Hamlet: Examining Love and Destruction

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Lawrence Olivier as Hamlet 1948

As this year is Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary it seems to be a fitting time to deepen an understanding of Shakespeare’s work and investigate the numerous ways in which love is portrayed in one of his most famous plays, Hamlet (written in 1603). The types of love to explore include; romance, parental love and friendship as well as to analyse how devastation and destruction surrounds love and how tragedy can occur from it.

Romance and Tragedy: Hamlet and Ophelia

Firstly, the eponymous hero’s romantic relationship with Ophelia develops a destructive quality throughout the play. For example, the interference of their families play a part in the downfall of their courtship, through sabotage and separation. Polonius, Ophelia’s Father, encourages his daughter to ‘admit no messengers [and] receive no tokens [from Hamlet]’ and is persistent to keep the lovers apart, stating that ‘Lord Hamlet is a Prince out of [Ophelia’s] star.’ This illuminates an element of classicism from Polonius, suggesting to his daughter that she is not worthy of Hamlet’s title and should therefore cease courtship with him. Additionally, Polonius is under an impression that Hamlet is ‘mad for [Ophelia’s] love’, this becomes evident when he comments that Hamlet is ‘still on [his] daughter’. The scenario is a contextual example of sexism and the degradation of women in the 1600’s, whereby they could not think for themselves but were under the order and instruction of father’s and husbands. The destruction of Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s romance, in part, comes from Polonius’ scheming endeavour to keep them separated.

Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship has a transitioning quality. At junctures, their love is rendered virtuous and pure, as Hamlet ‘importun’d [her] with love in honourable fashion’ sending her love letters, calling her ‘celestial’. Elements of this would also suggest that she, like the stars (celestial), is unreachable; again, the separation, both believing the other to be of greater worth.

In Act 3 scene 1, however, the audience witnesses a dissimilar side of the relationship, and in some theatrical representations, perceive it as violent and chilling. In this particular instance there is reference to witchcraft and contextually women of the time would be burned if believed to have conducted evil deeds. This historical account was used by Shakespeare. Hamlet claims ‘[Ophelia] jig[s], [she] amble(s), and [she] lisp(s)’. This could be in reference to Hamlets use of ‘Hecuba’ from the monologue in Act 2 Scene 2. Furthermore, Ophelia is told to ‘Get [thee] to a nunnery’ whereby her virtue and virginity could be preserved and untainted. From this, their love becomes self-destructive and gradually breaks down.

A Mother’s Love: Hamlet and Gertrude

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Hamlet and Gertrude Scene from 1948

Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, Gertrude, appears to be destructive from the beginning of the play. The main reason for this being, the marriage of Gertrude to Hamlet’s Uncle, Claudius; something that is picked up on in the line ‘no other but the main, [Hamlet’s] father’s death, and [their] o’erhasty marriage.’ This displays some dramatic irony from Gertrude, as it becomes clear how Hamlet acknowledges the affair.

In various interpretations, Act 3 Scene 4 is the imperative moment where their Mother/ Son relationship is most critical. Hamlet’s violent turn causes Gertrude to question; ‘What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?’ This pinnacle moment suggests that Gertrude is fearful of her son’s madness, and what could possibly occur from his anger. There is a lack of stage direction for this scene, however Shakespeare’s language assists in driving the scene and allows the actors to form their own personal interpretation. As an example, for some adaptations, Hamlet aggressively says ‘Come come and sit you down, you shall not budge.’ at which point he drags Gertrude to the bed and forces her down violently. The Lawrence Olivier rendition of this scene, from 1948, it was noted by some that the connection between the characters came off as incestuous, partly because of the physicality of the scene. In a way it refers to the idea of the Oedipus Complex, through the tonality and, again, the physical nature. Ultimately this depends on an actors/ directors creative view on how the scene should play out.

In the final act of the play, different variations of the duel scene indicate that Gertrude has a protective maternal instinct over her son. When Hamlet is offered a poisoned cup of wine, she drinks from it. In David Tennant’s version of Hamlet, Gertrude knows that the wine has been poisoned, but drinks it to save her son’s life despite Claudius’ plea for her not to do so. To which she replies ‘I will my Lord; I pray you pardon me.’ This determines the power and strength a mother has for her child. In alternative renditions, Gertrude is oblivious to what is happening and mistakenly drinks the poison, To an audience it makes more sense for this to happen as it illustrates more consistency in the personality of her character.

Friendship and Betrayal: Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Shakespeare also created a bond between Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however; likewise with Ophelia and Gertrude, their relationship has a destructiveness that leads to the demise of Hamlet’s ‘friends’. This is evident when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are called to the court of Denmark and are greeted by Claudius. ‘Welcome dear [R+G]. Moreover, that we much did long to see you, the need we have to use you.’ This quotation taken from Act 2 Scene 2 emphasises that the pair are puppets of the court to be used in Claudius’ scheme; therefore the audience can understand that these characters are not to be trusted. Hamlet also expresses feelings of betratal when he approaches them with ‘were [they] not sent for? Is it [their] own inclining? Is it free visitation?’ in the hope that they had come to visit him and offer support after his father’s death. Hamlet’s suspicion heightens, however both are honest and therefore show some loyalty to the Prince when they say ‘ My Lord we were sent for.’

