In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark the protagonist exhibits a puzzling duplicitous nature. Hamlet contradicts himself throughout out the play. He endorses both of the virtues of acting a role and being true to oneis self. He further supports both of these conflicting endorsements with his actions. This ambiguity is demonstrated by his alleged madness, for he does behave madly, only to become perfectly calm and rational an instant later. These inconsistencies are related with the internal dilemmas he faces. He struggles with the issue of revenging his fatheris death, vowing to kill Claudius and then backing out, several times. Upon this point Hamlet teeters through the play. The reason for this teetering is directly related to his inability to form a solid opinion about role playing. This difficulty is not present, however, at the start of the play.
In the first act Hamlet appears to be very straightforward in his actions and inner state. When questioned by Gertrude about his melancholy appearance Hamlet says, ESeems, madam? Nay it is. I know not EseemsiE (1.2.76). This is to say EI am what I appear to be.E Later he makes a clear statement about his state when he commits himself to revenge. In this statement the play makes an easy to follow shift. This shift consists of Hamlet giving up the role of a student and mourning son. Hamlet says,
Iill wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Hamlet is declaring that he will be committed to nothing else but the revenge of his fathers death. There is no confusion about Hamletis character. He has said earlier that he is what he appears to be, and there is no reason to doubt it. In the next act, however, Hamletis status and intentions suddenly and with out demonstrated reason becomes mired in confusion.
When Hamlet appears again in act two, it seems that he has lost the conviction that was present earlier. He has yet to take up the part assigned to him by the ghost. He spends the act walking around, reading, talking with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the players. It is not until the very end of the act that he even mentions vengeance. If he had any of the conviction shown earlier he would be presently working on his vengeance. So instead of playing the part of vengeful son, or dropping the issue entirely, he hangs out in the middle, pretending to be mad. This is shown when he says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern EI know not-lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exerciseE (2.2.298-299). Later he tells them that he is just feigning madness when he says, EI am but mad north-north-west, when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsawE (2.2.380-381). Admitting so blatantly that he is only feigning madness would imply that he is comfortable with it. He also seems to be generally comfortable with acting This is evidenced when he says, Ethere is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it soE (2.2.251-252). Hamlet is saying that behavior shapes reality. It is puzzling that Hamlet is comfortable with playing at this point but not with the role that he said he would play earlier. If he is to play a role why not the one that his father gave him? When the players come in a short wile later his attitude changes.
Hamlet is prompted to vengeance, again, by the moving speech that is given by one of the players. About this speech he says,
Whatis Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he motive and cue for passion
That I have? (2.2.561-564)
In this praise of this players ability to act, Hamlet is saying that if he were such an actor he would have killed Claudius by now. This link between vengeance and acting that is present here is what Hamlet struggles with until very near the end. He is then moved to swear that he should kill Claudius when