The significance of identity

It is not surprising, given the ambiguous nature of Hamlet's kinship with Claudius and Gertrude, that there are several places in the play where relationships and identity are foregrounded. ‘Who's there?' — the Photo by The High Fin Sperm Whale available through Creative Commonsopening line of the play — becomes a motif throughout the play.

Some of the ways in which we are asked to consider identity are expressed as humour — for example when in Act III scene ii Hamlet teases Polonius about the shape of clouds, getting Polonius to identify the same cloud as having three quite different shapes:

‘Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?'
‘By th' mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.'
‘Methinks it is like a weasel.'
‘It is backed like a weasel.'
‘Or like a whale?'
‘Very like a whale.'

Defined by relationship

  • In his first comment in the play, Hamlet rejects the claim of Claudius that he is speaking to ‘My cousin Hamlet and my son.'
    ‘A little more than kin and less than kind,' Hamlet retorts in an aside
  • The nature of this relationship is questioned further when Hamlet visits his mother in Act III scene iv. When Gertrude asks, ‘Have you forgot me?', Hamlet replies:
    ‘No, by the rood, not so. / You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife.'
  • He comments even more bitterly on this when he taunts Claudius, calling him ‘My mother,' because:
    ‘Father and mother is man and wife; man and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother.'

A sense of self

By the time he has returned from the voyage to England, Hamlet seems much more confident about his identity. Leaping into Ophelia's grave he can now declare:

‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane.'

The use of the title, ‘The Dane', is an assertion of his right to be king. He is not just the son of his father, another Hamlet, nor the son of the former queen, now wife of her brother-in-law; he is ready to claim his identity as the rightful ruler.

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