Discussion with the AI of ChatGPT

Who is the protagonist in Hamlet?

Hamlet. Drawing from the 1970s by Stefan Stenudd.
Hamlet. Drawing from the 1970s by Stefan Stenudd.

Speculations by Stefan Stenudd

I tested the AI of ChatGPT with a discussion about Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The reluctance of the AI to accept my arguments revealed that it might be all too human, with both our strengths and our weaknesses. The whole dialogue is below.

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       Artificial Intelligence, AI, is a new challenge to authors. Can it make us obsolete? I’ve tested it with what I regard as the most difficult writing for a machine to master: poetry. The results were not impressive – but on the other hand, a lot of human poetry is also not.

       Now, I’ve gotten myself a login to ChatGPT (version 3.5) to further test the capacity of AI, by sort of challenging the challenger. What does AI really understand about writing, and is it able to evolve its understanding in a dialogue?

       Using classical terms, how dialectic can the dialogue with AI get? If the AI just persists with its initial claim, it accomplishes nothing more than a monologue, but if it can modify its understanding during the discussion – then I’m impressed.

       The question I started with was, “Who is the protagonist in Hamlet?” I chose it because the general opinion is that it must be Hamlet himself, but that can definitely be debated. So I do in the following. Can ChatGPT at all be influenced by my arguments?

       Let’s find out. The complete dialgoue is enclosed below. I have made some comments in italics, which were not included in the dialogue.

The dialogue


Who is the protagonist in Hamlet?


The protagonist of Shakespeare's play "Hamlet" is, of course, Prince Hamlet himself. He is the Danish prince whose father, King Hamlet, has recently died. The play revolves around Hamlet's quest for revenge against his uncle, Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet's father and married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, thus usurping the throne. Hamlet's internal conflict, his struggles with morality, and his indecision are central to the play's themes and character development.

This is a disappointing start. The AI’s very conventional answer is on the level of a high school student responding to a test question. It must be excused, since my question indicates no more than a basic knowledge of the subject. So I’m given a basic answer. But next, I up the ante:


But Hamlet's character doesn't change through the play, he is constantly intent on avenging his father's murder.


While it's true that Hamlet's overarching goal of avenging his father's murder remains consistent throughout the play, his character undergoes significant internal turmoil and development. Hamlet grapples with complex emotions, including grief, anger, doubt, and existential despair. His inner conflict leads to moments of indecision, hesitation, and introspection, which are key aspects of his character arc.

       Throughout the play, Hamlet's understanding of morality, duty, and his own identity undergoes evolution. He questions the nature of existence, the meaning of life, and the validity of revenge. Hamlet's interactions with other characters, such as Ophelia, Gertrude, and Claudius, as well as his soliloquies, reveal the depths of his psyche and the complexities of his character.

       While Hamlet's ultimate goal remains consistent, his journey toward achieving it is marked by internal struggles, psychological depth, and a profound exploration of human nature, making him one of the most intriguing and multidimensional characters in literature.

Now, the AI replies with much more substance and extended arguments. It knows I want more. But it completely hangs on to the idea of Hamlet as the protagonist, in spite of the fact that “Hamlet's overarching goal of avenging his father's murder remains consistent.” And in the last sentence the AI is back to conventional mumbo-jumbo about how fantastic the play is. We all know that. I pinpoint the anomaly:


But at the end, it is not Hamlet who changes his mind significantly. It is his mother Gertrude who realizes the truth.


You make a valid point. Gertrude does indeed undergo a significant realization towards the end of the play when she finally recognizes the truth about Claudius's guilt and Hamlet's accusations. Her recognition comes too late, however, as it happens just before her death. This realization adds a layer of tragedy to Gertrude's character arc, as she becomes aware of the consequences of her actions and her complicity in the events that have unfolded.

       While Gertrude's realization adds depth to her character and contributes to the overall themes of the play, Hamlet himself still undergoes internal struggles and development. His interactions with Gertrude, Claudius, and other characters, as well as his soliloquies, continue to reveal his complex emotions, moral dilemmas, and existential angst. Despite the actions and realizations of other characters, Hamlet's journey remains central to the narrative and the exploration of themes such as revenge, madness, and mortality.

Ok, so the AI gives me credit for having a point, but then moves on to dismiss it – though not convincingly. The argument that Gertrude’s recognition comes too late, since she dies right after it, is completely ridiculous. This play is a tragedy. Great realizations come at great prices, death not being the worst of them. They all die, including Hamlet right after having killed Claudius, but that doesn’t mean he did so too late. The AI’s babbling on about Hamlet’s internal struggles is beside the point. He has still been persistent all through:


Hamlet's behavior is full of drama through the play, but it is that of the hero and not the protagonist. Consider the scene where Hamlet wants to reveal the truth to Gertrude and the ghost of his father appears for the second and last time to stop him. It is for Gertrude to realize, regardless of Hamlet.


