From the opening scene of the play, Shakespeare draws attention to the potential for a distinction the physical appearance of a person and the content of their actual character. When attempting to speak to the Ghost, Horatio demands: “What art thou that usurp’st this time of night, / Together with that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark Did sometimes march?” (I.I.47-50). Rather than simply assuming that the ghost has a necessary relationship to the former king, or, indeed, is him, Horatio separates form content in order to ask why it is that the ghost intrudes upon, or “usurps’st” the moment in which it appears. Rather than serving to familiarize or clarify its intentions, the likeness that the ghost bears to the former king only serves to heighten the mystery that exists regarding its origin and its nature. In this sense, not only are the characters who witness the ghost clearly surprised to see it, but the context of their surprise may be seen as one of a perennial uncertainty concerning the relation between essence and appearance.
This separation of interior form from exterior appearance is a key quality of Hamlet’s melancholy, as expressed in the following scene in which he insists to his mother he himself is not to be understood according to “all forms, moods, shapes of grief, / That can denote me truly: these indeed seem, / For they are actions that a man might play” (I.II.83-85) This insistence that his own character may not be adequately defined by anything that is potentially subject to dissimulation functions alongside an fixation of his own physicality as a defining feature of Hamlet’s melancholy. The wish for his “too solid flesh” to melt, “thaw and resolve itself into a dew” may be taken as a symptom of a state of mind in which Shakespeare’s protagonist both refutes the idea that one can fully understand the nature of a person from their outside appearance and remains fixated on their physicality (I.II.129-130). It is within this general aspect of melancholy and of uncertainty that unexpected events occur and relate both to the characters and the plot of the play.
One unexpected event that has clear consequences is Hamlet’s refusal to kill Claudius in the play’s third act, an action that would now seem to entirely justified given the king’s reaction to watching the play and Hamlet’s insistence that he will now “take the ghost’s word at a thousand pound” (III.II.289). However, Hamlet’s reaction to the fact that he finds Claudius praying is one of surprise, followed by a reconsideration of his action. Rather than following through with what he was previously determined to do, he insists that, by killing Claudius in the moment of prayer and thereby sending his soul to heaven, he would be conducting “hire and salary, not revenge” (III.IV.79). Hamlet’s change of heat in this scene may be argued to unexpected as it is preceded by a series of determined actions and declarations regarding his certainty over his uncle’s guilt.
It is significant that this scene is followed by a moment in which Hamlet again acts in a unexpected manner, however, in this case the unexpected nature of his behavior is not due to his hesitation, but due to his impulsive murder of Polonius. In a manner that relates directly to the themes of dissimulation and appearance, Hamlet expresses regret following his action, qualifying it with the words: “I took thee for thy better” (III.IV.33). Not only is Hamlet’s action rash and unexpected, but it is also founded on a case of mistaken identity. It is therefore unexpected in two senses: firstly in the sense that Hamlet acts impulsively after previously failed to act at all, and secondly, in the sense that the results of the action are far from what the Prince would have expected them to be. Like his refusal to kill Claudius when he has the chance, Hamlet’s murder of Polonius is something that has crucial consequences for the rest of the play, both by confirming in Claudius’ mind that he must send Hamlet away and by directly precipitating Ophelia’s fall into madness, which in turn enables Laertes to assume the role of one seeking vengeance for his sister and father.
In conclusion, therefore, it is clear that unexpected events play a crucial role in the plot of Hamlet. In order to fully understand the meaning of these events, however, it is necessary to understand the way in which they fit into the wider theme of the relation between external appearance and internal character. It is as a part of general atmosphere uncertainty regarding this relationship that unexpected events in the play take place, and it is by considering this atmosphere that their meaning is made most clear.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Robert S. Miola. Norton: London & New York, 2011.