What Incident Serves to Initiate the Conflict in "Hamlet"?
“Hamlet” has become the prime test of an actor’s skills and of a reader’s perceptiveness. William Shakespeare’s longest play, “Hamlet” is also his most complex, yet much of its action and angst stems from a single incident that has happened before the play begins: the murder of Hamlet’s father. The play revolves around a web of conflicts, including person against person, person against environment and person against himself.
The most obvious conflict is between Hamlet and his uncle Claudius, who inherited the throne; only a month after the death of Hamlet’s father, Claudius married Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and his sister-in-law. It is clear from his very first scene that Hamlet resents the suddenness of the marriage. When the ghost of his father tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him, this resentment coalesces into a promise of revenge. After many hesitations and complicated attempts to prove Claudius’ guilt -- such as a re-enactment in play form -- Hamlet finally stabs Claudius.
Another example of interpersonal conflict in “Hamlet” is between the prince and Laertes, son of the king’s counselor Polonius. Laertes is a young man of action, and when Hamlet kills Laertes' father, albeit accidentally, Laertes returns from his studies to avenge him. Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel and nicks him with a poisoned blade. This conflict stems indirectly from Hamlet’s father’s murder because Hamlet stabbed Polonius while the man was eavesdropping from behind a curtain, thinking he was Claudius.
The code of honor in Hamlet’s world demands that men avenge wrongs, as Laertes does. His decisive actions contrast with Hamlet’s convoluted plotting. This is a form of “person against environment” conflict, because Hamlet’s personal inclinations are toward introspection and melancholy, while society calls for a more macho mindset. In a speech in Act 4, Hamlet compares himself to Fortinbras, king of Norway, who pursues that masculine code of honor relentlessly; only then does Hamlet finally resolve to kill Claudius.
Not only does Hamlet vie against other characters and a social code, but he also struggles with himself as he attempts to convince himself to follow his father’s ghostly instructions. In some of his most famous speeches, Hamlet, alone on stage, wrestles with competing impulses. In Act 2, he laments that an actor can pretend to greater passion while playing a part than he himself can muster in real life, criticizing himself as “a rogue and peasant slave.” Later, he debates suicide as a way out of his dilemma, speculating whether death could “end / The heart-ache.”
Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.