For further information on the critical and stage history of Hamlet, see Hamlet Criticism (Volume 37), and Volumes 44 and 71.
Acknowledged as one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, Hamlet centers on the actions of a young Danish prince called upon by a ghost to avenge his father's murder at the hands of his uncle, King Claudius. For scholars the central issues of the play have intersected in the character of Hamlet, specifically in regard to the themes of madness and revenge that he personifies. Some critics have been concerned with Hamlet's apparent plunge into madness during the course of the play, and whether this insanity is real or feigned. Others have concentrated on Hamlet's revenge for his father's death—which directly and indirectly leads to the demise of nearly all of the major characters in the drama, including Hamlet himself—asserting that it raises the moral question of whether or not the prince is basically good or evil in his intentions. Further subjects of interest to commentators have included assessments of the play's female characters, Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, and their often ambiguous motivations, as well as the nature of the play's varied symbolism and imagery.
The question of madness in Hamlet has consistently intrigued modern scholars, many of whom have placed this subject at the center of their interpretation of the play by focusing on the compelling and enigmatic figure of Hamlet himself and the precise nature of his alleged insanity. Some critics, such as Paul Jorgensen and Theodore Lidz, have taken a psychological approach to the issue. For Jorgensen, Hamlet is the victim of a pathological grief that manifests itself in his melancholia. The critic diagnoses this melancholy in Freudian terms as repressed rage diverted toward himself instead of his enemies, and sees the movement of the play as leading to a resolution of this perturbed state. Lidz complicates the issue by contending that Hamlet, though he suffers from certain real forms of madness, nevertheless retains his keen intellect and at times only pretends to be insane in order to thwart and baffle those who would prevent him in his quest for revenge. P. J. Aldus has observed Hamlet's madness from multiple perspectives, ranging from the clinical, including an analysis of his paranoid schizophrenia, to the mythic and archetypal, particularly in the relationship between the prince's insanity and his roles as poet, dramatist, actor, and reflection of Shakespeare. Anna K. Nardo, conversely, has asserted that Hamlet's madness derives from the impossibility of his situation; forced to avenge his father without harming his mother or tainting his honor, he escapes into insanity. Some commentators, however, such as Bernard Grebanier, deemphasize the importance of Hamlet's insanity, highlighting the prince's nature as kind, compassionate, and magnanimous. Still other critics have examined the political and cultural dimensions of madness in Hamlet. Duncan Salkeld has maintained that Shakespeare presents a paranoid world in the play, which projects his society's collective fears of subverted power and sovereignty, and Alison Findlay has examined madness as related to the instability of language and the subversive power of gender in the play.
The theme of revenge in Hamlet has also elicited much critical attention among contemporary scholars—primarily in terms of the Ghost's nature and Hamlet's moral culpability as the play's executioner. Eleanor Prosser has asserted that the ghost of what appears to be Hamlet's father is nothing more than a devil sent from hell to exhort Hamlet to perform evil acts in the name of revenge. Harold Skulsky has argued, however, that the Ghost leaves all decisions to Hamlet, forcing him to choose between his feelings of honor, responsibility, cowardice, and compassion. In addition, while many commentators have noted the primary source for the play as the so-called Ur-Hamlet—a revenge tragedy often attributed to the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Kyd—all agree that Shakespeare pushed the bounds of the source material in his complex exploration of the revenge motif. In line with these modern assessments, Michael Cameron Andrews has observed that Shakespeare avoids didacticism by refusing to make any final judgment on Hamlet's guilt, while Harry Keyishian has seen the work as less equivocal, contending that Hamlet is basically good and is motivated more by his own moral integrity than the outside urgings of malevolent forces or an inner desire for destruction.
An increasing number of contemporary critics have turned their attention to the drama's supporting cast, especially its female characters Gertrude and Ophelia. The majority of commentators have seen Queen Gertrude as a weak, passive, and sentimental woman—an assessment represented by Baldwin Maxwell, who has noted that Claudius dominates her until the play's closing moments, when she drinks a poisoned cup of wine despite his protests. More recent investigations of Gertrude's character, such as that undertaken by Rebecca Smith, emphasize not her weakness, but her deep and tragic love for two men caught in mortal conflict with one another. The dilemma of choosing between two types of love is likewise reflected in much criticism of Ophelia. Robert Tracy, for example, has explored the conflicting imagery of sensual love and virginity surrounding her character, and has noted that when faced with the dilemma of demonstrating both her love for Hamlet and respect for her father's wishes, she flees reality, descending into madness and eventual suicide.
The varied nature of Shakespeare's imagery in Hamlet has additionally been a significant topic of interest to twentieth-century critics. Commentators have long observed the symbolism of disease, decay, and corruption that pervades the work and reinforces its themes. Kenneth Muir has noted, however, that Hamlet is not limited to the images of rottenness that represent the state of Denmark at the opening of the play. Muir has asserted that the play evokes a range of symbolism, including representations of sexuality and war and images from the theater, all of which complicate the play and emphasize its concern with the contrast between appearances and realities. The play's symbolism has also been explored by Henri Suhamy, who finds its imagery at once ambiguous, contradictory, and paradoxical—further proof of the play's protean nature, rich complexity, and enduring appeal to scholars and audiences.
Charles C. Walcutt (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "Hamlet—The Plot's the Thing," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, January, 1966, pp. 15-32.
[In the following essay, Walcutt describes Hamlet as "the imitation of an action," and outlines the relationship between plot and characterization in the play.]
One hesitates to propose anything new on a play about which "everything" has been said; but I am impelled to it by the fact that Hamlet is crucial to the emergence of modern notions about character in fiction. If there have been something like three thousand books and articles published on the play since 1900, it is because (and here I can make one statement without qualification) the character of Hamlet continues to puzzle us, and everything written seeks to throw some new light on the mystery. But it seems to me that the function of plot in Hamlet has been misunderstood, and I shall try to make some fundamental points about the action as the prime mover and substance of the prince's characterization.
In general, the critical contest has been between those who would explain the play by finding the key to the mystery of Hamlet's character and those who would reduce it to melodrama and spectacle. A third team of critics dabbles in philosophical problems, but these do not greatly affect the tides of the major battle. In the main contest, those who explore the mystery of the character make it the source of the action, whereas those who have insisted on the primacy of the action generally say that the problems of motivation and character in the hero disappear if we consider the play as a rapidly moving, even melodramatic spectacle of bloody violence and revenge. I should like to look at one or two of these exegeses and then try to look at the play in a completely fresh way.
The general terms of the contest, suggested above, are illustrated in the Introduction to Hamlet by my revered teacher at the University of Michigan, O. J. Campbell, in The Living Shakespeare (1949). His own position and his definition of the opposition are equally interesting. He begins by dismissing as the "speculations of subjective critics" such notions as that "Hamlet was … a brooding 'philosopher of death, a scholar of the night.' The modern variant of this idea is the notion that in Hamlet the desire to die has triumphed over the desire to live. Other commentators have assumed that Hamlet's grief has paralyzed his will, so that he is ever at the mercy of a mind involved in ceaseless debate with itself. Still others," he continues, "explain Hamlet's difficulty as the revulsion of a sensitive nature against the violent revenge which the ghost has ordered him to take."1 The corrective to misguided modernism is to "search the contents of the Elizabethan mind." There we find that Shakespeare's audience had a much more precise notion of "melancholy" than we have. "It was the name given to a nervous malady described at length in all the household medical handbooks of Shakespeare's day, and Elizabethan doctors were making careful attempts to observe and describe its symptoms." Since in the seventeenth century people in such conditions were not confined or even treated, "many cases of pathological melancholy were at large in Elizabethan society and easily recognizable by anyone interested in human personality."2 In Hamlet's case, the "rhythm of his malady" is so timed that "at every crucial moment he finds himself in the grip of emotions which fit him least to deal with the situation confronting him. … With each new revelation of this irrepressible conflict Hamlet's inner tension mounts until at the final catastrophe his tortured will explodes in a wild frenzy of unconsidered action."3 Professor Campbell has elsewhere elaborated his theory with the term "manic depressive" to label the malady from which Hamlet fails to act when he would most profit by acting, and acts on impulse when he should have kept his peace and his counsel.
