The Clash of “Mighty Opposites” in Hamlet

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and King Claudius, Lord of Elsinore, the “mighty opposites” of the Shakespearian Tragedy Hamlet whose conflict brings about the death of so many. For those who died were the ones who came between, whether intentionally or mistakenly, Hamlet and Claudius and were caught, in a manner of speaking, “in the crossfire”.

Hamlet and King Claudius caused so many deaths between them because they were both powerful, cunning, and skillful (Hamlet “martial skills, confirmed by his pugnacity and swordsmanship” (Shakespeares HAMLET1.2.153 Explicator) and Claudius being skilled in manipulation). In consequence, they are wary to directly engage each other. Claudius fears confronting Hamlet because “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go” (Act 3 Scene 2 Line 203) and Hamlet’s skill with the sword. Hamlet, in contrast, was delayed at first by hesitation, as he suspected that the Ghost “may be a devil… and abuses… [Hamlet] to damn” him. He decides that he needs to “have grounds more relative than this” (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 626-633). To avoid a direct confrontation, they both employ a number of people and schemes to prove a fact about the other (for Hamlet, Claudius’ guilt; for Claudius, Hamlet’s “madness”).

Claudius first employs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to observe the supposed madness of Hamlet. Then, when Polonius informs the King of Ophelia’s encounter with Hamlet, he sends Polonius as well to investigate the prince. When their reports seem to bear that Hamlet might be mad, Claudius and Polonius devise a scheme to see what has caused this madness. They use Ophelia for this purpose. As she interacts with Hamlet, the two men lurk behind a curtain to observe the encounter. When it seems that Hamlet’s madness is not caused by his love for Ophelia, Claudius continues to use Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern to keep check of Hamlet.

Hamlet, for his part, first uses others to further his goals when he commands Francisco, Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio, who continues to aide Hamlet throughout the play, to “Never make known what you have seen tonight” (Act 1 Scene 5 Line 160). He then uses Ophelia, by appearing to her as mad, to catch the attention of the King, through which he also uses Polonius as he knows Polonius would take the event to the King. He then, having established his madness, continues to seek away to gain vengeance for his father but is “trapped by the secrecy and questionable legality of the Ghost’s commandment… [and] the subjective terror of his own resistance to revenge” (Moral Agency in Hamlet, Shakespeare Studies). Troubled by the potential for deception on the part of the Ghost, Hamlet uses a group of players to “catch the conscience of the King” (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 634). And to ensure certainty, Hamlet requests Horatio’s aide, and, after witnessing the King’s reaction to the play, they both agree on the King’s guilt. Claudius, in the meanwhile, becomes more and more sure, and consequently afraid, of Hamlet’s “madness”. Shortly after the play, Claudius faces, unknowingly, death at the hands of Hamlet but is spared this fate because he was praying. Hamlet believed that Claudius would be sent to heaven as his prayer would have the “relish of salvation in ‘t” (Act 3 Scene 4 Line 97). However, he is mistaken in that Claudius’ prayers are not going to heaven. And so the conflict that could have been ended stretches on until it finally reaches a confrontation, but not until it has left a bloody wake.

Meaning not “To let his [Hamlet’s] madness” (Act 3 Scene 3 Line 2), King Claudius assigns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to ensure the arrival of Hamlet to England. To this effect, Claudius also sends a letter by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern telling the kingdom of England to execute Hamlet. Hamlet, however, is aware of his former friends’ treachery and switches the letter with one ordering their deaths instead of his to “blow them at the moon” (Act 3 Scene 4 Line 232). And thus, two casualties occur in the war between the “mighty opposites.” However there was a casualty before theirs: the slaying of Polonius by Hamlet. Prior to his departure to England, Hamlet confronted his mother who, distressed by his behavior, calls out for help. Polonius, who hide behind the curtains after scheming with Queen Gertrude to temper Hamlet’s madness, is prompted to call for help as well. Hearing a voice behind the curtain, Hamlet thrusts forth his sword and kills Polonius. This leads onto Ophelia’s madness, brought on by her father’s death and Hamlet’s own “madness”, who in turn dies by either the her own hand or the hand of her madness. By this time Laertes has arrived demanding vengeance for his father’s death. Using Laertes’ passion for his own designs, Claudius plans with Laertes to kill Hamlet. Their plan is to kill Hamlet through either duel, a poisoned blade, or, to the regret of the King, a poisoned drink. Hamlet excepts the duel with Laertes and kills him in the duel. Gertrude, however, has drank the poisoned goblet and dies. Hamlet himself is poisoned by Laertes blade and dies after he has killed Claudius with both sword and drink.

Of course, the “mighty opposites” were not all to blame for the deaths. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, and Polonius could have chosen not to aid the king, and Laertes could have controlled his temper. Alas, they did not.

Works Cited

Moral Agency in Hamlet 40 (2012). EBSCOhost. Web. 17 Dec. 2013. <http://web.ebscohost.com/src/detail?vid=3&sid=4b95bc05-17e9-4756-8e9b-9ec8309b6f13%40sessionmgr115&hid=119&bdata=JnNpdGU9c3JjLWxpdmU%3d#db=ulh&AN=82541423&gt;.

Shakespeare’s HAMLET 1.2.153 62.1. EBSCOhost. Web. 17 Dec. 2013. <http://web.ebscohost.com/src/detail?vid=4&sid=4b95bc05-17e9-4756-8e9b-9ec8309b6f13%40sessionmgr115&hid=119&bdata=JnNpdGU9c3JjLWxpdmU%3d#db=ulh&AN=11867592&gt;.

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