The theme of father-child relations is one of the leading and important themes in William Shakespeare’s novel The Tragedy of Hamlet. It contributes greatly to the plot development and plays a crucial role at the end of the play.
The complexity of family relations conditions most characters’ behavior in general and Hamlet’s actions and behavior in particular. Hamlet has dual feelings after his father’s death. On the one hand, he cannot forgive his father: he has gone too early and left his son without support and hope. On the other hand, Hamlet sees his mother and uncle’s betray. He cannot believe that his mother, Gertrude, is able to marry his uncle just in a couple of days after her husband’s death. Hamlet’s emotional ties with his parents become weaker and weaker. He gets lost in the intrigues around him, he does not know whom to believe and how his closest people – his father and mother – could treat him in such a way.
Shakespeare’s tragedy presents one of the traditional parent-child relations model due to the Jungian concept. Modern psychoanalytic researchers state that most of the Shakespearean tragedies present traditional models of difficult parent-child relations. In front of Hamlet’s eyes his “good mother” transforms into a wicked and cruel woman without heart. This fact makes Hamlet suffer even more. The image of his father becomes not just “good” but “holy”. On the basis of his psychological disorders and his uncle and mother’s behavior he starts suspecting them in a condemning a terrible crime. “The death of the “good father” and the remarriage that transforms the “good mother” into a sexual being force the ideal, archetypal parents of imagination to die a violent death” (Porterfield, 75). It becomes the first stage of his mania development. Hamlet has a choice either to live in his illusions and assumptions or start analyzing the situation from the real side. He is torn by his two selves and comes back to the rational thinking only in separate periods. One of such moments is the appearance of actors in the house. Hamlet for the first time does not want just to revenge his uncle for his dad’s murder. He wants to check whether Claudius killed his father or not. He asks actors to act a drama under the title “Mousetrap”. The plot of the play resembles real drama in Hamlet’s family and Hamlet wants to see Claudius reaction, however, this play does not have a great effect. Hamlet becomes even more disappointed and turns back to his illusions and thoughts about revenge.
Parent-child relations do not become easier after his father’s death. Hamlet is not able to calm down, accept the fact that his father has gone and just continue his own life. He is so closely connected with his father that from time to time his father’s spirit appears in front of his eyes pushing Hamlet to revenge. Father’s spirit insists that it was a murder that Hamlet must reveal everything in order his soul could be free. These relations make Hamlet blind and do not allow him to see that he is moving in the abyss and there is no way out. “Ultimately, Hamlet cannot avoid violence, but he gives us courage, generation after generation, to attempt the ideal while existing with the sometimes nearly unbearable realities that life imposes” (Porterfield, 97). Hamlet’s life in the illusionary world, his aggression and wish to revenge, panic and mania and psychological disorders and insane state are the result of the difficult family situation.
In fact, the whole Shakespeare’s play is developed through family relations and parent-child attitude. Hamlet’s tragedy is his whole family’s tragedy. The significance of this theme in the plot development is undisputable. It also serves as a main component of the characters’ development. We see Hamlet through his relations with his dead father and his mother. We see Gertrude through her attitude to her dead husband and her son. It is necessary to note that characters are shown in their development, however, such parent-child relations may result only in a tragedy and Hamlet proves it on his own example at the end of the play.
At first, it may seem that relations between Hamlet and Gertrude are distanced and even cold and the son starts despising his mother because of her betray. However, actually it is not so. Their relations stay positive. She is always his mother and he is not able to tear this parent-child connection between them. Hamlet accuses Claudius in his father’s death and wants to kill him as a kind of revenge, however, we find no allusion about his hatred or plan of revenge considering his mother. He is polite and kind with her as though she was a small child did not realize what was happening. He asks her not to sleep with his uncle in one bed reminding her about the secrecy and intimacy of marriage. Gertrude’s calm reaction to this request shows that she has warm feelings towards Hamlet. Mother’s behavior makes Hamlet despise all women except his mother. Hamlet now has a fixed belief that all women are cheaters and he avoids any relations with them. Ophelia becomes a victim of this prejudice. Nevertheless, Gertrude stays the only woman in Hamlet’s heart. It is possible to make an assumption that such her attitude’s makes Hamlet’s tragedy even worse. He feels that mother’s attitude has not changed to him and at the same time he cannot realize how she agreed to marry his father’s murderer. This is one more piece of the puzzle which, all in all, will lead
Hamlet to insanity, and death, as a result.
The scene of Gertrude’s death is very demonstrative speaking about son and mother’s relations. Gertrude is dying and the only person she wants to see at that moment is her son. She says: “No, no! the drink, the drink! O my dear Hamlet! / The drink, the drink! I am poisoned” (V. ii. 314-315). Hamlet is shocked and confused, he wants to reveal the treachery in any way. This scene of Hamlet’s real despair shows the real relations between the son and the mother.
In the Bible we find: “The sins of the parents fall on the child.” Hamlet proves it on his own example. Hamlet knows about the duty of a child to a father or mother and devotes his further life for the revenge in his father’s name. Hamlet Sr.’s soul cannot find the rest and it wanders between the earth and the heavens. Hamlet’s father did not confess his sins before his death and now he is waiting for his son to do it for him.
Nevertheless, parent-child and father-son relations, in particular, may also be seen from another perspective in the play. Relations between Hamlet and his father are close and sympathizing. The other thing is Claudius and Hamlet. Claudius becomes Hamlet’s father, so he also represents a parental figure in the play. However, these relations do not seem friendly, on the contrary, they symbolize a sharp conflict and even hatred of two family members. They are rather competitors for the power, for Gertrude and for the own place in this family. Hamlet is weak and young, however, he is supported by his invisible father’s spirit. Claudius is wicked and strong, however, not strong enough to destroy family relations that have been formed during a long period of time. “The conflict in this parent-son-type relationship grows from many different sources and sets the stage for the entire play and Hamlet’s character development. A primary source of conflict between Claudius and Hamlet is the topic of incestuous affairs” (Watterson, 20). As a result, this conflict has a very dramatic solution: Gertrude is poisoned and Hamlet and Claudius are dead.
To draw a conclusion, parent-child relations seem to be one of the most dramatic and touching themes in Shakespeare’s masterpiece The Tragedy of Hamlet. Through Hamlet’s relations with his parents and his uncle we see his character in development. All his actions, thoughts, illusions, manias, insanity and psychological disorders are conditioned by these relations. Hamlet’s life does not belong to him, it becomes a weapon in the hands of the destiny. He is too weak and embarrassed to accept his father’s death. He is not able to deal with this problem and to solve it somehow. At the same time he cannot accept the position of non-action. He stays alone with himself and does not see the way out. He is caught in the mousetrap created by his own subconscious. Hamlet becomes a victim of circumstances and he does not resist them. Difficult and complicated family relations create these circumstances.
Child-parent relations contribute to both plot and characters’ development. They create the main conflict of the play and make it so dramatic. This conflict appears to be unsolvable due to its deep nature. Hamlet is not able to stay apart from his duty towards his father and he starts fighting knowing almost for sure that he will loose. That is the main tragedy of the play and of parent-child relations.
Porterfield, Sally F. “Oh Dad, Poor Dad: The Universal Disappointment of Imperfect Parents in Hamlet.” Jung’s Advice to the Players: A Jungian
Reading of Shakespeare’s Problem Plays. Drama and Theatre Studies 57. Westport: Greenwood P, 1994. 72-98.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
Watterson, William Collins. “Hamlet’s Lost Father.” Hamlet Studies 16 (1994): 10-23.