I read Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet for the first time back in my senior level honors English class, so it’s safe to say that I already know the story. Written by the early 1600s, I think Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Perhaps one of the more interesting pieces of the tragedy’s plot is that the title character’s mother, Gertrude, has relatively quickly married again. Who she marries is even more intriguing, as the man happens to be her dead husband’s brother, Claudius. This causes great distress for Hamlet, as he thinks his mother should still be mourning the death of his father. The stress becomes even more pronounced later on, when he finds out that Claudius is responsible for the death of King Hamlet.
In Act I scene ii, Hamlet has been told by Claudius to remain in Denmark against his wishes rather than return to his collegiate studies at Wittenburg. The only reason as to why he doesn’t put up a fight is that his mother asks him to stay: “I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenburg” (I.ii.119). Once everyone else leaves the stage, Hamlet delivers his first important soliloquy (I.ii.129-158). Here he speaks the first time of wanting to commit suicide; by desiring his flesh to melt and wishing that God had not made self slaughter a sin. Suicide seems to be a desirable alternative to life in a painful world, but it is clear that Hamlet feels the option is closed off to him because of his religion. (As I wrote that last sentence I remembered a saying my middle school health teacher told us frequently: Suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem.) Hamlet describes the causes of his pain, the greatest of which is his intense disgust towards Gertrude and Claudius upon their marriage:
“O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer,—married with mine uncle,
My father’s brother; but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month;
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married:— O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.” (I.ii.150-158)
In addition to the motif of misogyny already touched upon earlier in the soliloquy (“…frailty, thy name is woman” (I.ii.146), Hamlet accuses his own mother of incest whilst rushing with “wicked speed” to “incestuous sheets”. Last but not least, Hamlet speaks of the wedding between Gertrude and Claudius as being a bad omen for the state of Denmark. If I just looked at this passage from the modern view point, I would be disgusted at Gertrude’s character. However, my anthropology minor has taught me not to judge something else by my society’s standards. I understand that Gertrude probably wanted protection of some sort, but still one would think she could mourn a little longer for her husband out of kindness towards her son. This early in the play, I can’t help but feel a little sympathy for Hamlet. However, knowing what happens in the rest of the tragedy prevents this speck of sympathy from growing.
While I am enjoying reading Hamlet a second time around, I look forward to ending the semester on a more comedic note when we begin Shakespeare’s comedy The Tempest.