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Old Friday, May 26, 2006
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Default All the World’s a Stage: Hamlet and the Idea of the Stage

All the World’s a Stage: Hamlet and the Idea of the Stage

By Heath Wood

After meeting with the ghost of his father, Hamlet is left alone to ponder the significance of the events that had just occurred. In his soliloquy there, he vows to his father’s tortured soul to avenge his death, promising to wipe everything else from his mind until this job is done. He must exorcise all pleasant thoughts in order to turn himself angry, bitter, and crazy enough to complete the task, and must also constantly remind himself of the villainous character of his uncle Claudius. During the course of his soliloquy, Hamlet makes several references to theatre and the stage, thus reinforcing a major theme of the work as a whole. The problem, though, is where this theme leaves the work; if everyone is only acting, then what is real? In this way, the text contradicts itself. In attempting to point out truth, it leaves the audience in doubt as to whether any actions or language can be truly representative of the intentions they convey.Through Shakespeare’s use of references to acting and the state in Hamlet, he shows us the futility of trying to convey intentions through language, both spoken and unspoken.

Right off the bat, Hamlet calls upon heaven, earth, and hell—all at once. He is not sure which one exactly will help him process his feelings regarding his discussion with the ghost of his father. By the end of his soliloquy, it is clear which he has chosen; he shall swear by heaven and follow hell, using the earth as his stage. In fact, his assumption that his father’s word is even legitimate seems to be falsely held and therefore the use of the word “heaven” carries some irony. The ghost of Hamlet’s father obviously did not come from heaven, as one would not normally expect the commands of something heaven-sent to wreak so much havoc upon the lives of everyone involved in his story. The ghost is not evil—at least no more than any other character in the play. He does not have Hamlet’s best interests in mind, though, as his orders seem to benefit only himself, and in fact cause problems for every other character in the entire work. As Hamlet’s father, he must have known of Hamlet’s tendency to over-think things. Why, then, would he encourage Hamlet to “remember” him, when the word carries an underlying meaning which is “To bethink or recollect, to think or reflect upon.” (“remember”)? The ghost’s intentions are clear; he wishes Hamlet to avenge him. However, even his use of language is unclear and thus obscures his message. Instead of spurring Hamlet to action, he forces Hamlet to mull over the situation, leading only to disaster not only for Claudius, the king’s supposed killer, but for everyone else also.

Next Hamlet orders something—it is not even clear what or who—to “hold, hold, hold, my heart” (1.5 93). Hamlet comes to the realization during this soliloquy that everyone is only acting, and therefore in order to join in on the action he must remove his heart and become another actor in the play. From his heart, he moves on to his head, which he refers to as “this distracted globe” (1.5 97). His use of the word “globe” is interesting, as it refers simultaneously to his head, the world, and the theatre in which the play was likely being performed. His head contains an entire world, one which he must himself create. At the same time, he is bringing himself closer to the stage by mentioning the very name of Shakespeare’s theatre. In this case, even the thoughts inside his head are taking place upon a stage, inside which “memory holds a seat” (1.5 96). Memory here is but another spectator to the larger spectacle that is taking place upon the stage of the world. It is also pertinent to Hamlet’s use of the word “globe” that Shakespeare chose to set the play in Denmark. This unusual setting serves to further bring the world into a stage. If the play were set in England, the audience might actually be able to relate a little bit, but since it is in Denmark, the spectacle is preserved and the message is messied.

