Peter B. Murray, Macalester College
In some influential post-structuralist commentary on Shakespeare's representation of character, Hamlet is regarded as psychologically incoherent, and humanist critics are said to project onto the inscription of this character the notions of inwardness and an essential self which were fully developed only in the century following the composition of the play.1 Francis Barker argues that Hamlet is unable to define the truth of his subjectivity directly and fully because his interiority is merely "gestural," so that at his center there is "nothing" (36-7; cf. Belsey, Subject 41). Contrary both to the views of the post-structuralists and to the view attributed to humanist critics, I will argue that Hamlet is not psychologically incoherent but has the divided and only partially self-aware and self-controlling subjectivity that in Shakespeare's time was said to characterize human beings. Hamlet is unable to define the truth of his subjectivity directly and fully because he has a complex interiority that makes self-knowledge difficult. Thus this character is himself able to think about how his thinking may be in error. After all, his own statements that his inaction is caused by cowardly thinking are the main source of the theory that he rationalizes to delay revenge (esp. 4.4.32-46; cf. Belsey's opposed view of how to interpret Hamlet's soliloquies, Subject 50, 52).
Regarding the general question of how to think of the text of a play in responding to a character, there is certainly a sense in which a character exists only in the performance of an actor; but on the other hand insofar as we are aware of the actor performing, we are aware, too, that he or she is performing a text. The text is the starting point for both actor and reader. As Harry Berger argues, we infer a character from the text of a play, and this has an important corollary: "a character or dramatic person is the effect rather than the cause of his or her speech and of our interpretation" (147). Whether we are actors, audience, or readers, however, according to the Elizabethan ideas developed in Chapter 1, our imaginations will mostly assimilate scripted speeches and actions to imagined persons who, like real persons, are the cause of their speech and action. And because we respond to imagined persons as if they were real, we infer "inner" thoughts and feelings from scripted words and deeds in the process of interpreting the characters as the effect of these phenomena in the way Berger says.2
As explained in Chapters 1 and 3, the text is—and was for the Elizabethans—a score for a performance, and a critic who has seen many performances may be able to perform the analysis of the psychology of a character by responding to the text and to memories of performance as evoked by reading the text. My readings have been arrived at in this way, but what I write is based on the potentialities and the constraints for any kind of interpretation that I find inscribed—or implied by what is inscribed—in the text. When I say a character thinks or may think this or that, I mean that the text implies such thoughts, and I do not assume that the character is a real person. The "I find" and "may" here indicate my recognition that any interpretation is inevitably subjective and uncertain, however much one tries to achieve objectivity by taking into account the interpretations of many others and all of the relevant contexts.
In sum, when I infer what Hamlet thinks and feels, I regard him as an imagined person created by Shakespeare to be entered into imaginatively by an actor and imagined or construed by an audience. The audience needs to be able to respond to Hamlet as an imagined person in order to respond appropriately to the play Hamlet.3 For the tragic effect, we must remain sympathetic even when Hamlet does dreadful deeds, and this requires an understanding of his character and situation so that we can see both the qualities that move him and how these lead to tragic error. Hamlet intends to act for the sake of dignity and integrity and the obligations of love, duty, and justice. If he acts wrongly, it is because, as he responds to his very complex and painful situation, his sensitivity and intensity distort his concern for these values, resulting in an error he is unable to see. He has keen awareness, but paradoxically this awareness, joined with his sensitivity and intensity, results in a self-absorbed blindness in crucial situations.
Of course this is only one possible interpretation of Hamlet's character, even using a behaviorist analysis. One strength of a behaviorist analysis is that it suggests that motivation is multiple as well as complex—that thought and action have as many motives as they have reinforcing consequences—so that a single reading can include a number of interpretations usually found only in competing readings (or such motivation is sometimes referred to without much analysis as "overdetermined"). Because a behaviorist analysis focusses on what a character specifically experiences from moment to moment, it is an analysis that could be especially helpful to an actor seeking a psychological understanding to use as a basis for performance.
The explication of text in a behaviorist interpretation occupies so much more space than does the accompanying technical psychological analysis that at times the interpretation may appear not to be specifically behaviorist. I have tried to strike a balance between showing that a behaviorist analysis can be written without excessive use of technical terminology, and explaining phenomena in technical terms sufficiently to show how a behaviorist analysis works. I will count on a reader's recognizing that certain terms having a common-sense meaning have a similar but more specific meaning in behaviorist psychology. In Chapter 2 I have explained Skinner's powerful analysis of the relations between emotions, thoughts, and actions. That chapter explains the technical use of terms such as "avoidance," "escape," "aversive," "reinforced" or "reinforcing," and "evoke": an event or thought evokes a "response" a person is "disposed" to because it has been made probable by conditioning. "Disposed" is used similarly in the proto-behaviorist tradition—we are disposed to act a certain way because of our habituation. Readers will also be able to tell that my analysis is behaviorist in its ways of discussing what a character sees and does not see, how certain thoughts are displaced by others, how absorption in a point of view affects thinking, how intentions arise and change, how intentions and emotions affect and are affected by actions, and so forth. Thus it should be clear that a distinctive psychology is being used even when technical terms are not employed, as is also the case in some psychoanalytic essays on literature.
