Saturday, 9 February 2013

Can Hamlet be Seen as a Villain?

Does Hamlet have a menacing streak?
Kenneth Branagh as a Hamlet (1996)

After an article I wrote on why Shakespeare’s villains are so irresistible, comments drifted into a fascinating debate over whether or not Hamlet can be perceived as a villain. And because this very subject was also mentioned on a post I wrote here, ‘The Recipe for a Great Shakespearean Villain’, I think it bears closer scrutiny.

Now, clearly, Hamlet is a tragic hero - one of the most famous the world has ever known. But is he only a tragic hero because we’re viewing the events of the play (largely) through his eyes?

In other words, if Shakespeare hadn’t made Hamlet the protagonist, would we still feel the young prince is just in his pursuit of a revenge that will end in the deaths of almost everybody in the Danish court?

Do we feel as sympathetic towards him when viewing Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for example?

There is a Difference Between Being Villainous and Being Evil

Now, I don’t for one moment think Hamlet is an Iago-like figure or an Edmund, but brace yourself, because I'm about to make comparisons between the Danish prince and two of Shakespeare's most reviled villains. And it’s worth mentioning that the whole reason this discussion came about is because I put forth a theory that all of Shakespearean villains are sympathetic in some way.

And in that vein, I’d argue that no Shakespearean villain is evil for evil’s sake. They’re usually seeking one of two things: power or revenge.

Just as I wouldn’t brand Tamora evil (she has cause, after all, doesn’t she?), I’m not suggesting that Hamlet is an ‘evil’ villain. However, like the aforementioned queen of the Goths, he clearly falls into the latter of the two ‘villainous motives’ camps.

It Depends on Your Point of View

In Ophelia's eyes, is Hamlet more villain than victim?
And just imagine, if you will, that the entire play were told through Ophelia’s eyes.

She could be the one endlessly soliloquising about her woes: her lover, who seems to have lost his marbles, is endlessly cruel and cryptic, and eventually stabs her father to death.

Ophelia has seen him manically talking to himself, plotting - not so dissimilar to Shakespeare’s great villains.

'Ah,' you say, 'but he’s plotting against the wrongdoers.'

Yes, that’s perfectly true. Does it absolve him of guilt over the collateral damage, though? Hamlet’s actions, albeit indirectly, prompt poor Ophelia to commit suicide. Is that really so different from Iago’s actions indirectly causing Othello to murder Desdemona? Iago never anticipated that little turn of events, but he’s responsible for it nonetheless.

And, of course, like Iago, Hamlet pretends to be something he isn't in order to manipulate a reaction from the play's other characters. You could say, Hamlet's motive for doing so is more understandable, but the method is very similar.

But Hamlet’s The Victim of The Play

 Hamlet was always meant to be a conflicted
character | Richard Burton as Hamlet (1964)
Indeed he is a victim, but does that prove anything?

Let’s look at King Lear through Edmund’s eyes; as though he were the protagonist of the play. Edmund has been shunned by his father, “He hath been out nine years and away he shall again.” and has no right to title or assets, simply because he is illegitimate. Is that fair? Is he any less a victim of his circumstance than Hamlet?

So, is he wrong to attempt to rectify the injustice?

Now don't get me wrong, there is no question, Shakespeare intended Hamlet to be a hero. However, there’s also no question that Shakespeare never intended it to be a black and white issue of wrong vs. right or evil vs. good.

Just as Macbeth is a tragic hero, who can seem more villain than victim, I’d argue that Hamlet can be seen as a villain, if we’re looking at him in the right light. But what do you think?


  1. I do think he can be looked as a villain. He does not care for the collateral damage of his actions, even though he was the initial victim. I saw Branagh's Hamlet a few days ago and he was a very angry Hamlet, so cruel in his demeanor that I kind of hated him a little bit. Especially in the parts with Ophelia.
    I guess it all depends on the point of view (and the performance).

    1. Hello, Melissa.

      Thanks for your point of view. I agree completely. Depending on how it's performed, there are parts of the play where Hamlet can come off as very unlikeable. Of course though, that also makes him more realistic. Most people aren't good or bad, they're a complex mixture of both. And there can be no denying that Hamlet is one messed up cookie.

  2. Great article! For quite some time I have viewed Hamlet as a more villainous character than a conflicted one; mainly, as you point out, for all the collateral damage resulting from his actions. Hamlet reads as "callous and egocentric" (John Updike) to me too. He has no qualms ordering the death of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and his argument with Laertes over Ophelia's grave could easily be a part of his larger ruse.

    It is quite easy for me to see Laertes as a much more tragic character with far more "heroic" qualities. Shakespeare enjoys the idea of his anti-heroes besting more traditional heroes (see Henry IV part 1) so I understand it in Hamlet. A more traditional story could easily be constructed around Laertes as a tragic hero, with Hamlet as the conniving villain. Hamlet is, after all, responsible for the death of Laertes's sister and father (not to mention Laertes as well...).

    Thanks for shedding a little more light on a very interesting interpretation of a classic!

    1. Hello Derek,

      Thanks for your comment and adding some of your own points to the debate. You're quite right, Laertes would make a much more 'traditional' and likeable hero. But likeable heroes are often the least exciting ones, aren't they? I certainly think Shakespeare took the point of view that, good hero = boring hero.

      I'm in the midst of working on a new post about the very fine line between Shakespeare's heroes and villains, and there are really very few 'good' good characters in his plays. I love that! It's one of the things that makes Shakespeare so timeless: real, flawed characters that force us to wonder what we'd do in their situation.

      Thanks again! Glad you enjoyed the post.