The Hamlet Paradigm
Central Question of the Play
How does an individual react when he develops an obsession with destroying the powerful force ruling his country, yet risks experiencing psychological estrangement, occurring at multiple levels within himself, if he attempts to destroy that force? This is the central question that Shakespeare explores in his play Hamlet, which is a character study of an individual harboring just such an obsession, entailing just such a risk.
That Hamlet is obsessed with destroying the powerful force ruling his country (Claudius) is plainly evident in the play. But while this obsession initiates Hamlet’s behavior, it is his additional realization, that he risks psychological estrangement occurring on multiple levels as a result of trying to carry out his obsession, that shapes his behavior into the form that the audience sees, one that seems bizarre and incomprehensible.
The Nature of Hamlet’s Obsession
The reasons for Hamlet’s obsession with exacting revenge against Claudius are fairly straightforward. The ghost of Hamlet Sr. informed Hamlet that Claudius killed Hamlet Sr. and thus usurped him from his throne. In doing so, he emasculated Hamlet by robbing him of his central role model of masculinity, namely his father. He also committed the moral and political sin of regicide, and the familial sin of killing his brother and subsequently sleeping with his wife. Claudius also deprived Hamlet of his rightful kingship, since Hamlet was second in line after Hamlet Sr. In addition, Hamlet now knows that his love of his mother is corrupted since she is affectionate towards his emasculating enemy.
The Nature of Hamlet’s Risk of Psychological Estrangement
In attempting to kill Claudius, Hamlet risks enduring estrangement occurring within his self at multiple psychological levels. There are primarily five such levels of estrangement:
1. Religious estrangement: Hamlet feels self-actualized from following basic religious principles of living. This is shown by his lamentation that the everlasting had fixed his cannon against self-slaughter, thus preventing Hamlet from committing suicide at a time when he felt like doing so. If Hamlet were to kill Claudius, he would be violating a central religious principle against murdering another human being. This would make him feel guilt at having violated religious coda, thus representing estrangement at the level of his religious consciousness.
2. Moral estrangement: Hamlet is also principled in a moral, or more generally a normative, sense. To kill a king would mean violating his internal conviction against committing crimes that might harm the hierarchical order of a state’s government. His generally principled nature is shown by his refusal to gather together a mob to oust Claudius, as Laertes attempts to do later in the play, even though he knew that he had the ability to do so. The fact that he knew this is shown by the fact that...