There is, perhaps, no well-known passage in Shakespeare that has been found so perplexing as that in which Hamlet communes with himself between the preparation of the play to catch the conscience of the king and its performance—'To be, or not to be, that is the question . . .' It can perplex for various reasons, one of them being the variety of different explanations of crucial phrases that can reasonably be made. (In the Furness Variorum edition the text completely disappears for a couple of pages whilst a footnote marshals conflicting interpretations of the opening and general tenor; at a rough estimate the 34 lines of the soliloquy have some 440 lines of small-type commentary.) Another reason is that the speech is almost too well-known for its features to be seen distinctly, as Charles Lamb said:
I confess myself utterly unable to appreciate that celebrated soliloquy in Hamlet, beginning, 'To be, or not to be,' or to tell whether it be good, bad, or indifferent; it has been so handled and pawed about by declamatory boys and men, and torn so inhumanly from its living place and principle of continuity in the play, till it has become to me a perfectly dead member.
Perhaps we need not be too much dismayed; the meaning may be simpler—even if in some ways subtler—than is commonly supposed. Since the speech is crucial I must ask your indulgence whilst I read it, indicating as best I may the stopping of the good Quarto, which is considerably lighter than that in most current editions.
To be, or not to be, that is the question, Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep No more, and by a sleep to say we end The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to; 'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep; To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there's the respect That makes calamity of so long life; For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th' unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment, With this regard, their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. . . .
There is no need for me to do more than remind you of the main puzzles. Does 'To be, or not to be' refer to a contemplated action, to the continuation of Hamlet's life, or to survival after death? When he speaks of the 'The undiscover'd country from whose bourn No traveller returns', has he forgotten the Ghost, or has he given up belief in its honesty? What is the meaning of that 'conscience' that...
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makes cowards of us all, or indeed 'thought'? And so on. It is of course clear that among the thoughts in Hamlet's mind are thoughts of action against the King, of suicide, and of the nature of life after death, but the transitions are not clear, and as soon as we attempt to give an exact paraphrase we run into difficulties. At this point we may resort to Dr. Johnson, whose note on the passage begins:
Of this celebrated soliloquy, which bursting from a man distracted with contrariety of desires, and overwhelmed with the magnitude of his own purposes, is connected rather in the speaker's mind, than on his tongue, I shall endeavour to discover the train, and to shew how one sentiment produces another.
This he proceeds to do, and I must say with considerable success, so far as success is possible; but the essential point is in his opening comment: it is the speech of a man 'distracted with contrariety of desires', and the connexions are 'rather in the speaker's mind, than on his tongue'. In other words it is not paraphrasable, and the reasons why it is not so are of some interest.
It is of course true that poetry that without loss of meaning could be put into other words would cease to be poetry. But we all know that there is a great deal of poetry of which we can usefully make for ourselves a tentative prose translation as a way of getting to grips with the full poetic meaning. Now there are passages in Shakespeare (as indeed in other poets) where even this tentative and exploratory procedure is of a very limited usefulness indeed, for what we are given is not the poetic apprehension of thought, but thought in the process of formation. Such a passage is the speech of Macbeth in the moment of temptation ('This supernatural soliciting Cannot be ill; cannot be good . . .') where we are directly aware both of the emotional and the bodily accompaniments of a state of being issuing in a conception that will not easily yield itself to conceptual forms (my though, whose murder yet is but fantastical). Such again is that other great soliloquy, 'If it were done, when 'tis done . . .' where the meaning is composed of an emotional current running full tilt against an attempted logical control. In the Hamlet passage the pace is more meditative, but such ideas as it contains are held loosely in relation to a current of feeling which is the main determinant of meaning. And this is important, because the thought that is struggling for expression is one that can only be clarified on certain conditions: the necessary condition, as we saw at the end of the last lecture, is an emotional integrity and a wholeness of the personality that Hamlet has not, so far, achieved, from which indeed, as soon as the soliloquy is ended, he decisively withdraws.
The thought struggling for expression to which I just now referred is contained in the arresting opening line, 'To be, or not to be, that is the question . . .' Dr. Johnson expressed his sense of the opening in these words:
Hamlet, knowing himself injured in the most enormous and atrocious degree, and seeing no means of redress, but such as must expose him to the extremity of hazard, meditates on his situation in this manner: Before I can form any rational scheme of action under this pressure of distress, it is necessary to decide, whether, after our present state, we are to be or not to be. That is the question, which, as it shall be answered, will determine, whether 'tis nobler, and more suitable to the dignity of reason, to suffer the outrages of fortune patiently, or to take arms against them, and by opposing end them, though perhaps with the loss of life.
Now I feel sure that Johnson is right in implicitly rejecting the idea of suicide at this point, and I think that the idea of immortality is indeed very close to the forefront of Hamlet's consciousness. But there is that in Johnson's phrasing with partially obscures the full implications of the crucial phrase. The primary thought is not whether 'after our present state' we are to be or not to be; it is the question of present being.
In the Fourth Book of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy there is a notable passage that throws some light on this. Wicked men, says Boethius, are fundamentally 'destitute of all forces'.
For why do they follow vices, forsaking virtues? By ignorance of that which is good? But what is more devoid of strength than blind ignorance? Or do they know what they should embrace, but passion driveth them headlong the contrary way? So also intemperance makes them frail, since they cannot strive against vice. Or do they wittingly and willingly forsake goodness and decline to vices? But in this sort they leave not only to be powerful, but even to be at all (sed omnino esse desinunt). For they which leave the common end of all things which are, leave also being. Which may perhaps seem strange to some, that we should say evil men are not at all, who are the greatest part of men: but yet it is so. For I deny not that evil men are evil, but withal I say that purely and simply they are not. For as thou mayest call a carcase a dead man, but not simply a man, so I confess that the vicious are evil, but I cannot grant that they are absolutely. For that is which retaineth order, and keepeth nature, but that which faileth from this leaveth also to be that which is in his own nature.
I feel the more justified in invoking this passage for the light it may throw in so far as it is clear from Macbeth that Shakespeare was deeply familiar with the traditional doctrine of the nothingness of evil—malum nihil est, evil is nothing, as Boethius says a few lines after the endings of the passage I have just given. Not indeed that evil deeds and evil passions do not exist; it is simply that they lead away from what all men naturally desire, and for which goodness and being are alternative names. Neither do I offer the passage as anything like a direct source. I quote it simply as an indication of the kind of ideas with which Shakespeare and his educated contemporaries were likely to be familiar, and therefore of the implications of language that would be present to them, but that we are likely to miss: in the passage that I have quoted, in the translation of I.T. of 1609, the words 'to be', 'are' and 'is' are used absolutely to indicate essential being. The guiding theme of the Consolation is that to be free of the shackles of passion and ignorance is to rise superior to Fortune, so that suffering itself becomes a positive act. It is for this very reasons we may notice, that Hamlet admires Horatio.
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice, And could of men distinguish, her election Hath seal'd thee for herself; for thou hast been As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing; A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards Hath ta'en with equal thanks; and bless'd are those Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger To sound what stop she please. Give me that man That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of hearts As I do thee.
Hamlet's deep underlying concern is with essential being.
What it seems to me that Hamlet is saying at the opening of the soliloquy is that what it means to be is the question of all questions; 'and this is so,' he goes on, 'whether we believe with Boethius that the blows of Fortune must be endured, or whether we think it better actively to combat evil—which, in my case, is likely to result in my own death'—
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing, end them? to die, to sleep No more...
But by now there is no pretence of following a logical sequence of thought; one idea blends with another—killing Claudius, killing oneself, the well-nigh insupportable troubles of life, the fear of futurity—all carried by currents of half-expressed emotion, so that the thoughts the Prince is trying to bring into some order are eroded and carried away on a stream of feeling. Now the strongest feeling, which takes charge with the equation of death and sleep, is, as we have seen, the regressive desire to evade, shuffle off, the complexities of consciousness. Of that I do not think there can be any doubt at all—
'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep
But if life is a load, death, or what may come after death, is even more to be feared. As Mr. John Vyvyan has remarked in his recent book, The Shakespearean Ethic, 'Throughout the long soliloquy, every idea is negative. To live is to "bear the whips and scorns of time", to die is to fly to other wills "we know not of". Even the possibility of joy is excluded'; and 'when life loses joy, it also loses meaning'. For Hamlet, therefore, in his present state of conflicting feelings and restricted consciousness, no solution is possible, neither of his great problem, 'to be, or not to be', nor of the problems that entirely depend on an answer to that overriding question—the problems, I mean, of how to face life and death with something quite other than fear and aversion. What he reproaches himself with is excess of conscience—'Thus conscience does make cowards of us all'—whereas it is quite clear that, whether we take the word in the sense of reflection and consciousness or in the more usual sense of moral concern (and I agree with D.G. James that here both meanings are present) what Hamlet needs is not less of conscience but more.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment, With this regard, their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. . . .
It does not matter in Hamlet's mind the thought of suicide merges with the thought of killing the king; what matters is the quite unambiguous sense of health giving away to disease, a loss of purpose and a lapsing from positive direction. What the soliloquy does in short is to bring to a head our recognition of the dependence of thought on deeper levels of consciousness, and to make plain beyond all doubt that the set of Hamlet's consciousness is towards a region where no resolution is possible at all.
(From Hamlet and Revenge by Eleanor Prosser. ©1971 Stanford University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher)
May not the peculiar power of the play be based to a large extent on our ability to sympathize with Hamlet and yet judge him for the course he pursues? And is this not exactly our response to Shakespeare's other great tragic figures? It has been harder to admit our intuitive judgment of Hamlet because his tragic choice commands not merely our sympathy but our admiration. In the first place, his situation is much closer to our own than that of Macbeth or Antony or Lear. All men hunger for revenge. The defiant refusal to submit to injury, the desire to assert one's identity by retaliation, the gnawing ache to assault injustice by giving measure for measure—these are reflected in our daily response to even the mildest of insults. In the serious drama from the beginning of time, the dilemma of the revenger has been one of the universal problems of man writ large.
An even more important reason for our sympathy is the motivation that drives Hamlet. Macbeth, Lear, and Antony obviously violate moral law, and for selfish ends. We suffer with them but for human reasons, for the agony they bring on themselves. Hamlet's motivation is far more complex and, to a great extent, we identify with him for solid moral reasons. In large part his course to the fifth act is the result of his moral sensitivity, his unflinching discernment of evil and his determination that it shall not thrive. We admire his hatred of corruption and his vision of what man could and should be. Even as he is engulfed by the evil against which he takes arms, we sense that he would have been a lesser man had he refused the challenge.
At this point, the reader may object that my discussion of Hamlet's universal appeal contradicts my earlier insistence on the play's Christian perspective. Throughout the preceding pages, it may have seemed that I was forcing Hamlet into a straitjacket of Christian morality, thereby seriously restricting its meaning and impact. This has been far from my intention. Paradoxical as it may seem, I believe that we can understand Hamlet's unrivaled power to move emotions and stimulate thought only when we grant the basic Christian perspective in which the action is placed. To do so requires no knowledge of religious doctrine, no scholarly investigation into Elizabethan theories about ghosts or the meditations of Luis de Granada or archaic meanings of "conscience." Shakespeare gives us everything we need to know. In short, we must take the play on its own terms. Only when we cease searching for explanations outside it, whether in pagan codes or obsolete theatrical conventions, can we respond directly to the play itself.
Once we do so, we sense that the Ghost is ominous, we sense that Hamlet's early surrender to rage can lead only to chaos and destruction but that his later serenity is somehow his salvation—in short, we sense that the desire to inflict private punishment can lead only to evil. The social compact is largely based on the belief that man can fulfill his special potential only when there is social order, that the unrestrained private will leads inevitably to anarchy and that man must willingly assent to certain fiats of authority. The consensus of civilized man, therefore, is that discipline of emotions, obedience to established law, and love (or, at least, respect) for one's fellow man are moral goods, whereas surrender to emotions, defiance of law, and hatred of (or, at least, indifference to) one's fellow man are moral ills. By granting the Christian perspective of Hamlet, we thus do not narrow the ethical base of the play; we broaden it. Christian ideas and symbols become merely familiar signs by which we recognize the basic view of man held throughout the civilized world.
At the same time, we recognize a major reason for Hamlet's enduring appeal. In Hamlet's dilemma, we find the dilemma of civilized man, a dilemma that becomes more profound as civilization becomes progressively restrictive. In our own day, the dilemma looms large. Caught in an age of increasing frustration, hemmed in by civil law and social codes, lost in the mass, many have raised Hamlet's questions. What is man if his chief good be but passive resignation to a will other than his own? The law not only delays but winks; corruption thrives; the establishment condones dishonesty, injustice, and brutality in the name of order. When is obedience merely a euphemism for cowardice? In the modern world, many have argued that man can find his "being" only by trusting his instinct and obeying his own private moral code—only by defying, or at least ignoring, the dictates of civil and social law. Their challenge is epitomized in the thesis of Gertrude Stein's play cryptically entitled Yes Is for a Very Young Man.
Hamlet arrives at the opposite conclusion. In the first part of the play, a very young man defiantly shouts "No," but he is transformed in the fifth act when he finds his being in "Yes." It is for this reason, perhaps, that several readers have sensed what they call a "tragic retreat" in the play. Hamlet does, indeed, retreat from rebellion, a fact that a modern reader may regret. But does Shakespeare invite us to view Hamlet's retreat as a weakness? In one sense, Hamlet is medieval man teetering on the brink of the modern world. He defiantly asserts his own being against all limitation, but he ultimately accepts limitation as the only means of freeing himself to find that being. Some today may find his retreat from defiance a step backward, but such a reading seems clearly at odds with the play. Hamlet does not sink into passive resignation; he rises to affirmative reconciliation. He has not abandoned his search for being. His search has ended in the serene knowledge that "the readiness is all."
Theories of tragedy are many, but common to almost all is a basic pattern that fits Hamlet. Man in some way hurls himself against the barricades that confine him, whether of family or society or universal order or faith. In some way he defies the established code—challenges it, questions it, tests it—and is ultimately shattered by it. In the struggle, we see his greatness, but we know that he must go down. In the truly great tragedies, the tragic hero at his fall in some way attains a new awareness of the mystery of life and of his own role in that mystery. Thus the tragic self stands at the end inviolate in a new dignity. This applies no less to Hamlet than to Oedipus and King Lear.
For my part, this long study has led for the first time to an awareness that many strikingly diverse and even contradictory views of Hamlet can be illuminating. The Christian may find the fundamental question the play raises to be "How can man be saved?" The existentialist, "What is man's essence?" Are not both right? The Freudian may view Hamlet's problem as one of sexual obsession; the Nietzschean, as a conflict between the Dionysian motive of instinct, the barbarizing principle that leads to chaos, and the Apollonian motive of reconciliation, the civilizing principle that leads to order. Is there not truth in both views? From Aristotle's familiar definition of the tragic hero to Murray Krieger's discussion of the "tragic visionary"—the ethical man who undergoes a cosmic shock, finds his ethical assumptions inadequate, and either yields in resignation to the demands of ethical absolutes or "surge[s] toward the demoniac"—every sensitive analysis of the tragic experience can lend new insight.
[Bevington presents an in-depth survey of the dramatic action and major themes of Hamlet. The critic initially focuses on Hamlet's role in the play, examining his interactions with the other characters as well as his several soliloquies in an attempt to determine his "tragic flaw," the defect in a tragic hero which leads to his downfall. (A soliloquy is a speech delivered while the speaker is alone, devised to inform the reader of what the character is thinking or to provide essential information concerning other participants in the action.) Bevington also comments on the dramatic structure of Hamlet, especially Shakespeare's balancing the tragedy with many foils. (A foil refers to any literary character that through strong contrast accentuates the distinctive characteristics of another.) Perhaps the most obvious foil to Hamlet is Laertes, who acts in haste upon hearing of his father's murder, while Hamlet himself delays his revenge. The critic also assesses the play's language, describing various instances of punning (a kind of wordplay which manipulates two words with different meanings based on their similarity of sound) which occur throughout the text. Finally, Bevington discusses metaphors such as clothing, acting, and disease, which all contribute to the predominant image patterns in the play.]
It is appropriate that for modern critics Hamlet should be Shakespeare's greatest dramatic enigma, for misunderstanding is the unavoidable condition of Hamlet's quest for certainties. Not only is he baffled by riddling visions and by commands seemingly incapable of fulfillment, but he is the victim of misinterpretation by those around him. Well may the dying Hamlet urge his friend Horatio to "report me and my cause aright To the unsatisfied" [V. ii. 340], for no one save Horatio has caught more than a glimpse of Hamlet's true situation. We as omniscient audience, hearing the inner thoughts of Claudius as well as of Hamlet and learning of Polonius' or Laertes' secret plottings with the king, should remember that we know vastly more than the play's characters, and that this discrepancy between our viewpoint and theirs is one of Shakespeare's richest sources of dramatic irony.
The basis of misunderstanding, and hence of Hamlet's estrangement, is the secret murder. Claudius, before the opening of the play, has slain his brother by such cunning means that no mortal suspects him—not even at first the sorrowing Hamlet, until the ghost's horrid news awakens the unstated imaginings of Hamlet's "prophetic soul." Ever the masterly politician, Claudius has engineered his own succession to the throne in place of his nephew Hamlet not by usurpation, but by full consent of the Danish court. Claudius is to outward appearances an apt choice. Polonius and other reputedly sage counselors welcome the rule of one so fit for soothing public utterance and for pragmatic foreign diplomacy. Claudius, to his credit, disarms the threat of invasion by young Fortinbras of Norway that hangs so ominously over the beginning of the play. The king's instructions to the ambassadors, Voltemand and Cornelius, are seasoned by years of hard political calculation. His marriage with the dead king's widow, even if technically incestuous, gives an aura of continuity to the new reign. It is without conscious irony that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, appointed guardians of the unpredictable Hamlet, echo great Elizabethan commonplaces in their defense of legitimate monarchical authority. The life of their king is threatened, and they know that majesty "Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw What's near it with it" [III. iii. 16-17]. Ophelia, ignorant of the murder, cannot fathom the sudden and vindictive hostility of one who had professed love to her "In honorable fashion" [I. iii. 111]. Passively becoming part of a scheme designed, as far as she can tell, to help Hamlet recover his wits, Ophelia instead loses her own. Her brother Laertes' rashness is similarly made plausible, even if it cannot be condoned, by his total unawareness of Hamlet's reasons for opposing the king and Polonius. Only in the final scene does Laertes perceive too late that he is caught like "a woodcock to mine own springe" [V. ii. 306], and is "justly killed with mine own treachery" [V. ii. 307].
Hamlet by contrast is from the first a stranger in the court of Denmark, despite his position as son of the dead king and as "most immediate to our throne" after Claudius [I. ii. 109]. An outsider, he returns from years of advanced study at Wittenberg to a society he considers too worldly and corrupted. It is "as a stranger" [I. v. 165] that he shares with Horatio a secret knowledge of there being "more things in heaven and earth" [I. v. 166] than are dreamt of in mere philosophy. He upbraids the Danish for their heavy drinking, a custom better broken than observed. Well before he learns of the murder, he spurns the hypocrisy of meats baked for a funeral coldly furnishing forth the wedding festivities of his uncle-father and aunt-mother. He knows not "seems." Hamlet's innate antipathy to false appearances, exacerbated by his mother's overhasty wedding, helps explain both his suspicion of others' motives and their bafflement at his seeming caprice. Claudius is sincere in his attempts to make a reconciliation with a young prince who is cherished by his mother and beloved by the common people. Gertrude can only suppose that her son is offended by her infidelity to the memory of her dead husband—for she like the others apparently knows nothing of the actual murder—and so she fondly hopes that Hamlet will marry Ophelia and settle down into tranquil domesticity. Polonius, whose routine it is to make intelligence reports on potential troublemakers, finds an easy clue to Hamlet's "madness" in Ophelia's rejection of him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are equally convinced that Hamlet's malady is political—his lack of "advancement" to the throne.
