Study Guide

Hamlet

by William Shakespeare

Hamlet Essay - Hamlet (Vol. 59)

Hamlet (Vol. 59)

Introduction

Hamlet

For further information on the critical and stage history of Hamlet, see SC, Volumes 35, 37, 44, and 71.

Hamlet is, quite simply, the best known of Shakespeare's plays and the most famous play in Western literature. It is not hard to see why it enjoys such an exalted status. The play, which dates from the middle of Shakespeare's career (around 1600-1), manages to combine a complicated plot, profound insights into the human condition, and non-stop action into one seamless whole. An extraordinary amount of criticism has been written about Hamlet; in fact, the journal Hamlet Studies is devoted solely to discussion of the play. The amount of criticism generated is matched by its variety; some critics focus on the characters or concentrate on the gender issues that the play addresses, while others examine the play’s highly condensed language and imagery. Critics are also interested in how Shakespeare transformed his sources in creating Hamlet, as well as the play’s various themes and its influence on culture.

Historically, critical attention has been concentrated on the character of Hamlet. In recent years however, critics have begun to focus on other characters as well, especially Ophelia. Gunnar Sjögren (see Further Reading), for example, looks at Ophelia from numerous different critical perspectives in order to “do justice” to her. For Sjögren, the crucial point about Ophelia's characterization is its ambiguity, and he looks to contemporary Elizabethan attitudes and important plays by Shakespeare's rivals in an attempt to judge how her character was meant to be viewed. He examines the relatively lax morals of the Elizabethan court and the characterization of Bel-imperia in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1586), and concludes that Ophelia is seduced by Hamlet. According to Sjögren, Ophelia is cast aside when she gets in the way of Hamlet’s primary goal of revenge, and her madness arises from Hamlet’s rejection of her. Sjögren concludes by observing that modern performances of Hamlet have done justice to Ophelia, for in them “Ophelia comes into her own and emerges as a very interesting part indeed.” Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia has also been of interest to critics. R.A. Foakes (1973) analyzes the effect of Hamlet's cruelty on Ophelia, and Eric P. Levy (1999) examines the encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia in Ophelia's room. Jennifer Low (1999) discusses the symbolic importance of the location of the initial fight between Laertes and Hamlet, which takes place at Ophelia's grave.

It is, however, in feminist criticism and the discussion of gender roles that Ophelia has played a central part. Elaine Showalter (1985) considers how to read Ophelia’s story. In an attempt to gain new perspectives on her character, she traces the “cultural history” of Ophelia’s representation, both on and off the stage, and examines the connection between female sexuality and insanity. Showalter also examines the feminist revision of Ophelia’s character, and contends that “there is no ‘true’ Ophelia for whom feminist criticism must unambiguously speak,” and that Ophelia’s representation depends entirely on cultural attitudes towards both women and madness. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (1996) review the shifting critical attitudes to the female characters in Hamlet, commenting that many critics have echoed Hamlet's own misogynistic attitudes towards the women in the play. Thompson and Taylor ultimately contend that the play has “relatively simplistic views of women as angels or whores.”

The discussion of gender issues has always been a politically and culturally charged one. By contrast, the analysis of the language and imagery in Hamlet has been relatively tranquil although wide ranging. Richard A. Lanham (1976) traces the uses of rhetoric in the play. He concludes that Shakespeare's two principal preoccupations as a playwright were with style and motive. According to Lanham, the crucial insight Hamlet presents is that any sense of morality needs to take into account human beings' inherent theatricality—our self-conscious realization that we are always acting and are forever on stage. Imtiaz Habib (1994) emphasizes how the language of the play will always be misread due in part to Hamlet's ambiguity and in part to the very nature of language. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1999) examines the mouse and mousetrap imagery in Hamlet.

