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The Keen Hamlet
Of all of Shakespeare’s characters that I have studied thus far, Hamlet is an enigmatic standout. The complexity of so intriguing a character as Hamlet commends the immense skill of Shakespeare to create characters that seem almost more real and believable than people we meet daily. It is doubtful that many others could combine the eloquence and wit that emanates from the character of Hamlet, who captivates his audience with such charming presence. In a grand display of his linguistic capabilities, Hamlet delivers the passage:
I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation
prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the
King and Queen molt no feather. I have of late, but
Wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all
Custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily
With my disposition that this goodly from, the
Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most
Excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
O’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
With golden fire: why, it appeareth nothing to me
But a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
How infinite in faculties, in form and moving how
Express and admirable, in action how like an angel,
In apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the
World, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what
Is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me;
Nor woman neither, though by your smiling you
Seem to say so. (II. ii. 301-319).
Wrapped up in this passage is a complete portrayal of the intimate machinations that are contained in Hamlet’s person. The passage portrays an intimidating and real Hamlet who is passionate and intelligent, thinks deeply on serious matters, and can, in a seemingly simple speech, sum up the circumstances that affect him in the whole of the play.
Firstly, the quoted passage reveals a Hamlet that rises as an intimidating figure whose high level of intelligence is seen indirectly, as if masked. We, the audience, are immediately captivated by Hamlet, who strikes us as one of those kinds of people that we dare not match wits with in real life, but we are happy to be voyeurs of. Hamlet’s thoughts move in a chess-like fashion where what he reveals to us only intrigues us as to what is kept hidden. Prior to this passage, Hamlet is all “fun and games,” treating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as dear chums. Yet, if “Hamlet” were a comedy, we could appropriately have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand mouths gaping while Hamlet delivers a devastating checkmate with the introduction, “I will tell you why.” Hamlet’s hair-splitting intelligence reveals his awareness of every facet of his circumstances, and also his clever dealing with his present situation, mentally staying one step ahead of everyone else. As if a psychic, Hamlet assures Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that their secret deal with the King and Queen will not be revealed so that they need not “molt no feather.” As Hamlet describes the state he is in, no more than what is already known is revealed, though more is hinted at. In fact, Hamlet feigns a digression from revealing the cause of his black mood and plunges into an “epic” depiction of his present temperament in comparing the earth and “majestical” sky as a dull background to the thoughts in his head. Hamlet then seems to lose himself in the moment and brings up the nobility of man, which also becomes an unworthy thought for Hamlet’s head. Yet, within these strikingly meaningless illustrations of earth, sky, and man hides the truth of Hamlet’s meditations. In the descriptions of earth and sky, Hamlet is showing his disgust with the world. This is overshadowed by Hamlet’s boredom with man, which is actually his distaste of his uncle, the king, and his mother, who is the “woman neither,” which “delights not” him. Left naked, the shamed Rosencrantz can only deny everything outright. Thus, Hamlet intimates his thoughts of disgust with the world and the king and queen.
While Hamlet only hints at the other machinations in his head, he does display strong feelings in his foggy discourse. From this complex passage, the audience is not only captivated by Hamlet’s intelligence, but also by his passion. In diminishing the earth as a “sterile promontory,” Hamlet
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English-language films, British films, Characters in Hamlet, Hamlet, Films, Prince Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, What a piece of work is a man, Shakespeare Programming Language, Critical approaches to Hamlet, Rosencrantz Guildenstern Are Dead
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