I analyze Hamlet in detail in order to demonstrate how his character is psychologically coherent throughout the play. I discuss the play Hamlet first because none of Shakespeare's works has more to do with ideas about intention, motivation, and action, with the psychology of role-playing and the link between the psychology of acting and of personal life,4 and with the proto-behaviorist ideas about habit and character. The play contains statements that refer to all the most important ideas in the proto-behaviorist tradition. Early in the play Hamlet draws on the traditional idea that we are creatures of nature but also of habituation. He explains that as a custom which is a vice causes a whole people to lose the respect of others, individuals lose respect "for some vicious mole of nature in them," or "By their o'ergrowth of some complexion," or "by some habit, that too much o'erleavens / The form of plausive manners . . ." (1.4.24-30). When Hamlet arraigns his mother in the closet scene, he suggests that her habitual vice may have "braz'd" her heart so she cannot feel the evil of her life with Claudius (3.4.34-8). In the graveyard scene, Horatio refers to the related principle that habituation makes unpleasant activities become easy in explaining that the Gravedigger sings because he has become accustomed to his work (5.1.65-9). The closet scene, again, has the most complete statement of the psychology of habits in Shakespeare. When Hamlet urges his mother not to go to bed with Claudius, he explains that although custom or habit is a monster in making us unaware of the evil in our vices, by the same token if she acts virtuously she will come to think virtuously, too (3.4.162-72). Attitudes follow behavior.
Each of these passages poses a question about Hamlet. Is he one in whom a "complexion" such as the humor of melancholy "o'ergrows" to break down "the pales and forts of reason" or in whom "some habit . . . too much o'erleavens the form of plausive manners"? In the closet scene, is Hamlet becoming "braz'd" so that he is callous to the death of Polonius as he turns from stabbing him to speak daggers to his mother about her sins? Does such conduct as the role-playing of the antic disposition change him? In the graveyard and at the end of the play have gravemaking and thoughts of death come to have "a property of easiness for him"?
Now, I am certainly not the first to suggest that the psychology of habits may be important in Hamlet.5 A. C. Bradley repeatedly uses the word "habit" in discussing Schlegel's and Coleridge's ideas about Hamlet. He says that in their view Hamlet's excessive thinking "proceeds from an original one-sidedness of nature, strengthened by habit, and perhaps, by years of speculative inaction" (85). Bradley's thesis is that Hamlet's "imaginative and generalising habit of mind" causes his melancholy over his mother's conduct to affect "his whole being and mental world." Hamlet's "speculative habit" helps cause him endlessly to dissect the proposed deed, and the frustration and shame of his delay make him even more melancholy (93). Bradley sees Hamlet becoming caught up in a vicious circle of thought, feeling, and inaction that deepens his melancholy and renders him less and less able to act. Bradley tends to attribute most of Hamlet's feelings, attitudes, and behavior to his melancholy (99), regarding the antic disposition mostly as an effect, as a form of inaction, not also as an important cause, an "act" having an important effect on Hamlet.
Some nineteenth-century interpreters of Hamlet did think of the psychology of habits in connection with the antic disposition as an "act," however. C. A. H. Clodius wrote in 1820 that Hamlet's pretended madness "eventually becomes a habit" so that he is "really melancholy and insane" (2:280), and this view was echoed by Hartley Coleridge in 1828 (2:198). Clodius's reading is an interesting effort to synthesize the poles of the nineteenth-century debate on the question of whether Hamlet's madness is real or feigned. This question could then—before Freud's thinking displaced the older psychology—still evoke the answer that what is feigned may become real through habituation. Although I do not think Hamlet becomes mad by pretending to be mad, I will argue that his "habit" of mourning and his antic disposition do affect him, directly in a way related to the psychology of habits and indirectly through his interpretation of others' responses to his behavior.
It is a convention of dramatic literature that the audience should make inferences about characters' dispositions and motives and even about some influences in their earlier lives based on what they do and say and what others say about them: consider what is conveyed by Hamlet's anguished "Must I remember?" (1.2.143) Hamlet's first soliloquy expresses dispositions that we see repeatedly in the play and that we can only imagine have been shaped by his upbringing and education (1.2.129-59). His life at Wittenberg may have heightened a disposition to reflect on experience. He has also developed a concern for Christian values and for the values of noblemen, and it is important that in his situation these two sets of values oppose each other. Hamlet's earlier life has also of course shaped his attitudes toward his father and mother. Hamlet regards his father as noble, and he remembers his mother to have seemed so until she wed Claudius (139-45). In its context, Hamlet's exaggerated idealization of his father as a "Hyperion" is especially reinforced because it emphasizes the baseness of Claudius as a "satyr" (139-40).
Hamlet's ways of thinking and acting have depended on his being reinforced for regarding his father and mother as ideal models whose position held great promise for their son, "Th'expectancy and rose of the fair state" (3.1.154). Because his father is dead and the monarchy is now corrupted by his mother and uncle, the activities of a prince are no longer reinforced for Hamlet. This, along with his grief and outrage, has caused him to fall into a lethargic depression in which "all the uses of this world" seem "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable" (1.2.133-4). Further, his mother's conduct, especially, has made noble thoughts aversive as they remind him of what she has done (143, 146). In proto-behaviorist terms, we see that it is his character—his disposition ingrained in habits—to think idealistically, valuing honesty, loyalty, love, and noble action. Because he is strongly disposed to think in this way—reinforced by self-esteem—he continues to do so, which means that now his own thoughts add to his torment.
The offensive behavior of Claudius and Gertrude moves him to such great shame, scorn, despair, and rage that in the soliloquy he does not directly express grief for his father. However, real grief must accompany what he says to let him be reinforced by a sense of justification in his outrage over his mother's having mourned so briefly. And Hamlet's grief itself is indirectly expressed in his sense of loss and his idealization of his father.
Hamlet's expression of a wish to die is evidence less of self-rejection than of concern for self-respect—the wish is reinforced as a thought of escape from life's anguish and indignity. The Prince's outraged sense of honor clashes with his Christian values as he finds it reinforcing to think he does not kill himself only because God forbids it. The thought of suicide seems mostly a gesture of protest: he articulates it only in explaining why he cannot do it. Hamlet does not blame himself for any of the wrongs that have occurred. On the contrary, there are hints of self-righteousness in his attitudes. His princely concern for self-respect and noble ideals makes it especially reinforcing for him to think that all the shame comes from his mother and her world.
