More than any other play by Shakespeare, Hamlet focuses on the point of view of a single character: Hamlet himself, which makes him sympathetic even as he commits unsympathetic acts. Hamlet has more lines than any other character in Shakespeare, and nearly 40% of the lines in his play—the highest proportion of lines Shakespeare ever gave to a single character. Hamlet’s speeches are also exceptionally revealing: he discusses his thoughts and feelings about profound questions like the meaning of life, the possibility of an afterlife, familial and sexual love, suicide, religion, and suffering.
Despite his many flaws—recklessness, cruelty, indecisiveness, misogyny—Hamlet has remained an enduringly popular and fascinating character because Shakespeare shows us so much of his inner life that we cannot help but sympathize with him. Hamlet reveals his mental state to the audience throughout the play, so the audience remains close to him and understands his motivations from beginning to end. Rather than becoming estranged from the audience as he becomes estranged from himself, like Macbeth, Hamlet continues to question himself and his actions up until his death.
The point of view in Hamlet is so close to Hamlet himself that it’s sometimes impossible to be sure whether something is really happening in the play or whether Hamlet just thinks it’s happening. Although Marcellus, Barnardo, and Horatio see the Ghost, only Hamlet ever hears it speak, and when the Ghost makes its third appearance in Gertrude’s closet, only Hamlet can see it. The discrepancy around who hears the ghost raises the question of whether the Ghost’s speech might be a hallucination of Hamlet’s, confirming a suspicion he already holds rather than giving him new information.
Additionally, in the play scene, Hamlet is convinced that his play has made Claudius feel guilty—“What, frighted with false fire?” (III.ii)—but other characters seem to believe that Hamlet’s own behavior has made Claudius feel not guilty but angry: “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended” (III.iv.). The audience can’t decide these questions either way, which contributes to the play’s air of mystery, and also makes us feel that we are so close to Hamlet’s point of view that we are seeing the play’s events the way he sees them. By keeping the audience so close to Hamlet’s perspective and interpretation, Shakespeare tells his story through the point of view of an unreliable narrator.
Despite the closeness of the play’s point of view to Hamlet, and the amount of time other characters spend questioning him and spying on him, there are many mysteries about his character which are never solved, and these mysteries create the play’s troubling sense that truth is ultimately unknowable. The audience never discovers how far Hamlet has really gone mad and how far he’s pretending. We never find out what is making him so unhappy: his father’s death, his mother’s marriage, his failure to become king, his inability to take revenge, or his inability to work out what to believe. We never learn what his real feelings for Ophelia are; nor do we know why it takes him so long to finally kill Claudius. By bringing us so close to the point of view of a single character while ultimately making him mysterious, Hamlet suggests that the core of human nature is unknowable.
Take a Study Break
Every Shakespeare Play Summed Up in a Quote from The Office
Every Book on Your English Syllabus, Summed Up in Marvel Quotes
A Roundup of the Funniest Great Gatsby Memes You'll Ever See
QUIZ: How Many of These Literary Jeopardy! Questions Can You Answer Correctly?
7 "Crazy" Women in Literature Who Were Actually Being Totally Reasonable
Honest Names for All the Books on Your English Syllabus
QUIZ: Are You a Hero, a Villain, or an Anti-Hero?