Professor Campbell acknowledges that many students of the play would reject this interpretation as reducing a great drama to the level of a case history of a sick psyche. They would say that Shakespeare intended to give his characters just enough individuality to perform the deeds in "an exciting story of revenge." While he acknowledges that this emphasis is a good corrective to the sort of subjective speculations mentioned above, he believes that "carried too far it puts Hamlet on the same level as scores of other Elizabethan melodramas. Something very serious is the matter with Hamlet, and the full meaning of the great tragedy will never be clear until critics discover in the drama a conscious So either "something artistic design like the one sketched above."4 So either "something very serious is the matter with Hamlet," or the play is a melodrama of violent revenge. I know that this account of Professor's Campbell's interpretation is somewhat reductive, but I think I have not done violence to the main outlines. It is perfectly clear that he considers the mystery to be in the character of Hamlet—in what he essentially is as a man, which accounts for how he acts in the play; and he sees the alternative as tending to reduce the hero to a simple figure in a melodrama on the order of the heroes of American Westerns.
Even if Hamlet is not a case history of a diseased mind (although the term "manic depressive" makes him dangerously close to being one, in spite of the disclaimer), we must acknowledge the intrusion here of modern psychological concepts of the sort that reduce the self by classifying its eccentricities and putting them in pigeon-holes where they are seen as items in the environment. The struggle of the diminished self with its environing neuroses is a mystery of exploration and understanding rather than a dramatic action. Pushed far enough, it becomes the story of a naked eyeball suffering the cold winds of the world, absorbing agony while it fights to keep from freezing into a permanent trance of horror. If Hamlet is the beginning of this transformation, he is so, I would suggest, only as seen in the perspective of hindsight; and yet I will try to show that he must have been seen in his own time as adding a new element to the idea of man. When Pepys wrote in his diary that it was the best play and the best part ever written, he must have been responding to something that, even after 1660, was still startlingly new.
I think we can identify this element, but let us for a moment consider the range of critical opinion: Lily Bess Campbell5 finds Hamlet a medical case of "sanguine adust," in the Elizabethan terminology; the great Kittredge insists there is no delay but only problems Hamlet must solve (i.e., the ghost) and opposition he must outwit with feigned madness;6 Bernard Grebanier, after a lifetime of study, declares that Hamlet never feigns madness;7 E. E. Stoll reduces the play to a hasty, opportunistic adaptation of an old play, in which revenge predominates and the hero is not to be analyzed but only watched as he flashes from scene to scene in a wild, melodramatic plot.8
Before we succumb to the temptation to write off the action of Hamlet and say that Shakespeare was using tag-ends of old plots while he wrote poetry to express the romantic despair of a new, autobiographical hero, it is worth glancing at the plots of the other major tragedies which Shakespeare was writing during the years before and after Hamlet. In every one, the action is of dominating importance, even while it serves to bring out character and, in the process, the poetry which expresses the characters' quality of mind. In Julius Caesar the story is everything. Its theme moves around the problems of sovereignty and leadership and ambition; it moves through a famous story which has been retold a thousand times. What the characters become appears in their reactions to great challenges and final decisions; and their importance is writ large on the pages of history. Othello is an overpowering story; what the hero is cannot be conceived apart from the particular action of this play. Indeed, before this action he was a great soldier and a tremendous leader of men. A towering hero, he carried the simplicities of heroism, for he lived on a battlestage where he saw his own actions against a prodigious and majestic backdrop. The warrior's simplicity entranced Desdemona and infuriated the subtle Iago, under whose management the plot moved into a labyrinth of horror where the Moor raged, struggled, and destroyed even while he could not find his way from turning to turning. It is what Othello did that he talks about in the great speech that ends with his suicide. It is what he did, beside which what he previously was is as nothing, for he has become the creature of his horrid act—a new and terrible creature who cannot undo his ghastly mistake.
There are two time schemes in Othello. To achieve the psychological intensity and the headlong rush that keeps the hero from having time to step aside and think, Shakespeare has packed the action into thirty-six hours after the arrival at Cyprus; but to allow for the probabilities of moral growth, that is, to make the canker of suspicion grow to a cancer of jealousy, takes more time, and for this Shakespeare has provided a series of clues that stretch the same events out to three weeks or so. No member of an audience would ever disentangle the two sets of time clues at a single performance. An actor could perform the part without realizing that they were there. But the artistic depth and validity produced by them is one of the great wonders of the play, as it is of Shakespeare's craft. Within a single action he has evolved the sort of moral and psychological density that comes from the double plot in Lear. The subtlety and ingenuity of this construction reveals so profound an insight into the function of the action that I do not see how we can turn from it to Hamlet and say that Shakespeare was not really interested in what happend—or that he did not dare to meddle with legendary events that his audience would insist upon seeing unchanged. No audience over five years old could be so rigid.
Not until King Lear does Shakespeare venture to make the plot grow from the character of the hero. There he does, and with the surest hand that he was ever to show, making an action of cosmic dimensions grow out of the strange mixture of vanity, fatuity, and trust in the bosom of a monarch who has but slenderly known himself because he has been insulated by the sheer mass of his authority from his court and his family. Starting with his initial folly, Lear is plunged into a nightmare which puts out the light of his mind before it has purged him of his vanity and his overweening authority. I think everyone feels that Lear is Shakespeare's most tremendous play, his profoundest search of the human heart. This greatness is achieved because he begins with a king whose first speech involves him in an action of tremendous significance—and from the initial folly a flood, an ocean, a world, a cosmos of evil pours over him and crashes on to engulf the characters in an action that is, in one way or another, final for them all. It takes two plots to explore the physical blindness of Gloucester beside the intellectual blindness of Lear. When the turmoil has passed and the King has regained contact with humanity, the depths of human suffering have been plumbed and agonies of self-knowledge have been realized. The force of the action is hinted in Albany's closing couplet:
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
I say "hinted" because no words can begin to describe it.
In Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus the actions continue to be grand, involving issues and conflicts that challenge and define their heroes. Macbeth is not merely ambitious: he is caught up in a temptation as compelling as it is horrifying, so that it unveils the inmost mysteries of man's contradictory nature, where rational good forever struggles with impulsive evil. As the action moves into the very sovereign heart of the body politic, and moral darkness rises to disrupt the wholesome state embodied in its gentle king, so within Macbeth these forces engage in a conflict of appalling depth and intensity and he becomes as full and great as this action. The supernatural itself is called upon to figure forth the immensities of his spiritual turmoil.
Antony and Cleopatra does not have the cosmic dimensions of Lear, contained within a single spirit, but it moves in a larger world than any other play. Rome, Athens, Alexandria—the whole Mediterranean world, indeed the whole civilized world—become dazzling baubles well-lost for the exalted and devastating passion that consumes while it glorifies the heroes. Armies are betrayed, fleets of warships abandoned, kingdoms tossed aside to dramatize the relation between Antony and Cleopatra. She uses these elements to describe him:
His face was as the heavens; and therein
A sun and moon, which kept their course,
The little O, the earth …
His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear'd arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to
But when he meant to quail and shake the
He was as rattling thunder …
in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets; realms and
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.
