Considered to be the world's most popular tragedy, Hamlet combines the emotional power of a family in crisis with the political intrigue surrounding the corruption of the Danish court. Hamlet finds himself at the center of this drama following the death of his father, the King of Denmark, whom Hamlet believes has been murdered by the king's own brother, Claudius. To make matters worse, Claudius has married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and has become the new king. The character of Hamlet continues to be a source of major critical commentary and debate. Critics are particularly interested in Hamlet's delay in avenging his father's death, and his supposed madness. Other areas of critical concern include the role of the theater and of theatricality within the play, issues of sexuality and gender roles, and the play's treatment of the conflicts between reason and emotion, and between man as a victim of fate versus man as the controller of his destiny. Modern film and stage directors of Hamlet grapple with how to dramatically represent these issues as well.
Hamlet's delay in avenging his father's death has perplexed many readers and critics. Paul Gottschalk (1973) examines the prayer scene, in which Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius while he is praying, and discusses both Hamlet's delay and his overall character. Hamlet states that he does not kill the king during prayer because his revenge would be spoiled; he believes that Claudius, killed at prayer, would not be damned to Hell. Gottschalk contends that this scene reveals Hamlet's villainy, and finds it to be a true low point in his spiritual journey. However, by the end of the play, Gottschalk maintains, Hamlet ultimately achieves redemption and spiritual regeneration. Taking another approach to the analysis of Hamlet's delay, John Hunt (1988) examines the play's use of corporeal imagery in order to show that Hamlet is unable to adequately react to the demands made upon him by the Ghost until he accepts his own physicality and overcomes his contempt for the body. Hunt suggests that the physical body is used not only as a symbol of Hamlet's disgust for physicality, but it additionally serves as a representation of the spirit, Christ, the Church, and the body politic. Psychoanalytical interpretation of Hamlet's character is a popular area of critical study as well. Bennett Simon (2001) reviews the major trends in the psychoanalytic analysis of Hamlet, the play, and several other characters. In his discussion, Simon analyzes Hamlet in light of trauma theory, which suggests that the shattering of basic assumptions—including the assumption that close individuals may be trusted and that the stability of family and the natural world may be counted on—results in the development of a sense of unreality in the affected individual. In Simon's survey, he examines the question of whether Hamlet is acting or is truly mad.
The play's treatment of theatricality and the role of the theater is another area of critical study. Charles R. Forker (1963) analyzes the implications of the way the theater functions as a symbol in Hamlet, contending that the theater serves as a symbol for the exposure of unseen realities and the revelation of secrets. Brent M. Cohen (1977) argues that Shakespeare's use of the theater, particularly the unique design of the Elizabethan theater, allowed Shakespeare to challenge his audience in unique ways. Cohen shows that the absence of physical barriers between the stage and the audience in the Elizabethan theater gave the audience a conflicted understanding of their role within the action of the play. Cohen emphasizes that in Hamlet, Shakespeare used the theater, theatricality, artifice, and performance to develop the audience's sense of self-consciousness; he did not use the theater, Cohen stresses, for the purposes of encouraging audience identification with the characters in the play. Critics Michael Taylor (1971) and Eric Levy (2001) have studied the play's conflicts between fate and destiny, and between reason and emotion, respectively. Taylor contends that the central conflict in Hamlet is between “man as victim of fate and as controller of his own destiny.” Taylor characterizes the first four acts of the play as being pervaded by the notion that man is the master of his own destiny, and argues that this idea is reflected in the way language is used by characters to control and disguise meaning. In the fifth act, Hamlet's attitude changes, Taylor contends, in that Hamlet has come to believe that man is in fact limited in his ability to affect his destiny. Levy is concerned with the play's treatment of the control of emotion through reason, and demonstrates that Hamlet is concerned not just with controlling emotion through rational thought, but with the use of rational thought to provoke emotion. Levy's analysis is informed by his study of the Christian-humanist doctrine on reason and emotion as outlined in the Aristotelian-Thomist system. Exploring the issues of sexuality and gender roles, James W. Stone (1995) investigates the way in which androgyny is represented as a collapse of sexual difference through the portrayal of Hamlet as feminized and impotent and the depiction of Gertrude as masculinized and castrating. Such a collapse in sexual difference, Stone maintains, generates a related collapse in moral meaning and a disintegration of moral boundaries in the play.
