Hamlet (Vol. 59)
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.]
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...
(The entire section is 8799 words.)
Criticism: Character Studies
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 this firm bosom, Let me be cruel not unnatural.
(iii, ii, 396-8)
The cruelty he seeks to permit himself is to be kept under a restraint, not let loose with the tyrannical savagery of which Nero served as a type. So again, at the end of the interview, Hamlet cries, ‘I must be cruel only to be kind’, claiming that his cruelty serves its opposite, kindness. What Hamlet seems anxious to do here is to prevent himself from inflicting cruelty for its own sake; and the fact that he alone articulates this idea in the play suggests both the measure of success he has in controlling himself, and also his awareness, so to speak, of possibilities for cruelty within himself.
If Hamlet is not at this...
(The entire section is 6775 words.)
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 simple but polar. That is, it comprises a totality whose two aspects are public and private or what Claudius terms ‘th'exterior’ and ‘the inward man’ (2.2.4).1 Therefore, if the question of identity is to be answered at the most fundamental level, the proper relation of the inward and outward dimensions of identity must first be determined. As we shall find, Hamlet profoundly critiques prevailing assumptions regarding this relation, and dramatizes an alternate conceptualization of human identity: ‘what is a man’ (4.4.33).
According to the conventional schema, inward and outward are construed as reciprocal modes of the same totality. In Hegel's succinct enunciation of this traditional schema, inward...
(The entire section is 7326 words.)
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 endorsement of his claim to the Danish throne. Not only does Fortinbras serve as a possible monitory double for Hamlet—a son whose father is killed and who knows how to respond—Fortinbras and his martial exploits also remind us of the public sphere that is excluded from this play. Despite the play's examination of the relation between theatricality, deceit, and public personae, much criticism has focused on psychological issues or addressed the play largely as a private and domestic tragedy.2 But although the focus of the play is young Hamlet's dilemma, the drama's time-frame matches that of Claudius's rule over Denmark, and during that time Hamlet as a potential threat is merely one of Claudius's concerns.
(The entire section is 4518 words.)
Criticism: Gender Issues
SOURCE: “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, Methuen, 1985, pp. 77-94.
[In the following essay, Showalter probes a number of crucial questions surrounding the character of Ophelia which involve her status in the play and bring to the forefront the relation between madness, representation, women's sexuality, and femaleness.]
“As a sort of a come-on, I announced that I would speak today about that piece of bait named Ophelia, and I'll be as good as my word.” These are the words which begin the psychoanalytic seminar on Hamlet presented in Paris in 1959 by Jacques Lacan. But despite his promising come-on, Lacan was not as good as his word. He goes on for some 41 pages to speak about Hamlet, and when he does mention Ophelia, she is merely what Lacan calls “the object Ophelia”—that is, the object of Hamlet's male desire. The etymology of Ophelia, Lacan asserts, is “O-phallus,” and her role in the drama can only be to function as the exteriorized figuration of what Lacan predictably and, in view of his own early work with psychotic women, disappointingly suggests is the phallus as transcendental signifier.1 To play such a part obviously makes Ophelia “essential,” as Lacan admits; but only because, in his words, “she is...
(The entire section is 6728 words.)
SOURCE: “Hamlet and Gender,” in William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Northcote House, 1996, pp. 42-50.
[In the following essay, Thompson and Taylor review the shifting critical attitudes to the female characters in Hamlet.]
‘A female Hamlet is one thing but a pregnant prince is quite another’ says Dora Chance in Angela Carter's novel Wise Children (1991). Dora and her identical twin sister Nora are stars of vaudeville and illegitimate daughters of Sir Melchior Hazard, the great Shakespearean actor. The novel contains many references to Hamlet, including the moment when the hero's most celebrated soliloquy becomes the inspiration for a song and dance routine with the two sisters dressed as bellhops in a hotel corridor, debating whether a package should be delivered to ‘2b or not 2b’ (p. 90). The pregnant prince (in this case Dora's and Nora's grandmother Estella Hazard, pregnant with their natural father Melchior and his twin brother Peregrine, who passes for their father) belongs to the level of subversive fantasy and the cheerful appropriation of Shakespeare's texts by twentieth-century low culture, but in fact the notion of Hamlet as female has a lengthy history in the critical and theatrical reception of the play.
Hamlet himself, … sees his inaction in general and his verbosity in particular as effeminate in his soliloquy after his first encounter with the...
(The entire section is 3413 words.)
Criticism: Language And Imagery
SOURCE: “Superposed Plays: Hamlet,” in Shakespeare's Middle Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by David Young, Prentice Hall, 1993, pp. 18-28.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1976, Lanham traces the use of rhetoric in Hamlet and investigates the relation between elaborate and theatrical rhetoric in the play.]