And when such a one dies,
O sun, burn the great sphere thou move'st
Darkling stand the varying shore of the
Only with such a world backdrop could Shakespeare have glorified a destructive passion, a fading hero, and a sensual and imperious woman. And it is more than a backdrop: it is the substance of the action against which the demands of the passion are measured and revealed. Without these imperial choices the story would not rise to its imperial theme. Repeatedly in the play the characters are defined through their choices in situations of extraordinary importance: when Antony flaunts Caesar, when Cleopatra flees from the sea battle, when Antony flees after her, when he has to ask Eros to kill him, when Cleopatra refuses to come down from the monument, and when she makes her choice of death rather than deal with Caesar, the characters grow into their worldly and world-dominating richness. Thus we see Cleopatra's character as made of her thoughts about and her reactions (i.e., decisions) to these grand situations. She has her being, she becomes herself in these events. She is woven of the strands in this fabric of setting and action.
And likewise in Coriolanus we see an action that brings military heroism into violent confrontation with the demands of plebeian democracy—and the hero advances into a situation where he has to break the ties that gave his military leadership its meaning. Coriolanus emerges into choices and deeds that shatter his identification with State, with self, with family; and yet the State and the family still sway his decisions. We no longer respond to this play very successfully because physical heroism no longer confers utter greatness: two world wars have shown us that valor may appear at any level of society and that valor does not make for ultimate greatness. But we can appreciate the fact that the action of Coriolanus is everything; it brings the hero into new realms of the spirit; it makes him realize and enact implications of his position that could not have existed apart from this action. Again, what Coriolanus becomes is not implicit in him unless he is involved in the action of the play; it is the action that makes the emerging man.
The more we look from one great play to the next, the more difficult it becomes to sustain the notion that plot was not important to Shakespeare. If we take the proper perspective, however, we see that Shakespeare used old and famous stories precisely because plot was so important to him. It was only with important actions that he could generate important characters, and such important actions cannot be invented out of nothing; they must be drawn from the deepest springs of the society.
I propose that we should look at Hamlet as primarily, in Aristotle's terms, the imitation of an action. Then instead of wondering "what is the matter" with the hero, we shall be able to start with the simple and indeed the engaging assumption that nothing at all is the matter with him. Starting on this ground brings us the inestimable satisfaction of being able to believe what another important character says when she describes him. Everybody knows Ophelia's description, which is about as forceful and unequivocal as it could possibly be:
O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of
The observ'd of all observers …
noble and most sovereign reason
Speeches of this sort are an extremely familiar convention of drama to establish the "official" view of a character. When they are so eloquently full and precise, they are there for the audience's information. The point is further supported by the fact that Ophelia is speaking only to herself, since Hamlet has just stormed off stage and the King and Polonius have not come up to her yet. She is not concealing or probing or manipulating, but speaking her heart. Nothing in the play gives any sound reason for doubting this speech. Ophelia is not mad yet, and she certainly knows Hamlet well enough to speak with authority about him. That Shakespeare should give her so eloquent a speech is in itself evidence that she is to be seen as capable of such eloquence (as Polonius and Laertes, who also comment on Hamlet, are not, the one being fatuous and tedious, the other pompous and fulsome), and it seems equally obvious that the eloquence implies some intelligence and insight. Ophelia of course is mistaken in thinking Hamlet mad at this point. In her distress and innocence, she is as easily taken in by his subterfuge as she is intimidated by his violence. But this innocence is our assurance that she speaks without subtlety and expresses the general and "official" view of Hamlet.
Her speech tells us in the plainest terms what Hamlet was. She has described the ideal Renaissance prince, and we must start by accepting this as fact. The ideal prince was as far as anyone could be from having "something the matter" with him. He was the model of courage, decision, manners—the mold of form, the expectancy and rose of the fair state. This character has been so firmly established by Hamlet's early conduct that Polonius and Laertes characterize (and damn) themselves by their suspicions of him. The ignobility of their advice to Ophelia condemns them in the speaking of it—and the fact that Hamlet needs no defense from such contemptible charges shows that his essential nobility and honor have already been made clear by his appearance, his speech, the deference of Marcellus and Bernardo, the loyalty and respect of Horatio, and the fact that they go straight to him with the dangerous story of the ghost. These early impressions are fortified by the magnificent courage and intelligence of his confrontation of the ghost in I, iv, as they have already been strengthened by the respect for him shown by Claudius and Gertrude in the court scene at the king's first audience. In this scene, and in later discussions of the errant prince, Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius never say that Hamlet was queer, or inadequate, or too intellectual; rather, they all speak of the change that has overtaken him and wonder what it means. Much later in the play the same notions of Hamlet's nobility are expressed. Claudius complains to Gertrude of the people's love—
He's loved of the distracted multitude
(IV, iii, 4)
and he tells Laertes that Hamlet is
Most generous, and free from all contriving
(V, vii, 135-6)
The belief that Hamlet is the ideal prince is universal; it is assumed in every reference to his change or his "madness." Ophelia's account of his coming in muddy disarray, shaking his head and looking at her accusingly (II, i), conveys her shock and fear at the change in her lover.
The hero is the ideal prince at the beginning. The play's the thing—that is, the plot does not express and grow from Hamlet's peculiar character; rather it is the plot that brings about his problem and his complex series of reactions to it. In saying that plot is the prime mover, I do not intend to suggest that the play is a melodramatic tragedy of bloody revenge in which there are many unorganized remnants from the earlier bloody plays which were included—or because Shakespeare slavishly followed his sources merely because they contributed to the violence and excitement. (This view makes the plot unimportant and the character created by the poetry.)
The plot should be taken much more seriously—and it will be taken seriously if we adopt the view that it accounts for—indeed produces—the subtleties and complexities of characterization that appear as it unfolds. Then instead of an amorphous modern intellectual (or a high-level beatnik) imposed upon a patchwork fable scrambled hastily together from Saxo Grammaticus, Belleforest, and Thomas Kyd (I say "scrambled," yet these are also represented as authorities whose fables had to be slavishly followed lest the audience rebel, although it is never made plain how three conflicting sources could all be respected at the same time), we shall have an extraordinarily complex plot that generates an extraordinarily complex hero, step-by-step, as he moves through it. If plot were thus of absolutely first importance—which it was—Shakespeare would have given most careful attention to it. He would have scrutinized it item by item in order to make every incident work into the developing situation and character of his hero. I assume that Shakespeare was responsible for every detail in the final plot. I am not willing to concede that anything in Hamlet was forced on Shakespeare by the fictitious authority of a story that his audience would not allow him to change—or by any grand heedlessness of consistency or relevance on Shakespeare's part.
I have seen a good many performances of Hamlet. In every one, the hero has become dissociated from the plot by Act III. Thereafter he ponders, postures, and performs, but he does not seem to know which of the fifty Hamlets of criticism he is. As the end approaches he becomes less and less aware of what he is saying—until at worst he lapses into a sort of sleepwalking declamation, going through a set of motions that are not connected by a developing action but rather appear as set pieces or famous little vignettes with fine speeches. Part of the trouble lies in the length of the play and the fact that big chunks are omitted without proper transitions, so that at worst the play becomes a series of soliloquies; part of the trouble is that the language is so magnificent that the purple passages overpower the actor; but basically the trouble is that the actor has these fifty Hamlets milling around in his brain and they are all Hamlets of various critics' contriving rather than Hamlets caught up in a formidable, dominating series of events. The actor's grip on his role steadily weakens, until the final catastrophe is endured by an audience somewhat listlessly waiting for "Absent thee from felicity a while …" and "Good night, sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
The condition that establishes a dynamic and organic relation between Hamlet and the action is that he finds himself in a situation where he does not understand his own reactions. It must be shown that Hamlet is the most baffled and bewildered character in the cast. How does this come about? Plot and character meet, as we have seen, in the interplay of values, manners, and customs which is the design and substance of the social fabric. The subject of Hamlet is at the utter center of this design. It is the question of sovereignty, which is to say it is the principle that makes the state and holds it together—the life and mind of the body politic. The king is, according to the powerful symbol of mediaeval and Rennaissance polity, the head of the body politic. Cut off that head and the state is naught. It is the source of order or "degree"; "untune that string" and chaos is come again. Sovereignty is the initial concern of any Renaissance historian; it is the central concern of most. It is the subject of Shakespeare's history plays: what happens when the string of order is untuned by the murder of a king or the usurpation of proper succession? The theme attracted Shakespeare again and again. "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings," wailed Richard II, in a play that many critics feel to be a trial run for Hamlet.