Hamlet's continued popularity has made it a favorite of both film and stage productions. John P. McCombe (1997) and Samuel Crowl (1998) both examine Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film production of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson in the title role and Glenn Close as Gertrude, and find that it focuses heavily on the mother-son bond between Hamlet and Gertrude. McCombe charges that Zeffirelli is overly concerned with this relationship and its dysfunctional nature, to the point that the play's political issues are ignored. Crowl takes a more favorable view of Zeffirelli's somewhat narrow focus. He praises Zeffirelli's casting, textual editing, and exploitation of cinematic space and landscape, and claims that the film offers a full exploration of the play as a family romance centered around Gertrude. Hamlet remains popular on the stage as well. Marguerite Tassi (2001) reviews a stage production of the play directed by Peter Brook, noting that Brook's adaptation is often viewed as controversial. Tassi explains that Brook eliminated from the play all that he deemed “inessential,” resulting in a simple and stark production designed to direct the audience's awareness to the play's exploration of the philosophical problems of being. While Tassi praises Adrian Lester's performance of Hamlet, she contends that the production suffered from problems related to Brooks's textual alterations. Bernice W. Kliman (2001) assesses Brooks's production as well, comparing it with John Caird's version of the play for the Royal National Theater, starring Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet. Kliman praises both productions, particularly the performances of Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet in Caird's play and Adrian Lester's Hamlet in Brook's production.
SOURCE: Blits, Jan H. Introduction to Deadly Thought: ‘Hamlet’ and the Human Soul, pp. 3-21. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001.
[In the following essay, Blits offers an overview of Hamlet, examines the play's characters, language, structure, and content, and argues that play provides a critique of the Renaissance.]
Hamlet takes place in the early sixteenth century—a time of intellectual rebirth and religious reformation in Denmark. As we see throughout the play, Hamlet's Denmark is marked by the ongoing rediscovery of classical or neoclassical antiquity on the one hand and the rising reformation of the Christian doctrine of salvation on the other. While the Middle Ages still cast a long shadow, the medieval world of constancy, chivalry, tradition, honor, and martial virtue has largely given way to a new age of mobility and change—of tradesmen, industry, wealth, diplomacy, and commerce (1.1.73-98).1 The manly virtue of old Hamlet now seems to be merely a memory:
A was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.
Virtually all the characters in Hamlet still believe in purgatory, angels, saints, and ghosts, and take very seriously the rites of the Catholic church. Denmark is still a Catholic country.2 Yet, Shakespeare not only has Hamlet conspicuously pun on the Diet of Worms (4.3.19-21), the imperial council that banned Martin Luther for refusing to repudiate his new doctrine. Shakespeare also mentions four times (within just fifty-five lines) near the start of the play that Hamlet and Horatio have been studying at Wittenberg (1.2.113, 119, 164, 168). Wittenberg, one of only two universities that Shakespeare ever refers to by name,3 was famous in the early sixteenth century for its teaching of both humanism (Marlowe's Dr. Faustus taught there) and Luther's new doctrine of salvation (Luther lectured there for some thirty years and posted his ninety-five theses in Wittenberg in 1517).4 Scholasticism, now largely replaced by humanism and the new Protestant theology, has been mostly reduced to a gravedigger's cant:
For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act, and an act hath three branches—it is to act, to do, to perform; argal, she drowned herself wittingly.
In more than the most obvious way, the Middle Ages, at once absent and present, take the form of a ghost in Hamlet.