These answers formulated by the Danish court to explain Hamlet's mystery are not unusually obtuse. They are the guesswork of shrewd observers who merely lack knowledge of Hamlet's awful truth. The answers are in fact all valid in their limited ways. Gertrude may well fear that Hamlet's distemper needs no other explanation than "His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage" [II. ii. 57]. Hamlet becomes a mirror reflecting the conscience of each observer, and the guilty marriage is what Gertrude sees in herself. "You go not till I set you up a glass," he exhorts his mother, "Where you may see the inmost part of you" [III. iv. 20]. Claudius, having reason to surmise more than most, has most to fear. Polonius creates a fantasy of love based on his own stratagems in matchmaking, but his fiction only exaggerates Hamlet's real obsession with feminine frailty. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak of ambition, they are talking mostly about themselves; yet Hamlet does belatedly admit, at least to Horatio, that Claudius has "Popped in between th' election and my hopes" [V. ii. 65]. All these explorations of motive have meaning to us who know the prime cause.
What Hamlet objects to is the oversimplification and the prying that destroys the integrity of his whole and complex being. "If circumstances lead me, I will find Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed Within the center," opines Polonius, irritating us as well as Hamlet with his officious claims to omniscience. Similarly, Hamlet is incensed at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for supposing they can sound his inner nature more easily than one might play a recorder. "You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery," he accuses them, adding with a pun, "though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me" [III. ii. 364-66, 371-72]. Hamlet here expresses one of the most profound bases of our identification with his loneliness. Every human being is unique and believes that others can never fully understand or appreciate him. And every human being experiences some perverse delight in this proof of the world's callousness.
If, in his turn, Hamlet also indulges in amateur motive-hunting and so alienates those who would seek an accommodation with him, he merely typifies in dramatically heightened form a human tendency to prefer estrangement. His is, after all, an extraordinary situation. It is plausible that a young man so suddenly deprived of his father and confronted with evidence of his mother's fleshly weakness should generalize upon the depravity of the human condition, even in himself. Moreover Hamlet is intellectually inclined to searching out hidden meanings in events. The cold watch on the tower at midnight, the appearance of the ghost, and the cruel contrast between the ugly truth here revealed and the empty glitter of the court, impel him to the conclusion that "All is not well" [I. ii. 254]. Humanity itself, so potentially noble in reason and godlike in its infinite faculties, dissolves in his imaginative vision into a quintessence of dust. The goodly frame of nature becomes a "foul and pestilent congregation of vapors" [II. ii. 302-03]. Man's very being, infected by some "vicious mole [blemish] of nature" [I. iv. 24] inherited involuntarily at birth, overthrows "the pales and forts of reason" [I. iv. 28] and thereby corrupts the whole. Men are prisoners of their appetites, helpless to achieve the goodness so mockingly revealed by their philosophic quest for the ideal.
Overwhelmed by this negation, Hamlet can only suspect others of inconstancy. He need not overhear Polonius' scheme of using Ophelia to bait a trap, for Hamlet is predisposed to expect collusion. He has tested womankind by the behavior of his mother and knows them all to be false. "Frailty, thy name is woman" [I. ii. 146], he concludes in his first soliloquy. If Hamlet senses something amiss in Ophelia's suddenly returning his love letters to him, he only guesses intuitively what in fact Polonius has said to his daughter. She must learn to play a wary game to treat Hamlet's advances as "springes to catch woodcocks" [I. iii. 115], and to regard his holy vows as devices to undo her virginity. Princes are expected to claim their rights as libertines, in Polonius' complacent vision of the universal lewdness in human nature. However cruel in its treatment of Ophelia, Hamlet's response is in kind. He becomes afflicted by the ruthless mores prevailing in Denmark, because he has a distasteful business to accomplish. Only too late can he publicly acknowledge that he loved the fair Ophelia, stressing the tragedy of misunderstanding that has obliged him to destroy what he most cherished. Similarly he acknowledges too late his real respect for Laertes and his regret at their fatal enmity. These two men might in better times have loved one another. A chief source of the melancholic mood in Hamlet derives from this sense of lost opportunity.
Hamlet does grow harsh and cynical like his opponents. Yet he never ceases to tax himself as severely as he does the others. He is indeed much like them. Polonius, his seeming opposite in so many ways, is, like Hamlet, an inveterate punster. To whom else but Polonius should Hamlet direct the taunt of "Words, words, words" [II. ii. 192]? The aged counselor recalls that in his youth he "suffered much extremity for love, very near this" [II. ii. 189-90], and he has been an actor at the university. Polonius too has advice for the players: "Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light" [II. ii. 400-01], When Hamlet jibes at "so capital a calf " [III. ii. 105-06] enacting Julius Caesar, killed in the Capitol, he reinforces the parallel to his own playacting and anticipates the slaying of Polonius behind the arras. If Hamlet is a mirror to the others, the reflection works both ways.
Perhaps the central reflection of this sort is between Hamlet and Claudius. Not only has Claudius taken Hamlet's mother and his crown, but Claudius is a prisoner of circumstance, burdened with a guilty responsibility, unable to rid himself of his enemy by forthright action. Hamlet is a constant danger to the king, and yet no plausible grounds can at first be discovered for proceeding against Hamlet. Only after the "mousetrap" play do both of them know that action is imperative; and yet both of them find their subsequent moves thwarted by unforeseen circumstances and deceptive appearances. Claudius is the only character other than Hamlet whom we overhear in soliloquy, and we learn on this occasion that Claudius too cannot resolve seemingly impossible alternatives. How is he to retain the queen, whom he has won by sinful lust, and at the same time free his tortured soul of guilt? It is ironically appropriate that Claudius' prayer should offer Hamlet his sole opportunity for successful revenge, an opportunity lost because Claudius gives the semblance of being in a state of contrition. Ultimately Hamlet and Claudius slay one another in a finale that neither could have anticipated.
Sharing the weaknesses of those he reviles, Hamlet turns his most unsparing criticisms upon himself. The appalling contrast between his uncle and father reminds him of the contrast between himself and Hercules—although when the fit of action is upon him he is as hardy as "The Nemean lion's nerve" [I. iv. 83]. "We are arrant knaves all," he warns Ophelia, "believe none of us" [III. i. 128]. Although more honest than most, Hamlet accounts himself unworthy to have been born: "I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in" [III. i. 123-25]. His self-remonstrances repeatedly sound the note of generalization. He is like other men in being "a breeder of sinners" [III. i. 121], and he includes all mankind in his dilemma of action: "conscience doth make cowards of us all" [III. i. 82]. Paradoxically, although he characterizes himself as a vengeful man too full of sinful deeds, he reproaches himself most often for his failure to take arms against his sea of troubles. "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" [II. ii. 550]. The son of a dear father murdered, he can only unpack his heart with words. Is this the result, he ponders, of "Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple Of thinking too precisely on th' event" [IV. iv. 40-1]. Is he allowing himself to be paralyzed into inaction by his introspection, obscuring "the native hue of resolution" and "the pale cast of thought?" [III. i. 83-4]? If Hamlet asks this question and has no clear answer, we need not be surprised that it has tantalized modern criticism.
Several limits can be placed upon the search for an explanation of Hamlet's apparent hesitation to avenge. He is not ineffectual under ordinary circumstances. Elizabethan theories of melancholy did not suppose the sufferer to be made necessarily inactive. Hamlet has a deserved reputation in Denmark for manliness and princely demeanor. He keeps up his fencing practice and will "win at the odds" [V. ii. 212] against Laertes. He threatens with death those who would restrain him from speaking with the ghost—even his friend Horatio—and stabs the concealed Polonius unflinchingly. On the sea voyage to England he boards a pirate ship singlehanded in the grapple, after having arranged without remorse for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In light of these deeds, Hamlet's self-accusations are signs of burning impatience in one who would surely act if he could. His contemplations of suicide follow similarly upon his frustrated perceptions of an impasse; suicide is a logical alternative when action appears meaningless, even if suicide must be rejected on grounds of Christian faith.
Such considerations turn our attention from Hamlet's supposed "fault" or "tragic flaw" to the context of his world and its philosophical absurdities. Wherein can he find trust and certitude? "Say, why is this?" he begs his father's ghost. "Wherefore? what should we do?" [I. iv. 57]. According to popular Elizabethan belief, both Catholic and Protestant, spirits from the dead could indeed "assume a pleasing shape" [II. ii. 599-600], in order to abuse a person in Hamlet's vulnerable frame of mind and so lead him to damnation. If Hamlet's plan to test the ghost's message by the "mousetrap" play causes him to wonder about his own cowardice and inconstancy, the accusations are directed against the impotent and self-contradictory nature of his situation.
Even after the clear revelation of Claudius' guilt at Hamlet's play, the exact plan of action remains anything but clear. Hamlet must face the ghost once again to explain why he "lets go by Th' important acting of your dread command" [III. iv. 107-08]; yet his purpose in confronting Gertrude with her weakness is the laudable one of returning her to at least an outward custom of virtue. Having earlier been uncertain of appearances in the apparition of his father, Hamlet now is deceived and hence delayed in his resolve by the semblance of Claudius' praying. Hamlet has always believed that heavenly justice will prevail among men: "Foul deeds will rise, Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes" [I. ii. 256-57]. Murder, though it have no tongue, "will speak With most miraculous organ" [II. ii. 593-94]. Nevertheless, man's perception of that divine revelation, and his role in aiding the course of justice, are obscured by man's own corruption and blindness. Whenever Hamlet moves violently, he moves in error. Horatio, in summing up the play, speaks tellingly of "accidental judgments, casual slaughters" [V. ii. 382], and of "purposes mistook Fall'n on th' inventors' heads" [V. ii. 384-85]. The judgment applies to Hamlet as to Laertes and Claudius. Hamlet has already realized that he must pay the price of heaven's displeasure for killing Polonius, just as Polonius himself has paid the price for his own meddling. "Heaven hath pleased it so, To punish me with this, and this with me." Such fitting reciprocity can be brought about only by the far-reaching arm of providence. The engineer must be "Hoist with his own petar" [III. iv. 207].
Hamlet quests for clear action, but it mockingly eludes him. He yearns to be like Fortinbras, proceeding resolutely in a military action against Poland, but perceives at the same time that Fortinbras, in his absurd campaign for a patch of barren ground, for "this straw," for "an eggshell," must risk two thousand souls and a kingly fortune. The tomb in which these vast numbers will be laid to rest for no purpose anticipates the graveyard of Yorick and Ophelia, reaching back in its universal history to King Alexander and to Adam, the first gravemaker. The magnificent Alexander and imperious Caesar, renowned for exploits greater than those of Fortinbras, are now turned to clay and can serve only to stop a bunghole. This generalized vision of earthly vanity is no mere excuse for Hamlet's irresolution, for it shows the benign intention of providence in achieving a coherence beyond the grasp of human comprehension. Fortinbras of course succeeds politically where Hamlet must fail, and is chosen by Hamlet to restore Denmark to political health; but to acknowledge this discrepancy is merely to confirm the distance between order on earth and the higher perfection which Hamlet conceives.
It is only when Hamlet has come to terms with the absurdity of human action, and has resigned himself to the will of heaven, that a way is opened for him at last. Fittingly, he achieves this detachment in the company of Horatio. However much Horatio's philosophic skepticism may limit his own ability to perceive those "things in heaven and earth" [I. v. 116] that Hamlet would have him observe, Horatio remains the companion from whom Hamlet has most to learn. Hamlet can trust his friend not to angle for advancement, or to reveal the terrible secret of royal murder. Best of all, Horatio is "As one in suff'ring all that suffers nothing, A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards Hast ta'en with equal thanks" [III. ii. 66-8]. The true stoic, choosing to "suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" [III. i. 57] rather than futilely oppose them, is proof against the insidious temptation of worldly success as well as against disappointment. While other courtiers gravitate to Claudius with his seemingly magical formula for prospering, and so lose themselves in worldliness, Horatio sides with one who is sacrificed and so receives his commission as guardian of the truth. (pp. 1-7)
Structurally, the play of Hamlet is dominated by the pairing of various characters to reveal one as the "foil" of another. "I'll be your foil, Laertes" [V. ii. 255], says Hamlet, punning on the resemblance that elsewhere he seriously acknowledges: "by the image of my cause I see The portraiture of his" [V. ii. 77-8]. Laertes has returned from abroad to help celebrate the royal wedding; he loses a father by violent means and seeks vengeance. The common people, usually loyal to young Hamlet, are roused to a new hero-worship upon the occasion of Laertes' second return to Denmark. "Choose we! Laertes shall be king!" [IV. v. 107]. Ophelia too has been deprived of a father; so has Fortinbras. Hamlet stands at the center of these comparisons, the proper focus of the play. He is the composite man, graced as Ophelia observes with "The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword" [III. i. 151]. From each comparison we see another facet of his complex being, and another danger from extremes which he must learn to avoid.
We have already seen the similarities of Claudius and Polonius to Hamlet. Laertes, burdened with a responsibility like Hamlet's, moves to expedient action without scruple. He turns at first on Claudius, who is technically innocent of Polonius' death. The popular insurrection will simultaneously feed Laertes' revenge and his ambition. Presented with untested and partial evidence concerning Hamlet's part in Polonius' murder, Laertes would "cut his throat i' th' church" [IV. vii. 126]. He does in fact grapple with Hamlet in the graveyard, striking the first blow and prompting Hamlet to assure his rival that he is not "splenitive and rash" [V. i. 261]. More than that, Laertes connives with the king in underhanded murder; it is Laertes who thinks of poisoning the sword's point with an unction already bought of a mountebank. This poison recalls the murder of King Hamlet and the murder of Gonzago. Purposes of this sort can only return to plague the inventor.
Ophelia's response to her father's death is quite opposite to her brother's, but no less a reflection on Hamlet's dilemma. Her mind is not equal to the buffets of fortune, and she will not draw her breath in pain. She wanders from her mad sexual fantasies to muddy death. If the gravediggers and the priest are to be believed, her dreams, once she has "shuffled off this mortal coil" [III. i. 66], must give us pause. Fortinbras is a more positive figure, since he withholds his hand against the Danes in vengeance of his father, choosing to inherit the Danish throne by diplomatic patience and canny timing rather than by battle; but at best his counsel is "greatly to find quarrel in a straw When honor's at the stake" [IV. iv. 55-6]. Horatio's philosophy of stoical indifference to fortune offers the greatest consolation to Hamlet, and yet it cannot predict the important outcome by which divinity will reveal itself in the fall of a sparrow.
Characters also serve as foils to one another as well as to Hamlet. Gertrude wishfully sees in Ophelia the blushing bride of Hamlet, innocently free from the compromises and surrenders which Gertrude has never mastered the strength to escape. Yet to Hamlet, Ophelia is no better than another Gertrude: both are tender of heart but submissive to the will of importunate men, and so are forced into uncharacteristic vices. Both would be other than what they are, and both receive Hamlet's exhortations to begin repentance by abstaining from pleasure. "Get thee to a nunnery"; "Assume a virtue if you have it not" [III. i. 120; III. iv. 160].
Hamlet's language puts much stress on the pun and other forms of wordplay. This habit of speech, so often a lapse in taste, is here appropriate to the portrayal of a keen mind tortured by alternatives. In his first appearance, Hamlet offers a double meaning in each of his answers to the king and queen. Because he is now both Claudius' cousin and son, Hamlet is "A little more than kin, and less than kind" [I. ii. 65]—too incestuously close, and yet neither kindly disposed nor bound by the legitimate ties of nature ("kind") as is a son to his true father. Denying that the clouds of sorrow still hang on him, Hamlet protests he is "too much in the sun" [I. ii. 67]—basking more than he wishes in the king's unctuous favor, and so, more a "son" than he thinks right. To his mother, who must cling to her worldly belief that the death of husbands and fathers is "common" or commonplace and hence to be taken in one's stride, Hamlet wryly counters: "Ay, madam, it is common" [I. ii. 74]. It is low, coarse, revolting.
In each double meaning Hamlet pierces to the heart of seeming. Mere forms, moods, or shapes of grief cannot denote him truly; he must discover the "absolute" in meaning and so quibbles with words and their deceptive masks. When his friend Horatio says to Hamlet "There's no offense" [I. ii. 74], meaning conventionally that Horatio is not affronted by Hamlet's wild and whirling words on the battlements, Hamlet is quick to remember the larger issue of morality in Denmark: "Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio, And much offense too" [I. v. 136-37]. When Polonius, merely to encourage small talk, asks Hamlet "What is the matter" [II. ii. 193] that he reads, Hamlet will have no chitchat. What is the matter "Between who?" Small wonder that Hamlet exults in the gravedigger's playing upon the idiotic and profound question of the ownership of a grave: this one belongs to one that is not a woman, but who was a woman. "How absolute the knave is!" [V. i. 137]. This digger is the same natural philosopher who has explicated the three branches of acting—"to act, to do, and to perform" [V. i. 12].
In patterns of images, Hamlet employs metaphors of clothes, of acting, and of disease. Again, like the wordplay, these images aim at the discrepancy between a handsome exterior and corrupted inner being. Hamlet decries inky cloaks, "windy suspiration of forced breath" [I. ii. 79], and other appurtenances of mourning, even though he himself is still dressed in black and so is visibly separated from the wedding party at court. Polonius reveals his trust in the game of preserving appearances by his worldly advice to his son: "the apparel oft proclaims the man" [I. iii. 72]. This maxim loses its irony when quoted out of context. Osric's sterile infatuation with clothes and mannerisms serves as one last reminder of the world's hypocrisy that Hamlet can now regard with almost comic detachment. Hamlet as actor is a master of many styles, frighting Ophelia in his fouled stockings, ungartered "As if he had been loosed out of hell" [II. i. 80], or composing jingling love doggerel to be read solemnly in open court, or declaiming in an outmoded and stilted tragical rhetoric on the massacre of Troy. He is critical of the professional players' fondness for exaggerated gestures, interpolated bawdry, and overblown rhetoric, because they must aid him in a subtle resemblance of truth designed to lay bare a human conscience. They must hold "the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" [III. ii. 22-4]. Acting becomes a process of reality in uncovering the veneer of court life.
At the center of this revelation is the figure of the dead King Hamlet, whose magnificent person has been "barked about Most lazar-like with vile and loathsome crust" [I. v. 71-2]. Denmark, and the world itself, is "an unweeded garden That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely" [I. ii. 135-37]. Hamlet's role is that of a physician who must lance the ulcerous sore or corruption, by putting Claudius "to his purgation" [III. ii. 306] or speaking "daggers" to his mother in order to cure her soul. He must reveal Claudius to Gertrude for what her husband truly is, "a mildewed ear Blasting his wholesome brother" [III. iv. 64-5]. Without such exposure, Gertrude's complacency "will but skin and film the ulcerous place Whiles rank corruption, mining all within, Infects unseen" [III. iv. 147-49]. The poison that precipitates the action of the play, both a metaphor of disease and an actual evil, must be transformed into a providential weapon ending the lives of Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes, as well as Hamlet. (pp. 8-10)
Source: David Bevington, in an introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by David Bevington, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 1-12.
[In this general analysis of Hamlet, Mack discusses three aspects of the play: its mysteriousness, the relationship between appearance and reality, and a concept the critic terms "mortality." The element of mysteriousness is not only created by the play's various ambiguities and uncertainties, the critic contends, but also by the numerous questions, especially Hamlet's, that pervade the dramatic action. Further, the difficulty in distinguishing appearance from reality poses a crucial dilemma for Hamlet early in the play, Mack asserts, for although the Ghost seems to be a benevolent spirit, it may in fact be a devil who assumes the form of the prince's father. This concern with appearance and reality recurs time and again in Hamlet especially in such issues as Claudius's true nature and the manipulation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Ophelia to spy on Hamlet. In addition, the critic continues, the sense of "mortality" in the tragedy is developed in three ways: through the play's emphasis on human weakness, the instability of human purpose, and humankind's submission to fortune, all of which point to the realization of the inevitability of human mortality. Mack concludes that Hamlet ultimately transcends these obstacles by accepting the world as it is and not as he would like it to be.]
My subject is the world of Hamlet. I do not of course mean Denmark, except as Denmark is given a body by the play; and I do not mean Elizabethan England, though this is necessarily close behind the scenes. I mean simply the imaginative environment that the play asks us to enter when we read it or go to see it. (p. 502)
[Of] all the tragic worlds that Shakespeare made, [Hamlet's is] easily the most various and brilliant, the most elusive. It is with no thought of doing justice to it that I have singled out three of its attributes for comment. I know too well . . . that no one is likely to accept another man's reading of Hamlet, that anyone who tries to throw light on one part of the play usually throws the rest into deeper shadow, and that what I have to say leaves out many problems—to mention only one, the knotty problem of the text. All I would say in defense of the materials I have chosen is that they seem to me interesting, close to the root of the matter even if we continue to differ about what the root of the matter is, and explanatory, in a modest way, of this play's peculiar hold on everyone's imagination, its almost mythic status, one might say, as a paradigm of the life of man.
