the mask of cruelty

This piece focuses on Hamlet’s acts of cruelty in both a critical manner as well as a creative one. (the creative piece is in progress)


Hamlet. The protagonist who is hard to love and hate. His sensitive nature sends him into a depressive state after his father’s death, but he was only sensitive to his own feelings. Cruelty defined his actions — especially when the world did not go his way. It is through cruelty that Hamlet addresses his shortcomings as a person: his failed relationship and his lack of control over his surroundings. He utilizes the weaknesses of others in an effort to make his own seem far less significant and tries to justify it by saying “I must be cruel, only to be kind;” however, cruelty fails to transition into kindness as bloodshed marks the end of the play and his cruelty played a major role in that.


Ophelia was a significant figure in Hamlet’s life and when their relationship came to a close he resorts to cruelty. In an effort to convince people of his madness, he had gone into Ophelia’s room in a very disheveled state; his behaviour did not suit a prince or one in a relationship with a noblewoman. This resulted in her telling her father and him advising her to give Hamlet his gifts back saying that the “perfume” was “lost.” He understands these words as not being her own when he questions if she is “honest;” however, no matter whose words these are, it does mark the end of their relationship. That means Hamlet is losing another constant in his life — first, he had lost his father and then his mother. This event shows him as being unable to maintain a relationship due to his own choices. His failure in a relationship signifies his failure as a man as he cannot satisfy a woman and remain with her. He is unable to accept that and chooses to play the situation against Ophelia with his cruelty. He tells her to “get thee to a nunnery” referencing a potentially sexual relationship between the two which would be frowned upon. These words would be used against Ophelia and she would be perceived as a dishonourable woman which would greatly affect her standing in the court and her own self-perception. His language towards her is very condescending and demeaning — an attempt to maintain control over her even if they are no longer in a relationship, which reinforces the masculine influence he desires to have over her. Hamlet does not want it to seem like it was because of his own faults that the relationship ended, rather he wanted it to. He says he did “love [her] once” but follows that by saying that he did not love her; this is an attempt to try to make it seem like he was not affected and that it was only a matter of time that their relationship ended. His true feelings are revealed after her death when he is wrought with emotion and says that he loved Ophelia far more than even “forty thousand brothers.” His cruelty during the earlier scene stemmed from a desire of not wanting to accept his own shortcomings in the relationship and that meant using the nature of their relationship against Ophelia and her honour. 


Hamlet’s deliberation of suicide throughout the play marks a significant part of his characterization as it shows his gut reaction to not having control over his situation. His father’s death is followed closely by the marriage of his mother and Claudius, his uncle, who is now King of Denmark. Neither his role as a prince nor as a son has the ability to change the nature of his new family dynamic and that is something that displeases him deeply. He sees this as an act of betrayal by his mother against his father; he sees the situation with only his perspective and never considers the reasoning behind Gertrude’s actions — whether it be out of love for Claudius or out of love for Hamlet and desire to cement him as heir to the throne. Hamlet remains stubborn and emotional which results in his cruelty against his mother. When he arrives in her chambers to talk, he is spiteful and merciless leading her to believe that his cruel words would transition into murder. She attempts to get him to stop berating her but he does not stop and continues to criticize her for her actions particularly for marrying “a murder and villain.” Hamlet attempts to regain control over his situation by using cruelty to frighten his mother into stopping what he finds most displeasing — her relationship with Claudius. By utilizing the madness he is already perceived to have in conjunction with cruelty, he is able to attain some influence over the situation. This is because Gertrude is scared of losing her own life and Hamlet takes advantage of this with his use of language. No matter what she feels or what her true intentions are, Hamlet’s cruelty allows him to control the situation and avoid the acceptance of the powerless nature of his position. 


