An Analytical Look At Hamlet's First Soliloquy
| Intimate portraits of character strengths and weaknesses are exposed with each soliloquy Shakespeare employs in Hamlet. The playwright’s effective use of Hamlet’s numerous soliloquies illuminates not only character disposition, but also multilayer themes that shape characters and events. In his premier soliloquy, Hamlet exposes his emotional turbulence over issues beyond his control such as death and religious cannon. Thematic questions of mortality, jealousy and lust tinged with religious perspective are woven throughout the play, but are present in their raw state in Hamlet’s first soliloquy in Act one, scene two (129-156).
Though the play as a whole is not a religious work, Shakespeare weaves sixteenth century Christian attitudes towards suicide and incest throughout the soliloquies of Hamlet. Cleverly, Shakespeare establishes the Christian perspective as Hamlet’s own in his first soliloquy. The foundation of Hamlet’s religious belief not only describes his own views, but as well as the whole of the Danish courts due to the period’s Protestant reformation. Hamlet is encased within his own shell, or rather an “inky cloak,” of grief and is left to ponder the route of suicide to escape his terrestrial hell (I, II, 77). “…Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter,” he cries (I II 129-131). The state of emotional turbulence thrashing within him has caused Hamlet, despite his witty banter previously with the new King, to become weak and tired of life’s “unprofitable” series of events (I II 133). Grief over a lost loved one exhausts and depletes an individual’s emotional and physical strength to carry on with life. Hamlet temporarily thinks on suicide as a possible way to escape the intense emotional pain of his own mortality. Though his private stores of emotional strength ammunition have run dangerously low, Hamlet does not succumb to death by his own hands due to the strength of his faith as well as the fear of defying his religion.
A fine thread weaves throughout Hamlet’s lonely rambling connecting his melancholic suicidal thoughts to his sudden bemoaning of an “unweeded” garden. Though he may seem mad sporadically jumping from suicide to talk of unkempt gardens, Hamlet, still in lieu of his religious ponderings, connects the cause of his grief and suicidal thoughts to his destroyed ‘Garden of Eden.’ To Hamlet this metaphor of the Garden contains numerous layers which contribute to the overall meaning it bears to him. Prior to his family falling into an abyss of sin, Hamlet views his father as Adam and his mother as Eve for their love is pure from his perspective: “…so loving to my mother that he might not beteem the winds of heaven visit her face too roughly…she would hang on him as if increase of appetite had grown,” (I II 140-144). Like the biblical story, where Adam and Eve are there lurks a serpent close by. Hamlet contributes his grief and broken family to the appearance and influence of the stealthy serpent, which he likens to his Uncle Claudius. Though at this time Hamlet does not know the truth of his father’s untimely death, he unconsciously foreshadows in his soliloquy that his family unit’s recession from the great Garden is due to his Uncle’s influence and marriage to his mother.
Hamlet’s reference to the “unweeded garden” goes a sub-layer deeper to symbolize the incestuous marriage between Claudius and Gertrude. The late King Hamlet had the fairytale lifestyle as a war hero, successful king, and family man with an adoring wife and intellectually gifted heir to the throne. Claudius seeing his brother’s incredible success and happiness developed a polyp of jealously within his heart, which ultimately grew to manifest his soul. After his brother’s death, all Claudius could see with his lustful tunnel vision was the prize of lonely Gertrude and the empty throne. Hamlet reveals in his soliloquy how incredulous this act of matrimony is between two of his family members by saying with disgust “Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely” or in other words only those corrupt in disposition accept their marriage entirely (I II 136-137). In saying this Hamlet is insulting a vast majority of the Danish court. Most who serve the new self-proclaimed King have accepted his rather uncomfortable marriage to his sister-in-law despite their own opinions and disregard for what their religion states. Hamlet displays a degree of arrogance in spitting out these words by saying that since he has, unlike the court majority, decidedly not condoned the incest is therefore a better person.
Transitioning from his disgust with the court’s incestuous couple to reflection on his father’s death once again, Hamlet’s grief takes on the form of desperate anger and disbelief. Struggling with the acceptance that his father, not two months deceased, has been so easily forgotten by his mother causes Hamlet to compare the two father figures with which he now finds himself in possession of. “So excellent a king, that was to this Hyperion to a satyr…” Hamlet states (I II 139-140). In this brief description of the old king in comparison to his brother, Shakespeare reveals how deeply Hamlet loved and idolized his father. Placing the old king Hamlet as an equal to Hyperion, the sun god, paints an image of a majestic, powerful and admirable man of a ‘dying breed’ (I II 140 and 187). The disposition contradiction existing between the two brothers is not more apparent than in Hamlet’s simple yet powerful description of his father as a sun god and his uncle as a riotous half-goat deity. The comparison of Claudius to a satyr has a comical edge, however, Hamlet’s conviction in stating so reveals his animosity, disrespect and utter annoyance of his mother’s animalistic spouse.
Hamlet’s previous placement of his parents as Adam and Eve in his own Garden of Eden displays his respect and love for his parents as a whole. After the dual funeral and wedding, Hamlet’s relationship with his mother quivers along the fine line of disrespect and loving tolerance. Within his first soliloquy, Hamlet reveals much about his emotional turbulence, religious beliefs and comically tinged animosity towards his uncle. Throughout his rambling train of thought are hints of Hamlet’s feelings for his mother after her marriage. “frailty, thy name is woman—A little month, or ere those shoes were old with which she followed my poor father’s body like Niobe, all tears…” Hamlet says of his mother (I II 146-149). As he recollects the memory of his parents’ relationship and how his father’s death affected his mother, Hamlet’s grievous anger turns harsher when he no longer calls his mother “Mother” but “woman” (I II 146). The disassociation of his mother from himself implies he no longer knows who she is as a person or a parent. To Hamlet it is not just one parent who has died and left him but both. Gertrude, by throwing any regard for her late husband and son into a grave along with elder Hamlet’s casket, has thrown away her responsibility as a parent and in emotional terms disowned her son. Hamlet’s particular choice of words in describing his mother and her actions casts Gertrude in an artificial light. For example, when Hamlet specifically recollects her shoes that she wore both for her late husband’s funeral and for her soon-after wedding, he puts her into the mold of someone materialistic who cares about her appearance, looking the part and pleasing herself. Hamlet’s anger over his father’s death and the sequential events he takes out on his mother because she does not show any sign of deeper emotions over death and the act of marriage.
Shakespeare’s range of themes cleverly woven into the fabric of Hamlet’s tale all begin with the first soliloquy. The ideas of suicide, religion’s involvement in the daily choices of humanity, the dangers of jealousy and lust all seed and grow roots in Hamlet’s exposed thoughts. Though these themes seem only relevant in literature, Hamlet’s soliloquy humanizes the ideas and plants them in life situations which generation after generation may relate to on different levels. Through the examined actions of Gertrude and Claudius, even Hamlet’s own contemplation on suicide, in the first soliloquy we see what man and woman are capable of and that though we create such institutions of marriage and law they do not mean anything without emotional conviction. Hamlet’s first shared thoughts and emotional outburst introduce the themes which are to be dealt with throughout the play and also in real life.