|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?|
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)
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?