Shakespeare uses a variation on the sonnets strategy in Hamlet. He writes two plays in one. Laertes plays the revenge-tragedy hero straight. He does, true enough, veer toward self-parody, as when he complains that crying for Ophelia has interfered with his rants: “I have a speech o' fire, that fain would blaze / But that this folly drowns it” (4.7.189-90). But he knows his generic duty and does it. No sooner has his “good old man” (Polonius's role in the straight, “serious” play) been polished off than he comes screaming with a rabble army. He delivers predictably and suitably stupid lines like “O thou vile king, / Give me my father” (4.5.115-16). And the Queen can scarcely manage a “Calmly, good Laertes” before he begins again: “That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard, / Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot / Even here between the chaste unsmirchèd brows / Of my true mother” (4.5.117-20). And just before the King begins to calm him, to the villainous contentation of both: “How came he dead?...
(The entire section is 5120 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Never Doubt I Love’: Misreading Hamlet,” in College Literature, Vol. 21, No. 2, June, 1994, pp. 19-32.
[In the following essay, Habib offers a close reading of Hamlet's love poem to Ophelia and argues that Hamlet deliberately intends his poetry to be misread. The critic further contends that misreading of all kinds is central to the action and meaning of Hamlet.]
Doubt thou the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never doubt I love. O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not art to reckon my groans, but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu. Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him, Hamlet.(1)
Hamlet's love poem to Ophelia, which Polonius reads out to Claudius and Gertrude in 2.2.116-24 of Hamlet, is an awkward, doubtful business. The love relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is, admittedly, a minor strand in this complex tragedy. But readers trained in resolving the balanced antinomies of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English love poetry often reach for a generalized meaning in Hamlet's poem too quickly to notice the conflicts of its particular oppositions. The conventional response to the poem would be to regard it as a hyperbolic assertion of Hamlet's love for Ophelia in the tradition of Elizabethan and Jacobean syllogistic love poetry (as in Donne's “Go and...
(The entire section is 7520 words.)
SOURCE: “Hamlet's Account of the Pirates,” in Review of English Studies, Vol. 50, No. 199, August, 1999, pp. 320-31.
[In the following essay, Farley-Hills defends George Miles's linguistic argument (from 1870) that Hamlet planned his meeting with the pirates before he left for England. His defense involves some comparison of the Q2 and F versions of the play.]
The view that Hamlet had been planning, before he leaves Denmark, to be rescued by pirates on the journey to England has received short shrift from most Shakespeare commentators and editors since it was first given lengthy and forceful promulgation by the American scholar and author George Miles in his monograph of 1870, A Review of Hamlet. Miles made his suggestion provisional on the possibility of a pun on the word ‘craft’ at Q2 III. iv. 199: ‘If the word crafts had its present maritime significance in Shakespeare's time, the pun alone is conclusive of a pre-arranged capture.’1
W.W. Lawrence regarded the whole of Miles's argument as ‘an absurd idea’,2 and most of those few critics who have noticed Miles at all have substantially concurred. Later attempts to support Miles's view, such as Martin Stevens's article in Shakespeare Quarterly,3 have fared no better. The main objection, however, has often been that the use of ‘craft’ to mean ‘ship’ was unknown in...
(The entire section is 5746 words.)
SOURCE: “Mouse and Mousetrap in Hamlet,” in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Vol. 135, 1999, pp. 77-92.
[In the following essay, Hassel examines the mouse and mousetrap imagery in Hamlet.]
When Hamlet names “The Murder of Gonzago” for Claudius, he calls it “The Mousetrap”, adding, “Marry how? Tropically”.1 Since Hamlet has already told us that he hopes to use the play to “catch the conscience of the king” (2.2.591), we quickly hear several teasing puns and figures. Hamlet the mouser may be playfully connecting the “trap” of “trapically” with the “marry” of Claudius' marriage to “his mouse” Gertrude. He is also probably punning on “tropically” as “in the way of a trope; metaphorically, figuratively”, using the common Renaissance figure of the mousetrap as “A device for enticing a person to his destruction or defeat”.2 But though we quickly get Hamlet's “tropical” gist, his general meaning, we have not done so well with its ingenious particularity. John Doebler has made a good start by suggesting that the well-known Augustinian trope of the muscipula diaboli, the mousetrap of the devil, highlights and informs the mouse and mousetrap imagery in Hamlet. Doebler also shows that popular Renaissance beast-lore combines with this theological context to present in a mouse-like Claudius “all that was gluttonous, lascivious,...