The first attribute that impresses us, I think, is mysteriousness. We often hear it said, perhaps with truth, that every great work of art has a mystery at the heart; but the mystery of Hamlet is something else. We feel its presence in the numberless explanations that have been brought forward for Hamlet's delay, his madness, his ghost, his treatment of Polonius, or Ophelia, or his mother; and in the controversies that still go on about whether the play is "undoubtedly a failure" ([T. S.] Eliot's phrase) or one of the greatest artistic triumphs; whether, if it is a triumph, it belongs to the highest order of tragedy; whether, if it is such a tragedy, its hero is to be taken as a man of exquisite moral sensibility ([A. C] Bradley's view) or an egomaniac ([Salvador de] Madariaga's view).
Doubtless there have been more of these controversies and explanations than the play requires; for in Hamlet, to paraphrase a remark of Falstaff's, we have a character who is not only mad in himself but a cause that madness is in the rest of us. Still, the very existence of so many theories and countertheories, many of them formulated by sober heads, gives food for thought. Hamlet seems to lie closer to the illogical logic of life than Shakespeare's other tragedies. And while the causes of this situation may be sought by saying that Shakespeare revised the play so often that eventually the motivations were smudged over, or that the original old play has been here or there imperfectly digested, or that the problems of Hamlet lay so close to Shakespeare's heart that he could not quite distance them in the formal terms of art, we have still as critics to deal with effects, not causes. If I may quote . . . from Mr. [E. M. W.] Tillyard, the play's very lack of a rigorous type of causal logic seems to be a part of its point.
Moreover, the matter goes deeper than this. Hamlet's world is preeminently in the interrogative mood. It reverberates with questions, anguished, meditative, alarmed. There are questions that in this play, to an extent I think unparalleled in any other, mark the phases and even the nuances of the action, helping to establish its peculiar baffled tone. There are other questions whose interrogations, innocent at first glance, are subsequently seen to have reached beyond their contexts and to point towards some pervasive inscrutability in Hamlet's world as a whole. Such is that tense series of challenges with which the tragedy begins: Bernardo's of Francisco, "Who's there?" [I. i. 1] Francisco's of Horatio and Marcellus, "Who is there?" [l. 13] Horatio's of the ghost, "What art thou . . . ?" [l. 46]. And then there are the famous questions. In them the interrogations seem to point not only beyond the context but beyond the play, out of Hamlet's predicaments into everyone's: "What a piece of work is a man! . . . And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?" [II. ii. 303-04, 308]. "To be, or not to be, that is the question" [III. i. 55]. "Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" [III. i. 120-21]. "I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?" [III. i. 123-28]. "Dost thou think Alexander look'd o' this fashion i' th' earth? . . . And smelt so?" [V. i. 197, 200].
Further, Hamlet's world is a world of riddles. The hero's own language is often riddling, as the critics have pointed out. When he puns, his puns have receding depths in them, like the one which constitutes his first speech: "A little more than kin, and less than kind" [I. ii. 65]. His utterances in madness, even if wild and whirling, are simultaneously, as Polonius discovers, pregnant: "Do you know me, my lord?" "Excellent well. You are a fishmonger" [II. ii. 173-74]. Even the madness itself is riddling: How much is real? How much is feigned? What does it mean? Sane or mad, Hamlet's mind plays restlessly about his world, turning up one riddle upon another. The riddle of character, for example, and how it is that in a man whose virtues else are "pure as grace" [I. iv. 33], some vicious mole of nature, some "dram of eale" [I. iv. 36], can "all the noble substance oft adulter" [I. iv. 37]. Or the riddle of the player's art, and how a man can so project himself into a fiction, a dream of passion, that he can weep for Hecuba. Or the riddle of action: how we may think too little—"What to ourselves in passion we propose," says the player-king, "The passion ending, doth the purpose lose" [III. ii. 194-95]; and again, how we may think too much: "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought" [III. i. 82-5].
There are also more immediate riddles. His mother—how could she "on this fair mountain leave to feed, And batten on this moor?" [III. iv. 66-7]. The ghost—which may be a devil, for "the de'il hath power T' assume a pleasing shape" [II. ii. 599-600]. Ophelia—what does her behavior to him mean? Surprising her in her closet, he falls to such perusal of her face as he would draw it. Even the king at his prayers is a riddle. Will a revenge that takes him in the purging of his soul be vengeance, or hire and salary? As for himself, Hamlet realizes, he is the greatest riddle of all—a mystery, he warns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, from which he will not have the heart plucked out. He cannot tell why he has of late lost all his mirth, forgone all custom of exercises. Still less can he tell why he delays: "I do not know Why yet I live to say, 'This thing's to do,' Sith I have cause and will and strength and means To do 't" [IV. iv. 43-6].
Thus the mysteriousness of Hamlet's world is of a piece. It is not simply a matter of missing motivations, to be expunged if only we could find the perfect clue. It is built in. It is evidently an important part of what the play wishes to say to us. And it is certainly an element that the play thrusts upon us from the opening word. Everyone, I think, recalls the mysteriousness of that first scene. The cold middle of the night on the castle platform, the muffled sentries, the uneasy atmosphere of apprehension, the challenges leaping out of the dark, the questions that follow the challenges, feeling out the darkness, searching for identities, for relations, for assurance. (pp. 503-06)
Meantime, such is Shakespeare's economy, a second attribute of Hamlet's world has been put before us. This is the problematic nature of reality and the relation of reality to appearance. The play begins with an appearance, an "apparition," to use Marcellus's term—the ghost. And the ghost is somehow real, indeed the vehicle of realities. Through its revelation, the glittering surface of Claudius's court is pierced, and Hamlet comes to know, and we do, that the king is not only hateful to him but the murderer of his father, that his mother is guilty of adultery as well as incest. Yet there is a dilemma in the revelation. For possibly the apparition is an apparition, a devil who has assumed his father's shape.
This dilemma, once established, recurs on every hand. From the court's point of view, there is Hamlet's madness. Polonius investigates and gets some strange advice about his daughter: "Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to 't" [II. ii. 184-86]. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern investigate and get the strange confidence that "Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither" [II. ii. 309]. Ophelia is "loosed" to Hamlet (Polonius's vulgar word), while Polonius and the king hide behind the arras; and what they hear is a strange indictment of human nature, and a riddling threat: "Those that are married already, all but one, shall live" [III. i. 148-49].
On the other hand, from Hamlet's point of view, there is Ophelia. Kneeling here at her prayers, she seems the image of innocence and devotion. Yet she is of the sex for whom he has already found the name Frailty, and she is also, as he seems either madly or sanely to divine, a decoy in a trick. The famous cry—"Get thee to a nunnery" [III. i. 120]—shows the anguish of his uncertainty. If Ophelia is what she seems, this dirty-minded world of murder, incest, lust, adultery, is no place for her. Were she "as chaste as ice, as pure as snow" [III. i. 135], she could not escape its calumny. And if she is not what she seems, then a nunnery in its other sense of brothel is relevant to her. In the scene that follows he treats her as if she were indeed an inmate of a brothel.
Likewise, from Hamlet's point of view, there is the enigma of the king. If the ghost is only an appearance, then possibly the king's appearance is reality. He must try it further. By means of a second and different kind of "apparition," the play within the play, he does so. But then, immediately after, he stumbles on the king at prayer. This appearance has a relish of salvation in it. If the king dies now, his soul may yet be saved. Yet actually, as we know, the king's efforts to come to terms with heaven have been unavailing; his words fly up, his thoughts remain below. If Hamlet means the conventional revenger's reasons that he gives for sparing Claudius, it was the perfect moment not to spare him—when the sinner was acknowledging his guilt, yet unrepentant. The perfect moment, but it was hidden, like so much else in the play, behind an arras.
There are two arrases in his mother's room. Hamlet thrusts his sword through one of them. Now at last he has got to the heart of the evil, or so he thinks. But now it is the wrong man; now he himself is a murderer. The other arras he stabs through with his words—like daggers, says the queen. He makes her shrink under the contrast he points between her present husband and his father. But as the play now stands (matters are somewhat clearer in the bad Quarto), it is hard to be sure how far the queen grasps the fact that her second husband is the murderer of her first. And it is hard to say what may be signified by her inability to see the ghost, who now for the last time appears. In one sense at least, the ghost is the supreme reality, representative of the hidden ultimate power, in Bradley's terms—witnessing from beyond the grave against this hollow world. Yet the man who is capable of seeing through to this reality, the queen thinks is mad. "To whom do you speak this?" she cries to her son. "Do you see nothing there?" he asks, incredulous. And she replies: "Nothing at all; yet all that is I see" [III. iv. 131-33]. Here certainly we have the imperturbable self-confidence of the worldly world, its layers on layers of habituation, so that when the reality is before its very eyes it cannot detect its presence.
Like mystery, this problem of reality is central to the play and written deep into its idiom. Shakespeare's favorite terms in Hamlet are words of ordinary usage that pose the question of appearances in a fundamental form. "Apparition" I have already mentioned. Another term is "seems." When we say, as Ophelia says of Hamlet leaving her closet, "He seem'd to find his way without his eyes" [II. i. 95], we mean one thing. When we say, as Hamlet says to his mother in the first court-scene, "Seems, Madam! . . . I know not 'seems'" [I. ii. 76], we mean another. And when we say, as Hamlet says to Horatio before the play within the play, "And after, we will both our judgments join In censure of his seeming" [III. ii. 86-7], we mean both at once. The ambiguities of "seem" coil and uncoil throughout this play, and over against them is set the idea of "seeing." So Hamlet challenges the king in his triumphant letter announcing his return to Denmark: "Tomorrow shall I beg leave to see your kingly eyes" [IV. vii. 44-5]. Yet "seeing" itself can be ambiguous, as we recognize from Hamlet's uncertainty about the ghost; or from that statement of his mother's already quoted: "Nothing at all; yet all that is I see."
Another term of like importance is "assume." What we assume may be what we are not: "The de'il hath power T' assume a pleasing shape" [II. ii. 599-600]. But it may be what we are: "If it assume my noble father's person, I'll speak to it" [I. ii. 243-44]. And it may be what we are not yet, but would become; thus Hamlet advises his mother, "Assume a virtue, if you have it not" [III. iv. 160]. The perplexity in the word points to a real perplexity in Hamlet's and our own experience. We assume our habits—and habits are like costumes, as the word implies: "My father in his habit as he liv'd!" [III. iv. 135]. Yet these habits become ourselves in time: "That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat Of habits evil, is angel yet in this, That to the use of actions fair and good He likewise gives a frock or livery That aptly is put on" [III. iv. 161-65].
Two other terms I wish to instance are "put on" and "shape." The shape of something is the form under which we are accustomed to apprehend it: "Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?" [III. ii. 376]. But a shape may also be a disguise—even, in Shakespeare's time, an actor's costume or an actor's role. This is the meaning when the king says to Laertes as they lay the plot against Hamlet's life: "Weigh what convenience both of time and means May fit us to our shape" [IV. vii. 149-50]. "Put on" supplies an analogous ambiguity. Shakespeare's mind seems to worry this phrase in the play much as Hamlet's mind worries the problem of acting in a world of surfaces, or the king's mind worries the meaning of Hamlet's transformation. Hamlet has put an antic disposition on, that the king knows. But what does "put on" mean? A mask, or a frock or livery—our "habit"? The king is left guessing, and so are we. (pp. 507-10)
The mysteriousness of Hamlet's world, while it pervades the tragedy, finds its point of greatest dramatic concentration in the first act, and its symbol in the first scene. The problems of appearance and reality also pervade the play as a whole, but come to a climax in Acts II and III, and possibly their best symbol is the play within the play. Our third attribute, though again it is one that crops out everywhere, reaches its full development in Acts IV and V. It is not easy to find an appropriate name for this attribute, but perhaps "mortality" will serve, if we remember to mean by mortality the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, not simply death.
The powerful sense of mortality in Hamlet is conveyed to us, I think, in three ways. First, there is the play's emphasis on human weakness, the instability of human purpose, the subjection of humanity to fortune—all that we might call the aspect of failure in man. Hamlet opens this theme in Act I, when he describes how from that single blemish, perhaps not even the victim's fault, a man's whole character may take corruption. Claudius dwells on it again, to an extent that goes far beyond the needs of the occasion, while engaged in seducing Laertes to step behind the arras of a seemer's world and dispose of Hamlet by a trick. Time qualifies everything, Claudius says, including love, including purpose. As for love—it has a "plurisy" in it and dies of its own too much. As for purpose—"That we would do, We should do when we would, for this 'would' changes, And hath abatements and delays as many As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents; And then this 'should' is like a spendthrift's sigh, That hurts by easing" [IV. vii. 118-23]. The player-king, in his long speeches to his queen in the play within the play, sets the matter in a still darker light. She means these protestations of undying love, he knows, but our purposes depend on our memory, and our memory fades fast. Or else, he suggests, we propose something to ourselves in a condition of strong feeling, but then the feeling goes, and with it the resolve. Or else our fortunes change, he adds, and with these our loves: "The great man down, you mark his favorite flies" [III. ii. 204]. The subjection of human aims to fortune is a reiterated theme in Hamlet, as subsequently in Lear. Fortune is the harlot goddess in whose secret parts men like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live and thrive; the strumpet who threw down Troy and Hecuba and Priam; the outrageous foe whose slings and arrows a man of principle must suffer or seek release in suicide. Horatio suffers them with composure: he is one of the blessed few "Whose blood and judgment are so well co-mingled That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger To sound what stop she please" [III. ii. 69-71]. For Hamlet the task is of a greater difficulty.
Next, and intimately related to this matter of infirmity, is the emphasis on infection—the ulcer, the hidden abscess, "th' imposthume of much wealth and peace That inward breaks and shows no cause without Why the man dies" [IV. iv. 27-9]. Miss [Caroline F. E.] Spurgeon, who was the first to call attention to this aspect of the play [in her Shakespeare's Imagery], has well remarked that so far as Shakespeare's pictorial imagination is concerned, the problem in Hamlet is not a problem of the will and reason, "of a mind too philosophical or a nature temperamentally unfitted to act quickly," nor even a problem of an individual at all. Rather, it is a condition—"a condition for which the inividual himself is not responsible, any more than the sick man is to blame for the infection which strikes and devours him, but which, nevertheless, in its course and development, impartially and relentlessly, annihilates him and others, innocent and guilty alike." "That," she adds, "is the tragedy of Hamlet, as it is perhaps the chief tragic mystery of life." This is a perceptive comment, for it reminds us that Hamlet's situation is mainly not of his own manufacture, as are the situations of Shakespeare's other tragic heroes. He has inherited it; he is "born to set it right." [I. v. 189].
We must not, however, neglect to add to this what another student of Shakespeare's imagery has noticed—that the infection in Denmark is presented alternatively as poison. Here, of course, responsibility is implied, for the poisoner of the play is Claudius. The juice he pours into the ear of the elder Hamlet is a combined poison and disease, a "leperous distilment" that curds "the thin and wholesome blood" [I. v. 70]. From this fatal center, unwholesomeness spreads out till there is something rotten in all Denmark. Hamlet tells us that his "wit's diseased," the queen speaks of her "sick soul," the king is troubled by "the hectic" in his blood, Laertes meditates revenge to warm "the sickness in my heart" [IV. vii. 55), the people of the kingdom grow "muddied. Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts" [IV. v. 81-2]; and even Ophelia's madness is said to be "the poison of deep grief" [IV. v. 75]. In the end, all save Ophelia die of that poison in a literal as well as figurative sense.
But the chief form in which the theme of mortality reaches us, it seems to me, is as a profound consciousness of loss. Hamlet's father expresses something of the kind when he tells Hamlet how his "most seeming-virtuous queen" [I. v. 46], betraying a love which "was of that dignity That it went hand in hand even with the vow I made to her in marriage" [I. v. 48-50], had chosen to "decline Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor To those of mine" [ll. 50-2]. "O Hamlet, what a falling off was there!" [I. v. 47]. Ophelia expresses it again, on hearing Hamlet's denunciation of love and woman in the nunnery scene, which she takes to be the product of a disordered brain:
O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown! The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword: Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state, The glass of fashion and the mould of form, Th' observ'd of all observers, quite, quite down! [III. i. 150-54]
The passage invites us to remember that we have never actually seen such a Hamlet—that his mother's marriage has brought a falling off in him before we meet him. And then there is that further falling off, if I may call it so, when Ophelia too goes mad—"Divided from herself and her fair judgment, Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts" [IV. v. 85-6].
Time was, the play keeps reminding us, when Denmark was a different place. That was before Hamlet's mother took off "the rose From the fair forehead of an innocent love" [III. iv. 42-3] and set a blister there. Hamlet then was still "th' expectancy and rose of the fair state" [III. i. 152]; Ophelia, the "rose of May" [IV. v. 158]. For Denmark was a garden then, when his father ruled. There had been something heroic about his father—a king who met the threats to Denmark in open battle, fought with Norway, smote the sledded Polacks on the ice, slew the elder Fortinbras in an honorable trial of strength. There had been something godlike about his father too: "Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself, An eye like Mars . . . , A station like the herald Mercury" [III. iv. 56-8]. But, the ghost reveals, a serpent was in the garden, and "the serpent that did sting thy father's life Now wears his crown" [I. v. 39-40]. The martial virtues are put by now. The threats to Denmark are attended to by policy, by agents working deviously for and through an uncle. The moral virtues are put by too. Hyperion's throne is occupied by "a vice of kings" [III. iv. 98], "a king of shreds and patches" [III. iv. 102]; Hyperion's bed, by a satyr, a paddock, a bat, a gib, a bloat king with reechy kisses. The garden is unweeded now, and "grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely" [I. ii. 136-37]. Even in himself he feels the taint, the taint of being his mother's son; and that other taint, from an earlier garden, of which he admonishes Ophelia: "Our virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it" [III. i. 116-17]. "Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" [III. i. 120-21]. "What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?" [III. i. 126-27].
"Hamlet is painfully aware," says Professor Tillyard [in his Shakespeare's Problem Plays], "of the baffling human predicament between the angels and the beasts, between the glory of having been made in God's image and the incrimination of being descended from fallen Adam." To this we may add, I think, that Hamlet is more than aware of it; he exemplifies it; and it is for this reason that his problem appeals to us so powerfully as an image of our own.
Hamlet's problem, in its crudest form, is simply the problem of the avenger: he must carry out the injunction of the ghost and kill the king. But this problem, as I ventured to suggest at the outset, is presented in terms of a certain kind of world. The ghost's injunction to act becomes so inextricably bound up for Hamlet with the character of the world in which the action must be taken—its mysteriousness, its baffling appearances, its deep consciousness of infection, frailty, and loss—that he cannot come to terms with either without coming to terms with both.
When we first see him in the play, he is clearly a very young man, sensitive and idealistic, suffering the first shock of growing up. He has taken the garden at face value, we might say, supposing mankind to be only a little lower than the angels. Now in his mother's hasty and incestuous marriage, he discovers evidence of something else, something bestial—though even a beast, he thinks, would have mourned longer. Then comes the revelation of the ghost, bringing a second shock. Not so much because he now knows that his serpent-uncle killed his father; his prophetic soul had almost suspected this. Not entirely, even, because he knows now how far below the angels humanity has fallen in his mother, and how lust—these were the ghost's words—"though to a radiant angel link'd Will sate itself in a celestial bed, And prey on garbage" [I. v. 55-7]. Rather, because he now sees everywhere, but especially in his own nature, the general taint, taking from life its meaning, from woman her integrity, from the will its strength, turning reason into madness. "Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" "What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?" [III. i. 120-21, 126-27]. Hamlet is not the first young man to have felt the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world; and, like the others, he must come to terms with it.
The ghost's injunction to revenge unfolds a different facet of his problem. The young man growing up is not to be allowed simply to endure a rotten world, he must also act in it. Yet how to begin, among so many enigmatic surfaces? Even Claudius, whom he now knows to be the core of the ulcer, has a plausible exterior. And around Claudius, swathing the evil out of sight, he encounters all those other exteriors, as we have seen. Some of them already deeply infected beneath, like his mother. Some noble, but marked for infection, like Laertes. Some not particularly corrupt but infinitely corruptible, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; some mostly weak and foolish like Polonius and Osric. Some, like Ophelia, innocent, yet in their innocence still serving to "skin and film the ulcerous place" [III. iv. 147].