Apart from being a spectator, memory here is also described as a “table” (1.5 98), which is said to mean a writing tablet. Not only is it a spectator to the play, but it is also subject to the inscription of faulty language upon it. Here it is appropriate to ask whether the ghost even exists. If Hamlet’s memory is nothing more than a writing tablet, it is reasonable to think that Hamlet might have invented the ghost, simply another character in his twisted piece of theatre. Yet here again the text contradicts itself, as other characters claim to have seen the ghost. The question of the ghost’s existence further reinforces that theme of the loss of the real through acting and theatre. Hamlet vows to “wipe away all trivial fond records” (1.5 100). The book notes that the usage of fond here probably means foolish, but it could just as easily mean “Cherished or entertained with strong or unreasoning affection” (“fond”). Hamlet’s focus becomes singular: he is to seek revenge on his uncle, the supposed murderer of his father. In order to achieve this end, he must push out of his mind everything that does not directly relate to the task at hand, therefore purging himself of all things which now seem to him to be trivial. Also, Hamlet is generally described as being a kind and just man, and perhaps for him to achieve the mindset that is required for such revenge he must also get rid of the thoughts of anything which he cherishes or feels affection towards. Here even Hamlet uses language for his own benefit. He must, as when he asks for his heart to be removed, get rid of his kind and loving nature in order to become a murderer. It is interesting that he decides to hold his murderous intentions so highly in his mind, refusing to mix them with “baser matters” (1.5 104). Murder should be considered the basest of actions, but since his intentions are noble, he considers his purpose pure. The problem is that he intends to murder for a good cause. He cannot be completely noble and good while at the same time being completely heartless and evil. Hamlet’s own language breaks down and fails him here.

Before turning his attention finally to the subject of his murderous intentions, he briefly takes time to scold his mother, describing her as a “pernicious woman,” (1.5 105), meaning “intending or causing harm” (“pernicious”). Here he is transferring his hate for his uncle onto his mother. What he does not realize is that his mother is just another actor in the play. Likely, rather than intending to cause any harm whatsoever, Gertrude married Claudius out of pure intentions, hoping to unite the kingdom under a new king. Gertrude’s acting, too, fails her, as in the end she ends up dead and speechless along with all of the other actors. Finally, Hamlet gets to his uncle, describing him as a “smiling villain” (1.5 105). Here is the best example of someone who is acting in order to achieve his own ends. Even the OED’s definition of “smile” contains a contradiction, as it reads “To give the features or face a look expressive of pleasure or amusement, or of amused disdain, scorn, etc.” (“smile”). Pleasure and scorn are directly opposed, and this is indicative of the level of contradiction that Claudius displays in his acting. Claudius’s smile is simply a mask for his true evil, the same way Hamlet’s eventual insanity is a mask for his plans.

Every character in Hamlet seems to be just acting—acting in order to achieve certain ends. In the end, all of these ends are achieved—and yet at the same time none of them are. Hamlet wishes to kill Claudius, and he does so; however, he also dies in the attempt. Claudius wishes to be king and to kill Hamlet, and both occur; however, he dies in the attempt, relinquishing his throne and his life simultaneously. Gertrude wishes to unite the kingdom, and she does; however, she dies, and the kingdom only will be united under a foreign king, Fortinbras. These actions all show the contradictions that any attempt to act—or to use language for one’s own ends—brings about.

Hamlet, through the course of his soliloquy, truly becomes yet another character in the tragedy. In the end, Hamlet does not even have a choice in the matter. He must become another character in an endless series of plays, during the translation of which all meanings of original intentions are lost entirely. He is forced into his role by his father’s ghost and spurred on by his uncle, who eventually flips the script in an attempt to murder him. In his attempt to act, Hamlet (and indeed all of the major characters in the play) loses sight of his intentions and ends up dead. Each character’s attempt to use language to achieve some sort of goal leaves everyone dead and thus speechless, unable to use language anymore. Any attempt to use language, then, ends in an inability to say anything at all. Hamlet represents a series of plays nestled inside each other like Russian dolls, each layer representing another act, scene, character, and motive. Each has an intention and a meaning, but as the layers are peeled away, instead of getting closer to the center, we get farther away.

Works Cited:

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Susanne L. Wofford. Boston:
Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994.
kareiN meiN ney kesi ebaadateiN
rahi aetaqaaf mein chasm-e-num
kaeiN rath-jugouN ki dukhi huwee
na hi buth miley naa pari milee

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