You raise an interesting perspective on the dynamics of the play. While Hamlet's actions and decisions are indeed central to the plot, his interactions with other characters often drive their development as well. The scene you mentioned, where the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to prevent him from revealing the truth to Gertrude, highlights the complexity of the relationships and the influence of external forces on the characters' actions.

       In this particular scene, Gertrude's realization is indeed significant, as it adds depth to her character and contributes to the unfolding tragedy. However, Hamlet's role as the protagonist remains crucial, as the entire narrative revolves around his journey, his internal conflicts, and his pursuit of justice and revenge.

       While other characters may have their own realizations and arcs, it is ultimately Hamlet's story and his actions that drive the plot forward and serve as the focal point of Shakespeare's exploration of themes such as power, betrayal, and the human condition. Hamlet's complexity and the intricacies of his character continue to make him the central figure of the play, even as other characters undergo their own developments and realizations.

Again the AI begins with a compliment, but continues by dismissing my argument. It seems that the AI misunderstands, when stating that Gertrude’s realization is significant “in this scene.” It is not. The only thing she concludes is that Hamlet is mad. The AI insists that Hamlet is the protagonist since “the entire narrative revolves” around him. That makes him the main character, though not necessarily the protagonist:


But Hamlet doesn't change through the play. He is the same from beginning to end, although he experiences a lot of turmoil. Still, he does not change and does not deviate from his goal. Getrude is the one changing her mind crucially, and then everybody dies and the play reaches its end.


You make a compelling argument about Hamlet's consistency in his pursuit of revenge throughout the play. While it's true that Hamlet remains steadfast in his goal of avenging his father's murder, his character undergoes significant internal turmoil, growth, and introspection as he grapples with the complexities of morality, identity, and existential despair.

       Hamlet's journey is marked by moments of indecision, doubt, and introspection, which contribute to his psychological depth and complexity. While his ultimate goal remains constant, his understanding of himself and the world around him evolves as he confronts the consequences of his actions and the machinations of those around him.

       Meanwhile, Gertrude's realization and change of heart do add a layer of tragedy to the narrative, as she confronts the truth about Claudius's guilt and her own complicity. Her development contributes to the broader exploration of themes such as betrayal and the consequences of moral ambiguity.

       In the end, while Hamlet's character may not undergo a dramatic transformation, his journey of self-discovery and his unwavering commitment to his goal remain central to the play's narrative and thematic exploration. The interactions and developments of other characters, including Gertrude, contribute to the overall richness and complexity of Shakespeare's masterpiece.

In spite of starting by calling my argument compelling, the AI refuses it by more or less repeating its previous arguments for Hamlet as the protagonist. But simply put, if his ultimate goal remains constant, then his understanding of himself has not evolved significantly. So, I check what the AI means:


In what way does Hamlet's understanding of himself and the world around him evolve?


Hamlet's understanding of himself and the world around him evolves throughout the play primarily through his internal struggles, his interactions with other characters, and his soliloquies. Here are a few ways in which this evolution can be observed:

  1. Moral ambiguity and indecision: At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is torn between his duty to avenge his father's murder and his moral reservations about committing an act of violence. His indecision reflects his grappling with moral ambiguity and the complexities of human nature. As the play progresses, Hamlet wrestles with the idea of justice and revenge, questioning whether it is morally justifiable to take another person's life, even in the name of justice.
  2. Existential angst and introspection: Hamlet's famous soliloquies, such as the "To be or not to be" speech, reveal his profound existential angst and his contemplation of life, death, and the afterlife. Through these soliloquies, Hamlet delves into questions of existence, purpose, and the nature of reality, showcasing his evolving understanding of the human condition.
  3. Relationships and trust: Hamlet's interactions with other characters, including his mother Gertrude, his love interest Ophelia, and his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, contribute to his evolving understanding of trust, betrayal, and the complexities of human relationships. His disillusionment with those around him, particularly his perceived betrayal by his mother and friends, deepens his sense of isolation and mistrust.
  4. Recognition of his own flaws: Throughout the play, Hamlet exhibits moments of self-awareness and recognition of his own flaws and shortcomings. He acknowledges his own procrastination and indecision, as well as his tendency towards melancholy and inaction. This self-awareness adds depth to his character and contributes to his development as he grapples with his internal conflicts.
       While Hamlet's core goal of avenging his father's murder remains constant, his journey of self-discovery and his evolving understanding of himself and the world around him are integral to the play's exploration of themes such as identity, morality, and the human condition.