Before Hamlet knows anything of the ghost, he is presented, in the second scene, garbed in solemn black, brooding on the fringe of the gay company that has assembled to bask in the first sunshine of the new sovereign. Claudius is strong, confident, masterful. He offers thanks to his followers, makes a virtue of his hasty marriage to Gertrude, dispatches a few items of important business—and then turns to his most serious problem, Hamlet, who is lurking somberly on the edge of the gathering. The first speeches are supercharged:
Claud: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,—
Ham: (Aside) A little more than kin, and less than
Claud: HOW is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Ham: Not so, my lord, I am too much i' the sun.
(I, ii, 64-7)
What strikes one most forcefully here is that Hamlet is out of the act; he has no role; where everyone else is participating in the new order of sovereignty, he is apart and aside, glooming on the edge, not fitting into the drift or spirit of the occasion. The ideal prince is a man of action: he translates the thought into the deed on the instant in a manner exemplifying his readiness, his courage, his leadership. Here Hamlet's aversion for Claudius, which alone would not disturb his princely dedication to sovereignty, is exacerbated by his doubts about his own status. He is both son and nephew—and neither; he is chief mourner except for Gertrude—and she paradoxically has become chief celebrant; he is witness to luxury, incest, and wassail—and yet there is no proper position from which he can positively act. Sovereignty is firm and confident; only Hamlet does not know where he stands.
His two replies quoted above, which are his first words in the play, have been subjected to exhaustive analysis. A dozen meanings have been found in them—and properly so, for they are supercharged, exploding from a brilliant intelligence under the tension which characteristically in Shakespeare produces a flood of puns or turgid mixed images. Only Shakespeare, I think, has been able so magnificently to represent the energy of the powerful mind under extreme stress. With his rebellious garb and his eruption of puns, he declares himself totally apart—and without a part. As the scene continues, he becomes more incisively rude, and in his next speeches he actually foreshadows the notion that, having no proper part, he must invent a role:
Ham: Ay, madam, it is common.
Ger: If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
Ham: Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black …
These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
(I, ii, 74-86)
Lurking on the edge of the company has given him the sense of alienation which comes out in the phrase "a man might play." It is the familiar sense of unreality that comes to an observer who is partly in and partly out of the scene that he observes. For Hamlet, it is a baffling and an exasperating experience, which produces in him tension and violence of speech. At this point Hamlet must not be seen as aloof, superior, or intellectually detached. Nor is he sick with melancholy. Quite the contrary, he is emotionally engaged in the situation but baffled by his inability to do anything meaningful. This must be a new sensation for him, and its newness accounts for the violence to which his bewilderment gives rise. Inability to match the deed to the thought is something that the glass of fashion and the mold of form, the observ'd of all observers, never dreamed of suffering. The ideal prince will think deep thoughts, but these thoughts will not inhibit action or replace it.
It is therefore not Hamlet's nature but the situation that evokes these violent, exasperated speeches. It does, of course, require a certain kind of man to respond so; the point is that the response is produced by the situation and would never have come without this particular situation. The following soliloquy—"O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt"—not only specifies what is most on Hamlet's mind (his mother's hasty and incestuous marriage) but also reveals the element of theatricality generated by suppressed emotions and inability to act; and when Horatio enters a moment later with news of the ghost, Hamlet suddenly comes alive, delighted to join thought and deed as he asks searching questions and instantly plans to watch that night with Horatio and the soldiers.
Before Hamlet talks with the ghost, he hears the cannon bruiting the king's carouse and comments on the unwholesome excesses of his land:
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc'd and tax'd of other nations.
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish
Soil our addition …
(I, iv, 17-20)
The speech tells us what, after his mother's hasty marriage, troubles Hamlet most; the drunkenness in Denmark is a second form of moral deterioration. His distress is redoubled by the ghost's disclosure. In a state of tremendous excitement, he twice begins to reveal to his companions what the ghost has told—and twice he catches himself in mid-sentence and retreats into "wild and whirling words." From this acting, he turns to the business of demanding a solemn oath of secrecy, which is interrupted by the ghost's speaking under the platform. This sets Hamlet off into more extravagant play-acting by which he dissembles both his knowledge and his feelings; and he ends the scene by telling his companions in mysterious terms that he will be doing strange things, that he may "perchance hereafter … think meet / To put an antic disposition on—" and that they must not give him away.
Before the ghost's revelation, Hamlet had had time to think about the question of sovereignty as he saw it incarnate in Claudius and Gertrude. He had also thought about play-acting. Now personal danger, uncertainty about the ghost's message, and the knowledge that for better or worse Claudius is the state make him retreat from a situation in which he has no role to the feigning of an antic disposition—or madness—in which he can maintain the intolerable dilemma of having to act and not being sure enough to act—or not being able to make himself act. Many forces are in tension. Pulling one way are respect for sovereignty, a disinclination to violence, a sense that more is wrong than murder, possible doubt of the ghost, and the earlier speculation that has begun his detachment; pulling the other way are murder and the filial duty of revenge. Of course, there are more, many more, which have been set forth by a long line of distinguished critics, but what it boils down to—and it has to be boiled down to be stageable—is that the situation puts Hamlet where he cannot act, where as an ideal man of action he is bewildered and furious at his inability to act, and from which he escapes into the invented role of madman. This role gives him time for speculation, which increases his detachment; it requires antic conduct, which works with the tensions produced by his frustrations; it keeps him in the presence of the murderer-sovereign, which exacerbates his guilt.
Most extraordinary is the manner in which Shakespeare has contrived so that his hero has acted himself into this state—first in solemn black, then in theatrical soliloquy, and then in wild and whirling responses to old Truepenny calling "Swear!" from the cellarage. The state of vexation and uncertainty in which he finds himself is expressed by his closing words to this remarkable act:
The time is out of joint;—O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right!
A superb verbal touch is that Hamlet uses the image of a bonesetter, which he certainly is not.
The key to a performance that will allow the plot to dominate, as it should, will be that Hamlet constantly shows that he is changing under the impact of events which have effects on him that he does not understand. If this failure to understand his own responses is properly rendered, the actor-hero will come through as a man discovering himself under totally unforeseen pressures and evolving under them into a new sort of man. The action stays a step ahead of Hamlet, all the way to the end.
The most powerful confusion forced on Hamlet by the action is the madness, which slips back and forth over the lines between clowning, exasperated fury, and hysteria. He is clowning with Polonius and Osric, he is furious with Ophelia and Gertrude because his assumed madness has got between him and them, and he goes just over the edge when he rants at Ophelia, kills Polonius, and jumps into the grave with Laertes. These shadings must be seen in relation to each other. The feigned madness comes out of the first tension with the ghost, after the days of brooding over the real ambiguities of sovereignty and kinship which make Claudius outside the law because he is the law and further because Hamlet is the son and nephew of Claudius. The feigning begins, indeed, as a wild compulsion. It becomes a habit and a safety valve. And it becomes a trap. People look askance at him just when he wants to be taken most seriously; so he cannot communicate, and so he jumps from one role to the next. In the second state—exasperated fury—he is well on the way to the third, where he will endanger himself and his program with conduct that is irrational if not mad. Surely it is the uneasy sense of being looked at askance that motivates his long speech to Horatio before the Mousetrap.
