Dualisms in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

by ttucker23 on October 13, 2010


David Tennant as Hamlet.

David Tennant playing the title role in the 2009 RSC production of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

In a central episode in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the hero defines to a group of visiting actors the ‘purpose’ of drama:

‘…whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’

This is the central theme of the play, which abounds in dualities (I count three in that sentence alone). Tony Tanner, in his introduction to the Everyman Library edition of Shakespeare’s Tragedies (Amazon affiliate link), outlines some of these:

‘In a word, there seem to be two of everything. There are two kings (one dead, one alive); Hamlet has now two fathers (Claudius being now ‘uncle-father’); there are two sons who have to avenge murdered fathers (Hamlet and Laertes); Claudius sends two ambassadors to Norway – Cornelius and Voltimand; and there are his two tools, made almost comically indistinguishable – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The ghost appears to Hamlet twice; Laertes makes a double departure; Hamlet’s play to catch a king is performed twice; Hamlet abuses two women; after the play he goes and speaks daggers to his mother and then, when it seems he has finished, he does it again.’

The language and poetry throughout relentlessly reinforce this doubling. Tanner calls it a compulsive coupling of words and concepts, and he lists some examples among many:

  • ‘the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes’
  • ‘the gross and scope of my opinion’
  • ‘this posthaste and romage in the land’
  • ‘the extravagant and erring spirit’
  • ‘the dead waste and middle of the night’
  • ‘the perfume and suppliance of a minute’
  • ‘the shot and danger of desire’
  • ‘the pales and forts of reason’
  • ‘the single and peculiar life’
  • ‘the book and volume of my brain’
  • ‘this encompassment and drift of question’
  • ‘the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind’
  • ‘the motive and cue for passion’
  • ‘the hatch and the disclose’
  • ‘the teeth and forehead of our faults’
  • ‘the proof and bulwark against sense’

These doublings are of two types: similarities (‘book and volume’) and differences (‘perfume and suppliance’). Words and concepts are continually put in either ‘apposition’ or ‘opposition’ with each other.

In this way the play’s central themes are soaked into the fabric of the drama, its words, its characters and its action.

Dualism as dilemma

Hamlet (the character) has a pressing dilemma and his response brings about a contrast between ‘thought’ and ‘action’. He knows he must revenge his father’s death but famously spends the entire play delaying action and instead ruminating on its causes and effects.

This dramatic dilemma is itself set in train by a chain of dualities; a man murders his brother and two apposites become opposites, as ‘Hyperion to a satyr’. But next comes the foulest coupling of all – his father’s ‘brother/murderer’ marries his mother. This is Hamlet’s most unsettling disruption, for as Tanner remarks, ‘murder and incest are the most graphic and violent or lustful ways of annihilating the differences and annulling the separations and distinctions on which any society depends.’

All of this points to Hamlet’s ‘dualistic’ predicament. It reaches its culmination in the dramatic twist which sees Hamlet mistakenly kill Polonius. When Polonius’s son Laertes learns of this he unhesitatingly takes on the role of revenger, a stark contrast (another opposite) to Hamlet’s reaction to his murdered father. And as Harold Jenkins points out in his introduction to the Arden edition of Hamlet(Amazon affiliate link):

‘The campaign of Laertes brings into the play a second revenge action in which the first revenger appears at the other end. The hero charged with a deed of vengeance now also incurs vengeance.’

This provides the final dramatic drive to the play’s conclusion.

The crisis of existence: To be or not to be

But why this constant harping on dualities? What is this dramatic dualism trying to express?

The answer lies in the way Hamlet responds to his predicament. The famous delay, between Hamlet’s learning of his need to revenge his father’s death and his taking action to do so, can be explained by the conflict that arises within him. As Harold Jenkins puts it:

‘As a revenger he must act, on behalf of outraged virtue, to restore a violated order, set right what is “out of joint”. But the act he is impelled to involves him in evil of the kind which he would punish.’

Hamlet is being asked to respond to murder with murder, and this throws his ‘humanist’ sensibility into crisis. Dramatically he becomes a man ‘at odds with his environment and with its reflection in himself’, and we see him swing between conflicting and opposite states, ‘from melancholy brooding to sudden acts of passion, from lofty contemplation to rage or scorn, or enigmatic thrusts of wit’.

This leads to Hamlet contemplating the intermingling of good and evil in everything. He sees the duality of all, from his own mother Gertrude (who gave him life but is now wife to his father’s killer) to his potential wife Ophelia (a symbol of purity but a potential ‘begetter of evil’), to life itself. This final thought leads to the most famous speech in the play (‘To be or not to be’), which confronts the ultimate duality; whether, knowing what he knows, it is better to live or die.

It is this condition that leads to his inability to act. As Harvey Granville Barker states in his Preface to Hamlet (Amazon affiliate link):

‘Hamlet is now at odds, not merely with the ills of this world, but within himself, and cannot but be impotent so.’

Hamlet’s resolution

Jenkins demonstrates that in the final act we see a change in Hamlet. In the skulls thrown up by the grave digger he confronts the common fate of man, and we see the powerful symbol of a living head mirrored by a dead one (see image above). As he meditates on death in the churchyard he finally comes to perceive a mysterious design. He accepts life and death, with all its apparent conflict of good and evil, in ‘a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will’.

This reconciliation of Hamlet’s duality is dramatised in the final scene through his acceptance of a new ‘brotherhood’ with Laertes, one that makes amends for his Father’s and Uncle’s broken brotherhood:

‘In the final contrast between them, two sons avenging their fathers, yet each tainted with the evil he would destroy, punish one another, yet die forgiving one another. With evil itself in the person of the King there is of course no reconciliation. The avenger who kills him when he has himself received his own death-wound at last fulfils his dual role.’

Hamlet, in dying, is finally reconciled with himself and able to transcend the dualities that have threatened to tear him apart. This is his tragedy, and he is sent on his way with those beautiful words of Horatio’s:

‘Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’.

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