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Characterization of Hamlet

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

If 'Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go,' then you won't want to take your eyes off of this lesson! Keep reading to learn more about how Shakespeare's Hamlet offers characterization for this famously tragic prince.

Prince of Despair: Characterization of Shakespeare's Hamlet

It might be hard for many of us in the modern world to connect with some of Shakespeare's characters, especially Renaissance royalty. But if you were in a high school or college class working on Hamlet, you might be able to find an analogue to the tragedy's title character just by looking around the room.

Hamlet is a young, scholarly prince with a lot of potential. Despite his worldliness and capacity for complex philosophical thought, he's probably not much older than many of you reading this lesson, considering he's been recently engaged in the equivalent of university studies at the play's start.

Perhaps more than any other Shakespearean characters, Hamlet is complicated. With the recent death of his father and quick remarriage of his mother, Queen Gertrude, he's a young man dealing with a lot of heavy issues - many of which people argue have driven him past the brink of insanity. Whether that's so or not, you'll have to see for yourself as you keep reading to find out how Hamlet is directly and indirectly characterized during the drama that details his desperate final days.

In Their own Words: Direct Characterization of Hamlet

When we're dealing with direct characterization, we're seeing portrayals of characteristics through straightforward statements from characters or the narrative voice. Since Hamlet is a drama, there's no real narrator to speak of, so we have to pull direct characterizations from Hamlet himself and those around him - most of whom are preoccupied with the prince's apparent mental instability.

  • Hamlet's 'Madness'

'Mad call I it; for, to define true madness, / What is't but to be nothing else but mad?' Polonius - Hamlet's would-be in-law - is extremely fond of talking, so it's a big deal when he's brief. In directly characterizing Hamlet as simply off his rocker, Polonius is echoing the opinions of most of the play's characters, who often discuss Hamlet's supposed madness. The prince himself might even agree sometimes, but he also directly lets us know that there's a bit more to it than mere madness: 'I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is / southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.'

  • Method to the Madness

Though Polonius is quick to throw Hamlet under the crazy train, something tells him 'Though this be madness, yet there is method / in 't.' Hamlet's long-time friend Guildenstern also observes that his chum 'with a crafty madness, keeps aloof' in order to avoid being detected in his secret schemes. Take, for instance, his impromptu stage production put on to expose King Claudius' guilt for having murdered his father. Eventually, we discover, as Hamlet puts it, 'That I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft.' Nevertheless, there are still some serious psychological issues lurking beneath the surface.

More than Meets the Eye: Indirectly Characterizing Hamlet

In a famous passage from Act I, Scene II, Hamlet lets his mother know just how complicated a person he really is -

'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother…

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye…

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,

That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,

For they are actions that a man might play:

But I have that within which passeth show;

These but the trappings and the suits of woe.'

Using Hamlet's dress and demeanor (as many had) to identify him is an example of indirect characterization, or the portrayal of people's characteristics through their words, thoughts, deeds, interactions, or appearance. However, Hamlet is telling everyone here that he's facing other real 'woe' that can also be indirectly identified if we just look hard enough.

  • Mama's Boy

Most of Hamlet's woe comes from the many complex emotions he's dealing with while having seemingly little support. One of the most prominent struggles occurs between his deep love for his mother and his feelings of anger and betrayal at her having married Claudius.

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