Hamlet’s Revenge

Was Hamlet intelligent?

Answer by Jon Ferreira:

Hamlet was a student at Wittenberg, and is home on leave for the funeral of his father and subsequent marriage of his mother and uncle. We get the impression that Hamlet is presumably, a very strong student, a promising mind. and a very capable scholar with a bright future ahead of him.

Antic Disposition
We can deduce that Hamlet is intelligent based on his level of subterfuge and ability to manipulate those around him. As soon as he meets with the ghost and learns of his uncle’s crime, Hamlet sets about on a path to discover the truth, and if need be, act swiftly and with justice. His clever plan for eliciting the truth is to ‘put on an antic disposition’ by which he will act ‘strange or odd’ and play at being mad. In the guise of madness, he may have more latitude to test theories and push people, since they will be less likely to act against him, and instead give him a wide berth. A valid question audiences must ask themselves is if Hamlet is simply just acting mad, or whether he really is. If he’s only acting, he is very convincing. It’s likely a mixture of both.

Mad Encounters
In his mad state, Hamlet gets to work pestering, assaulting, and provoking various people around him in an effort to get at the truth. Hamlet sets various traps for Polonius–verbally outwitting the meddlesome and obsequious lapdog. Hamlet purposely ensnares Ophelia in mind games meant to confuse and disorient her –not likely out of outright cruelty, but for the sake of his uncle and Polonius, who are eavesdropping nearby. Hamlet wants the court to know how mad he really is, and especially his uncle. He is particularly cruel and rough with Ophelia. When his school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at the request of the king, they are greeted with derision and mockery by Hamlet. Ultimately, their complicity and plotting with Claudius to spy on Hamlet end up killing them, as Hamlet turns the tables on their betrayal. Hamlet assaults his mother in her bed chambers and continues his charade of an antic disposition, but he is also clearly in pain as he confronts her incestuous marriage, and condemns her betrayal of his father and lecherous union with his uncle. Hamlet is purposefully rough with her, leading Polonius to betray himself behind an arras, and inviting his own death at the hands of Hamlet (who thinks it’s Claudius hiding). Throughout the play, Hamlet uses deception to trick the people around him into working for him and giving him clues to unravel his mystery. This clever maneuvering is part of what make Hamlet intelligent.

The greatest indicator that Hamlet is in fact, supremely intelligent — if not a genius — is the complexity and depth of his thoughts. During the encounters above, Hamlet displayed a clever wit and ability to make puns, use figurative language, and construct riddles to further confuse the other person. His madness disorients them, and his arguments alarm them. In his conversation with Claudius and R& G he used calm and rational language, while tricking them into his linguistic traps and forcing them to betray more than they intended. Conversely, in his arguments with Gertrude and Ophelia, Hamlet abandons reason for pure unbridled emotion. He pleads, he yells, he chides, he scorns, he bargains, he condemns, and he becomes cruel and physical. Earlier when Hamlet commented on his mother’s hasty marriage, he said: ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ It’s clear to see from this sentiment, combined with the cruel use of rough and physical violence and his willingness to use caustic verbal abuse, that Hamlet has deep-seated anger and aggression towards women, and a very low opinion of them.

Hamlet’s Speeches
As clever as his dialogue can be, it is in his speeches (monologues and soliloquies) where Hamlet allows us to glimpse his active mind, the profundity of his thoughts, and the haunting poetry of his soul.

The first examples of his probing mind comes in the ‘To be, or not to be…’ speech, when towards the end Hamlet wonders:

“For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin?
‘ Who would these Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,”

In his clever linguistic style, Hamlet asks rhetorical questions, that he will then answer. He is engaging in a Socratic dialogue and using a dialectic to have a conversation with himself, and present both sides of an argument. This compare and contrast (this vs that) device is one employed throughout Hamlet and all of Shakespeare. He asks who would choose to suffer in a life of misery when he can put an end to things by taking his own life. He then answers why not, speaking of a fear of not knowing what’s after death. He make an analogy to a traveller traveling abroad to an unexplored and undiscovered country, which no one has ever returned. The very though cripples the will to kill oneself, and convinces that person to endure whatever ills they know about, rather than travel somewhere that could be worse. Artfully, Hamlet ends with the famous line: ‘Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all.’ This means that our gut feeling and inner voice will ask questions regarding the safety and wisdom of jumping into something, which inevitably only serves to frighten us into resistance. This is the most famous speech in any play, and may be the most recognizable piece of text in the English language. It is lyrical and captures the sensitive heart of the young prince, while also speaking in expressive metaphor and simile. He contemplates profound questions of human existance and life after death. His sentiment is something we’ve all undoubtedly thought about at one time. His humanity is self-evident.

Other brief examples of shrewd insight include the line, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet shows maturity and his characteristic rational mind to reason that events, people, objects, etc. have no inherent value — they are neither good nor bad — and it’s all how you look at it. Context therefore plays a vital role in assigning worth and value judgments. The glass is both half full and half empty, depending on how we look at it.

Hamlet’s Quiet Acceptance
In a moment of transcendence, Hamlet reasons, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” suggesting that man’s life on Earth and his relation to the universe and understanding of Heaven are concepts too large and unfathomable for a mere mortal to comprehend. Hamlet seems to take comfort in surrendering to God and nature to determine whatever path he must take and whatever fate befalls him. At this late point in the play, Hamlet has accepted what he must do, and has adopted a sort of mystical Zen attitude above his uncertain future.