These drifts between clowning and hysteria must be seen as functions of the plot; that is, they are not inherent in Hamlet but forced upon him by the developing situation, and he must show himself to be repeatedly surprised by what he does. This is what makes character grow out of the action. It links hero-and-event in an exciting and wonderfully interesting sequence. It makes every detail in the action important, but only if Hamlet is as tense and curious as the audience about what will happen next … I suspect that twentieth-century attitudes make it extravagantly difficult for us to see the play this way. Drugstore Hamlets are a dime-a-dozen today because so many people do not know what is important in the world. The common question today is, "What should I want, and why?" In this context, uncertainty and indecision are more common than resolution and confidence. How many of T. S. Eliot's memorable lines rest just on this theme!
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire …I will show you fear in a handful of dust …
I can connect
Nothing with nothing …
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and
… Multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors.
[History] gives too late
What's not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion …
Ironic juxtapositions abound as commentaries on this condition:
Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney's knees …
Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the waters in his bath.
The masters of the subtle schools
Are controversial, polymath.
In this modern world, it would be hard enough to imagine Hamlet's state as utterly new and bewildering even if we were not all familiar with the story; being familiar with it, we find it immeasurably more difficult to experience the suspense that brings meaning to the action. But we must try, if we are to see what the play meant to the Elizabethans. Everything, in fact, depends on the actor; if he really feels his part he will be able to convey it, no matter how old the story is. We must see the roles as becoming forces upon Hamlet with which he is unable to cope because he cannot stay the passage of events as they come flooding over him.
If Act I sets the stage and establishes the conflict, Act II develops that conflict. In criticism and in performances of the play, Act II is the prime source of confusion. A good deal of time has passed, the hero has changed, the action drags, the disgressions mount, and the critics really dig in … What is really happening is that Hamlet, having adopted a role in order to conceal his doubts, his tensions, and his consequent reluctance to act against Claudius, has got himself into a melancholy and speculative paralysis. His real part as prince of the realm having been destroyed by murder and incest, he has adopted the role of madman. Playing his role has further dissociated him from his true role of prince. He becomes, not mad of course, but increasingly detached in spectatorship. Once having stepped out of his real self—for whom noble action would be instantaneous—he finds that delay and speculation possess him; and the more he observes and speculates, the more complexities he sees.
He tries, for example, to explore Ophelia's heart by appearing to her as a madman, disheveled and muddy. What he sees in her eyes adds a heavy stone to his burden of doubt. It was a diversion and a distraction, a trying-out of the power derived from a concealing role; but the consequences are shaking. Ophelia, terrified and speechless, seems to be concealing something herself: a new element of doubt thereafter confuses his speculations.
As the complexities grow, the temptation to go on observing and speculating becomes stronger; but with delay the tension from his failure to act becomes increasingly painful until it exacerbates him to sudden violence. The violence itself becomes a refuge because it enables him to play the mad role at the same time that he releases his pent-up wrath and exasperation. He taunts Polonius (while revealing alarm at the discovery that Polonius is probing him) with ambiguous remarks upon corruption and sovereignty:
HAM: For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion,—Have you a daughter?
POL: I have, my lord.
HAM: Let her not walk i' the sun. Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive …
It may be noted at this point that there is no need at all for Dover Wilson's elaborate emendation of the stage directions, to make Hamlet overhear Polonius planning to "loose [his] daughter to him",9 for Hamlet's suspicions have had plenty of time to develop since he tried to read Ophelia's thoughts. "There's no art," says Duncan in Macbeth, "to read the mind's construction in the face," but Hamlet has not learned this truth yet. Hamlet's attitude toward Ophelia would not harden into violence so quickly; she has been part of the corrupt setting since the beginning of the play.
A moment later he runs circles around the prying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose clumsy attempts to discover the cause of his distemper merely serve to expose the fact that they are pawns of Claudius. It is therefore the highest dramatic irony that the duplicity of these sycophants, probing Hamlet's assumed role, should no sooner be discovered than they tell of the players newly arrived—and Hamlet is thrust into further contemplation of play-acting. The idea of the detached actor-observer began as an impulse; it grew with the wild foolery after the ghost's appearance and the successful attempt to frighten Ophelia; and now fortune draws Hamlet into it to the point where it becomes more real, more compelling, than his business of revenge. The player's recitation of the speech from "Aeneas' tale to Dido" moves Hamlet profoundly. Many critics have treated this speech as a parody of Marlowe or Kyd, meant to be somewhat ludicrous. Nothing could be more inappropriate to these climactic moments of the action. I find it an absolutely superb speech and a deeply moving one. It is archaic and therefore a bit rigid, of course, but Shakespeare, who almost certainly wrote it himself, would want it to be different from the "real life" language of his own characters. That is, if his poetic language is an imitation of real life, then the language of the players-within-his-play must be a step further removed from common speech. Illusion within illusion must define itself by a difference in form. Indeed, this is fairly simple compared with the passage wherein the boy-actor playing Cleopatra complains that if "she" is carried to Rome by Caesar "she" will be mocked by boy-actors:
the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' the posture of a whore.
(V, ii, 216-221)
Let no one say that Shakespeare was not aware of these subtleties!
Harry Levin even proposes that the Player's speech be seen as a carefully wrought mirror image of Hamlet's following soliloquy.10 Both involve the slain king and the mourning queen, Hecuba passionate, Gertrude seemingly indifferent. The Player describes action; Hamlet talks instead of acting. The Player curses Fortune; Hamlet curses himself—and so on. Most brilliantly conceived is the contrast between the Player's fustian dramatization of the theatrical, which moves him to tears, and Hamlet's "realistic" commentary on himself, which surely rises to a shriek with
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, landless
The ironies latent here would be best realized if the Hamlet-actor actually lost control, tore the passion to tatters, and became more involved in his performance than the Player had just been in his,—the point being that the true artist in performance must maintain a certain objectivity in order to bring out the emotions in his part. If he lets himself experience these emotions, he will be worn out and his acting will fail. Hamlet is feigning but has become so involved that he has lost the objectivity of true feigning: the play-world has become in considerable part his real world.
This magnificent contrivance brings the interpenetration of drama and "reality" to the point where the audience itself is involved in the uneasy footing. It shares some of Hamlet's doubts. Earlier in Act II, he confounded Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with teasing ambiguities over the question of dreams and reality:
GUIL: Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.
HAM: A dream itself is but a shadow.
ROS: Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow's shadow.
HAM: Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretch'd heroes the beggars' shadows …
Now he is caught up in the thing itself.
There is far more method in his madness furthermore than just filling out a long act with a contribution to the War of the Theatres. It is right here that Hamlet's preoccupation with acting begins to carry him so far that he cannot come back, but I must repeat that the plot brings the players on the scene, and it is in the plot that Hamlet finds with them an occasion for doing something direct and specific in the way of his revenge. The irony is that he is carried further and further into the realm of illusion. What came to him from a ghost, he will now have reenacted by the players, so that the real problem is wrapped in layers of dramaturgy which inevitably blunt the bright edge it should have. And as he becomes entangled in his contrived roles and plots, he frets and rages at himself and his situation; in the great soliloquy ending Act II (O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!) he first wonders what the player would say if, instead of Hecuba, he had
the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appall the free …
He is now thinking in terms of the stage and its actors, and after accusing himself of the abominable sin of cowardice, he comments on the fact that he is speaking instead of doing, which is another way of saying that he has escaped into his assumed role. And this is not all; his next step is to repeat his plan for the Mouse-trap. Having ended Act I with the grotesque metaphor of a bonesetter, he ends Act II acknowledging that he has become a director:
The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.