Yet Hamlet does feel his life has been stripped of value, does feel some contempt for himself because he feels helpless, unable even to speak to remedy what his mother has done. Hence this soliloquy expresses a peculiar mingling of contempt for self with self-respect and self-righteousness. Hamlet's thoughts of how he is sullied primarily evoke a heightened bitterness and vehemence of response from his disposition to affirm his ideals and to scorn those who are truly base. The scorn he expresses is strongly reinforced when it generalizes to all the world and all women because then it all the more expresses the superiority of his father and his ideals and justifies his thinking that he cannot prevail against his foes. This kind of thinking creates the danger that Hamlet will find it reinforcing to think everyone associated with his mother's world is corrupt, or to exaggerate their actual corruption. Also, insofar as he may respond to attacks on his self-respect by seeking grounds to affirm it, he will be strongly reinforced for selectively seeing what he himself does and thinks in an approving and even self-righteous way.
There is no clear evidence that anything Hamlet says here is specifically shaped by Oedipal or pre-Oedipal motives; that is, there is no evidence that his strong idealization of his father is a reaction formation or that his emotional agitation over his mother's conduct is a result of repressed sexual wishes or anxieties. It is impossible, however, to rule out such interpretations, since his feelings about himself and his mother and father and about what his mother and uncle have done may support them. Perhaps we should conclude that here the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal background from Hamlet's early life does not contribute much to the specific shape of what he expresses beyond the conscious manifestations of idealizing his father and being emotionally involved with his mother's nature and behavior.
There are indications that Hamlet avoids reaching the most aversive conclusions about his mother. He may say all women are frail because it is less painful to think this than to think his own mother is an exceptionally frail woman. Also, he could have interpreted Gertrude's brief effusion of tears before her speedy marriage to Claudius as less frail than hypocritical. Such an interpretation could then have led Hamlet to suspect adultery and, given his hatred of his uncle, murder. Hamlet's strong emotional absorption in his response to the open wrong he sees—his mother's hasty remarriage to a base man—may also contribute to blocking any suspicious thoughts that might occur if he were more detached. He wants to believe the worst of his mother because she has hurt him so terribly, but because she is his mother and can hurt him so much, he does not want to believe the very worst of her.
Hamlet's not dwelling on his grief when alone prompts us to compare his emotions in the soliloquy with his earlier protestations to his mother that he feels grief to the depths of his being (1.2.76-86). Hamlet's continued mourning is customary, for Claudius concedes as much in his first speech (1-4). But is it only his father's death that motivates Hamlet's mourning in defiance of his mother and uncle? This question goes to the heart of the play's exploration of the causes of human behavior and the connection between an intention and an act. In traditional terms, we want to know whether Hamlet intends or has an "unconscious wish" to punish Gertrude and the King by constantly reminding them that they are wrong to have mourned so briefly and married so hastily. If we infer an intention to punish, we may see hypocrisy in Hamlet's claim that he knows not seems and is grieving to the very core of his being. That is, he does not explicitly say he feels only grief but implies this while merely saying he has inside him more than can be shown. If we see what "passes show" as including an intention to punish Gertrude and Claudius, we may think Hamlet is a sly role-player in his speech claiming he knows not seems.
A behaviorist reading can provide a different kind of answer. Hamlet's mourning is reinforced by several consequences, among them punishment of his mother and Claudius, though he may only think of his feelings for his father. Thus mourning is reinforced because Hamlet does indeed feel grief, and mourning for his father is the only expression of his ideals and character that he feels he can enact. However, the mourning does vex the King and Queen, and Hamlet is aware of this. Hence, since his anger at them causes punishing them to be reinforced, their vexation inevitably reinforces Hamlet's mourning. If it would be aversive for Hamlet to think he mourns in order to punish them, then it is not likely that this thought will occur to him or, if it does, that he would believe it. His protestations that he knows not "seems" indicate that it would be aversive for him to think his mourning is not wholly for the sake of his father.
Here I think the play strongly evokes empathy with Hamlet, and a behaviorist analysis validates this response by saying that while his mourning is motivated partly because it punishes the King and Queen, Hamlet is not necessarily conscious of this at all, that his scorn of seeming, along with everything else he says here, indicates he is not a conscious seemer himself. But Hamlet's character may change as a result of the combination of his painful circumstances and his own disposition and behavior. His mourning may become obsessive through a process that proto-behaviorism related to becoming habituated to the behavior, as is perhaps implied in the reference to Hamlet's "customary suits of solemn black" (1.2.78).6 Hamlet may be caught up in a vicious circle, something like the one Bradley proposes, in which (1) his father's death motivates sincere grieving, (2) this behavior becomes strong because it is reinforced by several results, as explained above, (3) these strong expressions of grief induce more grief (as a conditioned response) and an increased tendency to be unsocial and solitary, and (4) solitariness in turn increases melancholy. And so on and on until Hamlet is completely obsessed with his grief and anger, at which point, in Elizabethan terms, the habit or "adustion" of melancholy and choler would make him not only sad and angry but long in deliberation, full of doubts but obstinate once he has made up his mind, deceitful, and suspicious or fearful of others without factual basis, and so forth—all the symptoms of melancholy that scholars have made familiar to us because they seem to fit Hamlet at times (e.g. see excerpt from Bright in Hoy 100-11).