Where the medieval world was rooted in a fixed hierarchical order based largely on birth and kinship, Danes now live, travel, and study abroad; follow foreign tastes and fashions (e.g., 1.3.70-74; 1.4.10; 2.2.426; 5.2.144-60); and know and care what other nations think of them (e.g., 1.1.88; 1.4.17-22). Even while nearly all the scenes occur within the royal castle in Elsinore and none occur more than a few miles away, throughout Hamlet we hear of international travel: Hamlet and Horatio have been studying in Germany (1.2.112-22, 164-68); Laertes twice returns from Paris (1.2.50-63; 4.5.96ff.; also 1.3.1-88), where other “Danskers” also live (2.1.7); Reynaldo goes there to spy on him (2.1.1-73); a foreign company of touring actors comes to Elsinore (2.2.314ff.); a Norman horseman travels to Denmark to show his skill (4.7.80-102); Hamlet is sent to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and returns with the help of pirates (3.1.171-77; 3.3.4; 3.4.202-7; 4.3.40-60; 4.6.8-26; 4.7.42-45; 5.1.143-50; 5.2.1ff.); Danish ambassadors travel to Norway and back (1.2.33-40; 2.2.40-51, 58-80); English ambassadors arrive in Denmark (5.2.359, 373-77, 381-82); and a Norwegian army crosses Denmark to fight against a Polish outpost and returns (2.2.72-80; 4.4.1-30; 5.2.367-408). We also hear a polyglot of names—Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German, and other foreign names, and only a few Scandinavian or Norse. Indeed, while the king is named after a Roman emperor, one of his castle's sentries bears the name (in Spanish or Portuguese) of the only country the king is ever said to have served against (4.7.82), and his chief advisor is named (in Latin) for another foreign foe (1.1.65-67). The distinction between Dane and non-Dane has become greatly attenuated. Even as Horatio fears for the well-being of “our state,” he confounds the general region and the Danish kingdom (“our climatures and [our] countrymen” [1.1.72, 128]). And although a Dane by birth, he not only needs to be told a Danish custom known far and wide (1.4.7-22; cf. 1.2.175), but considers himself “more an antique Roman than a Dane” (5.2.346). Education, he seems to think, can supersede birth.
But if Shakespeare's Danes seem to feel quite at home in foreign times and places, their new cosmopolitan worldly outwardness is matched by a new moral inwardness. Some commentators say that Hamlet's tragedy lies in the conflict between pagan and Christian virtue—the one emphasizing pride, anger, ambition, and action; the other, humility, forgiveness, lowliness, and patience. According to this view, while Hamlet tries to combine these two moralities, Shakespeare shows how they are in a fundamental tension with each other and that their attempted combination, by making conflicting demands upon Hamlet, ultimately paralyzes him.5 In fact, however, the pagan virtue rediscovered by the Renaissance and pursued by Hamlet is not the political virtue of Greece or republican Rome, let alone the heroic virtue of Hercules or Achilles,6 but the Stoic virtue of imperial Rome. It is the virtue of Seneca, not of Scipio, of Epictetus, not of Camillus. Rather than encouraging action, it emphasizes the radical inwardness of the soul. Stoicism places happiness in virtue and virtue in what a man himself can control. While no one can control the vicissitudes of fortune, a man can control his disposition toward their effects. So long as nothing external breaks into his will or affects his judgment, no misfortune can touch his soul and disturb his happiness. As Hamlet says in high praise of Horatio:
[T]hou hast been As one, in suff'ring all, that suffers nothing, A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards Hast ta'en with equal thanks.
Protected behind the secure barrier of his inner life, a Stoic depends entirely on his inward state for his virtue and happiness.7 Similarly, notwithstanding its fundamental difference from Stoicism in other key respects (including teachings regarding the hereafter, the necessity of grace, and the morality of pride),8 Luther's new doctrine of salvation emphasizes virtue's radical inwardness while denigrating action. In opposition to the scholastics, who granted the necessity of God's grace but also held that man can contribute something to salvation by his own efforts, Luther argues that whatever good man does is wholly the work of grace. Since no action can contribute at all to salvation, man can be saved by faith alone. “[F]aith alone, without works, justifies, frees, and saves.”9 True religion thus becomes wholly inward. “The inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all,” for “faith can rule only in the inner man.”10 Only the inwardness of faith, not any “external thing,”11 can justify man before God. Thus, far from pulling Hamlet in opposite directions, both Christian and pagan virtue pull him away from action, the one by placing virtue in the inner world of faith, the other by placing it in the inner world of the mind.