And this is not all. The act required of him, though retributive justice, is one that necessarily involves the doer in the general guilt. Not only because it involves a killing; but because to get at the world of seeming one sometimes has to use its weapons. He himself, before he finishes, has become a player, has put an antic disposition on, has killed a man—the wrong man—has helped drive Ophelia mad, and has sent two friends of his youth to death, mining below their mines, and hoisting the engineer with his own petard. He had never meant to dirty himself with these things, but from the moment of the ghost's challenge to act, this dirtying was inevitable. It is the condition of living at all in such a world. To quote Polonius, who knew that world so well, men become "a little soil'd i' th' working" [II. i. 40]. Here is another matter with which Hamlet has to come to terms.
Human infirmity—all that I have discussed with reference to instability, infection, loss—supplies the problem with its third phase. Hamlet has not only to accept the mystery of man's condition between the angels and the brutes, and not only to act in a perplexing and soiling world. He has also to act within the human limits—"with shabby equipment always deteriorating," if I may adapt some phrases from Eliot's "East Coker," "In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, Undisciplined squads of emotion." Hamlet is aware of that fine poise of body and mind, feeling and thought, that suits the action to the word, the word to the action; that acquires and begets a temperance in the very torrent, tempest, and whirlwind of passion; but he cannot at first achieve it in himself. He vacillates between undisciplined squads of emotion and thinking too precisely on the event. He learns to his cost how easily action can be lost in "acting," and loses it there for a time himself. But these again are only the terms of every man's life. As Anatole France reminds us in a now famous apostrophe to Hamlet: "What one of us thinks without contradiction and acts without incoherence? What one of us is not mad? What one of us does not say with a mixture of pity, comradeship, admiration, and horror, Goodnight, sweet Prince!"
In the last act of the play (or so it seems to me, for I know there can be differences on this point), Hamlet accepts his world and we discover a different man. Shakespeare does not outline for us the process of acceptance any more than he had done with Romeo or was to do with Othello. But he leads us strongly to expect an altered Hamlet, and then, in my opinion, provides him. We must recall that at this point Hamlet has been absent from the stage during several scenes, and that such absences in Shakespearean tragedy usually warn us to be on the watch for a new phase in the development of the character. . . . Furthermore, and this is an important matter in the theatre—especially important in a play in which the symbolism of clothing has figured largely—Hamlet now looks different. He is wearing a different dress—probably, as [Harley] Granville-Barker thinks [in his Preface to "Hamlet"], his "seagown scarf'd" about him, but in any case no longer the disordered costume of his antic disposition. The effect is not entirely dissimilar to that in Lear, when the old king wakes out of his madness to find fresh garments on him.
Still more important, Hamlet displays a considerable change of mood. This is not a matter of the way we take the passage about defying augury, as Mr. Tillyard among others seems to think. It is a matter of Hamlet's whole deportment, in which I feel we may legitimately see the deportment of a man who has been "illuminated" in the tragic sense. Bradley's term for it is fatalism, but if this is what we wish to call it, we must at least acknowledge that it is fatalism of a very distinctive kind—a kind that Shakespeare has been willing to touch with the associations of the saying in St. Matthew about the fall of a sparrow, and with Hamlet's recognition that a divinity shapes our ends. The point is not that Hamlet has suddenly become religious; he has been religious all through the play. The point is that he has now learned, and accepted, the boundaries in which human action, human judgment, are enclosed.
Till his return from the voyage he had been trying to act beyond these, had been encroaching on the role of providence, if I may exaggerate to make a vital point. He had been too quick to take the burden of the whole world and its condition upon his limited and finite self. Faced with a task of sufficient difficulty in its own right, he had dilated it into a cosmic problem—as indeed every task is, but if we think about this too precisely we cannot act at all. The whole time is out of joint, he feels, and in his young man's egocentricity, he will set it right. Hence he misjudges Ophelia, seeing in her only a breeder of sinners. Hence he misjudges himself, seeing himself a vermin crawling between earth and heaven. Hence he takes it upon himself to be his mother's conscience, though the ghost has warned that this is no fit task for him, and returns to repeat the warning: "Leave her to heaven, And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge" [I. v. 86-7]. Even with the king, Hamlet has sought to play at God. He it must be who decides the issue of Claudius's salvation, saving him for a more damnable occasion. Now, he has learned that there are limits to the before and after that human reason can comprehend. Rashness, even, is sometimes good. Through rashness he has saved his life from the commission for his death, "and prais'd be rashness for it" [V. ii. 7]. This happy circumstance and the unexpected arrival of the pirate ship make it plain that the roles of life are not entirely self-assigned. "There is a divinity that shapes our ends, Roughhew them how we will" [V. ii. 10-11]. Hamlet is ready now for what may happen, seeking neither to foreknow it nor avoid it. "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all" [V. ii. 220-22].
The crucial evidence of Hamlet's new frame of mind, as I understand it, is the graveyard scene. Here, in its ultimate symbol, he confronts, recognizes, and accepts the condition of being man. It is not simply that he now accepts death, though Shakespeare shows him accepting it in ever more poignant forms: first, in the imagined persons of the politician, the courtier, and the lawyer, who laid their little schemes "to circumvent God" [V. i. 79], as Hamlet puts it, but now lie here; then in Yorick, whom he knew and played with as a child; and then in Ophelia. This last death tears from him a final cry of passion, but the striking contrast between his behavior and Laertes's reveals how deeply he has changed.
Still, it is not the fact of death that invests this scene with its peculiar power. It is instead the haunting mystery of life itself that Hamlet's speeches point to, holding in its inscrutable folds those other mysteries that he has wrestled with so long. These he now knows for what they are, and lays them by. The mystery of evil is present here—for this is after all the universal graveyard, where, as the clown says humorously, he holds up Adam's profession; where the scheming politician, the hollow courtier, the tricky lawyer, the emperor and the clown and the beautiful young maiden, all come together in an emblem of the world; where even, Hamlet murmurs, one might expect to stumble on "Cain's jawbone, that did the first murther" [V. i. 77]. The mystery of reality is here too—for death puts the question, "What is real?" in its irreducible form, and in the end uncovers all appearances: "Is this the fine of his fines and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt?" [V. i. 106-07]. "Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come" [V. i. 192-94]. Or if we need more evidence of this mystery, there is the anger of Laertes at the lack of ceremonial trappings, and the ambiguous character of Ophelia's own death. "Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she wilfully seeks her own salvation?" [V. i. 1-2] asks the gravedigger. And last of all, but most pervasive of all, there is the mystery of human limitation. The grotesque nature of man's little joys, his big ambitions. The fact that the man who used to bear us on his back is now a skull that smells; that the noble dust of Alexander somewhere plugs a bunghole; that "Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away" [V. i. 213-14]. Above all, the fact that a pit of clay is "meet" for such a guest as man, as the gravedigger tells us in his song, and yet that, despite all frailties and limitations, "That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once" [V. i. 75].
After the graveyard and what it indicates has come to pass in him, we know that Hamlet is ready for the final contest of mighty opposites. He accepts the world as it is, the world as a duel, in which, whether we know it or not, evil holds the poisoned rapier and the poisoned chalice waits; and in which, if we win at all, it costs not less than everything. I think we understand by the close of Shakespeare's Hamlet why it is that unlike the other tragic heroes he is given a soldier's rites upon the stage. For as William Butler Yeats once said, "Why should we honor those who die on the field of battle? A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself." (pp. 514-23)
Source: Maynard Mack, "The World of Hamlet, " in The Yale Review, Vol. XLI, No. 4, June, 1952, pp. 502-23.
[Hapgood examines the dramaturgy, or the dramatic representation, of "delay" in Hamlet pointing out that while Hamlet is the primary focus of this issue, other characters—most notably Claudius, Laertes, and Fortinbras—often delay or are hindered during the course of events. The critic explores how action begins and ends at various moments in the play in a sequence of events that often culminates in a standstill in which a character experiences a direct contradiction to his or her purposes. Hapgood defines Hamlet's particular form of delay as "inertia " because he experiences difficulty both in getting started and in coming to a stop. For instance, although it takes the prince nearly the whole play to exact his revenge on Claudius, when he finally kills the king he does so first with his sword and second with the poisoned wine. The critic also asserts that the dramaturgy of delay occurs in the play's dialogue. Although Hamlet's soliloquies represent a form of dramatic action and move the plot forward, ironically the character himself is physically inactive. According to Hapgood, Shakespeare's dramatic representation of delay ultimately "interpenetrates with the theme of death." The catastrophe in the play's finale puts an end to delay, for it resolves the tragedy's three most compelling revenge motives: King Hamlet's murder, Claudius's marriage to Gertrude, and Polonius's murder.]
The actions of Hamlet are all beginning and end, with no middle. The play takes place in the shadow of three events—the murder of King Hamlet, the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, and the death of Polonius. The consequences of these events—the suffering of the wronged, the remorse of the wrongers, the extensive repercussions in subsequent events—are fully and inexorably worked out. Within this atmosphere of prolonged aftermath, numerous actions are begun, stopped, started again, stopped, and not generally brought to completion until the finale. It is these arrested actions which set the main rhythm of the play. Of course, any powerful conflict is likely to involve strong purposes which are somehow frustrated before their decisive fulfillment. What is distinctive about Hamlet is that the purposes are extraordinarily strong, even vowed; the frustrations reach the point of utter deadlock and standstill; and the completions, when they finally come, are sudden, violent, and unexpected.
This is pre-eminently the rhythm of Hamlet's own actions. The central instance comes when he is about to stab Claudius at prayer yet halts his blow. This interrupted gesture, deflected to Polonious, remains suspended in our minds until it is carried through in the finale. The same rhythm is there, in little, when he determines to follow the ghost, is detained by Horatio and Marcellus, and then breaks loose: "Unhand me, gentlemen. / By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!" [I. iv. 84-5]. In the large it is there in his progression from high resolution ("the play's the thing" [II. ii. 604]) to relapsing doubts in the "to be or not to be" soliloquy (fifty-five lines later) to the substitute-fulfillment of the play-within-a-play.
But Hamlet is by no means the only character in the play who delays, or is delayed from, accomplishing what he sets out to do. Laertes is often taken as a contrast to Hamlet, the son who moves immediately and directly to the revenge of his father's death; and so he seems when he first storms in to see the king. But his momentum is soon halted, first—physically—by the queen ("Let him go, Gertrude," Claudius twice directs [IV. v. 123, 127]) and then, as Claudius puts it, by the divinity that doth hedge a king. Spent in his own rodomontade [ranting], his rage is soon calmed, and he willingly becomes the king's "organ." Again, his attack on Hamlet in the graveyard is halted and deferred. Fortinbras, the man of military action, is also held back from his purposes. As Claudius' ambassadors report, the Norwegian king
. . . sends out arrests On Fortinbras; which he in brief obeys, Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine Makes vow before his uncle never more To give th' assay of arms against your majesty. [II. ii. 67-71]
Does Claudius delay? In Scourge and Minister, G. R. Elliott puts it too strongly when he says, "It is true that Hamlet dies because he postpones too long the killing of the king. But it is equally significant that Claudius dies because he postpones too long the killing of Hamlet." As Elliott admits, Claudius' delay is never given direct comment; nor as the play unfolds is it as clear as it is in hindsight that Claudius must kill Hamlet. Yet Claudius seems to be speaking from experience, as well as influencing Laertes, when he says:
. . . That we would do We should do when we would, for this "would" changes, And hath abatements and delays as many As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents . . . [IV. vii. 118-21]
And he does make certain slight—but very important—delays. Although he has made up his mind to send Hamlet to England, he follows Polonius' advice to postpone action until after the play and a conference between Hamlet and his mother. Even after he has broken off the play and directed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to prepare for the voyage, he delays in confining Hamlet, a nearly fatal pause which receives its visual symbol as he kneels attempting to pray during Hamlet's long deliberations. His first plot on Hamlet's life is utterly frustrated, and his final one comes close to it, as Laertes repeatedly fails to score a "hit" in the fencing match. Even the slightest delay for Claudius can be disastrous. It takes only a second's hesitation for it to be "too late" for him to stop Gertrude from drinking the poisoned wine. (pp. 132-34)
Arrested movement is especially striking in the play's many delayed exits. Shakespeare's characters often begin to part and then pause to add an afterthought. But in Hamlet the name of action is again and again thus sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. For a small instance, when Hamlet has broken loose and followed the ghost, Horatio declares, "Have after"; but then pauses to reflect:
. . . To what issue will this come?Marcellus. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.Horatio. Heaven will direct it. [I. iv. 89-91]
Only then does Marcellus return to the demands of the situation: "Nay, let's follow him." So the ghost, after scenting the morning air, declares "Brief let me be" [I. v. 59]; yet continues for thirty lines, and lingers after his "adieu, adieu, adieu" [I. v. 91] to cry "swear" again and again from the cellarage. So Laertes bids Ophelia farewell, only to add forty lines of admonition. So while Laertes' servants tend and the wind sits in the shoulder of his sail, Polonius chooses to deliver his few precepts and multiple blessings. So, after he says farewell to Reynaldo, Polonius amusingly keeps adding further directions. So, after Ophelia tells him of Hamlet's visit to her, Polonius immediately determines: "Come, go with me. I will go seek the king" [II. i. 98]; yet it takes twenty lines and two more repetitions of "Come" before they do so.
Claudius is a study in haste and pause. At first he is full of dispatch, sending off the ambassadors to Norway with "Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty" [I. ii. 39]. He seems less assured but still fully in control in his "hasty sending" for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and in his "quick determination" to send Hamlet "with speed to England" [III. i. 168-69]. Yet his resolution can be brought up short by his conscience. When he and Polonius are about to withdraw to spy on Hamlet, they pause to reflect in turn on their guilts, until Polonius breaks in with "I hear him coming" [III. i. 54]. And of course the king's abrupt exit after the mousetrap is followed by his main moment of pause as he tries to pray. This is not only a delay in his plot against Hamlet; it also represents a moment of deadlock in his inner life. As he says:
Pray can I not, Though inclination be as sharp as will. My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent, And like a man to double business bound I stand in pause where I shall first begin, And both neglect. [III. iii. 38-43]
After Polonius' death, there is something truly hectic about Claudius' haste in sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to catch Hamlet, while delaying their departure three times with afterthoughts. At this same point, he repeatedly tells Gertrude to "Come"—each time interrupting their exit, however, by his further reflections. And while he knows that he should pretend "to bear all smooth and even, / This sudden sending him away must seem / Deliberate pause" [IV. iii. 7-9], he plainly cannot wait for the party bound for England to be off with "fiery quickness." After that, he is all calm and patience, even after Hamlet returns. He is masterful in restraining Laertes, persuading him to "keep close within your chamber" [IV. vii. 129] and controlling his outburst at Ophelia's grave. The funeral scene closes with the most sinisterly dynamic pause in the play; Claudius promises Laertes:
This grave shall have a living monument. An hour of quiet shortly shall we see; Till then in patience our proceeding be. [V. i. 297-99]
Hamlet makes many delayed exits. While others leave, he often remains on stage at the end of a scene, for a full soliloquy or a brief comment. After the ghost episode, he shakes hands and parts from Horatio and Marcellus to "go pray," only to return to swear them repeatedly to secrecy. He ends the scene characteristically, starting off ("Let us go in together" [I. v. 186]), but pausing for
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray. The time is out of joint. O cursed spite That ever I was born to set it right! [I. v. 187-89]
before concluding: "Nay, come, let's go together." In the "get thee to a nunnery" episode [III. i. 87ff.], he again and again tells Ophelia "farewell." . . . In the bedroom scene, Hamlet over and over bids his mother "goodnight." His most notable "delayed exit" comes at his death, marked as it is by his "I am dead, Horatio . . . Horatio, I am dead . . . I die, Horatio! . . . the rest is silence" [V. ii. 332-58].
There is an inertia about Hamlet. He has difficulty both in getting under way and in coming to a stop. He puts off killing Claudius but then kills him twice. Both kinds of inertia are involved in his penchant for dallying speculatively on the verge of important events. . . . In the last act, this is intensified. For then, when every moment before the ambassadors arrive should count, Hamlet is delighted to spend his "interim" matching wits with a gravedigger and havings some fun with a fop. Because of his new-found willingness to "let be," these moments of prolonged distraction from his task do not seem as outrageously frivolous as they otherwise would. Yet neither Hamlet's graveyard musings nor his toyings with Osric are as fascinating as his reflections on the dram of eal or his theory of drama; and I suspect that we are meant, toward the end of this long play, to grow weary of Hamlet's dallyings and wish that he would get on with it.
At long last, of course, he does so; but, like the other dominant characters, in an unexpected and sudden way. His great opportunity comes about not through is own planning but through Claudius' machinations and the accidents of the moment. At the last minute, he regains the initiative he lost in the prayer scene and ends his prolonged conflict with Claudius in reckless haste. Oddly, much the same can be said of his conflict with himself. For his unhesitating decision to enter a fencing match with the man whose father he has killed, sponsored by the man who has killed his father and ordered his own death, comes close to the self-slaughter he earlier longed for but gave pause to.
Claudius succeeds in killing Hamlet by proxy, as planned, but in a fashion which proves suddenly to be self-incriminating and self-destructive. Laertes, though it is almost against his conscience, completes his interrupted attack on Hamlet; yet its outcome is not, finally, the satisfaction of revenge but an exchange of forgiveness. Curiously, Laertes' earlier threat to Claudius gets carried through in his cry, "The king, the king's to blame" [V. ii. 320]. Fortiribras' frustrated drive toward conquest is more than fulfilled, without battle, when at the end he walks into the whole kingdom of Denmark.
Thus in some sixty lines, the play's main actions reach abrupt completion. Only among themselves do the strongest characters (Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes, Fortinbras) work out the whole cadence from resolution through frustration and standstill to odd fulfillment. Hamlet's conflict with his mother suggests certain phases of this pattern. On the way to her bedroom, he checks his impulse to use daggers, resolving to speak them instead. (Even so, however, Gertrude thinks that he intends to murder her and calls for help.) But her death when it comes, though sudden and unexpected, is her husband's doing, not her son's. Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all die in bizarre ways and in an atmosphere of haste, no shriving time allowed; yet their preceding conflicts with Hamlet were no more than a series of verbal skirmishes, in which Hamlet successfully frustrated their attempts to pluck out the heart of his mystery. Amid all these sudden deaths, Ophelia's is notable gradual; indeed, in no way does her career follow the main rhythm of arrested action.
The same kind of overarching irony that applies to the action applies to the dialogue. In the same sense that Hamlet—for all that happens in it—is about not acting, Hamlet—for all its more than 3700 lines—is also about not talking. Like Laertes, many of the characters have in them a "speech of fire" [IV. vii. 190]. Yet at first they cannot, will not, or dare not communicate it. Sometimes they are literally silent; sometimes they say everything but what they really have to say; sometimes they lie; sometimes they speak darkly, or to the wrong person, or to someone who chooses not to listen. With some, this speech of fire remains uncommunicated. With others, especially Hamlet, it finally blazes forth in an outburst all the more intense, and often extended, for its previous frustration. Of course, not all of the impulses to speak in the play are arrested. Far from it. No one in literature is quicker of tongue than Hamlet himself, and many of the other characters are notably articulate, in fact, loquacious. Only the most important things are held back.
Every step in transmitting the truth about King Hamlet's death is marked by delay. The ghost must appear twice to the guards, silent himself and distilling them to speechless fear, before they go to Horatio, whose ears are fortified against their story. Again, the ghost is dumb (and dumbfounding to Horatio, who has to be urged to speak) but seemingly about to speak when the cock crows. When it appears to Hamlet, speech is again arrested on both sides. Hamlet vows to speak to the ghost "though hell itself should gape / And bid me hold my peace" [I. ii. 244-45]. . . . Still the ghost does not speak until Hamlet declares: "Speak. I'll go no further" [I. v. 1].
The ghost is forbid to tell the secrets of its prison house, and thus holds back the eternal blazon "whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, / Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres" [I. v. 15-17]. But the tale it does tell is almost as harrowing. For fifty lines after learning the name of the murderer, Hamlet says nothing. Not until after the ghost's exit does he break his silence with an extended and extravagant protestation that his father's "commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain" [I. v. 102-03]. Yet communication of the ghost's message to Hamlet is still not complete. The ghost was well advised to insist that Hamlet "lend thy serious hearing" and "List, list, O, list!" [I. v. 5, 22]. For he does not finally take the ghost's word until he has grounds more relative.