When Horatio and the soldiers enter at the conclusion of Hamlet's soliloquy in 1.2, it takes a moment for Hamlet to recognize his friend (160-1). Then as he greets Horatio we see that Hamlet's disposition as a noble prince and a friend is still strong. He is gracious to Horatio, interpreting generously his embarrassed answers about why he has come to Elsinore, inviting him to criticize Gertrude's behavior and then quickly confirming his friend's reply (163-83). Hamlet's response to the news that his father's spirit has appeared shows that in these circumstances he can make a quick resolution to act in a risky way. He immediately decides to join the watch that night, saying "If it assume my noble father's person, / I'll speak to it though hell itself should gape / And bid me hold my peace" (244-6). There is a note of bluster in this, as though Hamlet is rising to meet a challenge rather than expressing a resolution habitual to his character, but meeting a ghost is not the sort of challenge one accustoms oneself to meet. Hamlet is eager especially because in his frustration he finds it very reinforcing to take action that links him with his father and confirms his feeling that the world is corrupt (255-8).
As they wait that night for the ghost to appear, Horatio's question about the King's drinking is answered by Hamlet in terms that, as I suggested earlier, may apply to himself (1.4.12-38). Many critics have suggested this, of course, and sometimes the speech is interpreted as an explicit statement of something like a theory of the "tragic flaw." Interestingly, it becomes such a statement through the way it is only indirectly such a statement. That is, Hamlet is not explaining how "one defect" in a trait or habit causes the doom of men who are otherwise noble. Rather, his point is that such a flaw causes such men to suffer dishonor. Hamlet's disposition to be a noble prince causes such loss of nobility to be the kind of doom that moves him to feel the tragic qualm.
The Ghost appears, and Hamlet responds in fear, love, and awe, as we would expect on the basis of what we have seen of his characteristic dispositions. Hamlet rejects his companions' warnings of danger and follows the Ghost because he is strongly disposed both to be with his father and to think he has nothing to lose in dying (64-5). Hamlet may also be brave in his habitual character, but it takes more than habitual courage to follow a ghost into the midnight darkness.
In the next scene, once he understands that Claudius has murdered his father, Hamlet is eager to obey the call to revenge. His cry of "O my prophetic soul! My uncle!" (41), does not necessarily indicate that he has earlier suspected his uncle of murder, however. Each of Hamlet's responses to the Ghost before this line indicates more a questioning attitude than an eager suggestion that the Ghost should quickly confirm what he already thinks (7-8, 25-6, 29). Hamlet may speak of his prophetic soul thinking or wishing he had suspected his uncle of murder, or perhaps he means that his hatred of his uncle was an intuitive response to the man's villainous nature. "O my prophetic soul!" may refer specifically to his suspicion at the end of 1.2 that there has been "some foul play" (256). Foul play may be what was prophesied, and "My uncle!" may express a mixture of surprise and confirmation of an intuition that is reinforced because of his hatred.
Hatred of his uncle makes it very reinforcing for Hamlet to believe the Ghost and to accept the command to revenge (1.5.92-112). Hamlet's passionate tone here can be explained by his fierce hatred of Claudius, by the overwhelming nature of what he has just experienced, by his gladness to be released from frustration in having a noble deed to perform, and by his being able to act for his father. As a result of all these reinforcing consequences, Hamlet represses whatever doubts he might otherwise feel. Thus he is not consciously whipping himself into a vengeful rage. There is a highly theatrical quality to his reaching for hyperbole, his rhetorical questions and assertions, and in general the near-fustian quality of the entire speech. But I think this character, who is now so strongly disposed to nobility and honesty, will speak in such a hyperbolic way only if he is entirely absorbed in the feeling and its rhetoric. The speech is an immediate response to an overwhelming experience and he is in a state of vengeful rage from the start.
What Hamlet swears in this speech is to obey the Ghost's final injunction, "Remember me" (91). Both he and the Ghost mean that he should remember his father partly in order to remember to take revenge. Ironically, Hamlet keeps this vow and yet delays revenge: cognitive acts do not in themselves produce physical action. That Hamlet assumes a person simply does what he thinks to do is also suggested in his earlier asking the Ghost to tell him about his murder quickly so he can "sweep" to revenge "with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love" (29-31). The irony here is very clear—Hamlet does sweep to his revenge on wings as swift as meditation; he does not yet realize that meditation and the thoughts of love can move slowly. The obviousness of this irony is a sign we should take the error into account as implying a question about the relation between thoughts and deeds.
In Hamlet's vow to think of nothing but the Ghost's command and to wipe out of his mind all he has ever learned, there is a danger he will become obsessed. In his excited state, Hamlet is strongly reinforced for thinking that absolute single-mindedness regarding his purpose is fitting. Such single-mindedness would not only be dangerous psychologically but also morally and practically in making him unable to gain perspective on what he is to do. However, Hamlet's vowing to think only of revenge is part of his excited hyperbole, and once his excitement passes, he can be expected to recover the disposition to reflect on his situation.
Until nearly the end of this scene Hamlet remains in an excited, almost hysterical state. The forceful assurance he gives Horatio and Marcellus that the Ghost is honest shows he continues to be powerfully reinforced for believing the Ghost's story. Hamlet's belief is actually strengthened by his past thinking, which he has not wiped away, including his own earlier hatred of his uncle. Indeed, Hamlet's phrasing suggests that he affirms the Ghost's honesty so forcefully in part because the Ghost has validated this hatred, though Hamlet does not indicate awareness of such a motive:
HOR. There's no offence, my lord.
HAM. Yes by Saint Patrick but there is, Horatio,
And much offence too. Touching this vision here,
It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.
When Hamlet finally comes down from his state of excitement, his words suggest that his speech to the Ghost also helps to calm himself: "Rest, rest, perturbed spirit" (190). Following this he is more gracious to Horatio and Marcellus, more the friend he was in 1.2. As he begins to think less excitedly of what he has vowed to do, Hamlet's feeling about his mission changes: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right" (1.5.196-7). He accepts the necessity of taking revenge but sees what he is to do as a vast and burdensome undertaking. This is a realistic perception, and so we can easily sympathize with him. These words may go far toward explaining the difficulty he experiences in bringing himself to kill Claudius.
