Hamlet in a Nutshell

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Hamlet, the Danish Prince we all seem to know a little about. The enigmatic figure we love to try and understand, whether you think he is a sullen teenager who should get  over himself or a lost soul who needs love and comfort, Hamlet is a character who endures in our imaginations.

It has been said that there is a little bit of Hamlet in all of us, so let’s spend a few moments looking a bit closer at this mysterious man.

We don’t meet Hamlet at all in the first scene and to distinguish him from his dead father he is referred to only as ‘young Hamlet’ which creates in our minds an image of someone youthful. We then see  Hamlet (for 64 lines before he speaks) when he enters in Act 1 scene 2 along with the royal party. What impressions do we form of him in this time? What do we see on the stage? How youthful is ‘young Hamlet’? His first words are an aside to Claudius who addresses him as ‘my son’, to which Hamlet replies to us, rather than to Claudius, in perfect iambic pentameter,  “A little more than kin, and less than kind!”

Poetic? Enigmatic? Bitter? Clever? Quick witted? Spoiled? Dangerous? These are all things we might read into these first words of Hamlet’s. Hamlet goes on in a rather riddling way to explain his depression as a result of being ‘too much in the sun’ with a clever reference back to Claudius calling him ‘my son’. Yes, there is something of the teenager turning the adult’s words back on them with smug self satisfaction but there is also genuine intelligence in these word games which Claudius seems unable to participate in.

Hamlet’s first longer speech is about the difference between seeming and being.  Hamlet explains that is grief is not simply the trappings of woe but what he feels inside, that ‘which passes show’. For Hamlet the inner self is of upmost importance. A concept which seems to mark him out throughout the play.  And which leads to one of my favourite quotes from Hamlet (If not Shakespeare).

Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to understand the cause of Hamlet’s depression and they suggest to him that it might be because of his frustrated ambition to which he replies “O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space”. How could he do that? Because the inner self is infinite, because Hamlet believes that how you perceive a thing makes all the difference. As he says just a moment before this line “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” which always reminds me of Satan’s  line from Milton’s paradise lost “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”. A reminder perhaps that happiness, power, kingship etc are all, as Hamlet suggests, states of mind rather than objective facts.

But before I get in too deep I will close with an amusing anecdote about this quote. I asked our twitter followers recently which of Shakespeare’s characters they would least like to be stuck in a lift with, to which one witty follower replied “Hamlet, if he thinks he is the king of infinite space in a nutshell just think what he would be like in a lift!”

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Duncan, I agree with you that part of Hamlet’s frustration is his inability to completely control his inner self however I still see the character as a person for whom the inner situation is of more import that the outer. He may not quite be Captain Kernel (Love that by the way) but he would like to be and on some level things he should be able to be. ^liz

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  • Duncan

    That Hamlet nutshell quote. He qualifies what he says by adding “, were it not that I have bad dreams”. He means that if he were shut inside the nut, his bad dreams would be there with him spoiling his mastery of the tiny space. So isn’t actually capable of being Captain Kernel.

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