An Approach to Hamlet
There is, perhaps, no well-known passage in Shakespeare that has been found so perplexing as that in which Hamlet communes with himself between the preparation of the play to catch the conscience of the king and its performance—'To be, or not to be, that is the question . . .' It can perplex for various reasons, one of them being the variety of different explanations of crucial phrases that can reasonably be made. (In the Furness Variorum edition the text completely disappears for a couple of pages whilst a footnote marshals conflicting interpretations of the opening and general tenor; at a rough estimate the 34 lines of the soliloquy have some 440 lines of small-type commentary.) Another reason is that the speech is almost too well-known for its features to be seen distinctly, as Charles Lamb said:
I confess myself utterly unable to appreciate that celebrated soliloquy in Hamlet, beginning, 'To be, or not to be,' or to tell whether it be good, bad, or indifferent; it has been so handled and pawed about by declamatory boys and men, and torn so inhumanly from its living place and principle of continuity in the play, till it has become to me a perfectly dead member.
Perhaps we need not be too much dismayed; the meaning may be simpler—even if in some ways subtler—than is commonly supposed. Since the speech is crucial I must ask your indulgence whilst I read it, indicating as best I may the stopping of the...
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Hamlet and Revenge
(From Hamlet and Revenge by Eleanor Prosser. ©1971 Stanford University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher)
May not the peculiar power of the play be based to a large extent on our ability to sympathize with Hamlet and yet judge him for the course he pursues? And is this not exactly our response to Shakespeare's other great tragic figures? It has been harder to admit our intuitive judgment of Hamlet because his tragic choice commands not merely our sympathy but our admiration. In the first place, his situation is much closer to our own than that of Macbeth or Antony or Lear. All men hunger for revenge. The defiant refusal to submit to injury, the desire to assert one's identity by retaliation, the gnawing ache to assault injustice by giving measure for measure—these are reflected in our daily response to even the mildest of insults. In the serious drama from the beginning of time, the dilemma of the revenger has been one of the universal problems of man writ large.
An even more important reason for our sympathy is the motivation that drives Hamlet. Macbeth, Lear, and Antony obviously violate moral law, and for selfish ends. We suffer with them but for human reasons, for the agony they bring on themselves. Hamlet's motivation is far more complex and, to a great extent, we identify with him for solid moral reasons. In large part his course to the fifth act is the result of his moral sensitivity, his unflinching discernment...
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Overviews of Hamlet
[Bevington presents an in-depth survey of the dramatic action and major themes of Hamlet. The critic initially focuses on Hamlet's role in the play, examining his interactions with the other characters as well as his several soliloquies in an attempt to determine his "tragic flaw," the defect in a tragic hero which leads to his downfall. (A soliloquy is a speech delivered while the speaker is alone, devised to inform the reader of what the character is thinking or to provide essential information concerning other participants in the action.) Bevington also comments on the dramatic structure of Hamlet, especially Shakespeare's balancing the tragedy with many foils. (A foil refers to any literary character that through strong contrast accentuates the distinctive characteristics of another.) Perhaps the most obvious foil to Hamlet is Laertes, who acts in haste upon hearing of his father's murder, while Hamlet himself delays his revenge. The critic also assesses the play's language, describing various instances of punning (a kind of wordplay which manipulates two words with different meanings based on their similarity of sound) which occur throughout the text. Finally, Bevington discusses metaphors such as clothing, acting, and disease, which all contribute to the predominant image patterns in the play.]
It is appropriate that for modern critics Hamlet should be Shakespeare's greatest dramatic...
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Delay in Hamlet
[Hapgood examines the dramaturgy, or the dramatic representation, of "delay" in Hamlet pointing out that while Hamlet is the primary focus of this issue, other characters—most notably Claudius, Laertes, and Fortinbras—often delay or are hindered during the course of events. The critic explores how action begins and ends at various moments in the play in a sequence of events that often culminates in a standstill in which a character experiences a direct contradiction to his or her purposes. Hapgood defines Hamlet's particular form of delay as "inertia " because he experiences difficulty both in getting started and in coming to a stop. For instance, although it takes the prince nearly the whole play to exact his revenge on Claudius, when he finally kills the king he does so first with his sword and second with the poisoned wine. The critic also asserts that the dramaturgy of delay occurs in the play's dialogue. Although Hamlet's soliloquies represent a form of dramatic action and move the plot forward, ironically the character himself is physically inactive. According to Hapgood, Shakespeare's dramatic representation of delay ultimately "interpenetrates with the theme of death." The catastrophe in the play's finale puts an end to delay, for it resolves the tragedy's three most compelling revenge motives: King Hamlet's murder, Claudius's marriage to Gertrude, and Polonius's murder.]