It is just before Hamlet becomes calm that he tells Horatio and Marcellus that he may "put an antic disposition on" (1.5.180). As many critics have suggested, Hamlet may say this first of all because in the continuing excitement of his "wild and whirling words" he is already in an antic disposition (139). Whether he also has a purpose related to his revenge in saying this is uncertain, since he never explains why he puts on the antic disposition. To explain the behavior, then, we can look for the consequences that reinforce it, with the understanding that Hamlet may not be aware of all these. This understanding can help explain how Hamlet can say in his soliloquy at the end of Act 2 that he does not know why he has not yet killed Claudius. If he could see how the antic disposition interferes with turning himself toward revenge, he might be able to understand his delay.
Let us review the possible reinforcing consequences of the antic behavior, any of which Hamlet may think of as a purpose for it at some time. First, Hamlet may hope that the antic role will protect him, though its actual effect is to draw the King's questioning attention. Second, it may be Hamlet's intention to move the King in this way so that his reactions will reveal his guilt. Third, the King's indulgence of the antic humor may help to catch his conscience by disarming whatever suspicions he might otherwise have regarding Hamlet's staging a play about a royal murder. Fourth, the antic disposition enables Hamlet to feel detached from the Court and to evoke or expose folly, baseness, and treachery in Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Thus the antic behavior enables Hamlet to manipulate and dominate his foes. It also enables him to speak freely though in a somewhat disguised manner what he really feels, perhaps functioning in this way as a safety-valve allowing him to express his deep bitterness in a form that is less aversive for him than the deep bitterness itself. In addition, the antic role gives Hamlet time to consider what to do, and hence also allows delay of a deed he may find aversive even if he feels strongly committed to doing it.
The antic role may be a way to avoid acting, but of course the antic role itself is an "act," and Hamlet's expressions of scorn in this role could cause him to become absorbed in this activity, tending to displace action as a revenger, a role that calls for using daggers rather than merely speaking them. In behaviorist terms, since the antic role does enable him to speak daggers, it would certainly be reinforced as a form of revenge, and absorption in it might be reinforced very strongly because it also enables him to avoid the aversive aspects of thinking about blood revenge.
Although the antic role is marked by an alienated detachment, this could be more a detachment from others than from self. It has often been suggested that Hamlet is an eiron who has a self-detachment enabling him to see himself well. If instead he becomes absorbed in the righteously alienated viewpoint of the antic role, he might see only those of his own faults that allow him to retain a fundamentally self-protective view of himself. The antic role gives Hamlet the impression that he has a detached, objective perspective on others, but this impression could be reinforced because it masks from himself a use of the role to confirm his worst suspicions of everyone. As mentioned earlier, since his feelings about Claudius and Gertrude strongly dispose him to see evil in anyone he links with them, Hamlet would find it reinforcing to interpret any strange responses of characters such as Polonius as evidence they are false to him. Revealing or finding evil in others could further arouse hatred in Hamlet, and his preoccupation with their evil could heighten any tendency in him toward self-righteousness, a tendency reinforced by self-esteem. The more detached and isolated from others he becomes, the less he would be able to engage in role-taking (taking others' points of view) or in fellow-feeling of the sort depending on the acknowledgement of faults or frailties similar to theirs in himself. Thus through playing this role, he might become increasingly suspicious and crafty, hostile and self-righteous, his penetrating intelligence narrowed so that although he expresses profound insights, he fails to consider matters of great importance adequately.
On the other hand, insofar as Hamlet is not absorbed in the antic role's viewpoint, the process of "acting" feelings that are partly sincere and partly "put on" could tend to blur his emotional reality for himself and turn him into one who self-consciously performs his emotions. In this sense Hamlet may become an actor: through putting on an antic disposition he may become less an antic than one who puts on. This would interfere with his ability to identify with any role, and hence help to explain his difficulty in becoming a revenger. But although a number of critics write that Hamlet needs to be able to fuse himself fully with the role of revenger, it is not clear that the play suggests this would be a desirable result either morally or psychologically or even practically. It seems more important for us to see whether Hamlet remains true to his noble character and whether he taints his mind in revenge (1.3.78, 1.5.85).
Turning from hypotheses about the antic disposition to the text, we should consider more specifically the shape of the antic behavior. Although the court thinks Hamlet is mad, we can take it for granted from his behavior when he is alone or with Horatio or the players that he is not simply insane in the sense of being out of touch with reality. Thus Hamlet is pretending to be mad when he seems to be unable to recognize Polonius or remember whether he has a daughter (2.2.174, 182). This episode also suggests an alternative interpretation which has frequently been offered, that Hamlet is not so much pretending to be insane as he is playing the Fool, using his reputation of madness as the Fool uses his reputation of natural "idiocy" as a mask preventing the others from fully understanding and taking offense at his pointed witticisms. I do not mean to suggest that Hamlet has a playful involvement with the antic disposition. Even when he may act as if he thinks he does, I think the text shows he is confined by his antic role in a bitterly narrow perspective.7
Statements of other characters describing the antic disposition give the impression that at least some of Hamlet's behavior is more mad than Foolish; in the behavior we actually see, on the other hand, Hamlet is more Fool than madman. The most bizarre conduct the audience sees is in 4.2 and 4.3. Then it is not entirely certain that Hamlet controls his behavior fully as he does such things as play hide-and-seek with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the others who are trying to make him tell where Polonius's body is. Hamlet's behavior in these scenes, however, comes too late to influence greatly our impression of the antic disposition.