Despite the recent trend toward concentrating on gender issues and language, two older critical strategies remain well represented in contemporary criticism: source studies and thematic analyses. Cherrell Guilfoyle (1990) deepens the hunt for Shakespeare's sources by tracing Ophelia's character to the legend of Mary Magdalen as developed in medieval drama, and suggests that Shakespeare parallels Mary Magdalen in the character of Ophelia in order to stress the twin ideas of hope and atonement in a play. Frank Nicholas Clary (see Further Reading) returns, as have so many critics and scholars, to one of Shakespeare's sources for Hamlet—Belleforest's adaptation of the Saxo Grammaticus story—and concludes that Belleforest's work was more influential than has been previously acknowledged. Manuel Aguirre (1996) examines the literary origins of the cup from which Gertrude drinks a fatal toast to Hamlet in the play's final scene, and argues that by Shakespeare's time women's mythic role within society was being undermined. From Aguirre's perspective, Shakespeare's attention to the theme of sovereignty dramatizes the clash between older and newer ideologies. Millicent Bell (1998) also studies Hamlet's concern with a particular theme: in this case, revenge. Bell shows that one of Shakespeare's intentions in Hamlet was to satirize the revenge-play genre by means of both the overstylized play-within-the-play and the conclusion of the play itself. The critic contends that the play-within-the-play, The Murder of Gonzago, is “stale bombast,” and Hamlet's concern with revenge is nowhere to be seen when he is dying, noting that, rather than crying out for revenge, Hamlet asks only to be remembered.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Introduction to Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, by William Shakespeare, edited by Philip Edwards, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 40-61.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards analyzes Hamlet in a linear fashion, emphasizing the complexity of the play and examining the choices open to the protagonist.]

THE PLATFORM

Hamlet opens with soldiers on guard at night in a scene full of perturbation and anxiety. It is nervousness about the apparition which predominates, of course, ‘this thing’, ‘this dreaded sight’, looking exactly like the late king in full armour. It is an ominous thing, and the sceptic Horatio, who is quickly converted, fears that it ‘bodes some strange eruption to our state’. The state is already in turmoil, being hastily put on a war footing. Fortinbras of Norway is threatening to invade Denmark to recover lands which his father lost to the late King Hamlet a generation ago. Recollection of that old combat coming on top of the apparition focuses all attention on the dead king. The practice of calling the king by the name of his country enforces an identity between king and kingdom, the health of the one reflecting the health of the other, so that the old king's death seems to mark the end of an era. ‘The king that's dead’ is referred to as ‘the majesty of buried Denmark’. Much later, the first words of the mad Ophelia are ‘Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?’ Even a routine cry like Bernardo's ‘Long live the king!’ in the third line of the play takes an additional meaning as we sense the apprehension of the watch for what may be the consequences for Denmark of the loss of their hero-king.

Hamlet is about Denmark as well as its prince. How Denmark fares as a society is in our minds all the time. But of course it's not just Hamlet and Denmark. Though Hamlet is at the centre of the play, he exists in his relationships, familial, social, sexual, political, divine; and even Hamlet, the most famous ‘individual’ in drama, is not so exclusively the centre that he diminishes the importance of what he is related to: family, society, God.

Since it is his threat to the kingdom which is the cause of the watch being set, young Fortinbras may be said to start the play off. In fact he encircles it, seeing that he enters at the very end to take over the kingdom without having to fight for it. Having so satisfactorily concluded his business, he will be able to give his ‘landless resolutes’ whatever they would like to have. Fortinbras succeeds where Hamlet fails, though Hamlet has been trying to right a great wrong and Fortinbras has been interested only in reversing the lawful outcome of his father's reckless challenge.

‘I KNOW NOT SEEMS’

Prince Hamlet in black carries into the court (in 1.2) that memory of the dead king which Claudius and Gertrude are anxious to erase. His grief, he says, is real not assumed, unlike (he implies) the emotions being expressed around him. But the most determined candour could scarcely reveal in public what he pours out when he is alone: his feeling of total despair, of taedium vitae, of the weary meaninglessness of ‘all the uses of this world’. He has no wish to continue living, but divine law forbids suicide. Why is all this? Because his father has suddenly died and his mother has speedily taken a new husband. Too slight a ground for despair? Hamlet's protestations are extreme. To call Claudius a satyr—a lecherous goat-like creature—does not make much sense to an audience who has just seen the new king efficiently managing his courtiers and the affairs of the nation. His mother's remarriage makes him call in question the constancy of all women. ‘Hyperion to a satyr!’ ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ Such passionate attachment to his father, such contempt for his uncle, such disgust with his mother, may seem pathological, what Eliot would call ‘in excess of the facts’. Hamlet's indignation does indeed go deeper than the ‘facts’ but its source is not morbid.