In his famous encomium on man, Hamlet describes the world as a splendidly ordered cosmos with man, “the beauty of the world” (2.2.307), at its center. In both man and the cosmos, there is a fundamental harmony between the visible exterior and the invisible interior. In both, outward beauty reflects inner goodness, motion follows order, and change takes place within the permanence of a rational, ordered whole. No gulf separates the best in man from the natural world (2.2.295-309).12 Hamlet mentions this view, however, only to say that he no longer holds it. Instead of reason governing the world, he now sees only fortune and inconstancy—only chance and change. In his view, everything is mutable, nothing in the world abides. Rather than reason guiding and sustaining men's actions, purpose follows memory, memory follows passion, and passion follows fortune (2.2.235-36; 3.2.336-63). Men are forgotten as soon as they die, if not sooner; and “reason panders will” (1.2.137-57; 3.1.103-48; 3.2.123-33, 147-49; 3.4.40-103). And just as neither their loves, their memories, nor their vows are constant, so, too, men's appearances and actions are not to be trusted.
Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.” ..... These indeed seem For they are actions that a man might play; But I have that within which passes show.
Only “that within” “can denote [a man] truly” (1.2.83).
In place of action, Hamlet chooses acting. If outward action disappears into inward virtue, it also both disappears into and reappears out of stage-acting. Hamlet turns stage-acting into action (“The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King” [2.2.600-1]) and action into stage-acting (“You that look pale and tremble at this chance, / That are but mutes or audience to this act” [5.2.339-40]). The two senses of “act”—to do and to simulate—are exchanged. Paradoxically, as Hamlet's moral life becomes radically internalized, it also becomes thoroughly externalized. As Hamlet turns away from what merely seems, he turns to what is entirely seeming. The middle realm—the realm of action—vanishes into the opposite extremes. While he rejects the actions that a man might play, Hamlet plays the actions that a moral life might contain. His moral life becomes a self-dramatization. This inversion goes to the heart of the play.
Hamlet retreats both into his soul and onto the stage to escape “the drossy age” (5.2.186). The golden age, for him, is the chivalrous age of his manly father. In contrast to that time, there are now few opportunities for noble action in Denmark. Instead of duels of single combat (1.1.83-98; 5.1.139-40), we find battles of competing theatrical tastes (2.2.328-58), gentlemanly contests of horsemanship (4.7.70-101), fencing matches in which the winner need only beat the odds (5.2.105-80), and endless battles of wit and words.13 Notwithstanding Horatio's apparently firsthand description of old Hamlet's armor and face in battle (1.1.63-66), Ophelia's calling Hamlet a “soldier” (3.1.153), and Claudius's saying that he “serv'd against” the French (4.7.82), it is not clear that any living Danish noble has ever actually fought in battle for Denmark. Despite the threat of war at the start of the play (1.1.73-110; 1.2.17-39), Laertes seeks to return to Paris and Hamlet to Wittenberg, neither giving a moment's thought to the kingdom's military needs. Nor does Claudius seem to notice or to care. As he is protected by foreign mercenaries (“Switzers” [4.5.97]), so, too, he depends on “foreign marts for implements of war” (1.1.77). In contrast to old Hamlet (1.1.87; 1.2.25; also 1.2.187; 3.4.53-63), no living Dane is ever called valiant, courageous, manly, or brave (cf. 2.2.578; also 1.3.65). “Bravery” now means mere bravado (5.2.79). Accordingly, while many young nobles or aspiring nobles simply affect the outward form of fashion (5.2.184-91), wealth by itself, without virtue or distinguished birth, may now earn a man a place at the king's table (5.2.86-89).
Most important—and evidently the cause of all the rest—there is neither a feudal system nor a public realm in Denmark. Unlike in a feudal system, although the nobles elect the king, they are entirely dependent on him for their positions. Only members of the royal family have noble titles. Polonius is not a duke or a baron, but an “assistant for a state.” As his position is an official function, not a hereditary power, his title is conferred by the king (the “state”) and held only during the king's pleasure (2.2.164-67). Moreover, the king's power, in general, appears absolute. Men depend on his will and act on his command. Laertes may not return to France without his leave (1.2.50-63), and the king and queen may command their subjects' service:
Both your Majesties Might, by the sovereign power you have of us, Put your dread pleasures more into command Than to entreaty.
