Posted: September 3rd, 2013
Hamlet and a Modern perspective: Michael Neill
Hamlet is one of the few plays that have traversed many generations. It has managed to capture and hold the audiences’ attention whenever it is performed. The story has many seemingly dark themes such as murder and revenge. In his essay, Michael Neill observes that spying is one of the central themes in the play. He observes that everyone in Claudius’ Denmark is watched. There is no room for secrecy or privacy in such a society. Friends spy on one another, and fathers spy on their children. The leaders are worried and concerned, and they spy on one another for they do not seem to trust anyone. People in this society feel that they have to spy on each other, to avoid missing the events that are happening.
Spying is one of the major themes prevalent in the play. It is introduced by Hamlet, who uses it as a device to achieve his agenda. It is however used by many people in the play, especially the people in Claudius’ government, who use it as a way to destroy Hamlet, and those who work against the king. The king uses two of his subjects to spy on Hamlet. The decision for the authorities to spy on people was not started by Shakespeare in the play. It seems to have been prevalent in the society at that time. Neill observes that Queen Elizabeth 1 had a strong network of spies and informers. In the play, the king uses spies as a way to control the people. What he does not realize, is that he is also being spied on by his nephew. Hamlet instructs one of his friends to watch the king’s reaction during the performance in the play to see his reaction. The characters in the play spy by watching and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.
Neill observes that Shakespeare uses the play to expose how the authoritarian government at the time controlled the people. It determined their relationships and friendships. It destroys the social and intimate relationships that people have. This is clear in the play, as even the members of one family spy on one another. For instance, in the play, Gertrude spies on her son. Friendships are not spared either, as is clear from the actions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The two are Hamlet’s friends and his former schoolmates. Although they claim to be his friends, they are really on Claudius’ side, and they are using the friendship they have with Hamlet to spy on him. Unlike other plays, love does not conquer all, and it does not assume first place in the lovers’ lives. This is seen in the way Ophelia is used to spy against Hamlet.
Neill notes that the play is full of hidden, mysterious and secret actions, which complicate it further. The king does not use Hamlet’s enemies to spy on him. He chooses the people who are closest to him, such as his friends and family. This creates uncertainty in the play because the reader is not initially aware of the spies’ intentions. Hamlet uses various means, including insanity, to spy on the king. This complicates the story further. It adds to the strength of Hamlet’s character when acting as an insane person, and thus confuses the reader. The reader is not sure whether Hamlet is acting in this way because he is insane or whether he is using his insane behavior to achieve his purpose. The fact that Shakespeare chooses to use Ophelia as a spy complicates the story. Ophelia is an innocent character in the play, one who seems to have genuine love for the protagonist. She wants to help Hamlet, and find out what is causing all his troubles. The reader is therefore surprised when she decides to spy on the man she claims to love.
The decision made by the some of the characters to spy, changes their character, as it makes them deceitful. This affects different characters in the story in many ways. Gertrude decision to betray her son makes him indifferent towards her. However, hamlet changes after his mother reaffirms her loyalty to her son. She admits that she had made a mistake in deceiving her son, and she redeems herself. Although Ophelia claims to love Hamlet, she nevertheless decides to betray him by spying on him. She does not seem to have a mind of her own, or reason independently. She follows her father’s advice although she knows that it is wrong to do so.
Spying is one of the prevalent themes in the story, and it leads to deceit. It enhances plot and character development. However, in the end, it all leads to guilt and death of some of the major characters in the story. For instance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern end up losing their lives. Hamlet kills Polonius, Ophelia’s father. He had spied on Hamlet, and he had encouraged his daughter to spy on Hamlet. Polonius ensures that he listens to all of Hamlet’s conversations, using whatever means he can. He hides wherever he can, so that he can hear what hamlet is saying, and report it to Claudius. This ultimately leads to his death, as hamlet stabs him when he is hiding. Ophelia ends up going mad because Hamlet rejects her when he learns of her betrayal.
Neill is correct in saying that the play is full of mysteries and secrets. He is also correct in saying that every one in the story is being watched. All the characters who are spying benefit in some way. Polonius does not want his daughter married to Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want to be in the right standing with the king, and they therefore decide to betray the friendship they have with Hamlet. Gertrude and Ophelia are mysterious characters in the play, and they complicate the story. Gertrude spies on her son, but she later amends her ways. Ophelia wants to help Hamlet, but she decides to spy on Hamlet. She does what her father requests of her. Spying has enhanced other themes in the story such as betrayal, death, and revenge. It has also enhanced character development, as all the characters who spy on different people are transformed in one way or another. It has enhanced the plot development, as it sets the action in play in motion
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