"Conscience does make cowards of us all." Hamlet the sceptic thinker - an anti-hero?

Term Paper, 2013

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The birth of Hamlet the avenger

3. Hamlet the sceptic thinker - an anti-hero?

4. The soliloquy as an evidence for Hamlet’s antiheroism..

5. Conclusion...

6. Bibliography ..

1. Introduction

As the protagonist of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the young Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is popularly considered a heroic figure, revenging the murder of his father who was poisoned by Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. He appears to be an archetypical Renaissance figure, a versatile character that contains something of everything within him: “He is the sophisticated thinker and the powerless politician; the resentful child and the sober student; the moral Puritan and the deranged Prince; the witty murderer and the cold-blooded jester.”1

Since Michael Davies speaks of Hamlet’s supposed renaissance variety “as a compendium of selves” and therefore of a rather “modern man of no fixed identity”2, we will in the context of this work examine the question whether Hamlet could be considered an anti-hero by pointing out certain traits of his introverted nature and the significant impact of self-reflection on Hamlet’s be- haviour throughout the play.

A first chapter will be dedicated to the destabilisation of Hamlet’s identity that evokes for the first time during the conversation with his father’s ghost and finally culminates in the promise to wreak revenge on Claudius. From that moment on, the versatile character of Hamlet is expanded by the identity of the avenger which seems to constitute the starting point of the whole process of self-reflection in the play.

Afterwards, we will take a detailed look on Hamlet’s coping with the burden of revenge by pointing out to what extent his behaviour could be considered non- heroic. In this context we will not only focus on his self-reflecting nature but also demonstrate certain actions which manifest the complexity of his identity. Finally, we will dedicate a last chapter to Hamlet’s soliloquies which constitute an essential part of his self-reflecting nature, revealing the doubts that surround his actions as well as the philosophical qualities of his thoughts.

2. The birth of Hamlet the avenger

In this chapter, we will examine Hamlet’s mental development based on his new identity as an avenger that is added to his omnium gatherum of traits by the close of the first act.

When being told by the ghost to “Revenge his [father’s] foul and most unnatu- ral murder”3, the character of Prince Hamlet experiences a significant change which forms the foundations for all further selves that he develops throughout the play: Although revenge seems to give Hamlet a clear role as the avenger of his dead father, it also constitutes the basis of Hamlet as the villain, the mad- man and other selves. Thus, revenge does not serve as an element that unifies Hamlet’s identity but rather as a new trait that fragments it even further.4

The promise of revenge leads to a destabilisation of Hamlet’s identity because he is confronted with an extreme situation, an imposed new identity that does not fit his intellectual nature and nourishes his self-doubts. This crucial mo- ment of insecurity constitutes the starting point of Hamlet’s self-reflection and reveals first signs of non-heroic behaviour. Hence, we could say that his pre- existing thoughtfulness is the breeding ground for his anti-heroism and finds its motor in the burden of revenge which appears to be quite grotesque, consider- ing that the act of revenge is actually supposed to make him a hero.

Even shortly before Hamlet is given the order to kill Claudius, we find out about his unsuitability for the task of revenge that his father’s ghost will set him a few scenes later. In the first soliloquy of 1.2, Hamlet compares his father to Claudius by saying that he is no more alike than “Hyperion to a satyr”5 and then, more importantly, states that his father’s brother is “no more like my fa- ther / Than I to Hercules”.6 For us, this statement is of extreme importance be- cause it proves that Hamlet sees himself as a rather “unheroic, perhaps even unmasculine”7 character, considering that Hercules, son of Zeus, is regarded to be the archetypical hero. These words of self-doubt already give us a rough idea of the destabilising effect the burden of revenge will finally have on Hamlet’s fragile state of mind by forcing him to accept the role of the hero.

3. Hamlet the sceptic thinker - an anti-hero?

In this main chapter, Hamlet’s coping with the burden of revenge will be exam- ined by pointing out essential indications of non-heroic behaviour. In this con- text, we will not only focus on certain traits of his self-reflecting nature being considered unheroic as such but also deal with some of Hamlet’s actions that appear to be fatal products of his not being able to bear the task of avenging his father’s murder.

But first of all, it would be useful to clarify briefly what a literary anti-hero is and what special characteristics he features:

“[An anti-hero is the] Protagonist einer Geschichte, der durch den Mangel an bestimmten positiven Eigenschaften dem Typus des Helden gegenübersteht. Während der Held etablierten Normen und Werten einer Gesellschaft in phy- sischer, psychischer und sozialer Hinsicht ideal entspricht, weicht der A. von ihnen in mindestens einer Hinsicht signifikant ab; dabei kann er in anderer Hinsicht durchaus überdurchschnittliche Qualitäten besitzen.“8

As we revealed in the previous chapter, the allusion to Hercules adds a certain notion of a “brave and masculine virtue”9 to the play, in the absence of which Hamlet “conveys his own measure of himself as a man”.10 By mentioning Her- cules, an ancient Greek hero who also fascinated other Renaissance artists like Michelangelo Buonarroti, a certain heroic ideal of “a hero of inordinate pas- sions and exceptional physical prowess, […] associated above all with success in battle and with establishing order through physical conquest”11 is being con- stituted.


1 Davies, p. 50.

2 Ibid.

3 Shakespeare, p. 186.

4 Davies, p. 51.

5 Shakespeare, p. 163.

6 Ibid., p. 164.

7 Davies, p. 52.

8 Metzler, p. 30.

9 Wells, p. 26.

10 Davies, p. 52.

11 Ibid.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


"Conscience does make cowards of us all." Hamlet the sceptic thinker - an anti-hero?
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
402 KB
Hamlet, Antiheld, anti-hero, Shakespeare, Drama, Renaissance
Quote paper
David Schumann (Author), 2013, "Conscience does make cowards of us all." Hamlet the sceptic thinker - an anti-hero?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/262470


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: "Conscience does make cowards of us all." Hamlet the sceptic thinker - an anti-hero?

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free