The story of Cain and Abel is brought into the play during this scene (105) and appears again twice (3.3.38 and 5.1.65).1 That first murder shattered the human family; it resulted from and betokened man's falling away from God. The identification of Claudius with Cain—which he himself makes—gives us the context in which we should put the ‘unreasonable’ bitterness of Hamlet, though as yet he knows nothing about any murder. In his book Violence and the Sacred, René Girard argued that cultural breakdown in early society, what he terms the ‘sacrificial crisis’, involves the failure to recognise acknowledged distinctions and differences. The erasure of difference shows itself in myth in the mortal rivalry of two brothers for what cannot be shared, a throne, a woman. Girard quotes the ‘degree’ speech in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida as an inspired perception of the chaos and violence which flow from the weakening of accepted distinctions. If, instead of the reading ‘each thing meets in mere oppugnancy’, he had followed the quarto text with ‘each thing melts in mere oppugnancy’, he would have shown how even more forcefully the passage conveys the rooted fear of the loss of category, of identity, of distinctiveness.

The obliteration of distinction, before Hamlet knows anything about fratricide or adultery, lies in Claudius taking his brother's place as king and husband and in Gertrude tranquilly accepting him as substitute. Their acts may offend against taste and ethics but the deeper offence is the undermining of an ideal of the person enshrined in antiquity and law. Hamlet's expressions, ‘Hyperion to a satyr’ and ‘no more like my father / Than I to Hercules’, show a mythographic ordering of the human differences. So in the closet scene Hamlet tries to force the distinction of the two men on to his mother by means of the two pictures. ‘Have you eyes?’ he shouts at her—

See what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury … 

(3.4.55-8)

This matter of the blurring of distinctions in a man claiming to be his brother helps to explain Hamlet's passion against Claudius as a usurper—

A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord, a vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule … 

(3.4.97-9)

Denmark is an elective monarchy as Hamlet knows quite well (see 1.2.109, 5.2.65, 335).2 But Shakespeare plays off this elective monarchy against his Elizabethan audience's deep emotional commitment to primogeniture and the right of a son to inherit. The Danish system condemns itself; a country which chooses its kings ends up with the rabble-cry of ‘Choose we! Laertes shall be king!’ (4.5.106). It has chosen for its king one who, did they but know, organised the vacancy by murder. For the audience, the system is a legalism which runs counter to their instinctive sense of rightness. There is a higher court than the court of Denmark, and in that court Hamlet is the dispossessed prince. Hamlet himself is both a Dane and an Elizabethan; whatever Danish law says, Claudius has usurped his brother, and violently appropriated a kingship he has no right to.

Gertrude's offence in confusing the two brothers is much deepened in the audience's eyes later in the first act when they learn that she committed adultery with Claudius while her husband was alive. … The willingness of this complaisant woman to sleep with either of two brothers is a forceful image of the failure of discrimination which is central to the tragedy of Hamlet.

In this second scene Hamlet is unaware of adultery or murder. But he has repudiated with contempt the appropriation of that vital distinction of fatherhood which Claudius grandly tries to add to his other appropriations. ‘But now my cousin Hamlet, and my son …’ Hamlet will not accept the relationship; it is ‘more than kin’. He knows he is not Claudius's son, and the same knowledge tells him that Claudius is not Gertrude's husband, nor Denmark's king. It is this knowledge, as well as grief for a father's death and the shallowness of a mother's love, which makes the whole world an unweeded garden.