In Act 2 Ophelia's description of his conduct in her chamber especially gives us an idea of the behavior which convinces other characters that he is mad (2.1.75-100). We cannot tell whether Hamlet controls this behavior as part of what he deliberately "puts on" in his antic role. His pallor suggests genuine feeling, but his disordered attire and knocking knees are more "playable." There is a strong expression of what troubles him in his "look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors" (82-4). These lines imply virtual identification with the Ghost and its mission, an obsession with "horrors" that is sickening Hamlet's thoughts and emotions. He expresses the depth of his anguish in a "sigh so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk / And end his being" (94-6). Hamlet thus reveals to Ophelia something of what he cannot put into words for her, his preoccupation with horrors loosed from hell that he feels are ending his being. He is evidently reinforced for sharing his suffering with Ophelia as someone who will pity him. He would also be reinforced for inflicting pain upon her, since she has refused to see him and since his bitterness may now* extend to her as a woman and hence frail.
It is clear, then, that Hamlet's conduct is not always and only foolery. During the period of the antic disposition, Hamlet's behavior from the outset has elements of both Fool and madman, as in the near hysteria from which it arose at the end of Act 1. In either of these modes the antic disposition would enable Hamlet to express his emotions in a way that is not well controlled while being reinforced by the thought that this behavior is under his control. The behavior is so strongly reinforced by its effect on the court that any thought which justifies it to himself and explains it as sane will also be strongly reinforced: I must be in control of this behavior because I know I am putting it on: "I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft" (3.4.189-90). Hamlet means he only pretends to be mad, but he lacks control of this claim itself, since he does not intend the ironic meaning that he may indeed become mad in craftiness, enjoying the "sport" he finds in plot and counter-plot.
We first see Hamlet put on the antic manner in his dialogue with Polonius in 2.2. Hamlet plays the Fool as he says that Polonius is a fishmonger: the joke is that Polonius thinks Hamlet is too mad to recognize him and does not see he is being called a whoremaster (174). But in the light of Hamlet's recent behavior, even a lesser fool than Polonius might think that Hamlet is mad. Indeed, most of Polonius's responses here simply reflect his presumption of Hamlet's madness: if Hamlet says something sane, Polonius can only respond that "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't" (205-6). Polonius has learned to think a certain way and is therefore reinforced for interpreting whatever happens as confirming what he thinks.
But is not something like this occurring in Hamlet's thinking, too? He presumes that Polonius is a fool, and he is strongly reinforced for thinking that the old man's responses merely confirm this conviction (219). For another example, when Hamlet later induces him to say that a cloud is shaped like a camel and a weasel and a whale, Polonius must think he is humoring a madman. Yet Hamlet manipulates Polonius's responses to confirm that he is a fool (3.2.367-75). Each man finds it reinforcing to think himself intelligent and the other mad or foolish, and each is partly right, partly wrong. Hamlet's tone with Polonius in 2.2 suggests that he finds it very reinforcing to give full credit to his wit as the cause of his triumph. Since it would be aversive for Hamlet to see how truly mad he has seemed or to acknowledge any validity in Polonius's point of view, he does not do the role-taking that could enable him to see how his earlier mad conduct affects Polonius's responses.
At the end of this dialogue, Hamlet expresses a death-wish when he says he would not part with anything more willingly than Polonius, "except my life, except my life, except my life" (215-17). Hamlet's feeling about Polonius may partly prompt him to say at this moment that he wishes to die. "These tedious old fools" (219) inhabit the unweeded garden of Hamlet's world and add to his weary despair of life (1.2.133-5). Ironically, insofar as Hamlet is responsible for the mode of his dialogue with Polonius, he is himself the creator of the tediousness. Hamlet's antic behavior contributes to the folly and falseness he rails against in the antic role, so that a vicious circle is created in which he is increasingly alienated and less able to see how he partly causes what he sees as contemptible in others. The more he scorns them, the more he will find it reinforcing to see that he is right to scorn them. This in turn will make it progressively less likely that he will be disposed to see that their behavior with him is in part shaped by his own behavior.
We see this pattern develop further in Hamlet's following dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These friends of his (and Hamlet himself insists that they have been good friends: 2.2.224, 284-6) have been told that Hamlet is mad, and so far as they know, the only purpose of the King and Queen in sending them to Hamlet is to help him recover by finding out what is troubling him (2.2.1-39). There is no hint here that they think of themselves as the King's spies: this is Hamlet's inference and it is important to see how he arrives at it. In the first part of their dialogue he expresses a gladness to see them and a willingness to engage in witty repartee, yet they are aware he receives them "with much forcing of his disposition" and with what appears to them a "crafty madness" through which he evades their inquiries (3.1.12, 8). Hamlet's first greeting seems to express surprise as well as friendliness, and when they respond with witty remarks on their relation to Fortune, he continues the dialogue at the level of banter about the parts of Fortune instead of bringing them closer as friends by asking more personal questions (2.2.224-36). Soon we hear the main tone of the antic voice in the bitterly wise wit of his melancholy assertions that Fortune is a strumpet, that if the world is becoming honest doomsday must be near, that the world and especially Denmark are prisons, and that the seeming great of the world are but the outstretched shadows of beggars (235-65).
In the midst of this, Hamlet explains that the reason he sees Denmark as a prison is that his thinking has made it so (249-51). In saying this, Hamlet implies that the cause of his suffering is more in his mind than in the facts of his situation, distorting if not falsifying what he believes. He again implies that his problem is only in his melancholy state when he says he suffers from "bad dreams" and not from thwarted ambition (254-6). Clearly Hamlet holds his friends at arm's length, concealing the true causes of his griefs. Yet he suddenly demands that they "deal justly" with him and "be even and direct" in answer to his question about whether they were sent for by the King and Queen (276, 287). Because they hesitate so long in answering this question, he begins to think of them as being on the King's side and against him (290-1, 294-5). There is no sign he takes into account that his supposed madness, his forcing his disposition, and his failure to be even and direct have made it difficult for them to be even and direct.
