Shakespeare uses the character of Hamlet to present how one can become imprisoned by his own moral obligations and uncertainty in what he believes is right or wrong. Action and dramatic development within the play are both reliant on Hamlet’s internal conflict; whether he should avenge his father’s death, and even given the weighted responsibilities tied to the act, if he should instead take his own life. He is often lost within his own contemplations, and consequently procrastinates in taking action until he believes he knows all of the facts.
The dramatic form allows Hamlet to open up to the audience in the form of soliloquies: “to be, or not to be- that is the question; whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer…” -Hamlet is torn between facing his harsh realities and simply giving in; therefore suggesting life itself is an internal battle, which can either be won or lost. However, outward conflicts such as religious obligations add to Hamlet’s uncertainty about what is right and wrong- i. e. a Christian will be damned if he/she commits suicide.
Conflict is also presented in the play by differentiation of illusion and reality; Hamlet must define what separates truth from its superficial representations. For example, many of the characters are superficial and have different motives behind what they say. At the very beginning of the play the concept of illusion becomes apparent, as I believe Shakespeare uses the ghost of King Hamlet as a representation of illusion and reality- i. e. is the ghost really there? Hamlet has to discern if the supernatural encounter is real or merely a product of his imagination.
In Shakespearean time, a ghost represented a person caught between life and death due to unfinished business- using this theory I believe that Shakespeare uses the ghost to symbolise how one can become imprisoned by his own internal struggles. Another central inward conflict is Hamlet’s procrastination to act out his revenge on Claudius. This, together with Hamlet’s internal struggle to differentiate between illusion and reality, allows the audience to be empathetically concerned for Hamlet and side with him during physical conflict he encounters with other characters.
I believe the outward conflict is therefore driven by Hamlet’s inward conflict and acts as a source of movement and drama in the play, as well as acting as a connection between the audience and Hamlet. The central conflict between Hamlet and Claudius begins internally, yet escalates to an external and physical conflict of pure hatred for one another that ultimately results in not only the loss of their own lives, but many of those around them: “No place, indeed, should murder sanctuaries, revenge should have no bounds”.
This level of violence is an example of outward conflict as a means of expression, it provides a tangible connection with the emotions felt by those involved and the audience. This was particularly true for Elizabethan audiences who apparently enjoyed and responded well to violence. Outward conflict is generally carried out by manipulation of others throughout the play and is represented by words acting as poison being poured through the ears of others- a metaphor carried on from the act of Claudius poisoning the old King Hamlet.
One can therefore argue that it is the manipulation of others that is the main source of conflict in Hamlet, rather than an internal conflict. As the play unfolds and becomes more dramatic, Hamlet appears increasingly more mad, this structural idea suggests that as the drama increases, the more infested Hamlet is with his own internal problems and is therefore driven to perform rash actions (such as killing Polonius) by his own doings. The irregularities of action throughout the play represent Hamlet’s uncertainty and procrastination, as it prevents the play from advancing at a quick speed.
In addition, I believe Shakespeare uses a ‘play within a play’ (the Mouse Trap) to emphasise the idea of imprisonment within one’s self. Using this idea however, another interpretation would be that Shakespeare is suggesting that it is Hamlet’s surroundings that are what drives his internal conflict, as he can’t escape the people of Denmark- he is the ‘play within the play’: “Denmark’s a prison”- this suggests that conflict stems from a situational crisis.
Despite the fact that audiences may in some cases respond more to the physicality of outward conflict, the response itself as well as the outcomes, are really driven by internal struggle. The drama of the play is reliant on Hamlet’s procrastination to kill Claudius, along with his inability to discern illusion from reality and right from wrong. He is therfore blinded from reason, and part of his growth as a character is based on his ultimate resolution and fulfilment of these internal struggles.
Furthermore he is finally able to resolve his external conflict with Claudius by avenging his father’s death. As an audience member, one is drawn in by Hamlet’s sensitivities and internal problems and is therefore able to empathise with and feel the impact of his final display of outward conflict with Claudius and Laertes. So to conclude, I believe without Hamlet’s internal struggle, the final and most dramatic scenes of the play would be far less powerful, and the play would perhaps have been a tragedy that fell short of a satisfying resolution.