Ambiguity Creates Doubt in the Nobility and Intentions of Characters in Hamlet
As a parent or teacher, educating children on morals is a difficult thing to do without the help of fairy tales, fables, and bedtime stories. Something these stories all have in common is that there is usually one big bad wolf and the rest of characters are pure-hearted people with good intentions. Take the beloved tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for example. Only the queen is evil; the hunter, prince, dwarves and princess are all portrayed as noble people. Even after the queen has done so much to try to harm the princess, Snow White does not wish any ill on her evil stepmother. There are countless examples of these noble characters who do not seem to sin at all in their fictional lives. Even during the Elizabethan era that playwright William Shakespeare lived in, people were taught that protagonists are righteous heroes that serve justice. They are often victims of misfortune who manage to overcome hindrances to achieve happiness in the end, teaching readers valuable morals.
Now looking at Shakespeares Hamlet, first published in 1603, it seems to follow a similar structure up to a certain degree. The major antagonist, King Claudius, causes misery for the principle characters by committing a foul crime. The hero, Prince Hamlet, is a victim of events that he does not have control over. However, Hamlet differs from other stories because in the end, most of the main characters are dead; there is no happy ending for the protagonist. Upon closer inspection, noticeable flaws exist in almost all of the key characters. As a major playwright of the time, Shakespeare wanted to defy the common conception and stereotype that all main characters have justified, virtuous intentions. This play is also different because it is not straightforward. In fact, one of the aspects that moves the plot forward and contributes towards its success is the use of ambiguity. In Hamlet, Shakespeare creates doubt in the true intentions of characters and their nobility through the continual use of ambiguous situations.
There are a lot of unanswered questions relating to the deaths of some of the characters. In more than one case, suicide might be the reason for death. It seems that Hamlet accidentally killed Polonius in an act of madness, but evidence shows that it might have been intentional. Immediately after revealing Poloniuss body behind the arras, Hamlet calls him a wretched, rash, intruding fool, showing no pity for what he has done (3.4.31). Even at the beginning of Hamlets antic disposition, he talked to Polonius with a very violent choice of words and tone. He said to Polonius, it shall to the barbers with your beard (2.2.487). This image creates a sense of violence because Hamlet orders Polonius to expose his throat to a barber wielding something sharp in order to cut his beard off. Also, Hamlet had already warned Polonius that he may play the fool nowhere but ins own house (3.1.132-133). In Gertrudes room, Polonius is once again secretly concealed and eavesdropping into other peoples business, possibly enraging Hamlet. Another case where ambiguity is associated with a characters death is when Gertrude takes the poisoned drink in Hamlets place. It is unclear if either Gertrude of Hamlet knew of the poison in the drink. Gertrude interrupted the king and Laertes when they were plotting Hamlets death; it is possible she overheard what they said and tried to save her son from the poisoned goblet. Hamlet knew about Claudiuss plan to send him to England without anybody telling him about it. It would not be unexpected if Hamlet also knew about the poison, which is why he denied it at first (5.2.274). He told Gertrude would it were not so, you are my mother, expressing his hatred for her (3.4.15). Since he detested his mother so much, he would not have stopped Gertrude from drinking the poison if he knew about it. Ophelias death can be interpreted as either suicide or a legitimate drowning. If she was mad, she would not have been in the right mind to think straight, or have concern for her safety. Yet there is also reason for what the gravediggers believe happened: that Ophelia wilfully [sought] her own salvation (5.1.1-2). She may have been faking her madness. When she gives out flowers, the recipients of each individual flower/herb are ambiguous. She may have offered fennel, symbolic of warding off evil spirits, to Claudius in an effort to subtly call him evil. In order to realize Claudiuss malicious intentions, Ophelia could not have been truly mad. If Ophelia was not mad, she drowned herself willingly to escape the sadness from losing Hamlet and her father. The large amount of ambiguity associated with their deaths allows readers to interpret the characters in a variety of ways; whether they died by accident and with dignity, or if they chose to commit the sinful deed.