The scene that follows is controlled by the elements that have been developed: Play-acting, and thinking about play-acting, where illusion and reality are united and confused, compelled to feign madness until the evening's performance, exacerbated beyond bearing by the delays and cross-purposes in which he has become entangled, Hamlet first speculates on mortality and suicide—and then turns in half-real and half-feigned mad fury on Ophelia. He is now indeed caught in the role he has contrived, to the point where he can act only through it—and where his conduct adds to the suspicions of the spying Claudius and begins to close the net that will carry him to England. This role is now necessary to his preservation but intolerable for the ideal prince. It is an image of the predicament of modern man as he slips from the certain certainties of the Divine and feudal state into the agonies of moral relativism that inescapably accompany detachment and speculation. While his intellectual world grows, the strait-jacket of his role tightens about him. Small wonder that he should lash out with bitter speeches: his tongue is his only weapon!—And rather than speculate about exactly when in the Nunnery scene Hamlet becomes aware of the King and Polonius eavesdropping, we should realize that his struggle is, primarily, with the situation into which he has slipped: this makes him lash out at Ophelia, and when he discovers the two spies he can only lash out more furiously from his mad role and increase their suspicions. He has already lost control of the situation; the next scenes will bring climax and consequences.
Scene ii begins with a necessary breathing-spell after the violence of the Nunnery scene, but it is not wasted. Hamlet's advice to the players dwells on the excesses of false art—on the actors who tear a passion to tatters, the clowns who "laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered"—and on the ideal of holding the mirror up to nature, "to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image." He is also ironically throwing light on the predicament of one who has exchanged the image for the actuality. Like Alice in Allen Tate's poem, he has passed through the looking glass and shattered the real world:
Turned absent minded by infinity
She cannot move unless her double move,
The All-Alice of the world's entity
Smashed in the anger of her hopeless love.
In the speech to Horatio, he makes a great effort to justify the Mousetrap and even speaks as the ideal prince in commanding him to watch the king:
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe mine uncle. …
But this comes after he has revealed his sense of isolation by describing the man he ought to be but no longer is:
and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she pleases. Give me that
That is not passion's slave…
In the context that has grown through the plot—the ideal prince trapped in play-acting not so much through weakness as through the combination of circumstances operating on his special virtues of idealism and intellectuality—the Mousetrap scene epitomizes the situation while it is the very substance of the plot, for there we see the crisis of action-and-character as they have become entangled. Hamlet must direct his play, calculate its effect, and also carry on with his own play—but in fact he is involved in several "plays" by now. He is a mocking and frightening lover to Ophelia; he is mad with love to Polonius, mad with (perhaps) ambition to the king; he is a rational truth seeker to Horatio; and he is all these things plus a philosopher and a producer-director to the audience. He is also caught in the scene he has set, which includes Claudius, Gertrude, the court, and the archaic performance of The Murder of Gonzago.
The strange repetition involved in having the dumb-show before the spoken play—for which scholarship has found no precedent11—must be significant. Let us not, at this crucial point, try to argue that Shakespeare nodded, or that he has been misrepresented. The dumb-show is in the Second Quarto as well as the Folio. It must be essential to Shakespeare's plan and plot. Philosophically, it adds a layer to the several layers of unreality that have been developed and projected: there is play within play within play. Practically, the repetition is needed if we are to follow Hamlet into all the relationships that have grown up about him. Particularly if the play is presented as an imitation of an action, the complexities of Hamlet's character will appear in what he does as he acts his relations to the others and further finds himself in each act. As each moment and event add something to Hamlet's character, he must be acted as discovering himself, and he must be more surprised by his conduct than the audience is. This is asking a good deal, but it indicates the direction that will be taken in the staging in order to put the emphasis of the performance on the events (which of course include the relationships, the ideas, and the values involved) and show that as they take place the characters respond to them.
Well, one may reply, it takes a character to do something, since all that happens is what people do. Yes, but especially in Hamlet it is common to see the hero displaying himself, reciting Shakespeare, and regarding the stage and the rest of the cast as foils to his performance. The importance of shifting the emphasis to the action is that doing so brings more effective forces to bear on the hero.
The Mousetrap scene must show Hamlet trying almost desperately to play all his roles at once. He must direct the players, who may overdo it and "give all away." He must "use" Ophelia somehow in order to confuse Polonius and those who think he is mad for love, while he also vents his wrath in sarcasm because he is not sure what he thinks of her or how much he needs her. It is because of such conduct—in which only a part of his attention comes to focus on her—that he can contribute to her distraction partly by heedlessness and partly by an explosive rather than an intended cruelty. He must watch Gertrude, whom he suspects of complicity in the murder and whose lecherous compliance disgusts him; here, again, his responses are more heedless than reasoned. Attempts to carry out Dover Wilson's suggestion that Hamlet is, to the court, mad with ambition, have not been successful; yet the idea is unmistakably present in his own words, "This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king," describing the poisoner. Either this is a planned threat to poison Claudius in order to convey the theme of madness-from-ambition—or it may come as an impulsive exclamation, unplanned and as dangerous to his cause as his wild words in the Nunnery scene. Of all his tasks, Hamlet's most urgent is that he watch Claudius, even though he has assigned this duty to Horatio. There must also be time for the audience to observe Claudius in various states of boredom, infatuation, anxiety, and terror.
To convey this tremendous complexity of action, illusion, and perception, two performances are scarcely enough. If the dumbshow is omitted, it is because the director does not have anything to "say" through it, and that will be because he does not take the plot seriously because he is tracing everything to "what is the matter" with Hamlet. It would be a great challenge to a director to convey the three-level phantasmagoria of reality and illusion, where the stately court is a false front and the archaic play is the starkest actuality. This confusion of illusion and reality might be portrayed with lighting. It could have been rendered on Shakespeares stage if one group of actors were stiffly artificial and the other the opposite. Thus the Mousetrap players could talk their quaint verse but act like contemporaries, whereas Claudius and the court could appear like cardboard figures while speaking their "real life" English. I think we tend today to underrate the poetic and expressive subtleties that must have been easy to the Elizabethan-Jacobean stage. There was a relatively small community; the actors worked together month after month; the sensitivity to language was certainly more richly cultivated than it is today where there are so many other media of communication; the greatest poet of our language, at the very apogee of an exploding art form, was working with complexities of language and imagery which must have been rendered with subtleties of acting and staging that we do not see in the clumsy models and pictures of the Globe Theatre that we know. All this would have to be presented with exactly the right balance between the bewildering action and the reactions of Hamlet. Trying to manage all his roles and his inquiries, trying to understand what is happening around him, the Prince is caught up in a fury of activity. That he is not completely confused is a tribute to his great courage and intelligence, but he is far from being in control of the situation.