Cruelty is the method by which Hamlet attempts to address his shortcomings. Whether that comes in the form of dehumanizing his former lover, or rebuking his mother, it means that Hamlet must hurt others in order to prevent acceptance of his own failures. His attempts to put the blame on others as a way to compensate for his insecurities. He had not been successful in his role as a lover, prince, or as a son; he tries to remedy this by acting with cruelty as an attempt to mask his own weaknesses. His success in this venture is questionable at best because, at the end of the day, he himself falls victim to someone else’s cruelty.


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4 thoughts on “the mask of cruelty

  1. Nimrat, my delightful AP10 Shylock (cue the war flashback):

    To be totally and completely honest, I don’t think I would have been as invested in Hamlet as I was if it wasn’t for you. I was pretty ambivalent about the whole situation, but hearing you talk about themes and ideas and characters and power made me take a second look at this play that I had almost written off. I can’t thank you enough for constantly opening my eyes to new ways of seeing. This piece is no different; you once again came up with an incredibly thought-provoking idea and fully explored it, leaving me feeling enlightened and also pretty stupid for not thinking of something like this. I really like your concept of cruelty as a protective measure, particularly since Hamlet’s cruelty often gets glossed over in the grand consideration of his complex character. I also loved the clarity of your conclusion. It felt very final and complete, and I finished the piece feeling pleasantly satisfied.

    For future growth, I would suggest adding a bit more variety to your sentence structure and focusing in a bit more tightly on your themes. Your writing is always very coherent, so these are a little nitpicky, but I would love to see a bit of diversity in your diction and more focus on the core idea of your essay without bringing in too many outside themes.

    Thank you again for showing me something about a book that I never would have found alone. My empathy always gets the best of me, and I always forget to look for ulterior motives in the characters I analyze. You have shown me with this piece that being a little cynical can reveal a whole new side of a character, and I can’t wait to explore this within my own analysis.

    Love you,
    Maria 🙂

    1. Dearest Maria (the person who enabled me to be Shylock),

      Thank you for reading my late-night brain’s thoughts! I am glad that I had some role in your appreciation of the text but know that you definitely had a major role in my own appreciation as well! I know that I do often get lost in creating complex sentences that I forget the value that a short sentence can have — thanks for reminding me of that. I really hope to improve my ability of focussing on topics, as you mentioned, because I often find myself unable to separate certain themes from others, which can make sense in my head but dosn’t translate into my reading well. I hope to improve on that. Thanks for everything you do for me in life!


      (Embrace your inner cynic!)

  2. Dear Nimrat,

    The idea that Hamlet used his cruelty to define his actions and address the shortcomings he felt in himself is quite an interesting concept. Your ability to nuance these intricate themes with evidence from the text so effectively is precisely what makes you an excellent writer.

    Although I did see how Hamlet used cruelty to compensate for his failed relationships, such as with Ophelia, I didn’t think too much of how his masculinity had an influence on it. His desire to assert control over Ophelia is seen through his cruelty, and I completely agree that he uses this mechanism to deny his own shortcomings within this relationship. By blaming others, he is attempting to mask his own insecurities, which is a very human thing to do as we tend to dislike being vulnerable. So my question to you is this: can we make the generalization that people who are controlling and cruel in their relationships feel the need to compensate for what they don’t actually have?

    In terms of recommendations, I feel that since this is such an interesting concept, that I would have liked to see a bit more length in your intro and conclusion. All in all, the ability for cruelty to define our actions and the reasons we utilize cruelty are such brilliant ideas that I had never really noticed in Hamlet until now, and I am grateful for having you here to share this with us.


    1. Dearest Abhay,

      Thanks for taking the time to read my Hamlet thoughts! I don’t like making generalizations about stuff because there are always exceptions to the rule; however, Hamlet, to me, always seemed vulnerable and insecure about this fact. I think he developed his cruelty to establish himself in both the eyes of others and his own as someone who has control over their emotions and settings. I mean I haven’t met anyone who does this so I don’t think it is fair for me to pass such judgment, so if you have, let me know what you think. My introduction and conclusion did end up shorter cause I felt like I wanted to keep the bulk of my discussion in my bodies, but I will see if I can add any meat to them.


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