Hamlet Literary Criticism Through Archetypes

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Hamlet is a character that is brilliantly multi-faceted, and in the world of literature, a character who possesses multiple archetypes. The most prominent archetypes Hamlet wields are his archetypal presence as a philosopher and as a persecutor. Although not quite the same as Shakespeare’s roundabout ‘scholar and soldier’, it strikes the notion that all of us are both- hence the end and the beginning, and a verbatim of Maynard Mack in The World of Hamlet, “… [the] ultimate symbol [introspection], he [Hamlet] confronts, recognizes, and accepts the conditions of being a man…”. In his quest of becoming a man, Hamlet uses this introspection as well as a ‘witch hunt’ mentality to approach his goal. Hamlet’s largest strides in these archetypes reside most prominently in his interactions with women; most specifically the only women in the play, Gertrude and Ophelia.

Hamlet is undoubtedly, primarily, a philosopher. Noted starkly throughout the entirety of the work, Hamlet uses soliloquies and snide asides to bring the hammer to the nail for his strongest archetype. In The World of Hamlet by the famed Shakespeare analyst Maynard Mack, Mack describes Hamlet rather bluntly as “a thinker [who has] thought enough”. Stemming into the archetype of a madman in this snippet, Hamlet’s incessant soliloquizing, hissing utterances, and overall dry, morbid sense of humour leave the ladies of his life not only horrified for his wellbeing, but sorrowful. Ophelia gets her own soliloquy wherein she laments over the young man she fell in love with. Gertrude refrains from revealing all of Hamlet’s secrets and lack of grievances to Claudius following Polonius’ murder. This archetypal flaw for the philosopher Hamlet lies in the fact he is an introspective one- he cannot or refuses to think deeply about anyone other than himself and his own internal grief. Be this the fault of Hamlet senior’s ghost or otherwise, Hamlet sticks only to his guns.

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Following this notion, Hamlet is all the same a persecutor as he is a philosopher. Biblically worded, Hamlet is the gnashing of teeth and weeping- his waking life is his own personal hell. Hamlet is perpetually in anguish, and he does not hesitate in verbalizing it, usually a soliloquy. Hamlet’s most direct source of anguish lies within his first soliloquy, act I, scene II, wherein he laments over his mother’s marriage to his uncle, “She married:— O, most wicked speed, to post, with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” (lines 158-160). And in this fury towards his mother’s unorthodox new way of life, Hamlet sets his vendetta against not just Gertrude, but the girl he loves, Ophelia. In addition to his aggressive thrashing of the women in his life, Hamlet also strikes on childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as well as what may have once been a possible father-in-law, Polonius. Unrelenting in his disdain towards life, Hamlet calls out all of the aforementioned characters on their weaknesses or flaws, justly marking Hamlet the persecutor.

Elaborating further on a previously mentioned point, Hamlet’s strongest archetypes also make his interactions most negative with the women in the life, who often times have seemingly conflicted archetypes themselves. In particular, when Hamlet accuses Ophelia of being two faced, be it under the guise of makeup or a being sent to a nunnery (literally, or to a whorehouse), both his philosopher side and persecutor side are revealed and forced full throttle on the eventually water-bound maiden. Who, more specifically, takes Hamlet’s verbal persecution like a champ, so soft of heart that she wishes only to have the boy she fell in love with. (Although one could argue that in breaking Hamlet’s heart she is not so soft-hearted).

In finality, Hamlet’s archetypes make him the character he is, as well influence every interaction he has, particularly with the women of the story. 


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