The central instance of arrested speech is that of Hamlet toward Claudius. At his first appearance, after his enigmatic "I am too much in the sun" [I. ii. 67], Hamlet has nothing whatever to say to his uncle; every subsequent speech in this scene is pointedly addressed to his mother. In his first soliloquy, he expresses to himself his contempt for Claudius, calling him a satyr, "no more like my father / Than I to Hercules" [I. ii. 152-53]. After the ghost reveals that Claudius is a murderer, Hamlet denounces to himself and his tables that "smiling, damned villain!" [I.v. 106] and seems on the verge of telling Horatio and Marcellus his "news" immediately. It may be that he is about to say it when he begins "There's never a villain dwelling in all Denmark," only then to catch himself short and add, "But he's an arrant knave" [I. v. 123-24]. (pp. 135-40)
Claudius meanwhile has built a court of concealment and lies, founded on the forged process of King Hamlet's death. "Give thy thoughts no tongue" [I. iii. 59], Polonius advises Laertes, and perfectly hits off the atmosphere at Elsinore. There is a progression in falsity, as the king's secret contaminates his own life and that of his court. At first, the one key lie having already been told, it is a matter of tacit concealment and smiling hypocrisy. As Hamlet takes malicious delight in demonstrating, Claudius has surrounded himself with yes-men. Then in his service his subjects (even Ophelia) begin to engage in small deceptions. His own out-and-out lies do not come until late in the play, when he deceives Laertes about Hamlet's guilt, misleads Gertrude about calming Laertes' rage, and at the end, with truly extraordinary presence of mind, declares that Gertrude merely "sounds to see them bleed" [V. ii. 308] and—his last words—"I am but hurt" [V. ii. 324]. Although he suffers keenly from the gap between his deed and his most painted word, his cry for "light" is as far as he ever goes toward the kind of public confession of his guilt which, with its consequences, would allow him to pray for forgiveness. For all his easy public address, Claudius in the speech which most concerns him remains in effect mute:
My words fly up. My thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go. [III. iii. 97-8]
Hamlet's one-line denunciation of dying Claudius is necessarily brief, but it is for that reason all the more powerful. In contrast to his earlier, private mouth-curse ("Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, landless villain!" [II. ii. 580-81]), his final, public one is tersely comprehensive: "thou incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane" [V. ii. 325]. Each word adds a further area of villainy: familial, social, religious, and political. Though still sibilant and assonant, these sound effects are no longer excessive, and the dentals at the end add bite.
Unlike Amleth in the legend, Hamlet is not allowed to deliver a final, explanatory public oration. To the end, his communication of what he most wants to say is arrested:
You that look pale and tremble at this chance, That are but mutes or audience to this act, Had I but time—as this fell sergeant, Death, Is strict in his arrest—O, I could tell you . . . [V. ii. 334-37]
And it is left to Horatio to report him and his cause aright. It is fully in the rhythm of arrested speech that Horatio's own report to the yet unknowing world should be promised and adumbrated but deferred.
For too long, too much critical attention was given to Hamlet's delay and its causes. One of the healthiest tendencies of recent Hamlet criticism has been a widening of interest from Hamlet to the whole work, from Hamlet's delay to other important themes. Along with this, however, has come a tendency to minimize the importance of delay. . . . For the rhythms of arrested action and speech interwork endlessly with other major elements: the play's images of hidden disease jibe with the prevailing sense of fatally suppressed deeds and words; its revelations of evil petrify not only Hamlet but Claudius and Laertes; its constant questionings result from the atmosphere of secrecy created by arrested speech. Above all, the dramaturgy of delay interpenetrates with the theme of death. Hamlet is acutely aware both of the fixity and the silence of death: dead Polonius will "stay" for the guards and that prating knave "Is now most still, most secret, and most grave" [III. iv. 214]; Yorick's smile is fixed on his grinning skull and his gibes will no longer set the table on a roar. It is at the end, where that fell sergeant is most strict in his arrest, that death is most in the rhythm of the play, ending at last the reverberations of the three original sins (the murder of King Hamlet, the marriage, and the killing of Polonius) and fulfilling, in ironically mutual destruction, the vows of Hamlet, Claudius, and Laertes which followed in their wake.
The rhythms of delay also re-enforce one another. The moments of silence and inaction tend to be one, and the same loquaciousness that postpones what really needs saying, postpones what really needs doing. There is a sense in which everything Hamlet says and does is a substitute for the delayed act of killing the king. Above all, the dramaturgy of delay contributes to our sense of a world in which direct action and speech are extremely difficult, almost impossible. Actions are not to be carried through without the utmost persistence, the most desperate measures, and the most extraordinary luck—and even then they may well miscarry. Communication is at best minimal and dubious. For Hamlet lives in a world of "bad dreams." The battlements of Elsinore are haunted, its corridors are dark and circuitous, its rooms prisonlike, its halls filled with elaborately disguised figures. Its inhabitants are subject to attacks of paralysis at crucial moments, followed by fits of wild activity and speech. In this nightmare world, Hamlet's difficulties in acting and speaking are nothing unusual. He delays because he suffers in their most acute form from maladies endemic in human life as it is lived in Elsinore.
It is true that Hamlet has his distinctive susceptibilities to this prevailing condition, one of which is his own awareness of it. But that is another essay—and of a different sort from this one, where I have resisted making still another analysis of Hamlet's delay in itself in order to study the virtually unnoticed instances of delay in other characters and in other aspects of Shakespeare's dramaturgy. (pp. 142-44)
Source: Robert Hapgood, "Hamlet Nearly Absurd: The Dramaturgy of Delay," in The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer, 1965, pp. 132-45.
Robert R. Reed, Jr.
[Reed analyzes not only Hamlet's internal meditations on his hesitation to exact revenge on Claudius, but also various external obstacles which prevent him from killing the king. According to the critic, Hamlet's misgivings about the Ghost are perhaps the chief impediment to his taking revenge, noting that the prince almost immediately questions its identity and motives. Hamlet is therefore reluctant to act upon its demands. Furthermore, once Claudius's guilt is established, Hamlet refrains from killing him at prayer because the king is in an act of repentance and his soul might go to heaven. Because such external obstacles hinder Hamlet from taking his revenge, Reed asserts, he vents his frustration in furious self-reproaches throughout the play. The critic provides a psychoanalytic analysis of Hamlet's self-castigation, deducing that the prince relies on self-incrimination to soothe his irrational mood swings. Unconsciously, Hamlet's mind becomes so irrational due to its inability to evaluate these external obstacles that it magnifies his frustration by imposing unreasonable guilt on his consciousness.]
In view of the countless "solutions" to the paradox of Hamlet's conduct, the reader may understandably suspect me of crass boldness in adding a further comment. I take heart, however, from my conviction that even the most thoughtful of recent criticisms have not departed completely from the nineteenth-century tradition which condones expedient evasions of one or more of the major facts. My purpose is to correlate these facts into an intelligible pattern of conduct. Neither the external problems that render close to impossible Hamlet's execution of vengeance upon Claudius nor the prince's bitter self-accusations blaming the delay wholly upon himself need be side-stepped or minimized; but the evasion or, at best, the distortion of one or the other has traditionally been the custom of the critics, since from the viewpoint of logic the two phenomena are strikingly incompatible. Dr. Ernest Jones, employing a tenet of modern psychoanalysis, goes so far as to argue that Hamlet procrastinates because of an Oedipus complex. Indeed, from the time of [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe, the majority of critics have ascribed Hamlet's delay in avenging his murdered father to a weakness of character. But those more familiar with Elizabethan traditions have insisted that the delay is motivated by manifest external obstacles; they have stressed two main difficulties: Hamlet's orthodox doubt as to the veracity of the Ghost and, second, the complications of executing vengeance upon a heavily guarded monarch, against whom there is no tangible evidence of his crime. With the latter critics I concur in full, except for one thing— their custom of side-stepping or, at best, awkwardly explaining Hamlet's self-accusations of delay. The psychotic factors, I agree, are in no way responsible for Hamlet's delay in avenging his father; on the contrary, a not uncommon neurosis results from Hamlet's enforced inactivity and is the cause of his self-recriminations, which, in view of the external obstacles to vengeance, are clearly unwarranted. Yet, as I shall hope to prove, they are perfectly intelligible—in fact, so intelligible that Hamlet's conduct would appear obtuse and unnatural without them.
The two traditional schools of thought concerning the character of Hamlet are both unsound for the reason that each bases its interpretation on only a part of the important facts. The school that adheres to the principle that Hamlet's delay is internally motivated may be divided into three groups: the critics led by Goethe with his theory that Hamlet is weak-willed; those led by [August Wihelm von] Schlegel and [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, who maintained that the habit of meditation paralyzes the capacity for action; and those who have followed Hermann Ulrici's doctrine that Christian ethics, or moral scruples, are a deterrent to blood revenge. Whatever their basic differences of opinion, these critics have pursued a similar method of argument: they have ignored or minimized the external obstacles to vengeance and, citing those passages in which Hamlet upbraids himself for procrastinating, have concluded that the prince is by nature incapable of executing a ruthless deed. The opposing critics, following the lead of the Germans J. L. Klein and Karl Werder, have correctly pointed out the external obstacles to Hamlet's motive of revenge, but are embarrassed by his self-accusations of delay, and—Werder in part excepted—explain them oddly or ignore them. A third, more modern group, including Ernest Jones and Oscar J. Campbell, has attempted to compromise these viewpoints; these men recognize Hamlet as a youth capable of decisive action, but ascribe his failure in the particular motive of revenge to psychotic shortcomings. Professor Campbell's theory [see excerpt in section on Melancholy] has aroused the fewest objections. He regards Hamlet as a manic-depressive, who vacillates between violent action and brooding inaction: "Adverse fate so times the rhythm of Hamlet's malady that at any given moment he is in the grip of the emotions which fit him least to deal with the situation confronting him." One objection to Campbell's theory is that, in explaining Hamlet's failure to act at the proper moment, it depends too strongly on coincidence—as Campbell suggests, on "adverse fate". More important, although it recognizes that Hamlet is at times a man of action, it fails to consider in full the external obstacles confronting the motive of vengeance, a consideration which a complete account of the facts cannot evade.
Ernest Jones's argument that Hamlet suffers an Oedipus complex is the most ingenious attempt to solve the Hamlet problem [see excerpt in section on Hamlet's character]. Like the arguments of his predecessors who have insisted that Hamlet's delay in exacting vengeance is internally motivated, it adequately explains those speeches, three in number, in which the prince reproaches himself for procrastination; but it also recognizes Hamlet as a man of action—a fact that the adherents of the "paralysis of doubt" theory have been obliged to overlook—and concludes that only in the matter of revenge is the prince incapable of action. This is explained by the fact that Hamlet, having inadequately repressed a desire to possess his mother, identifies himself with his intended victim, now espoused to his mother, and thus cannot, in clear conscience, bring himself to act against him. To accept the principle that an Oedipus complex deters Hamlet in his motive, we are asked to give credence to two hypotheses: first, that Shakespeare (who knew nothing of Freudian psychology) suffered from a marked Oedipus complex and, thus, depicted Hamlet in his own likeness as powerless to act against a man who had done away with his father and married his mother; second, that Hamlet's delay in the motive of vengeance cannot be adequately explained by external obstacles. The first hypothesis neither can nor need be refuted; Dr. Jones has convinced himself and a sizable minority of his readers that Shakespeare was the victim of an Oedipus complex in spite of the fact that Jones and his professional confreres [colleagues] are the first to emphasize the months of laborious probing and examination essential to the psychoanalysis of a patient. Shakespeare's "Oedipus complex" must, I think, remain a dubious hypothesis from now until Doomsday. The second hypothesis is simply a contradiction of the truth. Along with other critics, John Ashworth (Atlantic Monthly, April 1949) has emphatically pointed out that we cannot expect an avenger to strike down his royal victim in full sight of a gathering of courtiers and bodyguards, by whom he is customarily attended. Such actions may result from desperation or mania, but not from calculated vengeance. Jones argues that the prince has an excellent opportunity to kill his uncle at the close of the play-within-the-play and points to only one reason for his failure to do so: namely, his so-called "Oedipus complex". But, one unavoidably asks, what would have been the outcome of such a public attempt at vengeance? Whether he succeeded or failed, Hamlet would almost assuredly have lost his own life. Even more distressing to a man of cherished honor, he—and not Claudius—would have been recorded by history as the blackguard; the reason for this is evident, even to the blind: of the large and influential assemblage of persons who are present, only Hamlet and indirectly Horatio have knowledge that Claudius is a murderer. To the others, the King's implied confession of guilt is meaningless. One marvels at the assumption—made by so intelligent a man as Dr. Jones—that the testimony of a ghost, delivered in absentia, is sufficient evidence to convict a king of fratricide.
Moreover, unlike many of my predecessors, some of them clearly ignorant of Elizabethan traditions, I cannot dismiss Hamlet's expressed doubts as to the veracity of the Ghost as mere talk and babble. The Protestant and consequently the Elizabethan belief, in contrast to the Roman Catholic creed, was that the souls of the dead went directly to Heaven or Hell, not to Purgatory, and could not return to this world. The Swiss Protestant Ludwig Lavater in De Spectris (1570) and King James I in Daemonologie (1597) upheld this viewpoint, maintaining that the Devil could assume either the shape or the dead body of a newly deceased person and thus give the illusion of a ghost; but the reality of ghosts was positively denied by both men. James argued that an intelligent Christian knows that "neither can the spirite of the defunct return to his friend, or yet an Angel use such formes." Lavater . . . wrote: "Evil spirits do use this kind of deceyt, to fayne themselves to be soules of such as are deceassed." This attitude, both Protestant and Elizabethan, is expressed not only by Horatio and Marcellus but also by Hamlet as they gaze upon the apparition of the dead king. Horatio fears that it "may assume some other horrible form" [I. iv. 72]; Marcellus, like Horatio, begs Hamlet not to follow it; and Hamlet supposes that it may be "a goblin damned" [I. iv. 40]. Nevertheless, he is undecided because of its "questionable shape" and consequently agrees to "call [it] Hamlet, / King, father" [I. iv. 44-5]. When alone with the Ghost, Hamlet has neither the will nor the rational power nor the courage to doubt its authenticity; for the moment, "the pales and forts of reason" [I. iv. 28] are inundated completely under emotional predilection. Later, in a mood governed by reason rather than emotion, Hamlet expresses serious doubt concerning the authenticity of the Ghost: "The spirit that I have seen / May be the devil [who] . . . / Abuses me to damn me" [II. ii. 598-603]. It seems odd, of course, that he should not announce this renewed doubt as to the Ghost until after he has arranged with the itinerant actors the play-within-the-play, the intent of which is to elicit some sort of confession from Claudius and thus prove, or disprove, the reliability of the Ghost. But only one day after this doubt is expressed, Hamlet makes it apparent that he had discussed his misgivings about the Ghost with Horatio at a time precedent to the Players' coming to Elsinore; careful to inform his friend that a play will shortly be staged "before the king", he explains:
One scene of it comes near the circumstance Which I have told thee of my father's death . . . If his [Claudius'] occulted guilt Do not itself unkennel in one speech, It is a damned ghost that we have seen, And my imaginations are as foul As Vulcan's stithy [forge]. [III. ii. 76-84]
How long Hamlet has entertained a renewed doubt concerning the Ghost's identity, we are not told by the text of the play. It is, however, logical to believe that as soon as the emotional stimuli of coming face to face with the Ghost had worn off, the Protestant attitude, which denied the reality of ghosts, began to re-assert itself in Hamlet's mind. There can, furthermore, be little doubt that Hamlet's misgivings about the veracity of the Ghost are honest ones and not a "cogent" excuse, as Jones has insisted, for his failure to carry out promptly his motive of vengeance. Upon the very first opportunity of determining whether his informant is an honest ghost or a deceitful devil intent on his damnation, Hamlet acts with remarkable despatch and precision: only a single day elapses between his meeting with the Players and the performance of the play-scene; moreover, the speech which he has prepared to be inserted in the "Murder of Gonzago" is so deadly in its pointedness that the first six of its "dozen or sixteen" lines [II. ii. 541] are sufficient to bring a tacit confession from Claudius. Thus, having fashioned an unexpected opportunity to his own purposes, Hamlet removes the paramount obstacle to his motive of vengeance, and consequently his most cogent reason not to slay Claudius, without an iota of evasion.
Once the uncertainty about the Ghost's identity has been removed—once Claudius, witnessing the satanic murder featured in the play-within-the-play, has cried, "Give me some light: away!" [III. ii. 269]—Hamlet finds the King alone at prayers. Again, we must not forget the viewpoint of the Elizabethan; to him, repentance of past sins, however heinous, was tantamount to the soul's salvation. To do away with Claudius while he is in the act of repentance would have been, as Hamlet says, mere "hire and salary, not revenge" [III. iii. 79]. His father had been slain, to quote the Ghost, "with all my imperfections on my head: O horrible! O horrible! most horrible!" [I. v. 79-80] In Fletcher's The Pilgrim, revenge is put aside for the reason that the intended victim, a man who prays hourly, is too well prepared for Heaven. To the extent that the Elizabethan accepted the fact that King Hamlet (slain without benefit of repentance) was "confin'd to fast in fires" [I. v. 11], he was bound to understand that the prince could not slay Claudius "in the purging of his soul" [III. iii. 85] without, in all likelihood, securing the salvation of his victim.
It is manifest, I think, that Hamlet was thwarted in the motive of vengeance by external obstacles. But the critics who have promulgated this theory have, with unfailing regularity, weakly interpreted or side-stepped his self-accusations of delay, the very passages on which the opposing school has built its thesis that the delay was internally motivated. In consequence, even the best criticisms of Hamlet's conduct have been unduly one-sided. Before I turn to an explanation of Hamlet's "admissions" of delay—his pseudo-procrastination—I wish to add one thought in support of the evidence that Hamlet's obstacles were external. In the saga of Amleth, as recorded by Saxo Grammaticus, the hero awaits, as he informs his mother, the "fitting hour" to avenge his slain father against Feng. This principle of the avenger's biding his time, of awaiting the appropriate opportunity, was later to be the almost invariable technique of Elizabethan tragedy. Hamlet as an avenger was the product of this and no other tradition. He is confronted by the normal number of external problems; what distinguishes him from his fellow avengers of the stage is his hypersensitive response to the delay imposed by these obstacles.
We come now to the apparent paradox of Hamlet's self-accusations of delay, which are clearly unwarranted. This paradox can in part be clarified by Elizabethan tenets that explain the functions of conscience and especially its morbid preoccupation with past sins and omissions. But, in so far as Shakespeare's insight into character went far beyond the scope of Elizabethan psychology, a more complete explanation of Hamlet's conduct must depend upon a modernization of these concepts. In the respect that the present-day concepts which best explain Hamlet's paradoxical conduct are basically identical to the Elizabethan tenets available to Shakespeare, they have a validity that is not shared by the Oedipus complex theory.
Tenets of Elizabethan psychology fully support the hypothesis that Hamlet's unwarranted self-reproaches are the outgrowth of a conscience that is preoccupied with some past sin or omission; but they do not contain an adequate explanation of the psychic origins of his guilt complex, a task that must depend on the help of those modern principles which explain the relation of the superego, or the conscience, to abnormal behavior. The Elizabethan physician Timothy Bright in his once-famous Treatise of Melancholie (1586) recognized "a molestation [that] riseth from conscience, condemning the guilty soul of those ingraven laws of nature, which no man is voide of. . . . Neither is the guiltiness brought to us by foreine report, but the knowledge riseth from the conscience of the offender." Thirty-five years later, Robert Burton, restating the established Elizabethan causes of melancholy [in his The Anatomy of Melancholy], wrote: "The last and greatest cause of this malady is our conscience. . . . Our conscience . . . grinds our souls with remembrance of some precedent sins, makes us reflect upon, accuse and condemn our own selves. . . . This scrupulous conscience . . . tortures so many, [who] . . . accuse themselves and aggravate every small offence." In fine, Bright and Burton have told us that a disquieting sense of guilt arises from the dictates of conscience when they are violated; second, that victims of conscience deal in self-accusations and, as Burton states, "out of a deep apprehension of their unworthiness . . . aggravate" every trivial sin or personal failure. That Shakespeare was keenly aware of the distempers that a violated conscience could evoke is frequently evident in his plays; Richard III, after the dream in which the ghosts of his victims appear, cries:
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me! . . . My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain. [Richard III, V. iii. 179, 193-95]
The principles of Bright and Burton provide us with a broad formula outlining Hamlet's abnormal tendency to abase himself. His over-developed conscience is violated by something that he has done or, equally possible, by something that he has failed to do, which is—as is clear from the context of the play—his failure to avenge his father; in consequence, informed by his conscience of his "guiltiness", he falls into excessive and, in his case, unwarranted self-accusations.
