Hamlet Nobler in the Mind: The Dialect in Hamlet
by William Shakespeare

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Nobler in the Mind: The Dialect in Hamlet

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Geoffrey Aggeler, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Let us imagine a Renaissance neostoic, such as Sir William Cornwallis the Younger, or Philippe de Mornay, or Joseph Hall, watching an early performance of Hamlet at the Globe sometime between 1599 and 1602. Mornay would be on an embassy from France, busy about promoting the interests of the Protestant cause and perhaps his Calvinist disposition would keep him away from the theater, but then again the memory of his good friend Sir Philip Sidney, who had a taste for Senecan tragedy, might influence him to attend. Joseph Hall, who had only recently given up the writing of Juvenalian formal verse satire and was about to enter the Anglican Church, might have had similar Calvinistic scruples. Sir William Cornwallis, whose essays are full of Shakespearean echoes, would have had no such scruples and probably did attend it, perhaps in company with his friend John Donne.

The Neostoic playgoer would certainly recognize the familiar outline of the model that emerges from Seneca's moral writings, the sage. He would perhaps discern part of it in the "To be, or not to be" (III. i. 55-88)1 soliloquy as Hamlet considers the option of passively enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He would certainly recognize it fully sketched out in the encomium on Horatio (III. ii. 63-72). It would, presumably, be gratifying to the moral sense of this playgoer to watch Hamlet progress from envy and admiration for the Stoic ideal to the Stoic faith he expresses in the final scene. Hearing "the readiness is all," he might reasonably conclude that Hamlet's anagnorisis has led him to Christian Stoic faith. Cornwallis might turn to Donne and quote from Seneca's De Providentia as a kind of summation: "What is the duty of a. good man? To offer himself to Fate."

Donne might nod thoughtfully in reply, but it is doubtful whether he would agree that the tragedy's meaning could be reduced to this. For he would have been unable to miss the skepticism implicit in the dramatic contexts within which Hamlet utters Stoic commonplaces and expresses his admiration for the Stoic ideal. As the author of the skeptical Satire III, and one for whom the new philosophy put all in doubt, he would certainly perceive that Hamlet's expressions of Stoic faith in the last scene do not fully answer the questions he has raised in earlier meditations, especially in the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy. He might also point out that not all the spokesmen for Stoicism in the play are trustworthy.

Stoic perfectionism is first introduced in the play as a viable ideal by Claudius, who represents himself in his address to the court as a ruler-sage whose reason has enabled him to order his own passions and those of his queen and subjects with "discretion." He projects the Stoic ideal again moments later when he reproves Hamlet for exhibiting "unmanly grief and failing to accept the will of heaven with a properly disposed heart and mind:

Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, . . .

(I. ii. 100-2)

As Robert Miola points out, Claudius is a perversion of the Stoic model: "His reason serves his passion instead of checking it and degenerates into mere trickery. The Stoic watchwords—'reason', 'thinking', and 'judgement'—echo in various forms in his speech, ironic reminders of the ideal and witnesses to its perversion."2

The type of Stoicism Claudius enjoins is an avenue of retreat from political activism, emphasizing passivity, acceptance, and the cultivation of apatheia. Its defining quality is constancy, maintained by the practice of two of the cardinal virtues, temperance, and fortitude, and manifesting itself in heroic endurance rather than the performance of great deeds. In his De Constantia Sapientis, Seneca exalts Cato above more active heroes, defending his assertion "that in Cato the immortal gods had given us a truer exemplar of the wise man than earlier ages had in Ulysses and...

(The entire section is 8,189 words.)