Hamlet (Vol. 35)
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,...
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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 his recovery is a part of the drama which grips us. Only thus can we fully account for the much-discussed "regeneration" of the hero in a play whose primary image is disease. And only thus can we realize the fullest meaning of his most impassioned speeches. We must view them as Hamlet's groping his way from an initial torpor and grief, through conscious anger, to a clear-sighted though troubled sanity. This groping serves as a prelude to his tragic wisdom and to his restoration as one who would have proved most royally had he been put on.
Unlike other psychological students of the play, I am not primarily concerned with the almost hopeless task of precisely diagnosing Hamlet's malady, and I am glad to agree with most...
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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 purged away."32 Very well, let us shift our perspective, as many in Shakespeare's audience may have done, and test it on its chosen grounds—test it, that is, by Catholic doctrine.
What is the mission of the Ghost? Even before it announces its identity, we are warned: it comes to command revenge. Its first long speech is skillfully adapted to its mission. It appeals to Hamlet's love and grief, relentlessly aggravating the son's anguish by describing the pains of Purgatory. Note that it does not state one specific fact, though literature abounded with useful details. It announces that it is forbidden to tell such secrets to mortal men, and then proceeds to create an even more horrifying impression than any...
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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.
We already know, for instance, that so far from being a shrinking violet or a creature of meditation who acts only in his imagination, he is an extraordinarily active man, a man who finds it easy to act—as witness: his following the Ghost despite his friends' admonitions, his immediately conceiving the plan for the Mousetrap on the first possible occasion, his effective presentation of it, his killing of Polonius, his unsealing the King's commission to England and substituting of other orders, his boarding the pirate ship alone, his winning over the pirates to his bidding, his grappling with Laertes in the grave, his eager acceptance of the challenge to fence, his violent attack on Laertes once he knows he has been tricked, his savage...
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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 as persons, and to chastity and sensual love as desirable goals. It is the strain of attempting to reconcile these opposing allegiances that has shattered her reason, for during the mad scenes Ophelia's lips involuntarily repeat the slogans and war cries of that great battle of conflicting loyalties from which her conscious mind has withdrawn itself. Her songs in Act IV, scene v, are concerned with the loss both of Hamlet and of Polonius, and with virginity and its sacrifice to sensual love.
One passage in the scene seems to break the pattern, however. The King enters as she sings of Polonius' death and asks, "How do you, pretty lady?" Ophelia's reply is, "Well, God dild you! They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord,...
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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 Hamlet." In Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises, pp. 204-66. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.
A religious interpretation of Hamlet, describing a combination of the philosophies of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas in Shakespeare's tragedies.
Braddy, Haldeen. Hamlet's Wounded Name. El Paso: Texas Western College Press, 1964, 82 p.
Compares the plot of the play "with folklore motifs and medieval conventions that justify Hamlet's course of action," claiming that Hamlet rejects Ophelia because she allows herself to be used as a pawn by Claudius.
Charney, Maurice. Style in "Hamlet. " Princeton: Princeton University...
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