However, this is not enough for Hamlet to trust them with his plot to uncover is Uncle as a murderer, and therefore endeavours to make them believe he is mad. ‘I know a hawk from a handsaw.’ This not only is used as a device to establish madness but has a deeper meaning in that Hamlet knows the difference between friend and foe. Despite their unfaithfulness Hamlet still loves them ‘by these pickers and stealers’ referring to the secrets they are keeping and the locks that they unpick in order to gain power in the court.

Brothers in Arms: Hamlet and Horatio

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Hamlet and Horatio 2009

Finally, in examining love between characters, there is one relationship that manages to juxtapose the destructive nature of love, as their strong friendship lasts the entirety of the play. Hamlet and Horatio’s friendship is most prominent in Act 1 Scene 2, where Horatio came of his own visitation to support his friend. Hamlet initially assumes Horatio’s arrival was to ‘see [his] mother’s wedding.’ However Horatio assures him that ‘[he] came to see [Hamlet’s] father’s funeral.’ From this the audience knows that Horatio is genuine and supports Hamlet’s views. Horatio is also considered a confidant and within Act 5 Scene 2 Hamlet seeks his guidance. ‘But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart.’ This extract from this scene heightens Hamlet’s ill thoughts about the duel. This is an essential moment as throughout the play Hamlet gives in -depth thought into his emotions, breaking down the fourth wall between character and audience. His famous soliloquy ‘To be, or not to be…’ expresses an existential debate on life and death. Whereas in the scene with Horatio, it becomes retrograde and its character with character. ‘If [Hamlet’s] mind dislikes anything, obey [his feelings]. [Horatio] will forestall [the court’s] repair hither and say [he is] not fit.’ Shakespeare has cleverly used this device to strengthen the relationship even more so, between the two.

The final scene of Hamlet displays the emotional connection of the two friends. Hamlet asks Horatio to ‘absent [himself] from felicity a while.’ This interprets as the Prince asking his friend to grieve for him after he is dead. Loyal Horatio, by the side of his dying friend, speaks ‘Now cracks a noble heart; good night sweet Prince.’

After careful analysis of Hamlet, it has created a deeper understanding of how Shakespeare’s choice of language has elevated the concept of destructive love, whether it be the conventional romance, the love between a mother and son, the complexities of friendship and trust or the realistic aspects of love, the struggles, the heartbreaks and the beauty.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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30 Comments

  1. Dee Petit
    1

    I enjoyed reading “Hamlet” more than I thought I would. I thought it was going to be very boring but it actually got pretty interesting.

  2. Shamika
    1

    I love Shakespeare’s plays, but this one had a protagonist and antagonist with serious motivation issues. Yeah, I know it’s the most remarkable tragedy of Shakespeare but come on, I disliked it.

    • Katy Lewis

      Thank you for your comment! Really?! That’s a very interesting point!

      Which of Shakespeare’s plays to you enjoy? 🙂

  3. noland
    1

    Forgot how good this story is! Murder, betrayal, ghosts…yes please!

  4. ComeO
    0

    I remember reading this for fun, piecemeal, while working a summer job cleaning motel rooms in college.

  5. Outlaw
    0

    Shakespeare is just a genius.

  6. Hagan
    0

    This is, I believe, my absolute favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Primarily because Hamlet is a thinker throughout most of the play.

  7. land
    0

    Lovely analysis. When I read Hamlet, I couldn’t help but feel a greater sense of purpose to the story.

  8. Interesting points. I often think that if love is in some way disordered in the play, this may be rooted somehow in Hamlet Sr. I see him as a kind of terror who leaves psychic scars everywhere, especially in Gertrude. He is the ancien regime haunting everything

  9. It is my favourite Shakespeare play – with a very close second being King Lear.

    I have always been able to identify with Hamlet’s angst. I think some of the dialogue in this play is the finest every written. It’s clever and dark and beautiful and tragic. The first time I read it, I had the impression it was full of clichés until I realized that this was the first time they were ever uttered – so many sayings have been adopted into the common parlance.

    I agree with JWHorton about Hamlet Sr. There is something missing that explains Hamlet’s inability to commit to his mission of revenge. And there must be a reason that Gertrude marries again so quickly. Perhaps “they Hyperion” wasn’t really all he was cracked up to be – perhaps he was a bit of a tyrant – that would certainly fill in some of the character holes in the play.

    And I’ve never understood why Hamlet has to be so abusive to Ophelia, aside from his mistrust in her. I love the Ophelia in David Tennant’s version – she wasn’t just pathetic mad – she was dangerous gonna-cut-you mad.

  10. Providencia
    0

    Surprisingly not that bad of a story. 😀

  11. Hershel Fallon
    0

    The more I learn about the English language and literature in general, the richer Shakespeare’s works become. Hamlet is no exception.

  12. hen
    0

    I love the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy.

  13. mary
    0

    How can you not love Shakespeare!

