The most significant aspect in any discussion regarding the complexity of Hamlet’s nature is the situation that Hamlet finds himself in. hamlet has been given the task to avenge his father’s “foul and most unnatural murder”. This is his filial duty as King Hamlet’s only son. As an avenger, Hamlet is expected to uphold the law of retribution and seek justice for his father’s killing. However, Hamlet is not temperamentally suited to the role of avenger and struggles immensely as a result. Despite the fact that he promises the Ghost that he will “sweep” to his revenge, he vacillates under the burden of his quest, descrying that he wished he had never been born: “The time is out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. What enhances the complexity of Hamlet’s character is that Hamlet seems to accept the law of retribution /lex talionis wherein punishment is meted out for a wrong perpetrated.
Hamlet is immensely envious of Fortinbras and the Player Prince in their execution of vengeance. He self-deprecatorily asks the Player Prince “What’s Hecuba to him? Or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her? What would he do had he the motive and cue for passion that I have?” He is envious of Fortinbras’ willingness to put the lives of twenty thousand men at risk for a worthless “little patch of ground”. He denigrates himself by declaring that he is “pigeon-liver’d and lacks gall” and “why what an ass am I?” Yet despite these feelings of self-deprecation an inadequacy, Hamlet is a hesitant avenger. He procrastinates, vacillates and practices self-delusion (tries to convince himself that the Ghost is a spirit who has come to “damn” him) in order to evade his filial obligation.
Much of the complexity of Hamlet’s nature lies in his nobility of character. As the noble hero of the play, Hamlet is keenly aware that his nobility of character will be vitiated by taking human life and yet if he fails to acquire vengeance for his father’s murder, he will be considered a coward. Either way Hamlet’s nobility will be corrupted. The fact that we the audience are made to witness Hamlet’s mental bedevilment during the course of play makes us wonder why doesn’t Hamlet just kill Claudius and be done with it?
His mental anguish and bedevilment are clearly manifested when he wishes that “O that this too too solid flesh would melt and thaw itself into a dew”. He is bitter that God has forbidden “self-slaughter”.
Another moot point for discussion is that Hamlet is capable of taking life as he ruthlessly kills the “prating knave”, the “rash intruding fool” Polonius. It seems however, that the overly introspective Hamlet is only capable of action when he acts on impulse and is paralysed by overthinking and over-analysing the situation (constantly vacillating in relation to killing Claudius): “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all and the native hue of resolution is sicklied ov’r with the pale cast of thought”. This all serves to underscore the complexity of Hamlet’s character.
Another polemical issue in relation to the complexity of Hamlet’s character that further engages and intrigues audiences is his tempestuous relationship with Ophelia. Hamlet’s sense of disgust regarding his mother’s incestuous relationship with his uncle contaminates his view of women. He cruelly toys with Ophelia derisively ordering her “Get thee to a Nunnery! Why would thoust be a breeder of sinners?”
His misogyny here appears to be very absolute indeed and yet this perception is further complicated in the Graveyard scene wherein Hamlet grabbles with a grieving Laertes as he attends his sister’s “maimed” funeral rites.
Hamlet’s sense of mental and emotional torment is eloquently depicted in his declaration that “forty thousand brothers with all their quantity of love could not make up my sum”. This somewhat puzzling declaration emphatically highlights the complexity of Hamlet’s character. We the audience are left wondering why Hamlet treated Ophelia the way he did, if he loved her as much as he claims. After all his treatment of Ophelia is a contributory factor in her suicide. His behaviour is simply baffling, thus accentuating the complexity of the eponymous protagonist.
Furthermore, another moot point for consideration when discussing the complex nature of this enigmatic hero is his feigned madness. Early on in the play Hamlet declares his intention to assume “an antic disposition”. This “antic disposition” is a tactic in his psychological warfare against Claudius. This “antic disposition” is a form of sprezzatura, a defensive form of irony that allows Hamlet to covertly attack and expose the corruption and duplicity of the Danish court.
This “antic disposition” is an inherent part of his role as the play’s malcontent and yet the audience cannot fail to see the inherent hypocrisy in the espousal of a pretence in order to expose the corruption and duplicity of the Danish court. It’s a bit like the kettle calling the pot black, so to speak!
Hamlet assumes this “antic disposition” by speaking “wild and whirling words” in an effort to expose the duplicitous Claudius who “smile[s] and smile[s] and be a damned villain”. And yet this is all a façade on Hamlet’s part: “I am essentially not in madness but mad in craft”. This serves to elucidate the complexity of Hamlet’s character and increases the audience’s sense of intrigue regarding him.
Even more polemically is his self-righteous condemnation of the self-ingratiating Guildenstern and Rosencrantz whom he describes as “sponges” and “adder-fangs”. He ridicules this pair because they are duplicitous. They are fulsome sycophants who masquerade as loyal supportive friends to a grieving Hamlet. However, our noble hero cannot afford to take the high moral ground here as he too is dishonest in that he is not what he seems. He appears to be mad but this is an elaborate charade to disconcert Claudius.
His adoption of his “antic disposition” complicates our perception of him as a noble hero as he claims to be repulsed by the corruption and duplicity of the Danish court, descrying “Denmark’s a prison” and implores that Denmark should not be allowed to become a “couch of luxury and damned incest” and yet he too is embroiled in this world of corruption and duplicity.
There are many examples in the play that solidify the complex nature of the play’s central character. His baffling relationship with Ophelia and his bizarre espousal of a feigned madness serve to highlight the complexity of Hamlet’s character. However, it is the dynamic interplay between the contradictory elements in Hamlet’s character and the Catch-22 situation that Hamlet finds himself in that make this an appealing play:
“To be, or not to be? That is the question--
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?”