A second important aspect that I believe underlies Hamlet's conduct is hinted at, but not clarified, by Elizabethan mental science. To counteract melancholy imposed by conscience, Burton advised "repentance", which he termed "a remedy . . . of our miseries." Burton meant "repentance to God"; but this does not preclude the probability that Shakespeare considered self-rebuke, certainly a major aspect of repentance, to be a potent means of inactivating the "molestation" which, as Bright maintained, "riseth from conscience". (pp. 177-82)
Two facts are clear: for external reasons Hamlet is unable to carry out his motive of vengeance; on the other hand, he violently upbraids himself for not doing so. So far, in relying on Elizabethan principles of conscience, I have made only a tenuous explanation of this enigma. The psychic origin and the ultimate structure of the dictate that tyrannizes over Hamlet's mind are not yet clear, nor has it been adequately shown why a conscience-stricken person has need to resort to self-accusation. Freud has argued that the superego, or conscience, takes its beginning from a threat of castration essential to suppress the infantile Oedipus complex. But this hypothesis, right or wrong, is hardly material to the actual existence of the superego, which, as psychoanalysts and many psychologists agree, is comprised of dictates acquired through moral discipline in childhood and, remaining thereafter "wholly or very largely unconscious" [Edmund S. Conklin, in his Principles of Abnormal Psychology), has the duty of censorship over the conscious mind. Freud points out that the earliest and strongest of these dictates evolve from the child's relation with his parents, both from self-identification with them and their ideals and from their precepts; he also recognizes that a principal dictate acquired in childhood is that of filial obedience, which is expressed in a high regard by the child for his parents and without which the inculcation of further discipline would be all but impossible. Furthermore, the stronger has been a child's moral discipline, the more tyrannical, according to Freud, tend to be the dictates of the superego, which, in his interpretation, "the ego [consciousness] forms . . . out of the id" [The Ego and the Id]. That Hamlet, a prince and only child, has been subjected to the strictest kind of discipline, especially in regard for his parents, is not merely a logical hypothesis; it is a truth manifest throughout the play. His filial obedience is hinted at in his attitude toward his mother at the outset: "I shall in all my best obey you, madam" [I. ii. 120]. But far stronger are Hamlet's devotion and feeling of duty toward his dead father. This attitude, even before the Ghost has appeared to him, underscores his first soliloquy: "So excellent a king; that was, to this, / Hyperion to a satyr" [I. ii. 139-40]. When seconds later—having severely censured the queen's hasty remarriage—he sobs, "But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue" [I. ii. 159], he is not stifling a jealousy for his mother and her "incestuous sheets", as the adherents of the Oedipus complex theory have insisted. On the contrary, so strong has been his moral training, so strong at present are the dictates of his offended conscience, that he is horrified at her infidelity to his father; his despair is made complete, and he is stunned into silence, by the knowledge that his words and actions are powerless to atone for his mother's immense sacrilege, which, as he describes it, "cannot come to good" [I. ii. 158]. His accustomed esteem for his mother—and with it much of his moral outlook on life—has crashed about him, in irreparable fragments.
Shortly, Hamlet learns from the Ghost that his paramount responsibility is to avenge his father's murder. In a passion of filial obedience, he vows to "sweep to . . . revenge" on "wings as swift as meditation" [I. v. 30]; later, just after the Ghost has departed, he pledges: "Thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain" [I. v. 102-03]. Once his conscious mind has reasserted itself, Hamlet is fully aware that he is confronted by hazardous external obstacles, and hence plans to put on "an antic disposition" [I. v. 172] in order to conceal his motive. But his conscience, the "precipitate" of childhood years of strictest moral discipline, is not able to take account of such practical matters. Since it had been activated, while his reason was largely suppressed, during the encounter with the Ghost—a matter confirmed by his unqualified expressions of filial duty at that time—it has dedicated itself to an immediate course of vengeance which, although consistent with Hamlet's deep sense of loyalty, is independent of the commitments later resolved upon by his rational mind. That part of it, moreover, which is unconscious . . . is completely isolated from the faculty of reason and has not the power even to comprehend Hamlet's rationally developed doubt as to the veracity of the Ghost. Hamlet's self is divided by two injunctions, one resulting from the precautions of reason, the other from the unconscious and insistent dictates of the superego. Consider, for example, the soliloquy ending Act II: it is sharply contradictory in substance for the reason that Hamlet's mind is at first engaged in response to the dictates of his conscience. This response, confirming the superego's unqualified acceptance of the duty imposed by the Ghost, takes the form of violent self-accusations for his failure to have avenged his father; then, with an obvious effort, he cries, "Fie upon't, foh! About, my brain" [II. ii. 587-88], and turns his mind to the world of reality and the practical consideration with which he is faced: the fact that the Ghost may be the Devil, and that therefore he has arranged the play-within-the-play, hopeful of proving to himself his right to slay Claudius. The phrase, "About, my brain", is clear indication of Hamlet's realization that he is confronted by two diametrically opposite criteria of values, the one unreasonable in its demands and quite mystifying, the other realistic and understandable, and each completely isolated from the other.
Both the compelling nature of Hamlet's inner conscience and the fact that it has no information of the external obstacles that have deterred the motive of vengeance are irrefutably testified by the final appearance of Hamlet senior's ghost. Unseen and unheard by his mother, who is present, it speaks to him from the realm of the inner mind: "This visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose" [III. iv. 110-11]. The embodiment of Hamlet's conscience is ultimate proof of what has been tormenting him from the time of his first encounter with the Ghost—then a ghost of revenge-when he was intrusted with its "dread command". The longer Hamlet must delay in carrying out his pledge—first, for absolute proof of Claudius's guilt, later for the "fitting hour"—the more forcible are the demands of the superego that its dictate of prompt vengeance in obedience to his father be fulfilled. "The tension", wrote Freud [in his An Outline of Psychoanalysis], "between the demands of the conscience and the actual attainments of the ego [whether misdeeds or 'unexecuted intentions'] is experienced as a sense of guilt", which, as he stresses elsewhere, is "contributed by a superego that has grown peculiarly severe and cruel". It is inevitable, therefore, that Hamlet, whose conscience is unable to comprehend the problems imposed on him by the real world, falls victim to a marked guilt complex. Freud and other psychoanalysts have pointed out that only through abasement and self-injury can the neurotic's sense of guilt (described by them as basically unconscious) be relieved: "Self-torments of melancholiacs . . . are without doubt pleasurable" [Collected Papers]. Dr. Martin W. Peck is more explicit [in his The Meaning of Psychoanalysis]: The neurotic finds "relief from guilt by abasement and self-punishment"—and, as he later states, "by self-depreciation". As Hamlet's guilt complex becomes unbearably strong, he relies instinctively on the only available remedy—abasement and self-torment. By undeservedly reproaching himself for weakness of character, in particular by transposing the causes that obstruct his vengeance from external obstacles to himself, Hamlet can temporarily assuage the painful sense of guilt and gain relief from it. He undergoes what Dr. A. A. Brill has termed [in his Freud's Contribution to Psychiatry] an "emotional catharsis" that follows the fulfillment of the "need for punishment". His self-reproaches for not having avenged his father suggest that he becomes at times conscious of the precise nature of the superego's dictate; according to Freud and Brill, an awareness of this sort, though not found in most neurotic disorders, is not uncommon among melancholiacs: "In melancholia, the ego humbly submits to the criticism and tyrannical oppression of the superego and admits its guilt." Hamlet's other methods of abasement—for example, his ludicrous appearance in "doublet all unbrac'd" before Ophelia [II. i. 75]—are less directly related to the demands of the conscience; but, like his self-accusations, they are means of satisfying a need for punishment and attest to a potent sense of guilt.
Hamlet's procrastination, consequently, is apparent, not real. Since circumstances—prior to his ruthless betrayal of the King's henchmen, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—have rendered impossible the performance of a well-planned act of aggression against his father's murderer, he is forced to rely on self-incrimination to calm the storms of the superego, which, lying largely in the unconscious mind, is unable to evaluate the external problems and hence imposes an unreasonable dictate upon the ego, or consciousness. In this respect, it is noteworthy that Hamlet's most tempestuous self-accusation, climaxed by "Or ere this / I should have fatted all the region kites / With this slave's offal" [II. ii. 578-80], precedes his outburst against his mother, which is an indirect aggression against Claudius. During and after the scene with his mother, he again reproaches himself for the failure to avenge his father, but less tempestuously: the demands of the superego, having found partial satisfaction in Hamlet's aggressive conduct, are now less strong and, therefore, less a threat to his sanity.
My purpose in this essay has not been to establish a new interpretation of Hamlet's character. I accept the thesis, first emphatically stated by Werder, that Hamlet is a man of action and that he is deterred in his motive of vengeance solely by the external obstacles, among which is the orthodox doubt as to the identity of the Ghost. My purpose has been to explain only the reasons behind Hamlet's self-accusations of delay. These self-reproaches are undoubtedly the factor chiefly responsible for the school which insists that Hamlet's failure in the revenge motive is the result of an innate weakness; on the other hand, the upholders of what has been termed the "external difficulty" theory have been compelled to ignore or to explain them awkwardly. The result, in almost every instance, has been a marked disproportion of criticism. In view of the apparent incompatibility between Hamlet's self-accusations of delay and the manifest external obstacles to his motive of vengeance, evasions or distortions of one or more of the major facts relating to his conduct have been inevitable. As I see it, only the tenets of "conscience"—those of the Elizabethans abetted by those of modern times—can adequately resolve this particular problem. Moreover, these tenets, although they stamp Hamlet as a neurotic, do not contravene the theory that he is a man capable of ruthless action. His failure to execute prompt vengeance upon Claudius does not stem from his neurosis; on the contrary, his neurosis—a potent but temporary guilt complex—is the effect of the inaction which is prolonged by the external problems, and for which he is brought to task by the predetermined and altogether illogical dictates of his conscience. (pp. 183-86)
Robert R. Reed Jr., "Hamlet, the Pseudo-Procrastinator," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1958, pp. 177-86.
[Girard maintains that Hamlet belongs to the Revenge Tragedy genre. Revenge Tragedy is a dramatic form made popular on the English stage by Thomas Kyd, a contemporary of Shakespeare, whose Spanish Tragedy is an early example of the type. Such a play calls for the revenge of a father by a son or vice versa, an act which is initiated by the murdered man's ghost. Other devices found in Revenge Tragedies include hesitation by the hero, real or feigned madness, suicide, intrigue, and murders on stage. In the critic's opinion, Shakespeare despised the Revenge Tragedy genre as a form whose conventions had become trite. Yet, because revenge theater was highly popular among Elizabethan audiences, the dramatist had to conform to certain guidelines of the genre to produce a financially successful tragedy. As a result, Shakespeare innovated the theatrical type by creating a double entendre (double meaning) in which he subtly denounced the banality of revenge theater without denying the audience its katharsis (a purification of emotions stirred by tragic conflict). Shakespeare expressed his disgust for revenge theater through Hamlet's deploring revenge throughout the play, yet fulfilled his audience's expectations for a tragic conclusion. Girard also discusses Hamlet's use of "mimetic models," by which he attempts to put himself in the necessary frame of mind to murder Claudius by mimicking other characters' actions. According to the critic, Hamlet projects his desire for revenge first through the actor who enacts the Hecuba speech, and then through Gertrude, but it is Laertes, who acts without thinking, who serves as the "mimetic model" which finally motivates Hamlet to kill the king. Girard concludes his discussion by drawing an analogy between Hamlet and modern society. Hamlet's dilemma essentially represents the modern day evolution of society to a "no man's land," the critic argues, where revenge remains a force upon which we often dwell, but seldom act.]
Hamlet belongs to the genre of the revenge tragedy, as hackneyed and yet inescapable in Shakespeare's days as the "thriller" in ours to a television writer. . . . The weariness with revenge and katharsis [a purification of emotions stirred by tragic conflict] which can be read, I believe, in the margins of the earlier plays must really exist because, in Hamlet, it moves to the center of the stage and becomes fully articulated.
Some writers who were not necessarily the most unimaginative found it difficult, we are told, to postpone for the whole duration of the lengthy Elizabethan play an action which had never been in doubt in the first place and which is always the same anyway. Shakespeare can turn this tedious chore into the most brilliant feat of theatrical double entendre [double meaning] because the tedium of revenge is really what he wants to talk about, and he wants to talk about it in the usual Shakespearean fashion; he will denounce the revenge theater and all its works with the utmost daring without denying his mass audience the katharsis it demands, without depriving himself of the dramatic success which is necessary to his own career as a dramatist.
If we assume that Shakespeare really had this double goal in mind, we will find that some unexplained details in the play become intelligible and that the function of many obscure scenes becomes obvious.
In order to perform revenge with conviction, you must believe in the justice of your own cause. . . . [The] revenge seeker will not believe in his own cause unless he believes in the guilt of his intended victim. And the guilt of that intended victim entails in turn the innocence of that victim's victim. If the victim's victim is already a killer and if the revenge seeker reflects a little too much on the circularity of revenge, his faith in vengeance must collapse.
This is exactly what we have in Hamlet. It cannot be without a purpose that Shakespeare suggests the old Hamlet, the murdered king, was a murderer himself. In the various sources of the play there may be indications to that effect, but Shakespeare would have omitted them if he had wanted to strengthen the case for revenge. However nasty Claudius may look, he cannot look nasty enough if he appears in a context of previous revenge; he cannot generate, as a villain, the absolute passion and dedication which is demanded of Hamlet. The problem with Hamlet is that he cannot forget the context. As a result, the crime by Claudius looks to him like one more link in an already long chain, and his own revenge will look like still another link, perfectly identical to all the other links.
In a world where every ghost, dead or alive, can only perform the same action, revenge, or clamor for more of the same from beyond the grave, all voices are interchangeable. You can never know with certainty which ghost is addressing whom. It is one and the same thing for Hamlet to question his own identity and to question the ghost's identity, and his authority.
To seek singularity in revenge is a vain enterprise but to shrink from revenge, in a world which looks upon it as a "sacred duty" is to exclude oneself from society, to become a nonentity once more. There is no way out for Hamlet and he shifts endlessly from one impasse to the other, unable to make up his mind because neither choice makes sense.
If all characters are caught in a cycle of revenge that extends in all directions beyond the limits of its action, Hamlet has no beginning and no end. The play collapses. The trouble with the hero is that he does not believe in his play half as much as the critics do. He understands revenge and the theater too well to assume willingly a role chosen for him by others. His sentiments are those, in other words, which we have surmised in Shakespeare himself. What the hero feels in regard to the act of revenge, the creator feels in regard to revenge as theater.
The public wants vicarious victims and the playwright must oblige. Tragedy is revenge. Shakespeare is tired of revenge, and yet he cannot give it up, or he gives up his audience and his identity as a playwright. Shakespeare turns a typical revenge topic, Hamlet, into a meditation on his predicament as a playwright. (pp. 173-75)
There would be no Hamlet "problem" if the hero really believed what he says. It is also himself, therefore, that he is trying to convince. The anger in his voice and the exaggeration of his language with its coldly contrived metaphors suggest that he labors in vain:
Look here upon this picture, and on this The counterfeit presentment of two brothers. 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 combination and a form indeed Where every god did seem to set his seal To give the world assurance of a man. This was your husband. Look you now what follows. Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear, Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes? [III. iv. 53-65]
The gentleman doth protest too much. The symmetry of the whole presentation, and of Hamlet's own expressions tend to reassert the resemblance he denies: "This was your husband . . . / Here is your husband, . . ."
Hamlet begs his mother to give up her conjugal relationship with Claudius. The tons of Freud which have been poured over the passage have obscured its significance. Hamlet does not feel indignant enough to rush out and kill the villain. As a result he feels uncomfortable about himself and he blames his mother because she obviously feels even more indifferent to the whole affair than he does. He would like his mother to initiate the revenge process for him. He tries to arouse in her the indignation he himself cannot feel, in order to catch it secondhand from her, perhaps, out of some kind of mimetic sympathy. Between Gertrude and Claudius he would like to see a dramatic break that would force him to side resolutely with his mother.
It is a generally accepted view nowadays that Gertrude must have felt a tremendous attachment to Claudius. Far from confirming that view, the following lines suggest exactly the opposite:
Nor sense to ecstasy was ever so thralled But it reserved some quantity of choice To serve in such a difference [III. iv. 74-6]
Hamlet does not say that his mother is madly in love with Claudius; he says that even if she were, she should still be able to preceive some difference between her two husbands. Hamlet assumes, therefore, that his mother like himself, perceives no difference whatever. This assumption is obviously correct. Gertrude remains silent during her son's tirade because she has nothing to say. The reason she could marry the two brothers in rapid succession is that they are so much alike and she feels the same indifference to the one as to the other. It is this overwhelming indifference that Hamlet perceives and he resents it because he is trying to fight it in himself. Like so many other queens of Shakespeare, like the queens of Richard III, for instance, Gertrude moves in a world where prestige and power count more than passion. (pp. 176-77)
What Hamlet needs, in order to stir up his vengeful spirit, is a revenge theater more convincing than his own, something less half-hearted than the play Shakespeare is actually writing. Fortunately for the hero and for the spectators who are eagerly awaiting their final bloodbath, Hamlet has many opportunities to watch rousing spectacles during his play and he tries to generate even more, in a conscientious effort to put himself in the right mood for the murder of Claudius. Hamlet must receive from someone else, a mimetic model, the impulse which he does not find in himself. This is what he tried to achieve with his mother, we found, and he did not succeed. He is much more successful with the actor who impersonates for him the role of Hecuba, It becomes obvious, at this point, that the only hope for Hamlet to accomplish what his society—or the spectators—require, is to become as "sincere" a showman as the actor who can shed real tears when he pretends to be the queen of Troy!
Is it not monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit That from her working all his visage wanned, Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect, A broken voice, and his whole function suiting With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing! For Hecuba! What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? What would he do Had he the motive and the cue for passion That I have? [II. ii. 551-62]
Another catchy example for Hamlet comes from the army of Fortinbras on its way to Poland. The object of the war is a worthless speck of land. Thousands of people must risk their lives:
Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great Is not to stir without great argument, But greatly to find quarrel in a straw When Honor's at the stake. [IV. iv. 53-6]
The scene is as ridiculous as it is sinister. It would not impress Hamlet so much if the hero truly believed in the superiority and urgency of his cause. His words constantly betray him, here as in the scene with his mother. As a cue for passion, his revenge motif is no more compelling, really, than the cue of an actor on the stage. He too must greatly . . . find quarrel in a straw, he too must stake everything even for an eggshell.
The effect of the army scene obviously stems, at least in part, from the large number of people involved, from the almost infinite multiplication of the example which cannot fail to increase its mimetic attraction enormously. Shakespeare is too much a master of mob effects not to remember at this point the cumulative effect of mimetic models. In order to whip up enthusiasm for the war against Claudius, the same irrational contagion is needed as in the war against Poland. The type of mimetic incitement from which Hamlet "benefits" at this point resembles very much the kind of spectacle which governments never fall to organize for their citizenry when they have decided it is time to go to war: a rousing military parade.
But it is not the actor, ultimately, or the army of Fortinbras; it is Laertes, I believe, who determines Hamlet to act. Laertes provides the most persuasive spectacle not because he provides the "best" example but because his situation parallels that of Hamlet. Being Hamlet's peer, at least up to a point, his passionate stance constitutes the most powerful challenge imaginable. In such circumstances, even the most apathetic man's sense of emulation must rise to such a pitch that the sort of disaster that the fulfillment of the revenge demands can finally be achieved.
