One of the many talents of the playwright William Shakespeare was that he broke the limiting mold of the one-dimensional character by representing characters in all of their human complexity. Hamlet, for example, is a compelling character because he is complicated. As Hamlet himself observes early in the play in one of the important quotes from Hamlet by William Shakespeare, “ ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak…/nor customary suits of solemn black,/Nor…forced breath/No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,/Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage…/with all forms, moods, [and] shapes of grief,/That can denote me truly” (I.ii.77-84). Hamlet insists that he is an individual with many psychological and philosophical facets, though he himself will demonstrate difficulty in understanding and accepting all of his layers. Throughout the course of the play, Hamlet reasserts his complexity and cautions the other characters against reducing him to a single, predictable type. The lesson that Shakespeare conveys, then, is that human beings are both good and bad, and that their complexity should not be negated, but rather explored.
On the one hand, Hamlet is a character who is very much driven by emotion and and impulsive. After his father’s ghost reveals its dark secret to him, Hamlet declares that he will “wipe away all trivial fond records,/All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past/…And thy commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of my brain,/Unmix’d with baser matter” (I.v.99-104). Hamlet understands that he was “born to set [the circumstances of his father’s death] right” (I.v.189), though he curses this responsibility. Hamlet commands Horatio and Marcellus, who witnessed the ghost’s revelation, to avoid acknowledging him, even if they see him “put[ting] an antic disposition on…/with arms [and mind] encumber’d” (I.v.172). Once Hamlet has dedicated himself to this singular task of avenging his father’s death, other people find it increasingly difficult to relate to Hamlet for he has become complex in a way that challenges their former understanding of him. For instance, Polonius finds Hamlet’s responses confusing, and exclaims, “How pregnant sometimes his replies are!” (II.ii.211). Polonius goes on to observe that Hamlet’s speech is confusing because it conveys a “happiness that often madness hits on, which/reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of” (II.ii.212-214).
He is paradoxical and surprising, and, therefore, confounding because he subverts others’ expectations and never reacts with a predictable response to his own emotions or the expectations of other characters. In addition, it is worth noting that it is not only Hamlet’s curious speech that alienates others. Hamlet’s obsessive pessimism also begins to affect all of his relationships and becomes a large part of who he is as a character. In an otherwise superficial conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet insists that Denmark is a prison and that the world itself has become a “foul and pestilent/congregation of vapors” (II.ii.314-315), and he presses the men to explain why they would want to visit him in the place that torments him. Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is also troubling. While he is justified in questioning her decision to marry Claudius before her husband’s corpse has even cooled, Hamlet is sarcastic and demeaning towards her, provoking her to ask “What have I done, that thou darest/wag thy tongue/In noise so rude against me?” (II.iii.37-39). In short, these short, terse, and often sarcastic interactions with other characters help define Hamlet as a pessimistic character and cause the reader to anticipate that his perceptions of events will be, almost always, clouded with this characteristic darkness of tone.