Ambiguity in Hamlet
Ambiguity of both language and action is commonplace in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. Let us examine what can be found relative to this ambiguity in the play.
D.G. James says in “The New Doubt” that the Bard of Avon has the ambiguous habit of charging a word with several meanings at once:
“Conscience does make cowards of us.” There has been, I am aware, much dispute as to what the word means here. For my part, I find not the least difficulty in believing that the word carries both its usual meaning and that of “reflection and anxious thought.” It is a platitude of Shakespeare study that Shakespeare could, with wonderful ease, charge a word with two or three meanings at once; there is hardly a page of Shakespeare which does not illustrate this; and, in any case, the word “conscience” means for us all both a command to do what is right and anxious reflection as to what is, in fact, the right thing to do. If I had to choose (what I feel under no compulsion whatever to do) between the two meanings proposed, I should unhesitatingly choose the former and usual meaning (43).
Harold Bloom in the Introduction to Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet expounds on the ambiguity and mysterious conduct of the hero during the final act:
When Horatio responds that Claudius will hear shortly from, presumably that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been executed, Hamlet rather ambiguously [my italics] makes what might be read as a final vow of revenge:
It will be short. The interim is mine.
And a man’s life’s no more than to say “one.”
However this is to be interpreted, Hamlet forms no plot, and is content with a wise passivity, knowing that Claudius must act. Except for the scheme of Claudius and Laertes, we and the prince might be confronted by a kind of endless standoff. What seems clear is that the urgency of the earlier Hamlet has gone. Instead, a mysterious [my italics] and beautiful disinterestedness dominates this truer Hamlet, who compels a universal love precisely because he is beyond it, except for its exemplification by Horatio (2)
The play begins with the changing of the sentinels on a guard platform of the castle of Elsinore in Denmark. Recently the spectral likeness of dead King Hamlet has appeared to the sentinels for no definite purpose. Tonight the ghost appears again, for no apparent reason, to Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio, a very close friend of Hamlet. Horatio and Marcellus exit the ramparts of Elsinore intending to enlist the aid of Hamlet, who is home from school, dejected by the “o’erhasty marriage” of his mother to his uncle less than two months after the funeral of Hamlet’s father (Gordon 128). There is a social gathering of the court, where Claudius pays tribute to the memory of his deceased brother, the former king, and then, along with Queen Gertrude, conducts some items of business, for example dispatching Cornelius and...