THE GHOST

Hamlet is galvanised into activity by the news of the appearance of a ghost that resembles his dead father. On the platform that night he sees it and is determined to speak to it whatever happens. It is explanation he wants; explanation and a course of action. ‘Let me not burst in ignorance’, he cries. ‘What should we do?’ Though it is specific explanation—why the Ghost has come—and a specific course of action—what the Ghost wants him to do—that he seeks, his words have a wider perspective. The Ghost may have some secret, some unimaginable truth to bring relief from those ‘thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls’, an explanation why things are as they are and a directive for meaningful action. To his demands in both their specific and their general senses he receives, or thinks he receives, a more than sufficient response.

The Ghost declares that he is his father's spirit, gives him the extraordinary tidings of murder and adultery, and asks him to take revenge. His injunctions are summed up in the three imperatives, ‘Bear it not’, ‘Taint not thy mind’, ‘Leave her to heaven.’ These interconnect. ‘Bear it not’ looks both backwards and forwards. The idea of retribution is implied by the Ghost's appeal to Hamlet's ‘nature’, that is, his filial piety. ‘Bear it not’ means that as a son he is not to acquiesce in and accept what has been done to his father. But it looks also to the future. The abuse of Denmark by the very continuation of this pair in sovereignty and in marriage is not to be endured: ‘Bear it not.’ The second imperative is very strange: ‘howsomever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind’. Whatever the exact meaning of ‘taint’…, the tone of the remark is that the Ghost does not consider this matter of revenge too difficult an act, and is anxious that Hamlet should not become too disturbed about it. No doubt for the Ghost the challenge is like that which he accepted all those years ago when he agreed to face old Fortinbras in a single combat: a matter of honour, determination, courage and skill. The final injunction, ‘Leave her to heaven’, must temper our feeling of the Ghost's personal vindictiveness. It is more important, however, in giving a religious context to the punishment of Claudius and Gertrude. Gertrude's earthly punishment is to be her conscience: ‘those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her’. Whatever further punishment or exoneration is hers to receive belongs to an after-life. With Claudius it is different. By his words ‘Leave her to heaven’, the Ghost must imply that a higher justice requires the exemplary punishment of Claudius on earth, by the hand of an appointed human being. The Ghost's commands indicate not the pursuit of personal satisfaction but the existence of a world beyond the human world responsible for justice in the human world. Whether the Ghost has the authority to convey this the play never makes clear.

Awful though it is, Hamlet now has his explanation. What had seemed the degeneration of the world turns out to be a condition which is clearly and starkly the consequence of a double crime. He now also has his directive, a commission that is also a mission. His reaction to the Ghost is like a religious conversion. He wipes away all previous knowledge, all previous values, and baptises himself as a new man (1.5.95-104).

And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter.

The commandment is summed up by the Ghost as ‘Remember!’ ‘Remember me’, says the Ghost, and Hamlet repeats the word three times in his dedication. The Ghost is to be remembered ‘whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe’, that is to say so long as this now-disordered world attributes any value to the past and its traditions, to the established standards of virtue and justice. … In this speech, to remember means more than to keep in mind; it means to maintain and to restore. In the section ‘Of Redemption’ in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche deplored those who could not accept the ‘It was’ of time. He saw vengeance and punishment as an imprisonment of the will in concentrating on the past in an effort to undo what could not be undone. ‘This, yea, this is very vengeance!—Will's abhorrence of time and its “It was”.’3 It is quite clear that Hamlet is not prepared to accept the ‘It was’ of time, and that he regards revenge as a task of creative remembrance, that is, the restoration of a society that has fallen to pieces. The act ends with

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.

This is a terrible moment as, all exhilaration gone, he faces the burden of his responsibilities. But who has told him that it is his responsibility to put the world to rights? to restore the disjointed frame of things to its true shape? No one but himself. It is the entirely self-imposed burden of cleansing the world that he now groans under.