And, unlike in a republic, there is no political discussion or debate in Denmark. Although Hamlet contains a great deal of oratory, the only example of political oratory is Claudius's opening speech. In it, the new King simply announces his decisions rather than trying to persuade the court of anything (1.2.1-39). The only other time he publicly justifies his action, the nobles, again, listen in silence (4.3.1-11; cf. 4.1.38-40). Of the three sorts of young Danish noblemen we see, one group (Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Osric) seeks to advance by favor of the king; another (Laertes) is interested only in purely private goods (pleasure, personal freedom, and his own family); and the third (Hamlet and Horatio) seeks refuge by retreating from the world. It surely is no accident that Hamlet begins just before and ends just after the reign of a man with the name of the Roman emperor Claudius. In precluding noble action, the drossy age of Denmark closely mirrors the drossy age of Rome.
The Renaissance, as Shakespeare shows, is a rediscovery or imitation of neoclassical Rome, which is itself an imitation of classical Greece. Having conquered Greece militarily, Rome was itself conquered culturally. “Greece, the captive, made her savage victor captive, and brought the arts into rustic Latium” (Horace, Letters, 2.1.156-57). The Renaissance is thus an imitation of an imitation—a modern imitation of a Roman imitation of Greece. Pedantic Polonius, who often echoes Greek and Latin authors and whose own name means “Poland” in Latin, gives his children Greek names. The sequence of his family's names mimics the historical sequence, read backwards. More specifically, the Renaissance's rediscovery of antiquity is a rediscovery or imitation of the ancients' rhetoric and poetry, but not of their political or military deeds. The only republican Roman Hamlet ever mentions is Roscius, an actor (2.2.386; cf. 3.2.239, 385; 5.1.206).15 And the only nonmythical Greek is Alexander the Great, the destroyer of the classical polis, whom he mentions in conjunction with Julius Caesar (5.1.191-210), the destroyer of the Roman republic and the only Roman Horatio ever names (“the mightiest Julius” [1.1.117]). Appropriately enough, Horatio's name, in Latin, means “orator.” Machiavelli, writing at the same time as the dramatic setting of Hamlet, criticizes Renaissance humanists for rather admiring than imitating ancient deeds. They imitate works of ancient art, but not deeds of ancient virtue (Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I pref.). Machiavelli's criticism holds true of the humanists in Hamlet. Instead of imitating ancient deeds by doing others like them, they imitate ancient deeds by portraying them on the stage. Characteristically at a remove from action, they enact rather than act; they simulate rather than emulate.16 “I did enact...
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SOURCE: Gottschalk, Paul. “Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 2 (spring 1973): 155-70.
[In the following essay, Gottschalk examines Hamlet's character, contending that although he reveals his villainy and spiritual confusion in the prayer scene, he ultimately achieves redemption and spiritual regeneration at the play's end.]
One of the most perplexing moments in the perplexing play of Hamlet comes in the Prayer Scene when Hamlet, convinced of the King's guilt and ready “to drink hot blood,” happens upon Claudius at prayer, unsheathes his sword, is about to kill him—and then does not, giving as reason his unwillingness to...
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SOURCE: Hunt, John. “A Thing of Nothing: The Catastrophic Body in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, no. 1 (spring 1988): 27-44.
[In the following essay, Hunt analyzes Hamlet's corporeal imagery as a means of exploring Hamlet's persistent state of indecision, asserting that before Hamlet can respond to the demands of the Ghost, he must first come to accept his own physicality and overcome his contempt for the body.]
If Hamlet actually writes down moral lessons on his tablets as he studies his revenge, many of them surely have to do with how life is lived, and lost, in bodies. Far more even than in Macbeth or Coriolanus, the human body in...
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SOURCE: Simon, Bennett. “Hamlet and the Trauma Doctors: An Essay at Interpretation.” American Imago 58, no. 3 (2001): 707-22.
[In the following essay, Simon reviews the major trends in the psychoanalytic analysis of Hamlet, and interprets both the play and Hamlet's character on the basis of trauma theory.]
In the 400 years of Hamlet interpretation, psychoanalysis is a relative newcomer, only a century or so old. During that century, there have been notable shifts in the mode of interpreting the play, both in the critical world at large and in the narrower psychoanalytic world. In part, changes in the psychoanalytic interpretation of the play have had...
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