Nuances of Irony in Hamlet
The irony within Shakespeare’s dramatic play Hamlet is apparent to the casual reader/viewer. This essay will explore the various instances and dimensions of this irony.
In his essay “Hamlet: His Own Falstaff,” Harold Goddard explains the irony of the final scene:
Laertes begs Hamlet’s forgiveness and follows the King. Hamlet, as if visited by his own genius at the end, speaks to those around him as if they were gathered in a theatre as “audience to this act,” prevents Horatio from drinking the last drops of the poisoned liquor, and cries to his friend in words the whole world knows by heart:
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
Martial music is heard in the distance, and a salute. The conquering Fortinbras has come from Poland, and Hamlet has just enough breath left to give him his dying voice as his successor. What irony! Like Henry V’s, all the Elder Hamlet’s conquests have been for nothing – for less than nothing. Fortinbras, his former enemy, is to inherit the kingdom! Such is the end to which the Ghost’s thirst for vengeance has led. (22-23)
In similar fashion, Harold Bloom in the Introduction to Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet comments on the irony of Fortinbras’ succession to the throne of Denmark:
Shakespeare gives Fortinbras the last word on this, but that word is irony, since Fortinbras represents only the formula of repetition: like father, like son. “The soldier’s music and the rite of war” speak loudly for the dead father, but not for this dead son, who had watched the army of Fortinbras march past to gain its little patch of ground and had mused that: “Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument.” The reader’s last word has to be Horatio’s, who more truly than Fortinbras has Hamlet’s dying voice: “and from his mouth whose voice will draw on more,” which only in a minor key means draw more supporters to the election of Fortinbras. (5)
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...