Hamlet – the Irony
The existence of considerable irony within the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet is a fact recognized by most literary critics. This paper will examine the play for instances of irony and their interpretation by critics.
In his essay “O’erdoing Termagant” Howard Felperin comments on Hamlet’s “ironic consciousness” of the fact that he is unable to quickly execute the command of the ghost:
Our own intuition of the creative or re-creative act that issued in the play also assumes a struggle with the literary past, but one of a more complex nature. It would seem to be Hamlet who is unable to impose successfully the model of an old play upon the intractable material of his present life, and Shakespeare who dramatizes with unfailing control the tragic conflict between his heroic effort to do so and his ironic consciousness that it cannot be done, with the inevitable by-products of hesitation and delay. (107-108)
Right at the outset of the drama, there is irony exhibited in the manner in which Shakespeare characterizes King Claudius – he is simply the perfect ruler – and yet, shortly hereafter when the ghost appears, he is revealed as a truly evil sort. George Lyman Kittredge, in his book, Five Plays of Shakespeare, describes the Bard’s excellent characterization of Claudius:
King Claudius is a superb figure – almost as great a dramatic creation as Hamlet himself. His intellectual powers are of the highest order. He is eloquent – formal when formality is appropriate (as in the speech from the throne), graciously familiar when familiarity is in place (as is his treatment of the family of Polonius), persuasive to an almost superhuman degree (as in his manipulation of the insurgent Laertes) – always and everywhere a model of royal dignity. (xviii)
The irony found in the characterization of the antagonist is balanced by an equal irony in the presentation of the protagonist. Hamlet is present at the court gathering -- dressed in black, the color of mourning, for his deceased father. He is not a man of the world, but rather demurring and thoughtful and by himself. His first words say that Claudius is "A little more than kin and less than kind," indicating a dissimilarity in values between the new king and himself, thus, in a sense, relegating himself to the position of an outcast, one who counts for nothing. And, incredibly, he is the greatest of people, in terms of what really matters in life – one’s spiritual ideals or morals. This outcast is a prince; he is a genius. His soliloquies confront problems “which most easily besets men of genius” (Coleridge 345), and they manifest a rare “human wisdom” (Frye 37).
The ghost reveals that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius; Hamlet swears to avenge this deed. With the ghost’s exhortation, Hamlet ironically “is not to be allowed simply to endure a rotten world, he must also act in it” (Mack 258); the one who least wants to be...