet love Ophelia? While Polonius believes Hamlet’s behavior can be explained by love, Hamlet doesn’t seem to think much of Ophelia. “I did love you once,” he tells her, but he insults her and implies that she’s not as pure and innocent as she makes herself out to be. For example, while makeup is not looked at as being immoral today, it was once viewed with suspicion, and Hamlet uses it as a symbol of women’s supposed falseness: “God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another”. He seems suspicious of women and marriage in the face of his mother’s marriage to his uncle, and shows disdain for humanity as a whole, insisting that Ophelia would do better to become a nun than “a breeder of sinners”. Yes, this is the infamous “get thee to a nunnery” scene.

Will Hamlet avenge his father’s death? While he hesitated at first, he now seems determined to do so. More than that, he seems determined to punish his uncle as much as possible. He actually turns down an easy opportunity to kill him because his uncle is in the middle of praying for forgiveness and might go to Heaven if he dies then. Hamlet doesn’t just want to kill Claudius; he wants to kill him in the middle of a sin and send his soul to Hell. Wow. That’s harsh. He also doesn’t seem particularly upset later on when he mistakes Polonius for Claudius and stabs him through a curtain. He’s reached the point of not caring who else gets hurt as long as he can have his revenge. I’m beginning to wonder if the ghost was an evil spirit after all, not because it lied, but because of how learning the truth has twisted Hamlet and made him lose his moral compass.

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