Hamlet has baffled and fascinated critics for centuries. Although he tells both his mother and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that there is more to him than meets the eye, the audience gets the impression that there is more to Hamlet than even he knows. The ability to write soliloquies and dialogues that hint at a subconscious world in a character is rare, and it is this ability that has kept Shakespeare and his works at the forefront of western literature for centuries.
Hamlet is philosophical and introspective to a fault. As a university student, these qualities may have served him well; at home in a court where his father is dead and his mother has married his uncle, however, they impede him more than anything. Hamlet consistently interprets his world in terms of questions he can never fully answer: Is suicide a morally legitimate solution to a problem? What happens after death? How much proof is enough? Does vengeance “count” if the murdered wrongdoer’s soul winds up in heaven?
Hamlet is also melancholy and discontented by nature. He’s pessimistic about Denmark and the world at large, and he is quick to think the worst of people – especially women, for whom he seems to harbor a particular malice. At several points in the play, he considers taking his own life, given that he finds little or nothing to live for.
Yet in contrast, when Hamlet does act, his actions are highly impulsive and demonstrate little or no attempt at rational planning. For example, he stabs Polonius through a tapestry without even bothering to check who is behind it. Although he claims to be faking madness, there are times when the line between pretend and reality is very thin indeed.
As the prince of Denmark and heir to the throne, it is especially odd that Hamlet should tackle his problems in purely philosophical terms. His position and upbringing should drive him to consider issues of national security and stability, but he rarely if ever does so. In fact, many of the threats to Denmark’s internal stability are of his own making.