  14. JennyCardinal

    Hamlet is my favorite Shakespearan play and was portrayed perfectly by David Tennant.
    I enjoyed this article, however, there are a lot of grammatical mistakes. You might want to look into that.

  15. Tigey

    The play’s the thing.

  16. Britt
    1

    This play is simultaneously about nothing and everything.

  17. Rickard
    1

    All I can really say is that Shakespeare knows how to write madness and he knows how to write tragedies. He knows how to write in a way to allow readers(or viewers) to look deeper and find themselves in the work and figure out what it means to them.

  18. Jacques
    0

    Hamlet is such a sarcastic and smart character.

  19. Munjeera

    Great article.

  20. ROSE
    0

    If you read this story in Shakespearean English, you might give up with a headache.

  21. Shakespeare has a way of drawing in the reader in his works that make people really enjoy his writing.

  22. Love was taken up from many angles in all of Shakespeare’s work. He made his living–a very good living–in presenting human interactions on stage, but many “modern” critics feel that human nature is a myth, that culture determines all on our blank slates. I will never understand such thought, as his characters have held our interest for more than 400 years across eras and diverse cultures. Thanks for your article.

  23. Brandon T. Gass

    Great examination of a great play.

  24. LilyaRider

    Excellent article! Thank you!

  25. A web of relations, not unlike the one’s people weave in their own lives. As for Ophelia; Hamlet’s (good) intentions were to use her as a means to an end: the end being to unseat Claudius, and dislodge his primary supporter, Polonius. Hamlet used Ophelia as a red herring to dupe Polonius, knowing that Polonius would cogently lobby Claudius and Gertrude on his ‘unrequited love’ theory (a calculus Hamlet engineered and executed so well), so as to keep Claudius and Gertrude (emphasis on Claudius) guessing on Hamlet’s end-game. Upon a successful outcome, Hamlet would endeavor to make it up to her…, or if it failed, their relationship would have be doomed anyway, so why not. The Oedipus Rex theory is a stretch: Gertrude had a sociopathic ability to see or not see what she wanted to see. To convince herself, and others, of her pure intentions she demonstrated outward shows of love for her son, Hamlet (giving her conscious a bulwark of plausible deniability). Gertrude knowingly fooled herself into a reality that suited her preferences, ambitions and painted reputation. I concur without qualification regarding the casuistic dynamic that played out between Hamlet and (R&G). As to Hamlet and Horatio; it was a relationship built on both mutual benefit and self-interest. Hamlet needed one person to be his solid anchor on which he could depend on for moral support. Horatio being the only person with intimacy enough blended with disinterested-interest who orbited, absent any inclination for retrograde motions, within Hamlet’s sphere’s of influence. Horatio on the other hand maneuvered with Kantian purposiveness to align himself with Hamlet, the heir-apparent to the throne of Denmark: a win-win in the offing, unfortunately not. Both could see that if Hamlet were to accede to the throne the trust-factor between them; having been supremely tested by the rapid evolutions of the ordeal, would serve as a foundation for them “as the world were now to begin” anew. Ergo, the reward for collaborating; albeit implicitly, was being shaped by their actions/inactions, and on slender chance might yield dividends for both of them long into the future.

  26. A web of relations, not unlike the one’s people weave in their own lives. As for Ophelia; Hamlet’s (good) intentions were to use her as a means to an end: the end being to unseat Claudius, and dislodge his primary supporter, Polonius. Hamlet used Ophelia as a red herring to dupe Polonius, knowing that Polonius would cogently lobby Claudius and Gertrude on his ‘unrequited love’ theory (a calculus Hamlet engineered and executed so well), so as to keep Claudius and Gertrude (emphasis on Claudius) guessing on Hamlet’s end-game. Upon a successful outcome, Hamlet would endeavor to make it up to her…, or if it failed, their relationship would have be doomed anyway, so why not. The Oedipus Rex theory is a stretch: Gertrude had a sociopathic ability to see or not see what she wanted to see. To convince herself, and others, of her pure intentions she demonstrated outward shows of love for her son, Hamlet (giving her conscious a bulwark of plausible deniability). Gertrude knowingly fooled herself into a reality that suited her preferences, ambitions and painted reputation. I concur without qualification regarding the casuistic dynamic that played out between Hamlet and (R&G). As to Hamlet and Horatio; it was a relationship built on both mutual benefit and self-interest. Hamlet needed one person to be his solid anchor on which he could depend on for moral support. Horatio being the only person with intimacy enough blended with disinterested-interest who orbited, absent any inclination for retrograde motions, within Hamlet’s sphere’s of influence. Horatio on the other hand maneuvered with Kantian purposiveness to align himself with Hamlet, the heir-apparent to the throne of Denmark: a win-win in the offing, unfortunately not. Both could see that if Hamlet were to accede to the throne the trust-factor between them; having been supremely tested by the rapid evolutions of the ordeal, would serve as a foundation for them “as the world were now to begin” anew. Ergo, the reward for collaborating; albeit implicitly, was being shaped by their actions/inactions, and on slender chance might yield dividends for both of them long into the future.

  27. Great essay! Shakespeare really does dissect the various configurations of destructive love in “Hamlet”, which seems to be a pervasive theme throughout his corpus.

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