Hamlet – Where’s the Irony?
Is there irony within the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet? If so, what is the incidence? This essay intends to answer these and other related questions.
In the essay “Hamlet: His Own Falstaff” Harold Goddard expresses the ironic development of Hamlet’s purposeful self-debasement:
Suppose Hamlet had taken over the throne of Denmark. The Prince as King: is it hard to conceive him in that role? Fortinbras at any rate did not think so:
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have prov’d most royally.
One thing certainly we can count on: he would have made a most unconventional monarch. He would have been just about everything the rest of Shakespeare’s kings were not.
In the first place, he had what ought to be the prime negative requisite for those in high position the world over, what only Henry VI of Shakespeare’s kings in the History Plays possessed: no love of power. [. . .] Hamlet disdained all such trappings and went to the other extreme of debasing himself from Prince to madman. He practiced to the point of perversion by daylight what Henry V only soliloquized by night. (26-27)
David Bevington in the Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet identifies one of the “richest sources of dramatic irony” in Hamlet:
Well may the dying Hamlet urge his friend Horatio to “report me and my cause aright To the unsatisfied,” for no one save Horatio has caught more than a glimpse of Hamlet’s true situation. We as omniscient audience, hearing the inner thoughts of Claudius as well as of Hamlet and learning of Polonius’ or Laertes’ secret plottings with the king, should remember that we know vastly more than the play’s characters, and that this discrepancy between our viewpoint and theirs is one of Shakespeare’s richest sources of dramatic irony. (1)
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. Tonight the ghost appears again 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 post-coronation 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 Voltemand to Norway to settle the Fortinbras affair, addressing Polonius and Laertes on the subject of the latter’s return to school abroad. Right at the outset of the drama, there is irony exhibited in the manner in which Shakespeare characterizes King Claudius – he is simply stupendous – and yet,...