Another example of Hamlet’s progressive and enlightened calming and accepting demeanor can be seen in the following speech:

“We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Hamlet makes a profound and mature observation that God determines all things, even the death of a small sparrow. He continues, saying that everything will work out as it is destined. If something is supposed to happen now, it will. If it’s supposed to happen later, it won’t happen now. What’s important is to be prepared. Since nobody knows anything about what he leaves behind, then what does it mean to leave early? Let it be. The speech is an elegant commitment to the Elizabethan idea of fate and everyone’s proximity to fortune. Hamlet upholds the idea that it is silly and unproductive to worry about fate, since it going to play out as it must. Perhaps the most profound sentiment in this short speech comes at the end, when Hamlet cleverly points out that nobody knows what happens after they die, so if they die early, how can they miss what they don’t know is going to happen. It’s clever rhetorical ideas like this that demonstrate Hamlet’s dry wit, clever debating skills, fierce intellect, and ability to turn a phrase and use language on many different levels.

Goodnight Sweet Prince
One of the reasons the character of Hamlet has been so enduring and resilient through the ages is the dialectical and contradictory nature of his personality. Hamlet is at once both noble and brave and depraved and cowardly. Perhaps we can all see ourselves in Hamlet’s debilitating funk and Sisyphean procrastinating time loop, where he is struck dumb in his tracks, paralyzed with fear and unable to move forward or step back. Although he wants to believe in the ghost is his dad, he has a rational mind, and he simply doesn’t know if he can trust his senses. He is skeptical, and for good reason. The ghost is asking him to commit the heinous crime of regicide by avenging his father’s death. If he is wrong, he will have made a grievous error, and will pay with his life. Hamlet is about as indecisive as they come. This is a very good indicator of a large brain capacity. Hamlet is a cool and calculating rational mind, but since arriving from Wittenberg, he has been subjected to a wealth of emotions: grief, anger, betrayal, indecision, doubt, incredulity, rage, and many more. He is now ruled by mercurial forces, and he is unbalanced. His rational mind is battling his unbalanced emotions. On top of that, it is pretty clear he is suffering from at least a mild mental illness.

Hamlet is one of the most compelling characters because he is us. Many scholars consider the influence of Hamlet’s character on mankind as being a major contributor in shaping the modern human psyche, with his sophisticated inner life, thorough introspection, ego, humility, emotional regulation, and other factors that make us uniquely human. Hamlet asked questions we’ve likely asked at one point in our lives. He is faced with a terrible choice, and we must watch it rip him apart inside. He is a good young man, and shouldn’t have been put into this situation, but the Elizabethans loved their revenge tragedies, and Hamlet had a duty to avenge his father’s death. That’s an unbearable thing to ask a young sensitive intellectual student, who otherwise wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Like Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet is one of the most probing, inquisitive, sensitive, profound, cerebral, meticulous, enigmatic, and clever minds in all of Western literature. His enduring legacy is that he struggles so hard to be a good man and do the right thing, but we must helplessly watch as he completely unravels and plays at an even deadlier game. Hamlet makes numerous mistakes throughout the play, and at points, his hysterically emotional and erratic behavior leads directly to tragedy and bloodshed –he singlehandedly kills an entire family — Polonius, Ophelia (Hamlet was a major contributing factor, along with her father’s death), and her brother Laertes. Hamlet’s cruel and abusive treatment of Ophelia and Gertrude is hard to watch, and hard to reconcile with the sweet and sensitive young scholar we know is hurting profoundly inside. And yet, Hamlet is our everyman (albeit royal, smarter, and wealthier than most of us!). We are allowed to empathize with his grief and anger at his uncle, who brought his world down upon him. He’s a kid who misses his dad, and is estranged from a mother who dishonored the memory of his father by committing a revolting act of impropriety, and crawling into the bed of her brother in law. It might as well be incest, as far as Hamlet is concerned. Part of the strength of the play is that we see all of Hamlet’s objectionable behavior described above, but have to accept them as the inevitable flaws of a deeply troubled young man. We know too much of the rational thinker and sensitive man to disown our protagonist now. By the end of the play, we are vindicated, when  we see a Hamlet who has passed through the fire and come out the other side, brave, resolute, and possessing a steady calmness and quiet acceptance. He knows what he must do, and puts his faith in God and Providence to deliver him to his fate–a destiny he has no control over anyway. With steely resolve, we witness the cerebral schoolboy transform into an elegant instrument of revenge, and though mortally injured, he manages to fatally wound Laertes and run his uncle through with his sword. He must also witness his mother die in the fray, In an instant, two entire families are extinguished, and Fortinbras is left picking up the pieces. As Hamlet lay dying he utters his final words: ‘The rest is silence.’ Appropriate last words for a character who has the most lines of any character in the canon with 1495. He practically speaks for the entire span of the show. He’s finally achieved his purpose, answered his questions, and accepts the inevitable silence of his own death. After Hamlet passes, Horatio sends him off with: ‘Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!—’ Hamlet’s flight towards Heaven gently parallels the fall of the sparrow — both agents of Providence.Hamlet is the sparrow, of course, and where he once fell, now he is lifted to his salvation.

Was Hamlet intelligent?