Hamlet’s Dilemma

Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare, introduces a dilemma that is prevalent throughout the story. The reader sees Hamlet battle against himself over whether to take action or not, leading to him waxing philosophically on life’s choices. The dilemma lies in choosing between what one “doth protest too much” and what cannot be chosen. The dilemma is not displayed until Act 3, when Hamlet has already killed Polonius behind the tapestry at Claudius’ command. The dilemma appears again in Act 4, where Hamlet debates killing Claudius during prayer yet does not.

The last appearance of the dilemma occurs in Act 5, wherein Fortinbras tells Hamlet he will do what is right to end this insanity that has consumed Denmark. The final appearance of the dilemma is more of a conclusion for the audience, leaving them with an answer to whether or not they agree with Hamlet’s decision or action in any given moment throughout the play. The way each character reacts to certain choices illustrates just how difficult it may sometimes be to make such decisions and how each decision comes with its own consequences.

The audience witnesses the choices being made and weighs in on them themselves, creating an internal conflict in which the reader must decide for him or herself what they believe is right. The dilemma that Hamlet faces is not solved by Shakespeare nor does he provide a clear-cut answer to the dilemmas presented throughout the play, yet it has remained ever present within Western literary tradition because of its relevance to our everyday lives.

The value of life consists of two core themes in “Hamlet’s Dilemma,” one being life itself and what measures should be taken to preserve it, while the other explores how people perceive life based on their upbringing. The theme of life becomes apparent in Act 1, Scene 5. The conversation between Hamlet and Polonius acts as the first instance of the dilemma arising. The scene begins with Polonius attempting to determine if Hamlet’s actions are due to love sickness for Ophelia or due to some other malady.

The two debate whether or not it is possible for one to be melancholy and angry at the same time; however, this line of discussion descends into an argument about life itself when Polonius exclaims, “Why seems it so particular with thee? ” (Act 1, Scene 5, Line 134). The word ‘particular’ has many definitions that pertain here; certain ones include strange, odd, peculiar, and peculiarly. The word ‘particular’ is used to describe Hamlet here because it appears that he has a certain partiality towards death, which signifies his preoccupation with the subject.

The dilemma begins after this realization by both characters; Polonius chides Hamlet for his odd behavior and Hamlet retaliates by insulting Polonius. The value of life becomes particularly apparent when Polonius warns his son Laertes about dangers in Paris before Laertes leaves for France (Act 1, Scene 3). Life becomes an important concept because it is constantly worth preserving, most notably demonstrated through the deaths of various family members throughout the play.

The theme of life also provides context with which to view other dilemmas faced in the play. The theme of life can be viewed as a predecessor to the dilemma because nothing else in Hamlet matters in comparison with it, which is what leads up to the dilemma presented in Act 3 when Hamlet kills Polonius behind the tapestry at Claudius’ command. The value of life becomes an important facet in interpreting decisions made by characters in “Hamlet’s Dilemma” due to its prevalence throughout the play and how it provides context for other dilemmas that arise throughout.

The value of life also leads into another overarching theme within Shakespearean tragedy: revenge. Revenge is present throughout most tragedies; however, “Hamlet’s Dilemma” displays this theme more explicitly than most other works. The value of life becomes more important when viewed in relation to revenge. Revenge can be considered a reason people would make the choice to kill another person, particularly someone who they perceive has taken away their own life by committing an act of murder or injustice against them.

The idea of revenge fuels much of Hamlet’s actions throughout the play, especially his decision to kill Claudius at the end. The influence that this theme had on the lives of Shakespearean characters is also relevant in how it reflects on modern society today. The need for revenge within Shakespearean tragedy may have represented problems within Elizabethan England due to its prevalence during that time period; however, it still remains relevant today because it parallels many social issues where one person harms another and the victim desires revenge.

The operations of revenge from a psychological standpoint also lead into a more modern dilemma that people face: The bystander effect. The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon where individuals do not offer help to someone in distress because of how many other people are present at the time who can assist instead. The bystander effect becomes relevant within “Hamlet’s Dilemma,” as it does today, because it leads to some sort of inaction or hesitation based on an individual’s fear of being ridiculed by others around him.

The classic example given for this phenomenon occurs when Kitty Genovese was murdered outside her apartment complex while neighbors inside watched from their windows but did not intervene to help her. The bystander effect can be applied to Hamlet’s dilemma where good intentions are present but may not be acted upon due to the influence the bystander effect has on an individual’s actions.

The bystander effect also becomes important within “Hamlet’s Dilemma” because it causes someone to hesitate when making a life or death decision, which is what occurs at the end of Act 3 when Claudius stops Laertes from killing Hamlet. The bystander effect has many similarities with these other two themes presented in this piece, specifically revenge and the value of life, as all three cause inaction that eventually leads into some sort of problem for those involved. The theme of life also presents another dilemma of its own by introducing the idea of suicide, which is explored in Hamlet’s final soliloquy of the play.

The idea of death was briefly mentioned earlier with the theme of life because Shakespeare explores it in different aspects throughout his plays, but this theme shines more light on the subject specifically when it comes to suicide. The effect that this had on characters is largely left up to interpretation by readers over time; however, one example that could be used within “Hamlet’s Dilemma” would be how Polonius decides to kill himself at the end of Act 3 after discovering Hamlet killed him while he hid behind a tapestry.

The value of life also becomes important within “Hamlet’s Dilemma,” based on how it is directly affected by the characters’ actions throughout the play. The value of life, in Act 1 for instance when Hamlet exclaims that Ophelia does not have any “honourable scar to show,/ The smooth face of a credited lowness” (Shakespeare 2. 1. 137-138), becomes more viable when Hamlet decides to kill Claudius at the end of Act 3 after he killed his father and also threatens him with sexual assault towards Ophelia.

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