Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet (1603) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), explore the theme of conflict and its repercussions, each play highlighting different aspects of the theme due to differences in genre and subject.
Conflict, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one”, and would therefore seem to lend itself naturally to the more tragic of the two plays, Hamlet.
Elizabethan dramatists, influenced as they were by Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, generally included some of his ideas; catharsis, hamartia and peripetiea, the most popular of the time, are all used in Hamlet. These devices could be said either to cause or to result from conflict, affecting either the characters or the audience.
Aristotle’s view of the comedy genre is that it focuses on the lives of ordinary people, not aristocrats, while Dante states that comedy begins with problems but ends with happiness – a formula that most Elizabethan comedies followed. However, Shakespeare transcends the boundaries of genre in each play to reflect upon the nature of society, given the fact that no real-life situation is solely tragic or comic.
Denton Jacques Snider corroborates this, stating that “(Shakespeare’s) tragedies never fail of having their comic interludes; his comedies have … a background with a tragic outlook.” This essay will explore the ways conflict is presented through the framework of the different genres of each of the plays.
The two plays contain many different shades of conflict; however, one could broadly speak of internal and external conflict. Elizabethan audiences reveled in shocking drama and conflict. While patrons liked a good comedy, the newest foray into treachery, debauchery, and murder, such as George Peel’s The Battle of Alcazar (1594) was the most admired.
Some of Shakespeare’s most violent plays were by far his most popular during his lifetime; although modern audiences are often repulsed by its gore and brutality, Titus Andronicus was a huge success in Tudor England.
The outer and inner conflict groupings each contain numerous sections of more specific struggles. Conflict in Hamlet is roughly made up of political and familial disputes as well as of ideological divergence between religious sects, while the conflict in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more largely based on the clash between the rational and the irrational – although there is also plenty of inter-character conflict as well.
Conflict is central to the two plays in terms of structure: in both, the conflict introduced and sustained is one of the main similarities between the plays. Hamlet begins with the line “Who’s there”, introducing a tone of suspicion and uncertainty to the play.
This mood is maintained through the introduction of the ghost to Hamlet, his madness, Ophelia’s suicide, and then Hamlet’s eventual death – all of which have the common denominator of death.
During scenes that contain overt references to death, Shakespeare uses very hyperbolic language, such as: “Woul’t drink up easel, eat a crocodile?” (5.1.265). While A Midsummer Night’s Dream does not begin with tones of suspicion, the conflict is introduced to the audience fairly early on, with Egeus’s complaint (1.1.22) – this discord is protracted by means of the confusion in the woods and the various disputes between the lovers, all of which have the same common denominator of love, or marriage.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, episodes that mention this running theme use exaggerated language: “Fair Helena, who more enguilds the night / Than all yon fiery oes and eyes of light” (3.2.187-188). When either of the underlying themes of the two plays are mentioned the characters employ hyperbolic language to communicate their intense emotions to the audience.
As the tension in both the plays grows, it looks for an outlet – it cannot continue contained as it is so it resolves itself whichever way it can – either through a comic solution or through tragic resolution.
In addition to this simple structure of the development of conflict, in The System of Shakespeare’s Dramas (1877), Snider develops the idea that the structure of comedy is made up of the Comic Individual, the Comic Action, and the Solution. One could draw a parallel, then, between comedy and tragedy; tragedy comprises the Tragic Individual, the Tragic Action, and the Resolution.
The Individuals cause the conflict, which in turn causes the Action, which finally leads to the Solution, which ultimately determines the genre of the play.
This conflict between Individuals, or characters, makes up a very large portion of the overall controversy of the plays; as stated before, it is the characters themselves who actually create the conflict. In Hamlet, it is Claudius who is the root of the conflict, as the ghost of the late king commands Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.25). This introduces the theme that is prevalent in many of Shakespeare’s plays: murder cannot be concealed. “Truth will come to light, / murder cannot be hid long”, in The Merchant of Venice (2.2.76-7) also expresses this idea.
Hamlet, as the son of the late King, naturally feels the tension between himself and King Claudius, whom he views as having usurped his father’s place even prior to the ghost’s revelation (1.5.7-91). Claudius admits that “the general gender” bears a “great love” (4.7.19) for Hamlet, something that may rankle with him, as Hamlet’s strong claim to the throne coupled with affection from the populace could turn into a possible rebellion against Claudius’s regime. Claudius’s rather overt snub of Hamlet (1.2.42) – by hearing Laertes’ request before addressing Hamlet – could be an example of Claudius’s fear of Hamlet’s power.
This shows that from both sides of the Claudius – Hamlet struggle there is distrust and antagonism, which creates a significant political tension due to their positions in the royal family, as well as familial tension.
In contrast, the only political tension in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the friction between the will of the law, as dictated by Theseus, and Hermia, who wishes to marry Lysander, not Demetrius.
Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957) explores the idea that the mythos of comedy has a tendency to absorb the hero and heroine into society despite previous friction with the law that society imposes: “at the beginning of the play the obstructing characters are in charge of the play’s society … At the end of the play, the device in the plot that brings hero and heroine together causes a new society to crystallize around the hero”.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the society over which Theseus rules changes sufficiently to allow the young couples under his charge to wed, and in fairyland the old order over which Oberon rules is renewed. As Frye puts it in A Natural Perspective (1965), in A Midsummer Night’s Dream “the action moves from a world of parental tyranny and irrational law into a forest.
There the comic resolution is attained, and the cast returns with it into their former world’. In contrast, it could be said that the precise reason for Hamlet’s tragic demise is society’s unwillingness to incorporate Hamlet and his ideals into their corrupt society – and so he must die a martyr.
Love is portrayed by Shakespeare as a force capable of producing either severe conflict or sublime happiness. In Hamlet, the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia conflict when they are finally seen on stage together in Act three, Scene one. The delay Shakespeare inserted before their meeting suggests a dysfunctional relationship, supporting the actual conflict in their conversation.
Ophelia claims that Hamlet courted her, which he vehemently disavows, stating, “I never gave you aught” (3.1.95). Hamlet is also undecided about who the sinner is. The parallel he draws between the powers of beauty and honesty: “the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty…to a bawd, than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness” (3.1.110-112) suggests that the beautiful Ophelia cannot be honest as well as she is fair and that she must therefore be false. On the other hand, he then declares “get thee to a nunnery.
Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (3.1.120-121) and that “it were better my mother had not borne me” (3.1.122-123). These two statements give the opposing view that Hamlet is the sinner, and he only wishes to protect Ophelia from his corruptive influences. Hamlet is struggling between his love for Ophelia and his abhorrence for himself and his indecision.
Similar to this confusion is the chaos created in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the love potion Puck administers. Demetrius and Lysander both undergo a violent swing in their affections, which results in a huge internal conflict between their potion-addled wills and subconscious intellect.
Helena and Hermia are similar to Ophelia in that they both suffer tremendously from the “madness” of their loved ones, and in a way their feminine beauty is fuel to the men’s internal conflict – this is more pronounced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream than in Hamlet, although in both plays the women play a marked role in terms of inspiring a clash between man’s bestial and more refined natures.
In both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is a rupture between cultures that relates to the plays’ context, as the conflict is between tradition and progress. In Hamlet, the Catholic Ghost of King Hamlet, who believes in the Catholic claim that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money, represents the traditional views.
The very fact that he appears as a ghost suggests that Catholics believe in the supernatural; however, the young Hamlet, educated in Wittenberg (and therefore probably influenced by Martin Luther), embodies Protestant and Renaissance ideals and most definitely does not want to believe in ghosts and the supernatural. Hamlet is a rationalist, while his father, a representative of the Catholics, shows that the Catholic creed is one of fantasy.
Shakespeare has portrayed this through Hamlet’s clarity of language and articulacy: “Hic et ubique?” (1.5.156) shows Hamlet’s clear grasp of Latin verse as well as the concept of omnipresence and the power of God, which stands out radically against Horatio’s rather prosaic “Propose the oath, my lord” – suggesting that the highest power Horatio can comprehend can only ever be that which stands revealed in front of him. Hamlet is shown by these two comparisons, one of religion and one of intellect, to be deep-thinking and progressive, conflicting with the prevalent culture of his time.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the cultural conflict is between the cultures of surrealism and reason. In Hamlet, fantasy is represented mainly by the Ghost’s appearance, which transgresses the rules dictated by Hamlet’s understanding of reality. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the play moves from the city, Athens, to the woods, it becomes increasingly difficult for the audience to distinguish between reality and illusion. Jay L. Haliohighlights this intended confusion, asking, “How can anyone distinguish the apparent reality – the illusion – from the true reality?”
Illusion and reality are presented differently using language, which changes dramatically between the two settings. In Athens the language is essentially prosaic; “What’s the news with thee?” (1.1.21), whereas in the forest the language is complex and poetic: “And I will purge thy mortal grossness so, / That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.” (3.1.153-154).
This transformation reflects the nature of the two settings and the ideas they reflect: banal language is used in the mundane world of the city, but in the exotic, untouched regions of the fairy forest, colourful and lyrical phrases are preferred. This furthers the conflict between the mundane and the extraordinary presented in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream conflict is the result of madness, whereas, in Hamlet, madness is the result of the conflict. While conflict itself can be solved, madness is illogical and therefore has no solution. Both plays contain examples of external and internal conflict, although the conflict in Hamlet is tragic and therefore without a solution – this is why it leads to madness and not the other way round.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, the madness is guided into conflict and thus ultimately resolved. This shows that conflict is always dependent on the genre of the play, and vice versa; Shakespeare skilfully interweaves the two ideas of conflict and genre in these two plays.