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Analysis of Paul Gottschalk’s Essay, Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge

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Within Paul Gottschalk’s essay, “Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge,” the concepts and ideologies of what comprises a hero are examined in a critical light. Specifically, this piece analyzes the Prayer Scene (Hamlet, 3.4, 88-96) and its significance to the character of Hamlet and to the play as a whole. Gottschalk analyzes Hamlet’s motivations and character changes over the course of Shakespeare’s piece, attempting to discern a pattern to his behavior and ultimately to answer the question of whether or not the character of Hamlet truly fits into the model of the heroic ideal. In this, Gottschalk reviews many facets of the character of Hamlet, as well as taking into account the outside influences and factors that might have played critical roles in his decision making process.

He focuses upon the nature of Hamlet and the question of whether he was indeed truly what one might classically define as the heroic ideal as postulated by the form of the Grecian tragedies and Aristotle’s model, which served as templates for the medium at this juncture. Gottschalk noted the juxtaposition between Hamlet’s seemingly divergent personality traits in which he served as both scourge and minister at various points over the course of the play and with this in mind, we attempted to weigh Hamlet in this balance in order to determine if the sum of him leaned more heavily to the path of the righteous or the road of villainy.

The primary question seems to revolve around the question of the sanity of the character and the what might have been going through Hamlet’s mind in order for him to take the actions that he did. Of course, there are also outside factors that may have played into these matters as well, such as the prevailing political climate of the world into which he was thrust and that dominated the world within which the piece was penned and the religious aspects of both. However, to the question of whether or not Hamlet can be defined as a hero, these external aspects become much more secondary in importance. Gottschalk begins with the question of Hamlet’s sanity and whether the character himself was even full cognizant of his own actions and motivations.

Within this essay, he notes that Hamlet is the only character within Shakespeare’s works that we ever see true indecision from and then goes on to speculate that perhaps this leads to a certain air of a less than stable psyche. Hamlet seems to be the aberration where matters of self-assurance are concerned. The question becomes quickly, however, whether Hamlet is aware of the fact that he is acting in a manner that is causing others to believe that he is bereft of his senses and he plays upon these beliefs to his own ends very well. If that is in fact the case, the it would show a level of self-awareness that is rarely, if ever, found amongst the truly mad. If anything, Hamlet has fallen into a state of depression… which given the circumstance at the time is completely normal and well within the realm of classically defined sanity, be it the Elizabethan ideal, or that of the modern era.

Gottschalk seems to believe that Hamlet is in fact aware of his actions and in control of his faculties, and thus begins to dissect his motivations in an attempt to get to the core of the character in order to better ascertain if he falls to the side of hero or villain… scourge or minister. To do this, Gottschalk looks at the factual and textual evidence that we have of Hamlet’s actions and the way in which the mesh with the prevailing mentality of the period in which this piece was written.
Gottschalk points out in his piece that Hamlet’s words within the context of the Prayer scene may well have been viewed as damning given the social and religious views of what his actions and inactions both implied and stated. It was at this point that Hamlet went from a character who was seeking out noble vengeance for an unjustly slain father, to wanting to see King Claudius’ soul damned to hell so that he might suffer for all of eternity.

Though such a mentality might not seem so terribly horrific given a much more modern perspective, at the time the audiences of the piece, as is postulated by Gottschalk, would have stood aghast that their protagonist would even be entertaining such an idea. This notion crosses the boundary from the simple sadism that we have seen throughout Shakespeare’s prior works and goes well beyond the pale with one, singular, giant leap. So, in this, there can be little question that Hamlet does in fact turn himself into a monster in his nearly all consuming question for revenge. He no longer seeks righteous vengeance. He is no longer the minister seeking only to do God’s work and set the scales straight.

Instead he has become no better than the object of his hatred. He has taken up the mantle of scourge and in the process has managed to damn his own soul. I believe that Shakespeare even plays upon this fact throughout the remainder of the piece by thrusting Hamlet into a very similar position to that of King Claudius. When Hamlet slays Polonius, he gives Laertes the same blow that he himself was forced to suffer and the same reasons for seeking out righteous vengeance that he himself once felt. In this, Nietzsches postulate that, “Whomever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster” is given weight and proven to be true. In his desire for revenge, Hamlet has inadvertently become the thing that he most loathes.


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