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Day after day on television, in the movies, and even in some modern literature we see characters falling within those same old categories of "good guy" or "bad guy". Life would be much easier to figure out if human beings were so definitely good or bad, but we're not. Four hundred years ago William Shakespeare wrote a play that presented characters how human beings truly are, neither all good nor all bad. Hamlet is a play twisting and turning so much in human emotion that at times it almost seems to come alive and give us an accurate depiction of inner-torment, death, and humanness. In such scenes as the one where we see Claudius praying for forgiveness for the murder he has committed, guilt is seen in who would be the easy-to-hate "villain" in other stories. He is depicted as a human being with the capacity to be sorry for what he has done. The good and bad qualities of characters in Hamlet makes it harder for the audience to know who is right or who they want to see succeed. This duality is seen in many other Hamlet characters and it is most interesting to examine this mix of good and bad in Hamlet, because he is the play's supposed "good guy". Since Claudius wronged Hamlet and his father the audience wants to sympathize with Hamlet and see him triumph over Claudius. When his decency and moral appeal are seen as questionable Hamlet becomes a story immersed in the positive and negative qualities of character and the ambiguity of life.
In the beginning of the play the audience sees Hamlet struggling with his father's death and his sincere mourning appeals to us; it is something that makes us feel for him. After his encounter with the ghost we are given a Hamlet with a horrible mission, to murder. Anyone can imagine how being faced with the truth of his father's death would anger Hamlet, but to murder in cold blood is something that wouldn't come easily to a young man. The audience longs to see Hamlet find a way to make better what has happened, because he is innocent, young, and a man who lost someone he loved. To deal with the murder of his own father and then being asked to murder are things that make us pity him and his confusing situation.
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HAMLET. . . . I did love you once.
OPHELIA. Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
HAMLET. You should not have believ'd me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our
old stock but we shall relish of it. I lov'd you not. (3.1.113-118)
After Ophelia's death Hamlet proclaims that he loved her always, making what he tells her in this scene a blatant lie. Hamlet knows saying such cruel words would break Ophelia's heart. These lies are outrageous enough, but Hamlet does not stop at telling the innocent Ophelia he doesn't love her, but later tells her to, ". . . marry a fool, for wise men know what monsters you make of them" (137-138). Because he is angry at his mother Hamlet takes this out on Ophelia and throws her into the same category he now throws all women, monsters.
This treatment of Ophelia is confusing to the audience, because we see Ophelia, throughout the play, as a gentle woman who cares for Hamlet's well being. The audience struggles to understand why Hamlet would say what he says in this scene and this places doubt in our minds in regards to Hamlet's integrity. Just as we felt for Hamlet when he was a victim we now feel for Ophelia as she is a victim of Hamlet's misplaced anger.
Hamlet brings his anger directly to his mother in Act Three, Scene Four. He chooses to confront his mother and brings up the murder of his father. If the ghost, who was set on revenge, would tell Hamlet to leave his mother alone this implies she is innocent or didn't know about the murder. By this part in the play Hamlet knows the ghost is telling the truth, because he has seen signs of Claudius' guilt and yet he frightens his mother and treats her as if she were almost as loathsome as Claudius to him. The audience certainly doesn't see Gertrude as woman who truly loved her first husband, but her love for Claudius does not seem to warrant the hate Hamlet expresses in this scene. We see the things Hamlet says to his mother here as harsh and like his treatment of Ophelia it is something that leads us to question his decency and compassion. In this same scene the first murder to fall within the play occurs and the murderer is Hamlet. Upon killing Polonius, Hamlet is not surprised or remorseful, but continues to speak angrily to his mother and ignores the fact that he has slain an innocent man. His response to the death of Polonius is to call the man a "rash intruding fool" and rather than find some way to right what he has done and give Polonius a proper burial Hamlet steals the body and hides it.
Hamlet needlessly victimized the father of a close friend and the woman he loved. This scene turns Hamlet into a murderer and as a murderer he becomes a man who has made mistakes that can never be made right. The audience knows this murder has turned Hamlet's cruel words to something more deadly and that is actions. It is disheartening to us, as the audience, to see an innocent man turned into a murderer.
Hamlet isn't a horrible character or someone the audience cannot pity for his predicament, but a likeable character who made mistakes and had faults. The cruel things we see Hamlet say and do in the play are things that make him a human being like all human beings, able to be confused, angry, and simply wrong. These qualities of Hamlet do not lessen the enjoyability of the play, but make it greater, because it allows the audience, as imperfect human beings, to relate to it better.