Hamlet sees himself from his own point of view, as a sane person justified in self-concealment and suspicions of others, and his righteous tone suggests that he does not take their role in order to observe himself from their point of view. Hamlet himself needs what he expects the players to provide for the King and Queen, a mirror to be held up so he can see all the features of his antic behavior that so strongly influence others' responses to him. He creates the impression that he is mad, but evidently expects his friends to respond to him as a normal person. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not know what to expect or how to deal with a friend who is mad, and it is reasonable to infer that they should be played as anxious in their repartee from the start.
If Hamlet errs here, the error is a main cause of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so let us look more closely at the evidence that Hamlet judges them unfairly. When he asks if they were sent for, his choice of words in asking them to "deal justly" implies that he will regard an acknowledgement that they were sent for as a confession (2.2.274-6). This makes it difficult for them to answer honestly, and as they hesitate to speak, he says their looks confess that they were sent for, implying that this fact taints their friendship (278-9). In addition, Hamlet apologizes so strenuously for the poverty of his thanks for their visit that they may find what he says unconvincing (272-4). If the Prince were to take the role of these two "indifferent children of the earth" (227), he might not speak of himself as a beggar. Moreover, there is a sarcastic thrust at them in his remark that "sure, dear friends, my thanks are too dear a halfpenny" (273-4). Although this may mean his thanks are of little worth, the words imply that even such thanks are too good for them if they were sent for. Addressing them as "dear friends" in the midst of all this can make Hamlet seem an insincere friend himself, and he is surely dishonest if he exaggerates the closeness of their friendship to coerce them to be honest: "by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love . . ." (284-7).
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's responses to Hamlet's questions show they have been put on the defensive and are uncertain how to answer. They do not lie: "To visit you, my lord, no other occasion" is not a lying answer to his question "what make you at Elsinore?" (270-1). The answer equivocates about whether they were sent for, but they do finally acknowledge that they were (269-92). They are only as false to Hamlet as he is to them in not being "even and direct." Their reluctance to be more direct can perhaps be largely explained by the nature of the truth: they believe he is mad and they want to help his family cure him. Alas, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "have not craft enough to colour" their discomfort (280), nor Hamlet, absorbed in his craft, enough perspective to interpret their discomfort justly: "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" (249-50). The result is truly tragic, for Hamlet's disposition to be concerned for honesty and loyalty is what heightens the crafty wariness of his antic attitude so that his perception is severely narrowed.
As the scene continues, Hamlet behaves in a friendly manner with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but this manner appears to mask a preoccupation with his private concerns. In the dialogue about the players, Hamlet immediately hints at the reason why he warms to this topic: "He that plays the king shall be welcome" (318). A little later he commiserates with the boy actors because they are required to "exclaim against their own succession" (349). Also, he compares the triumph of the boys over the adult actors to Claudius's succeeding his father in the affections of the people (357-64). When he then formally welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore, the terms he uses suggest more concern for social propriety than a wish to be truly a friend (366-71). Next he hints that his madness is not real, but his words about hawks and handsaws are mystifyingly antic enough to confuse his friends and perhaps even to make them think he is mad (372-5). The hint that he merely feigns madness is probably lost completely when he then plays the antic strongly for Polonius.
Hamlet again lays aside his antic manner when he welcomes the players and asks for a recital of Aeneas's narrative of the revenge slaying of Priam. As the First Player performs, the text does not indicate whether Hamlet's conscience as a revenger is caught, or whether he sees how Gertrude's conscience might be caught by the grief of Hecuba for her slain husband. However, when he stops the Player, he comments on how the theater reflects the realities of the time, and he sets in motion the use of a play to catch the conscience of the King (519-36). This suggests that in his request for a recital about Priam's slaying, Hamlet continues to be preoccupied with his own situation.
When Hamlet is alone a few lines later, he does not respond directly to the grief of Hecuba or to the ruthless action of the revenger, but to the passion of the actor. Hamlet may seem to say it is "monstrous" that the Player has been moved so greatly by the "force" of a mere "conceit" in a fiction (545-54), but I think the context of these words suggests that this is not his real point. In saying that the actor forces his soul to his conceit and thereby produces emotion, Hamlet says no more than writers on rhetoric and poetry said about the power of vivid language to move a speaker, as explained in Chapter 1. What Hamlet finds monstrous is that he himself has not been moved even though he has great personal cause, and the monstrosity of this is especially revealed through comparison with the actor, who is moved by a mere fiction. This comparison, and the self-judgment it prompts Hamlet to make, is indicated at the start of this speech, as he begins to speak of the actor: "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! / Is it not monstrous that this player here . . ." (544-5). Hamlet uses the comparison to lash himself with thoughts of how the actor would be moved to an amazing height of passion if he had cause for revenge, while he, Hamlet, has been dull and muddy-mettled, peaking like John-a-Dreams (561-4). Hamlet attacks himself vehemently because doing so is less aversive than failing to oppose his shameful state. That is, because he is strongly disposed to be noble, he feels guilty, which makes it negatively reinforcing for him to punish himself.
When Hamlet asks himself what has caused him to delay his revenge, all he thinks of is cowardice, but he asks if he is a coward: he speaks of cowardice as what "must" be holding him back, since he has failed to act, not as what he knows he has felt (566-76). This invites us to try to see for ourselves why he has delayed, and, needless to say, critics have offered many possible explanations, usually explanations suggested by the whole pattern of his action in the play. In my reading, the speech suggests that the psychology of acting helps to account for Hamlet's delay and his inability to explain it to himself.
The key to this idea is to see how Hamlet has not so completely differed from the actor as he thinks he has. I have argued that Hamlet is absorbed in his antic role and that this absorption could tend to displace the thoughts that might lead to his taking revenge.8 In effect, there has been a reshaping of vengeful behavior into the expression of hostile suspicions and witty verbal attacks that are reinforced strongly because they punish his foes and avoid more aversively bitter thoughts about his dreadful situation. Since he is making his foes suffer, an act of blood revenge can seem less urgent except when he stops to reflect. He can think and speak hatefully, but the role in which he does this is not one that leads to plotting and acting revenge. While Hamlet is absorbed in the antic role, he cannot see the full effect of the role on himself: "Am I a coward?" (566).