The simple and unreflective Laertes can shout to Claudius "give me my father" [IV. v. 117] and then leap into his sister's grave in a wild demonstration of grief. Like a well-adjusted gentleman or a consummate actor, he can perform with the utmost sincerity all the actions his social milieu demands, even if they contradict each other. He can mourn the useless death of a human being at one minute and the next he can uselessly kill a dozen more if he is told that his honor is at stake. The death of his father and sister are almost less shocking to him than the lack of pomp and circumstance at their burial. At the rites of Ophelia, Laertes keeps asking the priest for "more ceremony." Laertes is a formalist and he reads the tragedy of which he is a part very much like the formalists of all stripes. He does not question the validity of revenge. He does not question the literary genre. He does not question the relationship between revenge and mourning. These are not valid critical questions to him: they never enter his mind, just as it never occurs to most critics that Shakespeare himself could question the validity of revenge.
Hamlet watches Laertes leap into Ophelia's grave and the effect on him is electrifying. The reflective mood of the conversation with Horatio gives way to a wild imitation of the rival's theatrical mourning. At this point, he has obviously decided that he, too, would act according to the demands of society, that he would become another Laertes in other words. He, too, as a result, must leap into the grave of one who has already died, even as he prepares other graves for those still alive:
'Swounds, show me what thou'lt do. Woo't weep? Woo't fight? Woo't fast? Woo't tear thyself? Woo't drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile? I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine? To outface me with leaping in her grave? Be buried quick with her, and so will I. . . . I'll rant as well as thou. [V. i. 274-79, 284]
In order to embrace the goal of revenge, Hamlet must enter the circle of mimetic desire and rivalry; this is what he has been unable to achieve so far but here he finally reaches a hysterical pitch of that "pale and bloodless emulation". . . . (pp. 177-80)
Shakespeare can place these incredible lines in the mouth of Hamlet without undermining the dramatic credibility of what follows. Following the lead of Gertrude, the spectators will ascribe the outburst to "madness."
This is mere madness. And thus awhile the fit will work on him. Anon, as patient as the female dove When that her golden couplets are disclosed, His silence will sit drooping. [V. i. 284-88]
A little later Hamlet himself, now calmly determined to kill Claudius, will recall the recent outburst in most significant words:
I am very sorry, good Horatio, That to Laertes I forgot myself, For by the image of my cause I see The portraiture of his. I'll court his favors. But, sure, the bravery of his grief did put me Into a towering passion. [V. ii. 75-80]
Like all victims of mimetic suggestion, Hamlet reverses the true hierarchy between the other and himself. He should say: "by the image of his cause I see the portraiture of mine." This is the correct formula, obviously, for all the spectacles that have influenced Hamlet. The actor's tears and the military display of Fortinbras were already presented as mimetic models. In order to realize that Laertes, too, functions as a model, the last two lines are essential. The cool determination of Hamlet, at this point, is the transmutation of the "towering passion" which he had vainly tried to build up before and which Laertes has finally communicated to him through the "bravery of his grief." This transmutation is unwittingly predicted by Gertrude when she compares Hamlet to the dove who becomes quiet after she has laid her eggs. Gertrude only thinks of Hamlet's previous changes of mood, as sterile as they were sudden, but her metaphor suggests a more tangible accomplishment, the birth of something portentous:
Anon, as patient as the female dove When that her golden couplets are disclosed, His silence will sit drooping. [V. i. 286-88] (pp. 180-181)
In Hamlet, the very absence of a case against revenge becomes a powerful intimation of what the modern world is really about. Even at those later stages in our culture when physical revenge and blood feuds completely disappeared or were limited to such marginal milieux as the underworld, it would seem that no revenge play, not even a play of reluctant revenge, could strike a really deep chord in the modern psyche. In reality the question is never entirely settled and the strange void at the center of Hamlet becomes a symbolic expression of the Western and modern malaise, no less powerful than the most brilliant attempts to define the problem, such as Dostoevsky's underground revenge. Our "symptoms" always resemble that unnamable paralysis of the will, that ineffable corruption of the spirit that affect not only Hamlet, but the other characters as well. The devious ways of these characters, the bizarre plots they hatch, their passion for watching without being watched, their propensity to voyeurism and spying, the general disease of human relations make a good deal of sense as a description of an undifferentiated no man's land between revenge and no revenge in which we ourselves are still living.
Claudius resembles Hamlet in his inability to take a prompt and healthy revenge on his enemies. The king should react more explicitly and decisively to the murder of Polonius who was, after all, his private councillor; the crime was a personal offense to him. His reasons for hesitating, then acting only in secret, may be different from Hamlet's but the final result is the same. When Laertes asks Claudius why he failed to punish a murderer, the reply betrays embarrassment.
Even Claudius presents Hamlet-like symptoms. Not Hamlet alone but the time is out of joint. And when Hamlet describes his revenge as "sick," or "dull," he speaks for the whole community. In order to appreciate the nature and the extent of the disease, we must realize that all behavior we tend to read as strategic or conspiratorial, in that play, can also be read as symptomatic of "sick revenge." (pp. 192-93)
Everybody must conceive the same strategic tricks at the same tune and the reciprocity which everybody tries to sidestep simultaneously and through the same means must still win in the long run. Strategic thinking, as a result, demands ever increasing subtlety; it involves less and less action, more and more calculation. In the end, it becomes difficult to distinguish strategy from procrastination. The very notion of strategy may be strategic in regard to the self-defeating nature of revenge which no one wants to face, not yet at least, so that the possibility of revenge is not entirely removed from the scene. Thanks to the notion of strategy, men can postpone revenge indefinitely without ever giving it up. They are equally terrified by both radical solutions and they go on living as long as possible, if not forever, in the no man's land of sick revenge.
In that no man's land it becomes impossible to define anything. All actions and motivations are their own opposites as well as themselves. When Hamlet does not seize the opportunity to kill Claudius during his prayer, it could be a failure of the will or a supreme calculation; it could be instinctive humaneness or a refinement of cruelty. Hamlet himself does not know. The crisis of Degree has reached the most intimate recesses of the individual consciousness. Human sentiments have become as mixed up as the seasons of the year in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Even he who experiences them can no longer say which is which, and the critic's search for neat differentiations misses the point entirely. Most interpreters cling to the illusion that differences alone must be real behind deceptive similarities, whereas the opposite is true. Similarities alone are real. We must not be misled by Ophelia's blond hair and pitiable death. Or rather, we must realize that Shakespeare consciously misleads his less attentive spectators with these gross theatrical signs of what a pure heroine should be. Just like Rosenkrans and Guildenstern, Ophelia allows herself to become an instrument in the hands of her father and of the king. She, too, is affected by the disease of the time. Another sign of her contamination is her language and behavior which are both contaminated with the erotic strategy of a Cressida and the other least savory Shakespearean heroines. What Hamlet resents in Ophelia is what any human being always resents in another human being, the visible signs of his own sickness. It is the same sickness, therefore, that corrupts Ophelia's love for Hamlet and debases Hamlet's love for the theater. (pp. 193-94)
To read Hamlet against revenge is anachronistic, some people say, because it goes against the conventions of the revenge genre. No doubt, but could Shakespeare be playing according to the rules of the game at one level and undermine these same rules at another? Has not this ambiguous practice become a commonplace of modern criticism? Is Shakespeare too slow-witted for such a device? Indications abound that in many other plays, he is doing precisely that, still providing the crowd with the spectacle they demand while simultaneously writing between the lines, for all those who can read, a devastating critique of that same spectacle?
If we fear that Hamlet, in the present perspective, becomes a pretext, once more, for comments on the contemporary situation, let us look at the alternative. The traditional perspectives on Hamlet are far from neutral; their first consequence is that the ethics of revenge are taken for granted. The most debatable question of the play cannot be reached; we exclude it a priori [from prior knowledge].
Hamlet's problem thus shifts from revenge itself to hesitation in the face of revenge. Why should a well-educated young man have second thoughts when it comes to killing a close relative who also happens to be the king of the land and the husband of his own mother? This is some enigma indeed and the problem is not that a satisfactory answer has never been found but that we should expect to find one after our a priori exclusion of the one sensible and obvious answer.
Should our enormous critical literature on Hamlet fall some day into the hands of people otherwise ignorant of our mores, they could not fail to conclude that our academic tribe must have been a savage breed, indeed. After four centuries of controversies, Hamlet's temporary reluctance to commit murder still looks so outlandish to us that more and more books are being written in an unsuccessful effort to solve that mystery. The only way to account for this curious body of literature is to suppose that, back in the twentieth century no more was needed than some ghost to ask for it, and the average professor of literature would massacre his entire household without batting an eyelash.
Contrary to the official doctrine among us, the insertion of Hamlet into our contemporary situation, and in particular the reference to something as apparently alien to literature as our nuclear predicament, cannot lead the critic further astray than he already is; it cannot distract him from his proper function which is to read the text. Amazingly enough, the effect is just the opposite. The nuclear reference can shock us back into a sense of reality. It is symptomatic of our condition, no doubt, that we avoid more and more the real issues, and we empty great literary texts of all affective and even intellectual content as we really intend to do the opposite, as we try to concentrate exclusively upon these same texts by excluding only what is extraneous to them.
Let us imagine a contemporary Hamlet with his finger on a nuclear button. After forty years of procrastination he has not yet found the courage to push that button. The critics around him are becoming impatient. The psychiatrists have volunteered their services and come up with their usual answer. Hamlet is a sick man. (pp. 196-97)
Almost all critics today stick to the ethics of revenge. The psychiatrist sees the very thought of its abandonment as an illness he must cure, and the traditional critic sees revenge as a literary rule he must respect. Others still try to read Hamlet through one of the popular ideologies of our time, like political rebellion, the absurd, the individual's right to an aggressive personality, etc. It is no accident if the sanctity of revenge provides a perfect vehicle for all the masks of modern ressentiment [resentment]. The remarkable consensus in favor of revenge verifies, I believe, the conception of the play as that no man's land between total revenge and no revenge at all, that specifically modern space where everything becomes suffused with sick revenge.
It is fashionable nowadays to claim that we inhabit an entirely new world in which even our greatest masterpieces have become irrelevant. I would be the last one to deny that there is something unique about our world, but there is something unique also about Hamlet, and we may well be deceiving ourselves in order not to face a type of relevance we do not want to welcome.
We must declare irrelevant not Hamlet but the wall of conventions and ritualism with which we surround the play, in the name of innovation almost as often as in the name of tradition. As more events, objects, and attitudes around us proclaim the same message ever more loudly, in order not to hear that message, we must condemn more of our experience to insignificance and absurdity. With our most fashionable critics today we have reached the point when history must make no sense, art must make no sense, language and sense itself must make no sense. (p. 198)
Hamlet is no mere word game. We can make sense out of Hamlet just as we can make sense out of our world, by reading both against revenge. This is the way Shakespeare wanted Hamlet to be read and the way it should have been read long ago. If now, at such a time in our history, we still cannot read Hamlet against revenge, who ever will? (p. 200)
Rene Girard, "Hamlet's Dull Revenge," in Stanford Literature Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall, 1984, pp. 159-200.
Oscar James Campbell
[Campbell contends that the nature of Hamlet's melancholy, or state of depression, was more easily perceived by an Elizabethan audience than by a modern one. Further, the critic asserts that while Hamlet is indeed emotionally unstable, he is not insane. Shakespeare dramatizes the prince's changeability by altering the mood of the play's structure from periods of meditative pauses to bursts of action. Since Hamlet is usually at the center of these pauses and surges, his character conveys a manic-depressive quality. In essence, his depressed phase is marked by brooding inaction, whereas his manic phase includes abrupt lunges toward action. Campbell asserts that Hamlet is more than a "creature of psychotic impulse," however, for Shakespeare generates sympathy for him by "enabling his melancholy to express itself in some of the most profound philosophical lyrics ever written in the English language." Because of his emotional state, the critic continues, Hamlet in some ways represents an Elizabethan stock character known as a "malcontent." A malcontent is a figure whose perspective of life is so pessimistic that he holds nothing but contempt for the world and humanity. In Act V, Hamlet reaches his highest point of excitement through his "hysterical" struggle with Laertes during the sword fight, and this emotion enables him to take revenge in the final catastrophe. Thus, Campbell concludes, Hamlet's revenge "ironically appears, not as an act of solemn retribution, but as an uncalculated result of the frantic brandishing of a murderous sword."]
Something very serious is the matter with Hamlet. And the full meaning of the great tragedy will never be clear until critics discover in the drama a conscious artistic design pertinent both to Hamlet the tortured man and to the events in the play.
We must, then, make an honest effort to discover just what ails Hamlet. Everyone knows that he is melancholy, but few realize that to Shakespeare's audiences the precise nature of his emotional disturbance was much more easily recognizable than to an audience today. Melancholy was a malady described at length in all their household medical handbooks. Elizabethan doctors, like the practitioners of our own day, were making careful attempts to analyze its symptoms. The fact that their analyses completed three centuries ago were naive and inexact need not concern us. In any case, Shakespeare, a busy dramatist, was perhaps only imperfectly acquainted with their diagnoses. But he was certainly far from ignorant of them. Moreover, in everyday conversation in Shakespeare's time, "melancholy" was probably as often referred to as the "inferiority complex" is today—and there can be no doubt that any dramatic character who described himself as suffering from an inferiority complex would explain himself to a modern audience immediately.
Besides, Shakespeare may well have had many chances to observe victims of the disease that his contemporaries referred to as "melancholy." In Elizabeth's day, persons with nervous afflictions were confined only for actual dementia. And Hamlet is in no sense irrational. His mind is unimpaired. Circumstances which have put an irresistible strain upon his self-control have rendered him emotionally unstable, but certainly not mad.
Persons in such a mental state as his were not imprisoned or even given systematic medical treatment in Elizabethan times. Hence many cases of "melancholy" were at large in society and easily recognizable. Anyone who has an opportunity to watch a victim of this sort of emotional disturbance cannot fail to identify its symptoms. And Shakespeare, the keenest of observers, would see at once that in many men whom he called "melancholy" the moods of uncontrolled excitement alternated with periods of deep depression. He would also notice that these two pathological states succeeded each other with a kind of mechanical regularity.
It is here, I think, that the key to Hamlet's character must be sought. That alternation of mood Shakespeare seized upon to form the inner structure of his play. One of Shakespeare's favorite dramatic practices was to force the current of his play to fluctuate between meditative pauses and bursts of action. All of his tragic heroes in the very fever of the dramatic action stand aside from the rush of events long enough to soliloquize reflectively upon themselves and the plots in which they are involved. The rhythmic vacillation in Hamlet's emotions is thus but a subtle variant of one of the favorite devices of Shakespeare's stagecraft. Moreover, adverse fate so times the rhythm of Hamlet's malady that at any given moment he is in the grip of the emotions which fit him least to deal with the situation confronting him. When the circumstances demand action, he finds himself so deeply depressed that he can do nothing but brood. When he needs his finest poise to wield the weapon of his reason, he is beaten by gusts of uncontrollable excitement. With each new revelation of this irrepressible conflict Hamlet's inner tension mounts until at the final catastrophe his tortured will explodes in a wild frenzy of unconsidered action.
A brief review of the dramatic movement of the tragedy will show how regular is the beat of its pulse. When Hamlet first appears, he is already profoundly depressed. He has been overwhelmed by grief at his father's death and his mother's "o'erhasty marriage" [II. ii. 57] to his uncle. Life has lost its meaning. It is vile and empty. He longs for death—for the moral right to kill himself. Such is the depth of his dejection even before the ghost of his father lays upon him the supremely difficult task.
From this depression Hamlet is briefly rescued by the appearance of his old friend Horatio. Shakespeare takes advantage of the moment to show his audience what Hamlet was like before grief had overwhelmed him. Here and on various other occasions in the play, the hero's natural charm and graciousness shine forth. Those short intervals of emotional equilibrium occur, as in the present case, during his transition from depression to mad elation. They come with the reappearance of friends out of his untroubled past—of Horatio or of the actors in whom he had always taken delight. Such brief glimpses of the normal Hamlet add poignancy to the abnormal seizures that follow as the night the day.
After the ghost has described the circumstances of his murder and has laid upon his son the duty of revenge, Hamlet for the first time becomes frenzied. Then he wildly beseeches aid from the spirits of earth, of heaven, even of hell. He shouts to the skies his execrations of Claudius, "O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain" [I. v. 106]. He answers Horatio's solicitous questions with "wild and whirling words" [I. v. 133]. His uncontrolled tumult is presently intensified by the strange actions of the ghost, who gives Hamlet orders from the cellarage, as though he were one of the demons who dwelt underground, a familiar of the Devil. In order to shut Marcellus's mouth, Hamlet cooperates in the deception. He rushes from one part of the stage to another as the ghost moves under him. Consequently, the spirit's effort to protect a secret which only the avenger must know, ironically compels Hamlet to dance about in what seems to be a wild paroxysm of excitement.
It is during this seizure that Hamlet decides to feign madness. Every critic knows that, as an aid to his revenge, the pretense is a mistake. Hamlet's reason for donning emotional motley may well have been subjective, an instinctive impulse towards self-protection. He realizes that his emotions are often going to rush beyond his control. The fiction that he is mad will not only cloak his designs against the King, but will also free him from any necessity to control the uncontrollable. During the rest of the play, Hamlet's feigned madness is merely his acquiescence in the two-fold intensities of his melancholy.
By the end of the first act, the audience has been given a full view of both phases of Hamlet's emotional disturbance. But only the most discerning would catch so soon its inner rhythm. His malady must continue to fall to its ebb and mount to its crest before its regular configuration becomes unmistakable. The next time that Hamlet appears to any characters in the play, he is obviously under the spell of his depression. He visits Ophelia in the complete disarray that literary tradition had made the inevitable symptom of the melancholy of a rejected lover. An irresistible impulse had driven him for sympathy to the woman he still loved even though she seemed no longer to return his affection. Hamlet's carefully prepared deshabille shows that he had given his impulse full rein. Yet his inability to utter a word in Ophelia's presence is proof of the tragic depth of his depression.
When Hamlet next appears on the stage, his clothes should be in the disorder which Ophelia has described. His mind, too, is pervaded by the same gloom. His ridicule of Polonius is not light-hearted. The figures of speech in which he clothes his abhorrence are all drawn from the low and physically disgusting—maggots, carrion, wrinkled faces, weak hams, and thick discharge oozing from the eyes. Through such symbols as these Shakespeare translates intellectual pessimism into poetic feeling.
From this new "low" in his depression Hamlet is rescued by the actors who come to play at Elsinore. They carry him out of the dreary present into the happy days when the theatre moved and delighted him as it did many cultivated gentlemen of the Renaissance. Once his emotions are swept clean by the breath from his healthful past, he is able to plan and to act. But just as soon as the players leave him alone, he again becomes the slave of his malady, and his mood mounts quickly to emotional tumult. He unpacks his heart again with wild and whirling words, which he shouts to the unresponsive air. He has again swept from gloom to uncontrolled excitement.
At this point in the play, the intelligent members of Shakespeare's audience should sense the rhythm of Hamlet's melancholy. They should also realize what are to be the characteristic dramatic expressions of each of its phases. The depressed phase is to be marked by brooding inaction, by the utterance of pessimistic ideas clothed in poetic images borrowed from physical dissolution and from low and disgusting forms of life. The heightened phase will be characterized by violent lunges towards action, by expressions in which excitement exaggerates and obscures the sense, and even by exclamations that resemble the inarticulate cries of a wounded animal. But most important for the comprehension of the play, the audience will now understand that Hamlet's mood of sluggish depression is to be followed by a seizure of feverish excitement; and that, though the length of the intervals between the two states may vary, they will succeed each other with clock-like regularity. When these characteristics of the play are clearly understood, clarity takes the place of perplexity. Hamlet's actions no longer form a puzzle. By understanding the cause of even his wildest emotional seizures, we can look forward, not with bewilderment, but with tense expectancy, to the forms which his tragic melancholy must inevitably assume.
This clue to the aesthetic movement of the action makes Hamlet's conduct clear at many crises in the play. It explains, for example, why he could not kill the King when he came upon him at prayer. At that moment, a mood of depression darkened Hamlet's mind—the inevitable reaction to the excitement he had just felt at the success of his play in catching the conscience of the King. His will is paralyzed. Resolute action of any sort is beyond his power. So he cannot make use of the heaven-sent opportunity to revenge his father's murder. No other scene in the play is so fully charged with tragic irony.