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Revenge in Hamlet
[Girard maintains that Hamlet belongs to the Revenge Tragedy genre. Revenge Tragedy is a dramatic form made popular on the English stage by Thomas Kyd, a contemporary of Shakespeare, whose Spanish Tragedy is an early example of the type. Such a play calls for the revenge of a father by a son or vice versa, an act which is initiated by the murdered man's ghost. Other devices found in Revenge Tragedies include hesitation by the hero, real or feigned madness, suicide, intrigue, and murders on stage. In the critic's opinion, Shakespeare despised the Revenge Tragedy genre as a form whose conventions had become trite. Yet, because revenge theater was highly popular among Elizabethan audiences, the dramatist had to conform to certain guidelines of the genre to produce a financially successful tragedy. As a result, Shakespeare innovated the theatrical type by creating a double entendre (double meaning) in which he subtly denounced the banality of revenge theater without denying the audience its katharsis (a purification of emotions stirred by tragic conflict). Shakespeare expressed his disgust for revenge theater through Hamlet's deploring revenge throughout the play, yet fulfilled his audience's expectations for a tragic conclusion. Girard also discusses Hamlet's use of "mimetic models," by which he attempts to put himself in the necessary frame of mind to murder Claudius by mimicking other characters' actions....
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Melancholy and Grief in Hamlet
Oscar James Campbell
[Campbell contends that the nature of Hamlet's melancholy, or state of depression, was more easily perceived by an Elizabethan audience than by a modern one. Further, the critic asserts that while Hamlet is indeed emotionally unstable, he is not insane. Shakespeare dramatizes the prince's changeability by altering the mood of the play's structure from periods of meditative pauses to bursts of action. Since Hamlet is usually at the center of these pauses and surges, his character conveys a manic-depressive quality. In essence, his depressed phase is marked by brooding inaction, whereas his manic phase includes abrupt lunges toward action. Campbell asserts that Hamlet is more than a "creature of psychotic impulse," however, for Shakespeare generates sympathy for him by "enabling his melancholy to express itself in some of the most profound philosophical lyrics ever written in the English language." Because of his emotional state, the critic continues, Hamlet in some ways represents an Elizabethan stock character known as a "malcontent." A malcontent is a figure whose perspective of life is so pessimistic that he holds nothing but contempt for the world and humanity. In Act V, Hamlet reaches his highest point of excitement through his "hysterical" struggle with Laertes during the sword fight, and this emotion enables him to take revenge in the final catastrophe. Thus, Campbell concludes, Hamlet's revenge "ironically appears,...
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Imagery in Hamlet
Richard D. Altick
[Altick argues that Shakespeare not only emphasized the theme of bodily corruption in Hamlet, but also the "revolting odors that accompany the process." The critic then provides an analysis of various elements of the play, focusing on such images of decay as the sun as an agent of corruption, cancerous infection, and the stench which accompanies rotting. This stench, Altick observes, represents the cunning and lecherousness of Claudius's evil which has corrupted the whole kingdom of Denmark. According to the critic, these and other image patterns demonstrate that "the text reeks with terms symbolic of the loathsomeness of moral disintegration." Altick also discusses the olfactory [relating to the sense of smell) connotations of such key words as "foul," "rank," and "offence," and examines instances of punning (a kind of wordplay which manipulates the use of two words with different meanings based on their similarity of sound) between the terms "offence" and "offend."]
In writing Hamlet, Shakespeare was preoccupied with the corruption of mortal flesh. From the famous first statement of the idea in Marcellus' "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" [I. iv. 90] to Hamlet's discourse with the Gravediggers on the lamentable condition of the bodies they disinter, the reader of the play may never long forget that after death the human body putrifies. To Shakespeare's contemporaries, of course, the...
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[Detmold addresses the question of why Hamlet delays taking revenge on Claudius by assessing his status as a tragic hero. According to the critic, a tragic hero has three prominent characteristics: (1) a will-power which surpasses that of average people, (2) an exceptionally intense power of feeling, and (3) an unusually high level of intelligence. From this definition of a tragic hero, Detmold especially focuses on Hamlet's unorthodox demonstration of will-power in the play, arguing that the protagonist's preoccupation with moral integrity is what ultimately delays him from killing Claudius. Further, the critic asserts that Hamlet is distinct from other tragedies in that its action commences in the soliloquy of Act I, scene ii where most other tragedies end: "with the discovery by the tragic hero that his supreme good is forever lost to him." Perhaps the most significant reason why Hamlet hesitates, the critic concludes, is that although he is tempted by love, kingship, and even revenge, he is long past the point where he desires to do anything about them. None of these objectives gives him a new incentive for living. For further commentary on Hamlet's character, see the excerpts by David Bevington, Maynard Mack, Robert Hapgood, Robert R. Reed, Jr., René Girard, Oscar James Campbell, Arthur Kirsch, Kenneth Muir, Edgar Johnson, Ernest Jones, Theodore Lidz and J. Dover Wilson.]