It is not true, then, that Hamlet has failed to act; he has acted, but more as an actor than in acts leading to violent revenge. What an actor actually does and does not do points to another aspect of Hamlet's relation to the actor that he does not seem to see. When he speaks of what the actor would "do" if he had a revenge motive, he seems to mean that the actor would do terrifying deeds, but all he literally says is that the actor would display great emotion. Actors emote and they speak daggers, but the theatrical mode of action does not include actual stabbing. This may imply that any role undertaken in an actorly way will not lead to "real" action even if strong emotion is felt. Condemning himself for not being like the actor, Hamlet suggests the way he is like the actor in asserting that he "can say nothing" (564), as if speaking is what is demanded of him. Of course he means that he cannot even say anything against the evils he sees, let alone do anything. If he saw the opposite irony, that he has said a great deal, he would attack himself for it at this point, rather than later in the speech when he does see it. In this again he shows how absorbed he is in his own conceit as he does not see how he is like the actor in the way his conceit moves his soul to "say" much in a great outpouring of passion.
It is sometimes suggested that in this soliloquy Hamlet attempts to whip himself into a passion so he can "put on" the revenger role. But in concentrating on how he is unlike the actor, Hamlet does not suggest that he thinks he is imitating the actor in his passion. Indeed, nothing Hamlet says suggests he has the deliberate intention of working himself into a vengeful passion, and in such a passionate tirade, what is said expresses what is felt and thought unless there are indications to the contrary. It is true that his expression of rage is reinforced because it works up his hatred of Claudius, but if Hamlet were thinking of working himself into a vengeful passion, he would likely emphasize his reasons to hate his foe more than he does. He does mention early in his self-condemnation that a "damn'd defeat was made" upon his father, but the passive construction implies that his anger even in saying this is not immediately directed against the agent of this damnable act (566), and following this for several lines his anger is entirely directed against himself. At this moment Hamlet's thought and feeling are turned away from pursuing revenge because, ironically, thoughts about his failure to take revenge absorb him in an expression of shame that threatens to perpetuate the failure it reacts against.
Hamlet expresses his shame by imagining someone insulting him as a nobleman might mock a coward. If this shows that Hamlet is especially concerned about how others judge him, it may suggest that his selfcondemnation is not fully internalized. It seems clear, however, that the person who insults Hamlet is Prince Hamlet himself. Up to this point, the text gives no hint that anyone else alive knows he has any reason for such shame. Thus he evidently attributes his view of himself and his ideals of noble action to an imaginary interlocutor (his father?) in order to punish himself severely for his shameful inaction. In the process of condemning himself, Hamlet finally states what he has failed to do, and so his anger is more or less automatically directed against Claudius, too (574-7). But immediately he rejects such passionately vengeful verbal assaults as inappropriate (578-83)—another likely indication that he has not been intentionally whipping himself up into such a passion thinking that it would move him toward revenge.
Hamlet's reason for rejecting his passionate speech is not that he thinks his emotion is like an actor's and hence invalid and unlikely to lead to action. Instead, he continues to focus on how his behavior is shameful, saying he has been "like a whore" in unpacking his heart with words (581-3). Hamlet's repetition of base terms for prostitutes implies that he means they are base, weak people who curse their lot but do not change what they do, and he thinks that his cursing shows him to be like them, that his cursing will not lead to action. Thus Hamlet does not consciously relate his rejection of unpacking his heart with words to his ideas about the actor, does not think he has behaved like an actor. He has not been markedly histrionic here in an unconscious sense, either. He has the motive and the cue for the passion he expresses in the soliloquy and is not responding with emotions in excess of what his whole situation provokes. All the world's a stage at this moment especially in the sense that Hamlet as the tragic character he is—and is becoming—feels and thinks in a way that absorbs him in a perspective preventing him from seeing fully how this very absorption affects him.
Hamlet rejects his passion when his guilt and shame, which first turned him toward passion, turn him away from passion as itself shameful. There is psychological complexity here, as Hamlet first responds to the actor and then to his own response to the actor. A secondary cause of Hamlet's rejection of passion may be that the strong expression of a behavior causes it to weaken so that another becomes prepotent and replaces it. Or in Elizabethan terms, perhaps Hamlet has expended his passion so that he only has the energy needed to think of what he should do (cf. 3.2.191-2, 4.7.113-17).
As Hamlet withdraws from absorption in passion into cool thinking, he examines his idea of using "The Murder of Gonzago" to catch the conscience of the King. As many critics have suggested, it may be that Hamlet no sooner finishes condemning himself for having delayed revenge than he finds a...
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1 For the view that Hamlet is psychologically incoherent, see Barker 39-40, Belsey, Subject 41-2, and Weimann, "Mimesis," and for an important earlier essay that has contributed to this view, cf. Booth. Ferry sees Hamlet as having an inwardness we can recognize as like our own (2-3), but she is not specifically concerned with the cultural materialist concepts of the subject: see my discussion of these concepts in Chapter 1, 5-22 and my notes there. Ferry argues that the tradition before Shakespeare provides very little sense of the sort of inward life we find in Hamlet. For powerful defenses of the view that Hamlet's character has a certain identity within its great variability, see Frye; Marvin...
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Abel, Lionel, Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form (New York: Hill, 1963).
Allman, Eileen Jorge, Player-King and Adversary: Two Faces of Play in Shakespeare (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980).
Bacon, Francis, "Of Anger," The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral. The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 1857-74, vol. 6 (New York: Garrett, 1968) pp. 510-12, 14 vols.
Barker, Francis, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London: Methuen, 1984).
Battenhouse, Roy [W.], Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises...
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