Many literary critics point to the considerable irony that exists in Shakespeare's Hamlet. This paper examines the play for instances of irony and surveys their interpretation by critics.
Howard Felperin comments on Hamlet’s “ironic consciousness” of the fact that he is unable to quickly execute the command of the ghost:
Eliot’s unhappy judgments are worth considering here, if only because they are based on an intuition of Shakespeare’s creative process that is so near to and yet so far from the one presupposed in the present essay. He imagines Shakespeare grappling with his archaic sources in the attempt to naturalize, rationalize, and psychologize – generally speaking, to streamline and neoclassisize them – and at least in the case of Hamlet, losing the struggle. 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)
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...