Hamlet finds himself in a Catch-22 situation, a moral quandary. If Hamlet kills Claudius, then his nobility will be vitiated because there is nothing noble about taking human life; if he does not kill Claudius then he is a coward and similarly there is nothing noble about being a coward. Hamlet is stuck in an impossible situation, Scylla-Charybdis situation.
Hamlet’s negative qualities that are exhibited throughout the play can be understood in response to this impossible situation that he finds himself through no fault of his own. The Ghost’s imposition for Hamlet to revenge his ‘foul and most unnatural murder’ is a heavy burden on the noble Hamlet and these negative traits such as his indecisiveness, hatred and obsessiveness should be viewed as a human response to a very difficult situation. Hamlet is completely mentally bedevil‘Hamlet’s problem is not that of a man who does not want to do his duty; it is of a man who cannot find out what his duty is’. ed. The Ghost’s command is an imposition and Hamlet does not volunteer of his own volition to kill his uncle Claudius, therefore our sympathies are firmly aligned with the tragic youth who is being emotionally coerced by a parent into doing something that they don’t want to.
Hamlet’s indecisiveness of character serves to underscore his tragic status and works to illicit our sympathy for this mentally bedeviled character. Indeed, it is this indecisiveness of character that makes Hamlet an attractive character. Hamlet does not impulsively seek vengeance without ascertaining the truth about the situation. His indecisiveness allows him to doubt the veracity of the Ghost whom he speculates might very well be the devil come to ‘abuse’ him and so ‘damn’ him. Hamlet devises the ingenious play within the play, ‘The Mousetrap’ as a ploy to ascertain the veracity of the Ghost: ‘The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’. He jubilantly tells Horatio that he will ‘take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pounds’ when he see Claudius’ response to this trickery: ‘What, frightened by false fires!’ His indecisiveness of character afforded him time to think before acting on the impulse. This indecisiveness of character is therefore to be viewed as an admirable quality especially when contrasted with the decisive hastiness of Fortinbras who is willing to put the lives of twenty thousand men in jeopardy for the sake of a ‘little patch of ground that has no profit but the name'
Furthermore, this indecisiveness of character serves to accentuate Hamlet’s status as a tragic hero when understood in context of his self-deprecation and his incessant self-comparison with decisive revengers like Laertes, Fortinbras and Priam. His sense of self-inadequacy and guilt is compounded by these characters who have no trouble in fulfilling their filial obligation. He questions whether or not he is a coward: ‘Am I a coward?’ He says of himself: ‘What a peasant slave and rogue am I’, ‘I am pigeon liver’d and lack gall’. He envies decisive revengers like Laertes and Fortinbras. Hamlet’s introspective nature paralyses him from seeking revenge. He questions whether it be ‘bestial oblivion or some crave scruple of thinking too precisely on th’ event’ that inhibits him from action. He asserts ‘Thus conscience makes cowards of us all and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied ov’r with the pale cast of thought’. Hamlet over analyses the situation and is in turn paralysed from acting even though he knows that he should and it is his duty to do so. We the audience can then view this indecisiveness of character as further evidence of a mentally bedeviled youth, allowing us to sympathise with Hamlet who is being emotionally blackmailed into doing something that is counter-intuitive to him.
Similarly, Hamlet’s vehement hatred also serves to enhance his status as a tragic hero. As the play’s malcontent, it is Hamlet’s job to speak out against and impugn the corruption, duplicity and hypocrisy of the Danish court. However, Hamlet is forced to espouse an ‘antic disposition’ in order to fulfill this role: ‘But break my heart I must hold my tongue’. We see how the idealistic noble youth becomes embittered by the culture of corruption and ingratiation.Hamlet is forced to feigned madness in order to impugn the corrupt status quo and in doing so feels like a ‘whore that must unpack my heart with words/And fall a-cursing like a drab, a scullion!’
Hamlet’s hatred is evidence of his repulsion of Claudius’ debauched reign. He feels ‘Denmark is a prison’. Hamlet recoils from the debauchery, the decadence and the lasciviousness of the Danish court as underscored in Hamlet’s use of bestial and putrescent imagery throughout the play. We the audience are made to feel sorry for the noble youth whose noble idealism has been vitiated as a result of Claudius’ unlawful reign. Through no fault of his own, Hamlet becomes embroiled in a web of corruption and deceit and as a result becomes cynical, disillusioned and embittered by life. Hamlet’s hatred is further evidence of his nobility of his character and we can empathise with the ‘prince among men’ whose noble idealism dissipates, only to be replaced by hateful skepticism.
Hamlet’s obsessiveness can also be understood in terms of the corrupt world that he finds himself in. Hamlet’s obsessiveness of character can be seen with regards to his prurient language in relation to Gertrude and Claudius’ marriage. Again, this is further evidence of Hamlet’s noble idealism. Hamlet had immense respect for his father. He looked up to him regarding him as a ‘Hyperion’-like figure. He revered his father: ‘a combination and form indeed wherein every god did seem to set his seal to give the world the assurance of a man’. However, Hamlet is disgusted at his mother, lamenting that a ‘beast that lacks the discourse of reason would have mourned longer’.
He employs prurient bestial imagery to convey his disgust and revulsion towards his mother’s new marriage. They are like pigs who ‘live in the rank sweat of an enseaméd bed, honeying and making love over the nasty sty’. As the play’s malcontent, Hamlet intends to ‘speak daggers’ to his mother so that she may repent. He urges her ‘to confess yourself to heaven, repent what’s past. Avoid what’s to come’. Hamlet’s obsession with his mother’s sex life can then be understood in terms of a solicitous son who is gravely concerned about the spiritual well-being of his mother. His obsession serves to underscore his nobility of character, a young man who endeavours in vain to put rights the wrongs committed by others, thus cementing in the minds of the audience, Hamlet’s status as a tragic hero.
It is noteworthy that every single character gives testimony to the fundamental nobility of Hamlet’s character. Hamlet is not afraid to direct his negative impulses towards himself as he self-deprecatingly asserts: ‘I could accuse myself of such things it were better that my mother had not borne me. I am proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape and time to act them in’. Hamlet’s self-deprecation and his sense of inadequacy over his reluctance to fulfill his filial duty towards his father all serve to solidify Hamlet’s status as a tragic hero.