The internal conflict within Hamlet’s mind engages the audience and is used by Shakespeare to make us empathise with this deeply flawed tragic hero. Were it not for the fact that the audience is made privy to Hamlet’s fragile state of mind, Hamlet would be completely alienated from our sympathies.
The internal conflict is fascinating because Hamlet is essentially at war with himself. Hamlet has been given the task to avenge his father’s ‘foul and most unnatural murder’. However, the problem lies with the fact that Hamlet is temperamentally unsuited to the role of revenger. Hamlet’s nobility of character, his introspective disposition and his moral scrupulousness inhibit him from executing his revenge even though he know it is his filial duty to do so. He promised the Ghost that he would ‘sweep’ to his revenge’. Hamlet face a Scylla-Charybdis dilemma, a Catch 22. He knows that if he kills Claudius, then his nobility will be vitiated as there is nothing noble about killing someone; if he doesn’t kill Claudius then he will be branded a coward and there is nothing noble about being a coward. Either way, Hamlet’s nobility of character will be vitiated. Hamlet is in a no-win situation and hence the internal conflict.
This internal conflict underscores his status as a tragic hero. Hamlet recoils from the task, wishing that he had never been born to fulfil such a repulsive act: ‘The time is out of joint; O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right’. We see the internal conflict and drama play out in Hamlet’s mind as he becomes self-deprecatory and overwhelmed with despair over his inability to fulfil his father’s ‘dread command’.
He self-deprecatorily wonders ‘Am I a coward?’ He accuses himself of being ‘pigeon liver’d and lack gall’. We see the internal conflict further as he brands himself as ‘rogue and peasant slave’. The internal conflict within Hamlet’s mind is such that he becomes to have no regard for his own life: ‘I do not set my life at a pin’s fee’. Hamlet’s sense of guilt and inadequacy is further compounded by decisive revengers such as Fortinbras and Laertes who he envies because they are not paralysed by moral scruples or overanalyses. He wonders whether it ‘be bestial oblivion or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th’ event’ the paralyses him from executing revenge. The internal conflict is evident in his reasoning that it is his conscience that it responsible for his inaction: ‘Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought’.
We see the augmenting conflict in Hamlet’s mentally bedevilled mind in the scene with the players when he asks himself: ‘What 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?’
Hamlet acknowledges and admires Fortinbras’ strict adherence to the law of lex talionis: ‘Rightly to be great/Is not to stir without great argument/But greatly to find quarrel in a straw/When honour’s at the stake’.
He understands rather than condemns Laertes’ quest for revenge when Laertes tries to kills him: ‘For, by the image of my cause, I see/The portraiture of his’ and yet he procrastinates, further compounding his sense of self-deprecation and sense of inadequacy. His sense of self-deprecation and inadequacy underscores the internal conflict within Hamlet’s mind. In the Prayer scene this conflict reaches its climax as Hamlet is unexpectingly faced with a praying Claudius. Just in the previous moments, Hamlet had resolved to fulfil his father’s wish: ‘Now could I drink hot blood and do such bitter business that the day would quake to look upon’. However, Hamlet did not expect to find Claudius praying and this throws him. Hamlet is completely mentally bedevilled: ‘A villain kills my father: and for that,/I, his sole son, do this same villain send/To heaven’. The resolve of the previous scene dissipates as Hamlet becomes an emotional wreck. He urges his sword up so that it may know a more ‘horrid hent’ so that Claudius will be more ‘fit for his passage’. Hamlet hopes to find him doing something ‘that has no relish of salvation in‘t/Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,/And his soul may be as damn’d and black/As hell, whereto it goes’. The internal conflict heightens our enjoyment of the play because Hamlet is essentially at war with himself and we are kept on tenterhooks as to whether or not, Hamlet will execute revenge.
Furthermore, Hamlet’s external conflict with Claudius is also formidable to watch because of its surreptitious nature. It is an interesting psychological battle of wits, mind-games as opposed to a physical battle between enemies. Hamlet espouses an ‘antic disposition’ as a tactic in his psychological battle against Claudius. His madness is a form of sprezzatura, a defensive form of irony that allows him to impugn the corruption, duplicity and hypocrisy of Claudius’ debauched reign. Similarly, Claudius must too be surreptitious as his archenemy is his beloved wife’s son: ‘‘The queen his mother/Lives by his looks, and for myself-/My virtue or my plague, be it either which /She is so conjunctive to my life and soul/That, as the star moves not but in his own sphere/I could not by her’.
Hamlet and Claudius must appear to be civilised to each other but in reality they absolutely despise each other, both of them actively plotting to bring about the downfall of the other. When Claudius fears that Hamlet represents a threat to his reign: ‘The terms of our estate may not endure hazards so dangerous as doth hourly grow out of his lunacies’, he reassures his wife Gertrude that it is in the best interests of her son that he goes to England for a vacation. However, we know in reality that Claudius plans to have Hamlet executed in England: ‘Do it England for like the hectic in my blood he rages’.
Even Claudius’ final attempt on Hamlet’s life adds to the fascinating nature of the external conflict between Hamlet and Claudius because of its surreptitious nature. Claudius has manipulated Laertes into doing his dirty work for him (get rid of Hamlet) under the guise of a friendly fencing match.
The atmosphere appears to be one of entertainment and good humour as both the king and queen sit around and toast the health of Hamlet, when in reality we the audience know that this is a perfidious attempt on Hamlet’s life.
The external conflict accentuates the drama of the play because of its surreptitious nature. It is fascinating because we the audience are made privy to a lot more information than some of the characters at times. It internal and external conflict make for compelling drama. This is a play predicated on psychological manoeuvrings, toing and froing both internally in the mind of Hamlet and externally with his formidable battle with Claudius.