THE ANTIC DISPOSITION

‘As a stranger give it welcome’, says Hamlet to Horatio about the supernatural visitation.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

He identifies himself with the world of the stranger, and shows his alienation from Denmark and its values by adopting the garb of madness. The ‘antic disposition’ (an essential element in the old Amleth story) puzzles and worries the man who is now his enemy and sworn victim; it also has symbolic significance in denoting that Hamlet, like Bunyan's Christian, having received his call, considers himself a pilgrim and a stranger in his own city of Vanity Fair. Madness is conduct which does not conform to society's standards. Very well, says Hamlet, I am a madman.4

Shakespeare carefully marks a considerable lapse of time between Acts 1 and 2. … The first event in Hamlet's mission that we hear about is his silent ritual of divorce from Ophelia. Ophelia's tragedy, like Hamlet's, is the tragedy of obedience to a father. Only she really goes mad. And then—always going one step further than the prince—she doesn't stop at thinking about ending her life. At this stage in the play, she has obeyed her father and refused to see Hamlet. She now tells Polonius of the very peculiar encounter she has had with him. Hamlet, in a set piece of antic theatre, went dishevelled to her room and in total silence carried out what we might interpret as a ceremony of questioning, denunciation and separation. By this, he cuts the closest tie that binds him to the court of Denmark, and takes his school-fellow Horatio as his only confidant.

What are the values of ‘Denmark’ as we are shown them? The court party, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, are much given to expressing their beliefs in resonant platitudes. Claudius knows the proper response to death, Laertes to sex, Polonius to everything. With each person, we see the insufficiency of their moralising. What Claudius is hiding we learn in 1.5 (though it is not confirmed until 3.1.50), and he is hiding it even from his new wife, who in turn tried to hide her double-life from her husband. Laertes is suspected by both his sister and his father of an inclination towards the primrose path of dalliance. Polonius advocates reticence, truth and straightdealing, but is loquacious and devious. It is the ever-ready platitudes, betrayed both by their rhetoric and by the conduct of those who utter them, that Hamlet discards as mere ‘saws of books’ as he enters his new life. It is interesting that the heavy moralising of the court party accompanies a low view of human nature. Polonius and Laertes both expect Hamlet to be the insouciant seducer that is their stereotype of an aristocrat. (Hamlet, on the other hand, is an ‘idealist’, expecting mothers to be above sexual desire.) Polonius's proclivity for spying—which leads to his own violent death—is shown in the grotesque commission to Reynaldo to keep an eye on Laertes in Paris and then in his schemes to find out what's wrong with Hamlet. Claudius has much greater need than Polonius to find out what lies behind Hamlet's strange behaviour; his elaborate plot to use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as decoys is quickly uncovered by Hamlet.

What Hamlet is really thinking about during the long scene 2.2 is impossible to say. Everything he says to Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has its irony, and if his hearers do not know when he is being sane and serious, nor do we. When he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is ‘most dreadfully attended’ (255) he is not really talking about his servants. He may have the Ghost in mind, but chiefly he must mean his own thoughts. We are sure enough of him when he says he finds Denmark a prison. And with that extraordinary end to his joke about Polonius taking his leave—‘except my life, except my life, except my life’—we must feel the warning note that the taedium vitae which lifted from him when the Ghost spoke is descending again and that the ultimate dilemma of ‘To be or not to be’ is at hand.

What we should discount as an index of Hamlet's feelings is the famous speech ‘What a piece of work is a man’ (286-91). So often pointed to as a brilliant perception of the anguish of Renaissance man in general and of Hamlet in particular, it is a glorious blind, a flight of rhetoric by which a divided and distressed soul conceals the true nature of his distress and substitutes a formal and conventional state of Weltschmerz. At the end of it he punctures the rhetoric himself.

ROGUE AND PEASANT SLAVE

We are often reminded that Pyrrhus is, with Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras, another son avenging the slaying of his father (Achilles). But Hamlet swings into the rant of his second soliloquy not in any desire to emulate the cruel fury of Pyrrhus but out of shame that an actor's emotion for Pyrrhus's victim, Hecuba, should outdo his own emotion for Claudius's victim, his father. He has done nothing—it is true enough. But the effect of the eloquence of the old play and the actor's moving performance is to make him confuse doing with exhibition. His outburst is violent but essentially comic. His guilt runs away with him. Feeling that if he were a proper avenger he would exhibit a huge amount of passion he lets go a mammoth display of self-accusation and rage, culminating in a great stage-cry, ‘O vengeance!’