Right after the Mousetrap, when Claudius has run off in panic and Hamlet has danced a triumphant jig, the interview with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern follows naturally enough. Hamlet has to contain his wild exhilaration and conceal his intentions. And Shakespeare has to give some relief from the tension built up with the climax of the Mousetrap; he knew that tension would at a point give way to laughter if it were not relieved, and he had an instinct for timing his relief in a manner that advanced or enriched the action. The entrance of these two timeservers shows that the forces against Hamlet are gathering and that he is so much in disfavor that these upstart courtiers dare to speak severely to him. At no point in the play, perhaps, does Hamlet jump about so in language and manner: he pours out puns and veiled attacks; he feigns madness most energetically; and yet he must also use the recorder for a thinly-veiled censure of these impertinent upstarts who are so obviously trying to sound a man who is worlds beyond them—worlds beyond, yet confused enough to reveal his intensity and his intelligence at the very moments when he is also letting off steam in his wild foolery and feigning madness to the top of his bent! The scene is an extraordinary epitome of the action thus far; and the short concluding soliloquy, delivered so fiercely and confusedly, beginning with "Now could I drink hot blood, / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on," and in the next sentence directing all this to his mother along with an injunction "O heart, lose not thy nature … speak daggers to her, but use none,"—this shows the accumulated fury and confusion of a man who is far from being in control either of himself or the situation.
If the Mousetrap were handled as I propose, the mystery of the following prayer scene would clear itself up. The impact of the former would account for Hamlet's being unable to come to terms with his opportunity when it offered itself. It comes too soon, and there is far too much on Hamlet's mind when it comes. One might say that the walls have hardly stopped whirling around him. He has been transported into a world of thought, and the poor figure of Claudius at prayer is a dim grey shadow on the fringe of this inner light. Hamlet must be shown struggling to believe in its reality, and his soliloquy must show how his created imaginings put him into such a detachment from the living Claudius that he must invent the pretext for passing him by and going on to his mother in her closet. There the rupture of illusion-reality takes a form with which he thinks he may be able to cope. And it is not improbable, psychologically, that an individual would organize his scattered forces by bringing himself somewhat violently to bear on a single "manageable" issue. This is what Hamlet does in going to his mother. He will wring her heart and make her see the true moral image of her conduct. But again events take command. Polonius stirs behind the arras, and Hamlet is galvanized into action. Having killed Polonius, he is again beside himself with the intensities and complexities of the situation.
He is, indeed, so carried away by the violence generated in killing Polonius that he goes on and on in his attack on Gertrude until the ghost himself intervenes to protect her. Here the confusions of illusion and reality multiply with a vengeance. The outraged spirit of Hamlet's father comes back a second time to protect the incestuous queen who has figured so largely in the court life that dismays Hamlet. And here Hamlet learns not only that Gertrude was innocent of any part in the murder of her husband but also something of the utmost importance—namely, that the ghost is genuine.
Three centuries of critics have explored the question whether the ghost is "a spirit of health or goblin damned," and from a hundred angles. At one extreme it is dismissed as a trivial matter; at the other extreme it is the question that accounts for Hamlet's delay. I think Hamlet believed the ghost when he first saw it but came to doubt it as he doubted everything when the tensions and contradictions in his situation became overpowering. When the ghost intervenes to protect Gertrude, he proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that he is indeed the ghost of the dead king. Only a true spirit would show such tender concern for his lost and faithless wife. Yet this important proof has been largely ignored by the critics—because they are no longer interested in the action. The question of "what is the matter with Hamlet" comes to a dead end, a paralysis, with the prayer scene, and the play seems to break in two at that point for the psycho-philosophical critics. The arguments for sparing Claudius are too horrible, so horrible that many critics have been reduced to saying that Hamlet must spare Claudius in order to permit a fourth and fifth act! Not knowing why he fails to kill Claudius, they have no bridge to the next scene, in the queen's closet. The "action" has become only a patchwork assembled to give Hamlet a stage for ranting over the praying king and, presently, the obtuse and libidinous queen.
But if the action is taken seriously, we can see the complexity of event-and-reaction that Shakespeare has contrived. From the dim praying king, Hamlet goes to the guilty queen. Killing Polonius, he is himself galvanized to fury. The ghost comes to protect the queen and, as he says, "to whet thy almost blunted purpose," and for a moment he does succeed in bringing Hamlet back to a more controlled and reasonable disposition. But right here another factor comes to bear: the queen thinks Hamlet is indeed mad, because she does not see the ghost, and the exasperation of trying to convince Gertrude that he is not mad, so that he can bring her thoughts back to her own guilt, raises him immediately to a new pitch of fury. He goes on and on with his lecture, but, between the queen's terror of his violence and her desire to ignore his "mad" reproofs, he has lost what slight control of the situation he might have gained. He is right, and his words are wonderfully eloquent, but Gertrude has neither the desire nor the ability to see this Tightness through the chaos of violence in which she is plunged. We don't carry on a quiet talk about morals while the body of a murdered counsellor is lying, still warm, a few feet away! Yet Hamlet has not time to wait for a calmer hour; he must make matters worse by driving ahead, and his very lucidity only furthers the queen's bewilderment.
Interpreters of the first scene in Act IV have a way of assuming that Shakespeare has not written what he intended and so must be "explained." If they want to argue that Hamlet has convinced Gertrude of his sanity in the previous scene, they then claim that Gertrude is pretending in this scene; but elsewhere they tell us that Shakespeare frequently gives the most explicit stage directions right in the dialogue. He does, and nowhere are these directions more precise than here. Claudius says, "There's matter in these sighs, these profound heaves; / You must translate; 'tis fit we understand them." Sighs and profound heaves do not describe terror but sorrow—nothing else. Gertrude is heaving deep, sorrowful sighs because she knows now that Hamlet is mad. And when she says he is "Mad as the seas and wind, when both contend / Which is the mightier. In his lawless fit, / Behind the arras hearing something stir, / He whips his rapier out, and cries, 'A rat, a rat!' / And, in his brainish apprehension, kills / The unseen good old man," she is saying exactly what she believes. This is no time—and there is not that much room in the drama—for a while new set of speculations about Gertrude's motives, or about her pretending now in order to protect Hamlet from the king's wrath. She has not been convinced; she has not come over to Hamlet's side; simple-mindedly as always she has reacted as almost anyone would react when a son raves and raves and then sees a ghost that isn't there.
The point of this scene is that Hamlet's roles have taken over. He has spoken with brilliance, deep feeling, and great lucidity. The audience understands him perfectly. It must also be allowed to understand that Hamlet has complete and utterly failed to get his message across to his mother. This is the final irony and the final step in his isolation: his mother loves him, and yet she has not "heard" a word that he has said to her. Grieving deeply, she only wants to get him out of the country, and she utters no word opposing Claudius's decision to send him to England. Claudius, of course, knows better; he understands Hamlet almost as well as the audience does. He certainly grasps the practical aspects of the problem, and he acts instantly to get Hamlet out of the way. In fact, the communication between Hamlet and Claudius has always been pretty accurate. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear to put Hamlet, in effect, under arrest (IV, ii), he feigns madness to the top of his impudent bent, even while letting the audience feel his confusion, his justified rage, and his desperation at having worked himself into a situation where he cannot act—to say nothing of his having thought so much about it that he has got out of the way of acting. But when these rascals bring Hamlet to the king, there is a real moment of truth when between the pass and fell incensed points, the mighty opposites look one another in the eye with total, but secret, understanding:
Claud: … The bark is ready, and the wind
The associates tend, and everything is bent
Ham: For England?
Claud: Ay, Hamlet.
Claud: SO is it, if thou knew'st our purposes.
Ham: I see a cherub that sees them.
Such directness is now neither irresponsible nor a luxury, for Claudius has already signed the order for Hamlet's death. This moment of truth is the lowest ebb of the hero's fortune up to this point; now, in whatever role, he has lost not only the initiative but also his freedom of action—and almost his life.