Hamlet is surely the most...
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[Muir analyzes the Ghost in Hamlet in several ways, first by proposing several attitudes an Elizabethan audience may have held regarding its nature. The apparition may have been viewed as an illusion, a portent foreshadowing danger to Denmark, a spirit returning from the grave because a task was left undone, a spirit come from purgatory with divine permission, or a devil who assumes the form of a dead person to lure mortals to their doom. According to the critic, Hamlet tests each of these perspectives during the play's course of events, most notably in his production of "The Mousetrap." Muir also discusses the Ghost's two warnings to Hamlet, namely not to taint his mind and to leave Gertrude "to heaven." In addition, the critic explores Hamlet's reaction to his meeting with the Ghost by studying the nature of the prince's depression and his assumption of an "antic disposition."]
The first act of Hamlet, except for the third scene, is concerned with the revelation by the Ghost that Claudius is a murderer and Gertrude an adultress. This revelation is carefully prepared. The Ghost appears twice in the first scene without speaking; and before his appearance, Shakespeare, without the aid of scenery or artificial lighting, creates in the course of the dialogue a vivid impression of time, place, coldness, and expectancy, and after the Ghost has vanished an equally vivid impression of dawn, four or five hours...
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[Joseph examines the concept of appearance versus reality with regard to Claudius's character in Hamlet. When the play begins, the critic asserts, there is no indication that Claudius is a villain; rather, he appears to be the consummate monarch, who effectively transacts private and public business. As the play progresses, however, the quality of his villainy is gradually revealed to the audience. Joseph also defines the term "hypocrisy" in relation to Claudius, maintaining that Elizabethans viewed it as a particularly serious character flaw. The king's hypocrisy is perhaps most evident in his eloquent speech in Act I, scene ii in which he openly discusses his hasty marriage to Gertrude and downplays its awkwardness by providing sound reasons for establishing the union. As a result, the grief-stricken Hamlet—with whom we are supposed to identify—seems to be the only abnormal character at the court The critic explores several Renaissance perspectives on Claudius's character which might not be apparent to a modern audience. For instance, Joseph maintains that an Elizabethan audience would not likely sympathize with the monarch as he tries to pray in Act III, scene iii, for his admission of sinning coupled with his inability to repent only makes his wickedness more pronounced. Further, the critic shows how Elizabethan audiences would understand that images of sickness and disease in the play relate to Claudius's...
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[Hellbrun contends that, contrary to the predominant critical opinion, Gertrude is not a weak character who lacks "depth and vigorous intelligence." The critic then evaluates Gertrude's lines in Hamlet to demonstrate that while the queen is not "profound," she is certainly never "silly." The character's actions in fact reveal her to be clear-headed and courageous, especially during the closet scene in Act III, scene iv when, after Hamlet accuses her of lust, she accepts his judgment and admits her sin. Heilbrun also provides an Elizabethan definition of the term "adultery," asserting that the word does not necessarily imply that Claudius and Gertrude had an affair while King Hamlet was alive, rather it suggests that their marriage reflects an unchaste sexual relationship. The critic concludes that while Gertrude is indeed lustful, she is also "intelligent, penetrating, and gifted with a remarkable talent for concise and pithy speech."]
The character of Hamlet's mother has not received the specific critical attention it deserves. Moreover, the traditional account of her personality as rendered by the critics will not stand up under close scrutiny of Shakespeare's play.
None of the critics of course has failed to see Gertrude as vital to the action of the play; not only is she the mother of the hero, the widow of the Ghost, and the wife of the current King of Denmark, but the fact of her hasty...
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[Lidz argues that Shakespeare dramatized Ophelia's madness to provide a countertheme to action surrounding Hamlet's own insanity. But whereas the playwright remains ambiguous about the reality of the prince's madness, the critic continues, he portrays Ophelia as classically insane. According to Lidz, Ophelia's descent into madness does not merely result from her father's murder, but rather his murder by Hamlet, whom she loves. As a result Ophelia is placed in "the intolerable predicament of having to turn away from the person she loves and idealizes because that person is responsible for her father's murder."]
Shakespeare carefully places Ophelia's madness in apposition to Hamlet's, illuminating the causes of each by making Ophelia's plight the female counterpart of Hamlet's dilemma. The action around Ophelia's insanity forms the countertheme to the action surrounding Hamlet's madness, balancing the plot and leading to Hamlet's death as well as to Ophelia's. Each dies more or less because there is nothing left for them but to desire death as an escape from an existence that has become intolerable.
Whereas Shakespeare is ambiguous about the reality of Hamlet's insanity and depicts him as on the border, fluctuating between sanity and madness, he portrays Ophelia as definitely, one might even say classically, insane. Even before she comes on stage, a gentleman gives us an excellent description of her...
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