Furthermore, Shakespeare develops doubt in the righteousness of the characters by leaving their adherence to religious morals open-ended. Hidden messages in the way Shakespeare uses symbolism and diction create suspicion that Ophelia had lost her chastity and innocence, although it was assumed otherwise by characters in the play. She says, I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died (4.5.180-181). During the Elizabethan era, violets had a profound symbolic meaning for innocence and chastity. Flowers wither when they die, so Ophelia may be hinting that the chaste treasure her father and brother bid her to keep had already been opened (1.3.31). As well, Ophelia sings a song about a man who promised to marry a woman before [he] tumbled [her] (4.5.62-66). The song may be a description of her recent romance with Hamlet, giving readers more reason to believe in Ophelias impurity. This interpretation is further supported by what Hamlet said in his rant to Ophelia: I say we will have no mo marriage (3.1.146-147). There is an ambiguous meaning of we in this line. It may refer to society as a whole. On the other hand, it could also mean Hamlet and Ophelia will have no more marriage. Also, the setting of the play leads to the belief that Hamlet is a Protestant. However, his fathers ghost visits him in purgatory, going against his initial religious beliefs. It is therefore unclear what religion Hamlet believes in, something regarded as sinful in Shakespearian times. Ambiguity in situations, as well as specific words, is used to draw suspicions in the characters religious virtuosity.
Love is a strong feeling and plays an important role in this play, so Shakespeare uses ambiguity to challenge the sincerity of the love felt by characters. Love is seen as something pure, but by adding elements of ambiguity to it, it is full of mistrust and uncertainty. Hamlets love for Ophelia can be seen as genuine, but he contradicts himself. He openly denies his love for her, saying I never gave you aught (3.1.96), only to admit, I did love you once (3.1.114-115). Within these few lines, he has already disputed his feelings for Ophelia. This juxtaposition is further developed when he rudely commands the frightened Ophelia to go to a nunnery, tells her she has offended god by painting her face, and she jigs, ambles and lisps (3.1.142-145). Later the same night, he flirts with her, hinting at country matters (3.2.112) and asks to put [his] head upon [her] lap (3.2.110). During Ophelias funeral, he claims that [he] lovd Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up [his] sum. (5.1.225-227). Due to the opposite meanings of what Hamlet says, it is unclear if he truly loved Ophelia. Another character whose love is doubted due to ambiguity is Queen Gertrude. At Ophelias funeral, she repeats the gentle, loving word sweet. Gertrude claims she hopd [Ophelia] shouldst have been my Hamlets wife, conveying her love for Ophelia as a prospective daughter-in-law (5.1.228). However, when Ophelia was mad, the queen refused to talk to her, dismissing it with a harsh I will not speak with her (4.5.1). It is only after the gentleman and Horatio have convinced her to do it, that she allows Ophelia in. Even then, Gertrude pushes Ophelias problem onto Claudius as soon as he comes in, making one doubt the sincerity of her supposed love for Ophelia. Gertrudes love for the dead King Hamlet and King Claudius is also very ambiguous. According to Hamlet, she would hang on [King Hamlet]she followd my poor fathers body like Niobe, all tears meaning she probably did indeed love King Hamlet (1.2.143-149). If she loved Old Hamlet, perhaps she had ulterior motives for marrying Claudius so quickly. Gertrude does not deny it when Hamlet says to her, you cannot call it love; for at your age the heyday in the blood is tame, its humble, and waits upon the judgement (3.4.68-70). She might not have been able to resist Claudiuss manipulation. On the other hand, the queen proves her loyalty and love for the king by risking her life to protect him. Laertes, most likely holding a weapon due to his violent intentions, enters the castle on a rampage to seek revenge from the king. Gertrude holds Laertes to protect Claudius, and only lets him go after the king orders her twice (4.5.116-125). The purpose for marrying Claudius is unknown, generating doubt in Gertrudes fidelity to both her first and second husband. By examining the romantic and familial relationships between characters, doubt provokes a question of whether or not the characters were sincere and honest in love.
The many aspects of ambiguity presented in Hamlet include uncertainty in death, devotion to religious morals, and love. The way Shakespeare weaves his tale of revenge and honour creates many situations that are up to interpretation. In all the examples of ambiguity, there is always one interpretation that will make the reader lose respect or disapprove of a characters intention. Since the ambiguity creates room for characters to be ignoble and sinful, the doubt in their actions eventually leads to their death. The two survivors of the tragedy are Horatio and Fortinbras, who embody honesty and honour. Through this, Shakespeare succeeds in teaching a moral lesson on what is respectable, worthy behaviour. Also, the great use of ambiguity is one of the main reasons Shakespeares play is still studied today. Ultimately, Shakespeares use of overflowing ambiguity in Hamlet succeeded in defying a stereotype by proving that main characters are not always justified in their actions and intentions.