What makes Shakespeare so great?

Case study:

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

What makes Shakespeare so great?

As an English teacher I hear this question a lot. I will start my argumentation with a well-known phrase: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or as Shakespeare harmoniously said it:

Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye. 

Beauty in the case of literature has to withstand the passing of time, become immortal, be the subject of criticism, be compared and analyzed. As for Shakespeare, what he created was more than literature, he created and gave profound meanings to characters and situations, he created protagonists and antagonists, he created concepts that are valid in any society and universally accepted. Shakespeare’s use of language is unparalleled, thus conveying the human nature into words.

To prove my point, I have chosen one of the greatest Shakespearean plays, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”. Written during the Elizabethan times, in England, in the 16th century, Hamlet is known by all generations as a revenge tragedy as it follows closely the story of Prince Hamlet who aims at avenging his father, King Hamlet murdered by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius who took over power and married Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.

Dialogue is crucial in constructing the public profile of both the protagonist and the characters. Through dialogue, Shakespeare might have wanted to get the characters reveal themselves to one another in the Renaissance decorum typical to courtiers and, on the other hand, he might have intended to suggest how appearance goes with the public image of his characters who do not yet disclose their real intentions or thoughts.

William Shakespeare was a master of choosing his own words and Hamlet’s soliloquy is an eloquent example. The soliloquy is a dramatic technique used in revealing Hamlet character, his inner self in relation with the characters around him, explicitly his mother Queen Gertrude, who he considers to be a frivolous woman.

Hamlet’s soliloquy becomes a technique of indirect characterization for the protagonist himself because we are left to infer his moral portrait from his language and, at the same time, his monological reflections directly portray old Hamlet and Claudius. At the heart of the soliloquy is Hamlet’s inner turmoil and his disappointment and disgust with the way his father has been betrayed through the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude.

I will discuss self-conflict or inner conflict first as this is the most apparent feature coming out from Shakespeare’s use of language.  Inner conflict is complex: on the one hand, there is Hamlet’s conflict with himself the philosopher and the deeply religious man who cannot trespass God’s commandment “Thou shall not kill thyself”. This is what lines 11 to 13 imply: Quote : O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,/Thaw and resolve itself into a  dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon gainst self-slaughter”End of Quote.

The Renaissance mind of a philosopher brings forth a medieval dichotomy featuring body and soul into irreconcilable opposites.  His deep affliction at witnessing how the state of Denmark has turned into Quote: “unweeded garden/ That grows to seed” End of Quote (lines  16  -17) while his private family has been torn apart by his beloved father’s death and his mother’s marriage to his father’s brother – again brings to the fore an undisclosed conflict and war Hamlet, as an avenger, has to wage against his mother and step father who have committed a capital sin, according to the Renaissance beliefs.

The first lines of the soliloquy make conspicuous Hamlet’s being a prisoner of himself, of his own beliefs and hesitations. Quote “Would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew” End of Quote in lines 11 – 12 expresses his most ardent regret of not being able to change the ways of the world and the enumeration of verbs belonging to the same lexical field of “spirituality” suggests his longing for the spirit, his despise of mortality and to its boundaries. To exemplify, “too too solid flesh”(line 11) shows through the repetition of the adverb his anger at being a captive of a profane world, his aversion for the body as a state of permanence.

He cannot take his own life and thus end his ordeal of being an witness to depravity and decay. The antithetical pair body/soul suggested through the metonymy “flesh” (line 11) and through the metaphor of “dew”, a symbol of purity and evanescence establishes both the Renaissance frame of mind and reveals in terms of indirect characterization, Hamlet’s anguish, self-conflict and consciousness as the first hindrance to action.

I will now revert to my idea stated in the beginning, namely that the soliloquy relies on series of dichotomies which, once brought to the fore, help the dramatist to indirectly or directly reveal the real world of Denmark and portray characters.

For example, antithesis is  apparent in the good and evil opposition that Hamlet introduces in his discussion about the world which, in his view, has been defiled and corrupted to the bone –  Quote “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (lines 15-16)End of quote.  The sequence of epithets portrays a negative image of the kingdom which should be a reflection of God’s pre-ordained harmony. In conjunction with the metaphor of the “unweeded garden” which is central to the play as a whole, these lines serve to depict the anarchy suggested through the idea of nature going wild and uncontrolled.  Corruption and chaos have been brought into the human world through the capital sin of the marriage of relatives: Gertrude and Claudius.

To end this presentation, I can state that Hamlet is just an example of how William Shakespeare creates complex characters, making them vivid and fascinating through the use of word, thus glorifying English as a poetic language. His characters are not heroes, they become humans as they are a mixture of fowl and hyperbolical qualities.

So, read Shakespeare and keep his legacy alive because not “all that lives must die”.