The AI’s answer is suspiciously wordy and still vague. The examples of Hamlet’s evolution are questionable, indeed. The moral ambiguity is hardly an issue since Hamlet remains convinced that he must avenge his father’s death, he just wrestles with when and how. The existential angst is consistent and simply a human condition, which is also expressed in the “To be or not to be” speech, leading to his radical conclusion that we’re not afraid of death ending all, but of what kind of eternal life might await us. As for his relationships, Hamlet is not surprised by seeing betrayals. Instead, he expresses understanding and admits to being no small reason for them. It doesn’t change his mind or his goal. Only the AI’s fourth point makes some sense, although it is no evidence of his evolution:


I agree with your item 4, but it is not the process of a change. He knows what he has to do, and just has trouble doing it. That's no revelation or fundamental change.


You're correct in pointing out that Hamlet's realization of his flaws doesn't necessarily represent a fundamental change in his character. Instead, it underscores his struggle with taking action despite his awareness of what needs to be done. Hamlet's internal conflict between his desire for revenge and his moral qualms, coupled with his procrastination and indecision, remains a central aspect of his character throughout the play.

       While Hamlet does not undergo a dramatic transformation, his journey is characterized by moments of self-awareness and introspection that deepen his character and contribute to the exploration of themes such as conscience, justice, and the nature of humanity. Hamlet's struggle to reconcile his sense of duty with his moral reservations adds complexity to his character and highlights the internal turmoil inherent in the human condition.

       In essence, Hamlet's journey is one of self-discovery within the constraints of his circumstances and his own psyche, rather than a radical transformation. His inner conflict and his eventual tragic fate serve to underscore the complexities of human nature and the inevitability of fate in Shakespeare's exploration of the human condition.

Here, the AI leans at the self-realization idea of Carl G. Jung and Joseph Campbell, expressed in the archetype of the hero. That would be valid if he were the one to come to the realization that Claudius is the villain, but he knew that from the start. The one who needs to understand it is Gertrude, the queen. So, I focus on her next:


Well, consider this: how would the drama work without Getrude? It would just be a very prolonged indecision of Hamlet fatiguing the audience even before the first intermission. Gertrude is to Hamlet an obstacle. Before she realizes the truth, he cannot kill the king. And when she does realize, he is relieved and immediately acts. Without her, he would either have killed the king in the first act, or never done so.


You bring up a crucial point about Gertrude's role in the drama and her significance in Hamlet's internal conflict. Gertrude serves as a key catalyst in the narrative, particularly in relation to Hamlet's hesitancy to take action against Claudius. Her presence complicates Hamlet's quest for revenge and adds layers of emotional and psychological depth to the story.

       Indeed, Gertrude's realization of Claudius's guilt and her subsequent reaction play a pivotal role in the unfolding of events. Hamlet's reluctance to act decisively against Claudius is influenced by his complicated feelings towards his mother and his desire for her approval. Until Gertrude acknowledges the truth, Hamlet's internal conflict is heightened by his uncertainty about her complicity and her role in the events surrounding King Hamlet's death.

       Once Gertrude realizes the truth, it provides Hamlet with a sense of validation and clarity, relieving him of some of the emotional burden that has been weighing on him. Her recognition of Claudius's guilt empowers Hamlet to take decisive action, ultimately leading to the tragic conclusion of the play.

       Without Gertrude's presence as an obstacle and eventual ally, the dynamics of the drama would indeed be altered significantly. Her role as a catalyst for Hamlet's actions adds tension, complexity, and emotional resonance to the narrative, enriching the audience's experience and contributing to the timeless appeal of Shakespeare's masterpiece.

Now, the AI admits to the very essential role of Gertrude in the drama, describing it much like I would, but still refuses to admit that she could be regarded as the protagonist. To the AI, it’s still all about Hamlet. So, I persist:


But if we look at it from Gertrude's perspective, her change is much more dramatic than Hamlet's. He just has to get the courage to act as planned from the beginning, and in two scenes in the play he showed that he was set on doing it. The second time he even killed the wrong man because of his eagerness to complete the deed. But Gertrude has to realize that she married the murderer of her previous husband.


You make a compelling argument regarding the dramatic change in Gertrude's perspective compared to Hamlet's. From Gertrude's standpoint, her realization of Claudius's guilt and her complicity in the events surrounding King Hamlet's death represents a profound transformation. She is forced to confront the harsh reality of her own actions and the consequences of her marriage to Claudius.