In the rest of Act IV and the first scenes of Act V, we have a typical Shakespearean device: the action slows down and spreads out, so that the audience has time to assimilate the meaning of what has happened and become ready to receive the full impact and meaning of what follows. If we have followed Hamlet up to this point, we have seen an ideal Renaissance prince becoming entrapped by situations and responses to them that make him detached, speculative, philosophical—and also alienated among his unstable, unpractical roles—and also exasperated and violent both because of his inability to act and to communicate and because of seeing himself performing in a manner that is totally surprising to him.
Now with the fourth-act expansion and relaxation, we have time to grasp and feel what Hamlet has become: He has become wiser and deeper. He does not feel quite so close to his burden of revenge; he is not hemmed-in and exasperated; and he is thinking of man in larger perspectives than he could have before. This summary is of course a barren thing beside the wonders of Shakespeare's poetry; it is meant only to indicate what the audience will feel if the performance has brought it up through a consistent action in which the actor has developed with the characterization so that he thinks his lines instead of merely reciting them.
If Hamlet is more objective, he is also more removed from the immediate pressure of bloody revenge: the examples of a drunken, lustful king and a complaisant mother are not before his eyes. Yet the problem remains. The ideal prince is still burdened with his grisly duty, which honor enjoins as severely as it ever did. And Hamlet still knows, still accepts it, but with the great difference that is expressed in his humorous and philosophical attitude toward the gravediggers. He has placed the warring elements in a perspective, not of resignation but of wisdom, the depth of which makes the contrast between Hamlet and the twentieth-century hollow man appear vast indeed. Today's hero would continue to doubt everything, and the story would end in guilt and despair, with perhaps some adventitious affirmation of the essential dignity of man. I say adventitious because although deeply felt it would not have been realized in the action. Hamlet's insights do not make him doubt the essential values of his world. If he has lamented being its scourge and minister, yet he has accepted the task and has now grown more convinced of its dignity and importance. The cost of such wisdom is that he returns to Denmark not knowing how the forces against him will be organized.
And of course the facts soon fly at him thick and fast. When he sees Ophelia being buried with maimed rites and the crass Laertes beating his breast in the grave, his wild roles take instant possession, and an ultimate epitome of his feigning-mad-furious-hysteria occurs. Never was Hamlet so earnestly idealistic, never does he appear more insane to the others, and never does he play more openly into the hands of his enemies. What he has lived through in the previous Acts is now a part of him that he cannot slough off. Nor can the perspective of wisdom and insight, once gained, stop the various counter-movements he has set in motion in the costly process of gaining it.
He reaffirms his clear knowledge of his duty:
Does it not, thinks't thee, stand me now
He that hath kill'd my king and whor'd my
Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage—is't not perfect
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?
Hor: It must be shortly known to him from
What is the issue of the business there.
Ham: It will be short; the interim is mine,
And a man's life's no more than to say
(V, ii, 63-74)
And a few moments later he balances this with the moving fatalism of a speech in which he shows that he is now caught in a grand action which he may not be able to dominate—or even survive:
Not a whit; we defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.
(V, ii, 230-235)
From this level of humor, wisdom, and acceptance, Hamlet goes into the final catastrophic action where he acquits himself magnificently. Here, finally, the mocking, the feigning, and the uncontrolled fury are absent. He reaches the top of his princely greatness in matching the combined trickery of Claudius and Laertes—matching only, for mastering it would be too much to expect.
I have not discussed these latter scenes in great detail because in them the power and dominance of the plot is absolute, overpoweringly so in the final scene; and if the audience has been taken along with a consistent, growing Hamlet up to the middle of Act IV, there is little fear that the interpretation will go astray thereafter. Indeed, the character developed will cast a dazzling light on the closing action. Throughout this discussion, I have touched very lightly on the satiric humor, the good nature, and the verbal brilliance of Hamlet—not because these do not contribute enormously to his personality and to our pleasure in the play, but because I have tried to restrict myself to the particular problem of the relation of characterization to plot. The constant presence of these elements, which Aristotle called ethos and intellect, cannot be missed.
1 New York, 1949, p. 744.
2Ibid., p. 745.
5Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes.
6 Kittredge's Notes to his edition.
7The Heart of Hamlet, N. Y., 1960.
8Art and Artifice in Shakespeare, N. Y., 1951.
9What Happens in Hamlet, p. 108.
10The Question of Hamlet, New York, 1959, pp. 156ff.
11 Dover Wilson discusses this fact at length in What Happens in Hamlet.
Arthur Kirsch (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Hamlet's Grief," in ELH, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 17-36.
[In this essay. Kirsch examines the theme of grief in Hamlet, arguing that the betrayed character of Hamlet suffers throughout the play in a manner more consistent with a state of mourning than one of melancholy and mental derangement.]
Hamlet is a tragedy perhaps most often, and justly, admired for its intellectual energy. Hamlet's mind comprehends a universe of ideas, and he astonishes us with the copiousness and eloquence and luminousness of his thoughts. But I think we should remember, as...
(The entire section is 31420 words.)
Paul A. Jorgensen (essay date 1963-64)
SOURCE: "Hamlet's Therapy," in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, 1963-64, pp. 239-58.
[Below, Jorgensen undertakes a psychological study of Hamlet's malady in terms of Renaissance and Freudian interpretations of melancholy as repressed anger, misdirected toward one's self rather than expressed outwardly.]
It is the purpose of this essay to call attention to an important, though doubtless secondary, objective of Hamlet's pilgrimage (like a Spenserian knight he can have more than one). This is the regaining of the sanity which he had formerly displayed as an ideal prince. Hamlet does recover; and...
(The entire section is 29689 words.)
Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "Spirit of Health or Goblin Damned?", in Hamlet and Revenge, 1967, pp. 132-42.
[In the following excerpt, Prosser asserts that Shakespeare's Ghost is not Hamlet's father but an incarnation of the Devil, and details the manner in which this demon exhorts Hamlet to revenge.]
Act I, Scene v
Now, at last, the Ghost speaks. And now we face the first serious possibility that it may indeed be the departed soul of Hamlet's father, returned from Purgatory, where he is "doomed for a certain term" to "fast" in "sulphurous and tormenting flames" until his "foul crimes … are burnt and...
(The entire section is 26162 words.)
Bernard Grebanier (essay date 1960)
SOURCE: "Dramatis Personae: Sounding Through Their Masks," in The Heart of Hamlet: The Play Shakespeare Wrote, 1960, pp. 249-300.
[In the excerpt below, Grebanier analyzes the natures of Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.]
We have a rough idea of the hero's tragic flaw. Through a consideration of the plot and action we know what he is not, and more than a little of what he is. If we refuse to wander afield from the play, it shall not be difficult to describe Hamlet as Shakespeare created him.
(The entire section is 49305 words.)
Robert Tracy (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "The Owl and the Baker's Daughter: A Note on Hamlet IV," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Winter, 1966, pp. 83-6.
[In the following essay originally presented as a lecture in 1963, Tracy comments on the symbolism of both chastity and sensual love associated with Ophelia's character.]
It is a critical commonplace to discern a pattern in Ophelia's apparently random remarks during her mad scenes. While suggesting complete mental derangement, Shakespeare advances the play by giving us a very clear indication of the reasons for Ophelia's madness: her irreconcilable attachments to Hamlet and Polonius...
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Alexander, Nigel. Poison, Play, and Duel. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971, 212 p.
Contends that Hamlet's dilemma is caused by a dual problem: he must combat the evil that surrounds him and control the violence within himself.
Babcock, Weston. "Hamlet": A Tragedy of Errors. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1961, 134 p.
Concentrates on the characters' misconceptions and views these misconceptions as errors that lead to the catastrophe, chief among them being Hamlet's belief that Gertrude is guilty of complicity in Claudius's crime.
Battenhouse, Roy W. "Hamartia in Aristotle, Christian Doctrine, and...
(The entire section is 775 words.)