(The entire section is 5619 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Ower Swete Sokor’: The Role of Ophelia in Hamlet,” in Shakespeare's Play within Play: Medieval Imagery and Scenic Form in Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute Publications, 1990, pp. 7-19.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Guilfoyle traces Ophelia's character to the legend of Mary Magdalen as developed in medieval drama.]
The virtuous disguise of evil in woman is described most bitterly by Shakespeare in King Lear (IV.vi.120-29): “Behold yond simpering dame / Whose face between her forks presages snow … / But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiends'.” If she can be separated from sexual considerations, for example in royalty or in comedy, woman can appear on a level with, if not equal to, man; but where his feelings are most deeply aroused, in love and veneration, or in lust and frustration, the writer finds her angel or devil, separately or interchangeably. In the opening cantos of The Faerie Queene,1 Spenser presents the two pictures of woman which combine in a potent myth in the literature of all ages: the pure, young, innocent Una, characterized by her name, and her exact physical duplicate, who is, behind the façade, a filthy fiend. This sinister figure is later presented as Fidessa/Duessa, but in her first appearance she usurps the fair form of Una, the one...
(The entire section is 5997 words.)
Criticism: Thematic Roles
SOURCE: “Life, Crown, and Queen: Gertrude and the Theme of Sovereignty,” in The Review of English Studies, Vol. 47, No. 186, May, 1996, pp. 163-74.
[In the following essay, Aguirre examines the symbol of the cup from which Gertrude drinks in the play's final scene, and attempts to “delve further into the mythological status of Gertrude and, beyond this, to explore the role, and the fate, of myth in Hamlet.”]
In a short preliminary paper1 I sought to establish the presence in Hamlet of the traditional symbol of the Cup of Sovereignty. Briefly the argument was this: when Hamlet speaks of the ‘dram of evil’ that obscures a man's virtues (I. iv. 36-8), he is constructing a metaphor for the cup Claudius drinks out of to celebrate his marriage, and giving this vessel connotations which, on the moral plane, resemble those found in the several poisons used in the play: moral corruption is as inherent in that cup as physical infection is in Lucianus', Laertes', or Claudius' poisons. The significance placed on this cup seems out of all proportion to its apparent function in the play, until we stop looking for a realistic explanation and recall that the cup was a symbol for the transmission of Sovereignty in Celtic tales: when the queen handed a vessel or otherwise offered drink to the hero she was granting him her sexual favours and/or sovereignty over her territory. No reader of Hamlet can...
(The entire section is 5117 words.)
SOURCE: “Hamlet, Revenge!,” in The Hudson Review, Vol. 51, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 310-28.
[In the following essay, Bell contends that Hamlet does not fulfill his expected role as a revenger because Shakespeare's intent was to satirize the revenge-play genre that was popular at the end of the sixteenth century.]
When, at the end of the second act, Hamlet bawls, “Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless Villain! / Oh vengeance!”, the audience laughed, I guess, the way modern audiences laugh when viewing Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein. They recognized a horror-thriller style old-fashioned enough to be funny; this was the way the Revenger hero of Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy had ranted on the stage fifteen years before. Shakespeare's modern editors disagree about the “Oh vengeance,” which appears only in the 1623 Folio version of the play. The editor of the Arden edition, who commits himself to an earlier Quarto text, where it is missing, thinks it must have been put in later by someone else, probably an actor. It jars, he feels, with the brooding self-reproach Hamlet has just expressed after hearing the player orate about the avenging of Achilles by his son Pyrrhus and about the grief of Hecuba over slaughtered Priam. The editor of the New Cambridge Hamlet thinks Shakespeare wrote it himself: “This cry, the great climax of the rant with...
(The entire section is 7784 words.)
Aggeler, Geoffrey. “Nobler in the Mind: The Dialectic in Hamlet.” In Nobler in the Mind: The Stoic-Skeptic Dialectic in English Renaissance Tragedy, pp. 145-61. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
Distinguishes between the degrees of Stoicism in the characters of Hamlet and Claudius and follows the development of the Stoic philosophy in the play as a whole.
Belsey, Catherine. “Sibling Rivalry: Hamlet and the First Murder.” In Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden: The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture, pp. 129-74. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
Describes the biblical story of the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain, and then connects it to the story of familial loss, rage, and bloodshed in Hamlet.
Charney, Maurice. “Hamlet as Comedy.” In Hamlet's Fictions, pp. 131-51. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Asserts that while Hamlet is not a tragicomedy, it is a play that depends upon substantive comedic elements to make its tragic conclusion more powerful and convincing.
Clary, Frank Nicholas. “‘The Very Cunning of the Scene’: Hamlet's Divination and the King's Occulted Guilt.” Hamlet Studies, 18, Nos. 1-2 (Summer 1996): 7-28.
Studies the play-within-the play,...
(The entire section is 673 words.)