With this, he becomes ashamed of his hysterical attitudinising and rebukes himself for unpacking his heart with words. He turns from rant to action. What has to be done? The idea of using the players to test the Ghost's veracity was in his mind before he fell ‘a-cursing like a very drab’ (see 2.2.493-5). Hamlet had approached the Ghost knowing it might be either a demon from hell or a spirit from heaven. Perhaps he accepted it as an ‘honest ghost’ with too little question. That he should test the Ghost's account before he proceeds to take the king's life is the most obvious precaution. He says all that needs to be said on this subject (551-5). The Ghost could be a spirit from hell taking advantage of his distress to lure him into an act that will damn his soul.

That Hamlet in deciding to use the test of a play is guilty of procrastination is scarcely tenable. … Procrastination means putting off until tomorrow what you know ought to be done today. Hamlet is indeed a tragedy of delay, but procrastination is only one special form of delay. At least part of the reason for his delay so far must be Hamlet's fear that he is being deluded by the devil into imperilling the life of Claudius and the fate of his own soul.

‘TO BE OR NOT TO BE’

Act 3 begins next day, the day that the court play is to be given. But even if we are aware of this lapse of time since Hamlet decided to use a play to test the king, it is a shock to us to find Hamlet speaking as he does, for the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy throws everything back into debate.

What is the question, ‘to be or not to be’? All sorts of answers have been given. I can't doubt that Hamlet is asking whether one should go on living or whether one should take one's life. He is back in the depression of the first soliloquy, longing for the oblivion of death. But now the question whether life is worthwhile has much more knowledge and experience to take account of and brood over, and it assumes an entirely new significance. It is extraordinary that, at this moment in the play, the soliloquy should seem so indifferent to the immediate problem of killing the king. Implicitly the issue is there all the time, but never explicitly. The reason for that is that killing the king has become part of a much...

(The entire section is 8799 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

R.A. Foakes (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “The Art of Cruelty: Hamlet and Vindice,” in Aspects of Hamlet: Articles Reprinted from Shakespeare Survey, edited by Kenneth Muir and Stanley Wells, Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 28-38.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1973, Foakes compares Hamlet to Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy, contending that “it is the strength of Hamlet, not his weakness … that he cannot kill, that he fails to carry out his revenge.”]

Hamlet admits to cruelty only when he is about to encounter his mother in the Closet scene, and then he seeks to qualify the term

O heart, lose not thy nature, let not ever
The soul of Nero enter...

(The entire section is 6775 words.)

Eric P. Levy (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “‘Nor th' exterior nor the inward man’: The Problematics of Personal Identity in Hamlet,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 3, Summer, 1999, pp. 711-27.

[In the following essay, Levy charts Hamlet's probing of the nature of human identity and argues that the play conceptualizes an alternative to the usual inward/outward polarity.]

Hamlet begins with an urgent questioning of identity: ‘Who's there?’ A similar query is soon directed at the Ghost: ‘What art thou that usurp'st this time of night’ (1.1.49). The interrogation is complicated by the very nature of the problem. For identity in this context is not...

(The entire section is 7326 words.)

Jennifer Low (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Manhood and the Duel: Enacting Masculinity in Hamlet,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. 43, No. 3, Fall, 1999, pp. 501-12.

[In the following essay, Low examines the duel at the end of the play and contends that it is a rite of manhood that focuses Hamlet's attention on how masculinity should be shown and enables him to unite his private and public selves.]

As many critics have remarked, Hamlet is framed by the deeds of Fortinbras.1 In 1.1 Marcellus and Horatio discuss Denmark's preparations for the possibility of a Norwegian invasion; in 5.2 Fortinbras enters, flushed with his victory over the Poles, just in time to receive Hamlet's...

(The entire section is 4518 words.)