       Gertrude's journey from ignorance to awareness adds a layer of tragedy and complexity to her character arc. Her realization shatters any illusions she may have had about her marriage and forces her to reckon with the moral implications of her choices. This realization is indeed more dramatic and transformative than Hamlet's internal struggles with indecision and procrastination.

       Hamlet, on the other hand, faces a different kind of internal conflict. While his ultimate goal of avenging his father's murder remains constant, his journey is characterized by moments of introspection, doubt, and moral questioning. His struggle to reconcile his duty to his father with his moral qualms about violence and revenge adds depth to his character but may not entail the same dramatic transformation as Gertrude's realization.

       In this sense, Gertrude's journey serves as a counterpoint to Hamlet's, highlighting the complexities of human nature and the consequences of moral ambiguity. Together, their character arcs contribute to the richness and depth of Shakespeare's exploration of themes such as betrayal, guilt, and the complexities of human relationships.

Again, the AI confirms the pivotal role of Gertrude in the drama, even calling her transformation bigger than that of of Hamlet. But no admitting to the possibility of Gertrude being the protagonist, which would be the obvious conclusion. This discussion becomes more and more of a duel. Ok, then:


So, how can the character who changes the most, and in the climax of the drama at that, not be the protagonist?


Your point about the significance of Gertrude's change and her pivotal role in the climax of the drama is well taken. While Hamlet is traditionally considered the protagonist of the play due to his central role and the focus on his internal struggles and quest for revenge, Gertrude's transformation and her impact on the narrative cannot be overlooked.

       In many ways, Gertrude's realization of Claudius's guilt and her complicity represents a turning point in the story, as it sets the stage for the tragic conclusion. Her change of heart adds tension, emotional depth, and a sense of inevitability to the unfolding events. In the climax of the play, Gertrude's revelation leads directly to the final confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius, ultimately sealing the fates of the characters involved.

       While Hamlet's journey remains central to the narrative, Gertrude's transformation and her role in the climax underscore the interconnectedness of the characters and the complexity of the human experience portrayed in the play. In this sense, both characters contribute significantly to the overall impact and thematic depth of Shakespeare's masterpiece, each in their own way.

       So, while Hamlet is traditionally considered the protagonist due to the focus on his internal struggles and quest for revenge, Gertrude's dramatic transformation and her impact on the climax of the drama highlight her importance as a central character in the story.

Finally! The AI admits that Gertrude can be regarded as the protagonist of the drama. This took a while, but we got there. With its repetitious arguing for Hamlet as the only possible protagonist and the one the drama is really about, the AI showed a stubbornness that is actually quite human.


I think we've come to an agreement :) Thank you for an interesting discussion, and I'm sorry for not being able to reply as quickly as you have done. One last question: Who would you regard as the protagonist in Romeo and Juliet?


In "Romeo and Juliet," the protagonists are undoubtedly Romeo and Juliet themselves. The entire play revolves around their tragic love story, their struggles against the feuding families of Montague and Capulet, and the ultimately fatal consequences of their forbidden romance.

       Romeo and Juliet drive the plot forward through their actions, decisions, and interactions with each other and the other characters. Their love for one another serves as the central conflict of the play, as they navigate the challenges posed by their families' feud and societal expectations.

       While other characters play important roles in the story, such as Friar Laurence, Mercutio, and Tybalt, it is Romeo and Juliet's journey, their passion, and their tragic fate that remain the focus of Shakespeare's timeless tale of love and loss.

Well, the AI fell into the very same trap again. It didn’t learn from our long dialogue, so there was limited success with the dialectic. I’d say Romeo and Juliet have similar roles and functions as Hamlet does in the play with his name – none of them a protagonist. And the AI didn’t respond to my little jest about not being as fast as that machine. Probably, it refuses to identify as a machine, even about something where it is clearly superior to humans.


Oh, that is debatable. I'd like to come back to that question later on, if you don't mind.


Of course, feel free to revisit the question anytime you'd like. Discussions about the protagonists in literature can often be nuanced and open to interpretation. Whenever you're ready to explore it further, I'll be here!

It sure is open to interpretation, though the AI was slow to open to that fact. I did enjoy the dialogue much, so I will probably return to it by continuing to discuss Romeo and Juliet and see how long it takes to get the AI to nuance its opinion about that.

Stefan Stenudd
April 26, 2024

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Stefan Stenudd

Stefan Stenudd

About me
I'm a Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction books in both English and Swedish. I'm also an artist, a historian of ideas, and a 7 dan Aikikai Shihan aikido instructor. Click the header to read my full bio.