When we next see Hamlet, he is in his mother's chamber beseeching her to break off all sexual relations with King Claudius. Only thus can she save her soul. Now if ever Hamlet should be undisputed master of all his faculties. Only calm severity can make the solemn impression upon his mother which the situation demands. Yet we see at once that he has again become a slave to his recurrent excitement, and we anticipate only the wildest goings-on. Our worst fears are realized; for he kills Polonius in a frantic lunge through the arras, he scolds his mother in a frenzy of excitement, he talks to the vacant air, and finally, he rushes off the stage, dragging Polonius's body by the heels. None of these acts really surprises us. They fill us with pity and terror, for we realize that Hamlet's emotional tumult has rendered worse than futile his visit to the Queen. Its sole result has been to convince his mother that he is mad indeed. This conflict between the clock of Hamlet's malady and the situations which face him persists to the end of the drama. It defeats all his impulses towards action and increasingly paralyzes his will.
But Hamlet is more than this creature of psychotic impulse dancing between gloom and febrile agitation. Otherwise he never would have been universally acclaimed as the greatest character in dramatic fiction. His mind seems to have a reach and a depth greater in both degree and kind than any other tragic hero in all literature. Shakespeare establishes this transcendence of Hamlet largely by enabling his melancholy to express itself in some of the most profound philosophical lyrics ever written in the English language. When Hamlet falls into the depressed phase of his malady, his mind is corroded by skepticism and pessimism. Then he feels that human life is meaningless and that the universe is a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. In expressing his despair he is not giving voice to Shakespeare's personal dejection. He is rather invoking a mood congenial to many men of his age. For even while Elizabethan audiences were charmed by the verbal harmonies which rang through Hamlet's melancholy utterances, they must frequently have detected in them commonplaces of late Renaissance pessimism. (pp. 311 -17)
On occasions Hamlet also conforms to another current dramatic conception of the melancholy man. He allows his disgust with life to turn to derision of the world and of all human life. That is, he takes on the color of a conventional stage character called "the malcontent." Jaques in As You Like It is cast for this role. His greatest delight is to sit at his ease and "rail against our mistress the world, and all our misery" [As You Like It, III. ii. 278-79]. The humorously bleak view of life which he expresses in the soliloquy beginning "All the world's a stage" [As You Like It, II. vii. 139ff.] is evidence not of Shakespeare's descent into the depths but of the malcontent's habit of mind.
When Hamlet betrays the satiric impulses of a malcontent, his remarks give edge both to his depression and to his burst of hysterical playfulness. When he strikes out against women's use of cosmetics, he is at once a tortured lover and a satirist practising his art on one of the timeworn subjects of the craft. He cries to Ophelia, "I have heard of your paintings, too, well enough. God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another; you jog, you amble, you lisp, and nickname God's creatures." [III. i. 142-45]. When he is making a fool of Polonius, he flings at him the remarks about old men which had been stock ridicule since the dawn of satire. "The satirical rogue," begins Hamlet, referring to the author of the book he has been reading, "says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit together with most weak hams" [II. ii. 196-200].
Once having understood the nature of Hamlet's pessimistic ideas, the spectator feels the melancholy to be enriched and deepened by the philosophical terms in which it is expressed. And once having sensed the rhythmic beat of Hamlet's inner life, an audience is borne through the exciting events of the plot on the irresistible tide of the character's fluctuating emotion to the final catastrophe. It thus becomes the supreme dramatic utterance of Hamlet's psychological essence.
Critics who think of Hamlet as a purely contemplative man have assumed that Shakespeare made him too introspective a person to do the final deeds demanded by the plot. In the last act, so they say, Shakespeare's Hamlet disappears to make way for an automaton better able to bring to a climax the old tale of revenge. But there is no such artistic hiatus in the drama The pendulum of Hamlet's melancholy continues to swing during the fifth act just as it has done throughout the play. Only now, as we near the catastrophe, its beat becomes more and more agitated.
The last act carries Hamlet from his despairing and macabre mood in the churchyard through his hysterical struggle with Laertes at the edge of Ophelia's grave and on to the final catastrophe. There the hot excitement of the duel, intensified by his discovery of Laertes's treachery, drives Hamlet to the highest point of his excitement. Now at last, instead of abandoning himself to extravagant speech, he plunges into extravagant action. So his revenge ironically appears, not as an act of solemn retribution, but as an uncalculated result of the frantic brandishing of a murderous sword. In acting thus Hamlet has not become a puppet of the plot. He is merely giving us a culminating exhibition of his melancholy and lending final emphasis to the tragic irony of his career.
The fatal wound in Hamlet's breast re-establishes his emotional equilibrium, as physical shocks often do in cases of this kind. With his mental restoration reappears the sweetness and the charm of his uncontaminated personality. Then he finds words to capture and retain for all time the qualities of the man who, in his happy youth, was the ideal prince and gentleman of the Renaissance.
It may be objected that this analysis destroys all the richness of Hamlet's personality, that it reduces him to a mere automaton, driven willy-nilly from one emotional extravagance to another. But the discovery of a simple aesthetic pattern in the tragedy need have no such result. It makes Hamlet's inner nature an integral part of his tragic story. It also banishes much perplexity from the spectators' minds. Hamlet ceases to be an utterly incalculable creature. Holding the clue to the precise nature of his melancholy, we come to a full and sympathetic understanding of his fate. (pp. 319-22)
To the Elizabethan audience familiar with the multifarious ways of melancholy, Hamlet's uncontrollable grief was a complete explanation of his emotional disaster. To us his anguish represents the destructive emotion which lies at the root of every disintegration of the will. For Hamlet is not insane. His reason functions normally, his mind is subtle and acute. His tragedy is inevitable because his emotions become an intricate tangle whenever life confronts him with a demand for action. Every normal man has on occasion been similarly at the mercy of tyrannical feelings. Understanding the life cycle of Hamlet's melancholy, we are able to focus our attention upon the universal meanings implicit in his situation. With emancipated imagination, we are free to feel all the irony, the pathos, and the terror in the most famous of tragedies. (p. 322)
Source: Oscar James Campbell, "What Is the Matter with Hamlet?" in The Yale Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Winter, 1943, pp. 309-22.
[Kirsch considers Hamlet a play which generates great intellectual energy, but perhaps more importantly reflects an experience of profound pain and suffering for the protagonist. According to the critic, grief is Hamlet's predominant emotion and thus acts as a controlling force in the play: the prince needs sympathy for his grief, but he does not receive it from the court, his uncle, or, most significantly, his mother. Kirsch then examines how Hamlet's intense anger at his mother has come to be interpreted by some scholars as indicating that he suffers from an Oedipus Complex, a repressed desire to kill his father and marry his mother. Followers of this theory maintain that this psychological disorder is the source of Hamlet's hesitation, for Claudius has carried out the deed which the prince himself had unconsciously wanted to perform. (See the excerpt by Ernest Jones in the section on Hamlet's character.) Questioning the validity of this interpretation, the critic asserts that Shakespeare's purpose in raising the Oedipal question was not "to call Hamlet's character into judgment, but to expand our understanding of the nature and intensity of his suffering." In addition to Gertrude's actions, the Ghost also intensifies Hamlet's grief by repeatedly demanding that he remember him, thus arresting the natural process of mourning and recovery. Another emotional catalyst for the prince is a mounting sense of loss—not only does Hamlet lose his father to death, but he also feels betrayed by his mother, loses the affections of Ophelia, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two schoolfriends, serve the king as spies. The critic contends that Act V represents a turning point in Hamlet's character, for, paradoxically, the termination of his grief comes at the same time as his realization that he faces his own death.]
Hamlet is a tragedy perhaps most often, and justly, admired for its intellectual energy. Hamlet's mind comprehends a universe of ideas, and he astonishes us with the copiousness and eloquence and luminousness of his thoughts. But I think we should remember, as Hamlet is compelled to remember, that behind these thoughts, and usually their occasion, is a continuous and tremendous experience of pain and suffering. We are accustomed to thinking of the other major tragedies, Lear and Othello especially, as plays whose greatest genius lies in the depiction of the deepest movements of human feeling. I think we should attend to such movements in Hamlet as well. As Hamlet himself tells us, it is his heart which he unpacks with words, it is against what he calls the "heart-ache" [III. i. 61] of human existence that he protests in his most famous soliloquy (and this is the first use of the term in that sense the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] records), and there are few plays in the canon in which the word "heart" itself is more prominent. (p. 17)
In Shakespeare's play. . . [Hamlet] talks explicitly of sorrow and blood, relating them directly to the ghost as well as each other in the scene in his mother's bedchamber in which the ghost appears for the last time. "Look you," he tells his mother, who characteristically cannot see the ghost,
how pale he glares. His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones, Would make them capable.—Do not look upon me Lest with this piteous action you convert My stern effects; then what I have to do Will want true colour—tears perchance for blood. [III. iv. 125-30]
These lines suggest synapses between grief and vengeance which help make the whole relation between the plot and emotional content of Hamlet intelligible, but of more immediate importance to an understanding of the play is Hamlet's own emphasis in this speech, his focus on his grief and the profound impact which the ghost has upon it.
The note of grief is sounded by Hamlet in his first words in the play, before he ever sees the ghost, in his opening dialogue with the King and his mother. The Queen says to him:
Good Hamlet, cast thy nlghted colour off, And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark. Do not for ever with thy vailed lids Seek for thy noble father in the dust. Thou know'st 'tis common—all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity. [I. ii. 68-73]
Hamlet answers, "Ay, madam, it is common." "If it be, / Why seems it so particular with thee?" [I. ii. 74-5] she says; and he responds,
Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems. 'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, Nor customary suits of solemn black, Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath, No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, Nor the dejected haviour of the visage, Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, That can denote me truly. These, indeed, seem; For they are actions that a man might play; But I have that within which passes show— These but the trappings and the suits of woe. [I. ii. 76-86]
Though Hamlet's use of the conventional Elizabethan forms of mourning expresses his hostility to an unfeeling court, he is at the same time speaking deeply of an experience which everyone who has lost someone close to him must recognize. He is speaking of the early stages of grief, of its shock, of its inner and still hidden sense of loss, and trying to describe what is not fully describable—the literally inexpressible wound whose immediate consequence is the dislocation, if not transvaluation, of our customary perceptions and feelings and attachments to life. It is no accident that this speech sets in motion Hamlet's preoccupation with seeming and being, including the whole train of images of acting which is crystallized in the play within the play. The peculiar centripetal pull of anger and sorrow which the speech depicts remains as the central undercurrent of that preoccupation, most notably in Hamlet's later soliloquy about the player's imitation of Hecuba's grief:
Is it not monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit That from her working all his visage wann'd; Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect, A broken voice, and his whole function suiting With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing! For Hecuba! What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? What would he do, Had he the motive and the cue for passion That I have? [II. ii. 551-62]
Hamlet then goes on to rebuke himself for his own inaction, but the player's imitation of grief nonetheless moves him internally, as nothing else can, in fact to take action, as he conceives of the idea of staging a play to test both the ghost and the conscience of the King.
After Hamlet finishes answering his mother in the earlier court scene, the King offers his own consolation for Hamlet's grief:
'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father; But you must know your father lost a father; That father lost lost his; and the survivor bound, In filial obligation, for some term To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever In obstinate condolement is a course Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief; It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, A heart unfortified, a mind impatient, An understanding simple and unschool'd; For what we know must be, and is as common As any the most vulgar thing to sense, Why should we in our peevish opposition Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven, A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, To reason most absurd; whose common theme Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried, From the first corse till he that died to-day, 'This must be so'. [I. ii. 87-106]
There is much in this consolation of philosophy which is spiritually and psychologically sound, and to which every human being must eventually accommodate himself, but it comes at the wrong time, from the wrong person, and in its essential belittlement of the heartache of grief, it comes with the wrong inflection. It is a dispiriting irony of scholarship on this play that so many psychoanalytic and theological critics should essentially take such words, from such a King, as a text for their own indictments of Hamlet's behavior. What a person who is grieving needs, of course, is not the consolation of words, even words which are true, but sympathy—and this Hamlet does not receive, not from the court, not from his uncle, and more important, not from his own mother, to whom his grief over his father's death is alien and unwelcome.
After the King and Queen leave the stage, it is to his mother's lack of sympathy not only for him but for her dead husband that Hamlet turns in particular pain [in I. ii. 129ff.]. . . . This is an exceptionally suggestive speech and the first of many which seem to invite Oedipal interpretations of the play. About these I do not propose to speak directly, except to remark that the source of Hamlet's so-called Oedipal anxiety is real and present, it is not an archaic and repressed fantasy. Hamlet does perhaps protest too much, in this soliloquy and elsewhere, about his father's superiority to his uncle (and to himself), and throughout the play he is clearly preoccupied with his mother's sexual appetite; but these ambivalences and preoccupations, whatever their unconscious roots, are elicited by a situation, palpable and external to him, in which they are acted out. The Oedipal configurations of Hamlet's predicament, in other words, inhabit the whole world of the play, they are not simply a function of his characterization, even though they resonate with it profoundly. There is every reason, in reality, for a son to be troubled and decomposed by the appetite of a mother who betrays his father's memory by her incestuous marriage, within a month, to his brother, and murderer, and there is surely more than reason for a son to be obsessed for a time with a father who literally returns from the grave to haunt him. But in any case, I think that at least, early in the play, if not later, such Oedipal echoes cannot be disentagled from Hamlet's grief, and Shakespeare's purpose in arousing them is not to call Hamlet's character to judgment, but to expand our understanding of the nature and intensity of his suffering. For all of these resonant events come upon Hamlet while he has still not even begun to assimilate the loss of a living father, while he is still freshly mourning, seemingly alone in Denmark, for the death of a King, and their major psychic impact and importance, I think, is that they protract and vastly dilate the process of his grief. (pp. 18-22)
As I have already suggested, in his first speech to his mother, "Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems" [I. ii. 76], Hamlet speaks from the very heart of grief of the supervening reality of his loss and of its inward wound, and I think the accent of normal, if intense, grief remains dominant in his subsequent soliloquy as well. It is true that in that soliloquy his mind turns to thoughts of "self-slaughter," but those thoughts notwithstanding, the emphasis of the speech is not one of self-reproach. It is not himself, but the uses of the world which Hamlet finds "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable" [I. ii. 133], and his mother's frailty suggests a rankness and grossness in nature itself. The "plaints" against his mother which occupy the majority of this speech are conscious and both his anger and ambivalence towards her fully justified. Even on the face of it, her hasty remarriage makes a mockery of his father's memory that intensifies the real pain and loneliness of his loss; and if he also feels his own ego threatened, and if there is a deeper cadence of grief in his words, it is because he is already beginning to sense that the shadow of a crime "with the primal eldest curse upon't" [III. ill. 37] has fallen upon him, a crime which is not delusional and not his, and which eventually inflicts a punishment upon him which tries his spirit and destroys his life. The last lines of Hamlet's soliloquy are:
It is not, nor it cannot come to good. But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue. [I. ii. 158-59]
These lines show Hamlet's prescience, not his disease, and the instant he completes them, Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo enter to tell him of the apparition of his dead father, the ghost which is haunting the kingdom and which has been a part of our own consciousness from the very outset of the play.
Hamlet's subsequent meeting with the ghost of his father is, it seems to me, both the structural and psychic nexus of the play. The scene is so familiar to us that the extraordinary nature of its impact on Hamlet can be overlooked, even in the theater. The whole scene deserves quotation, but I will concentrate upon only the last part of it. The scene begins with Hamlet expressing pity for the ghost and the ghost insisting that he attend to a more "serious" purpose:
Ghost. List list, O, list! If thou didst ever thy dear father love—Ham. O God!Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. [I. v. 22-5]
The ghost then confirms to Hamlet's prophetic soul that "The serpent that did sting thy father's life / Now wears his crown" [I. v. 39], and he proceeds to describe both Gertrude's remarriage and his own murder in his orchard in terms that seem deliberately to evoke echoes of the serpent in the garden of Eden. The ghost ends his recital saying:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible! If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not; Let not the royal bed of Denmark be A couch for luxury and damned incest. But, howsomever thou pursuest this act, Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive Against thy mother aught; leave her to heaven, And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once. The glowworm shows the matin to be near, And gins to pale his uneffectual fire. Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me. [Exit] [I. v. 80-91]
Hamlet's answering speech, as the ghost exits, is profound, and it predicates the state of his mind and feeling until the beginning of the last act of the play:
O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart; And you, my sinews, grow not instant old, But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee! Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat In this distracted globe. Remember thee! Yea, from the table of my memory I'll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmix'd with baser matter. Yes, by heaven! O most pernicious woman! O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! My tables—meet it is I set it down That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain; At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark. [Writing.] So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word: It is 'Adieu, adieu! Remember me'. I have sworn't. [I. v. 92-112]
This is a crucial and dreadful vow for many reasons, but the most important . . . is that the ghost's injunction to remember him, an injunction which Shakespeare's commitment to the whole force of the revenge genre never really permits either us or Hamlet to question, brutally intensifies Hamlet's mourning and makes him incorporate in its work what we would normally regard as the pathology of depression. For . . . the essence of the work of mourning is the internal process by which the ego [the organized conscious self] heals its wound, differentiates itself from the object, and slowly, bit by bit, cuts its libidinal [emotional energy tied to primitive biological urges] ties with the one who has died. Yet this is precisely what the ghost forbids, and forbids, moreover, with a lack of sympathy for Hamlet's grief which is even more pronounced than the Queen's. He instead tells Hamlet that if ever he loved his father, he should remember him; he tells Hamlet of Gertrude's incestuous remarriage in a way which makes her desire, if not the libido itself, seem inseparable from murder and death; and finally he tells Hamlet to kill. Drawing upon and crystallizing the deepest energies of the revenge play genre, the ghost thus enjoins Hamlet to identify with him in his sorrow and to give murderous purpose to his anger. He consciously compels in Hamlet, in other words, the regressive movement towards identification and sadism which together usually constitute the unconscious dynamics of depression. It is only after this scene that Hamlet feels punished with what he later calls "a sore distraction" [V. ii. 230] and that he begins to reproach himself for his own nature and to meditate on suicide. The ghost, moreover, not only compels this process in Hamlet, like much of the world of the play, he incarnates it. The effect of his appearance and behest to Hamlet is to literalize Hamlet's subsequent movement toward the realm of death which he inhabits, and away from all of the libidinal ties which nourish life and make it desirable, away from "all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past" [I. v. 99-100] As C. S. Lewis insisted long ago [in his "Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem," Proceedings of the British Academy, 28 (1942)], the ghost leads Hamlet into a spiritual and psychic region which seems poised between the living and the dead. It is significant that Hamlet is subsequently described in images that suggest the ghost's countenance and significant too, as we shall see later, that Hamlet's own appearance and state of mind change, at the beginning of Act V, at the moment when it is possible to say that he has finally come to terms with the ghost and with his father's death and has completed the work of mourning.
I think Shakespeare intends us always to retain a sense of intensified mourning rather than of disease in Hamlet, partly because Hamlet is always conscious of the manic roles he plays and is always lucid with Horatio, but also because his thoughts and feelings turn outward as well as inward and his behavior is finally a symbiotic response to the actually diseased world of the play. And though that diseased world, poisoned at the root by a truly guilty King, eventually represents an overwhelming tangle of guilt, its main emphasis, both for Hamlet and for us, is the experience of grief. The essential focus of the action as well as the source of its consistent pulsations of feeling, the pulsations which continuously charge both Hamlet's sorrow and his anger (and in which the whole issue of delay is subsumed) is the actuality of conscious, not unconscious loss. For in addition to the death of his father in this play, Hamlet suffers the loss amounting to death of all those persons, except Horatio, whom he has most loved and who have most animated and given meaning to his life. He loses his mother, he loses Ophelia, and he loses his friends; and we can have no question that these losses are real and inescapable.
The loss of his mother is the most intense and the hardest to discuss. One should perhaps leave her to heaven as the ghost says, but even he cannot follow that advice. As I have already suggested, Hamlet is genuinely betrayed by her. She betrays him most directly, I think, by her lack of sympathy for him. She is clearly sexually drawn and loyal to her new husband, and she is said to live almost by Hamlet's looks, but she is essentially inert, oblivious to the whole realm of human experience through which her son travels. She seems not to care, and seems particularly not to care about his grief. Early in the play, when Claudius and others are in hectic search of the reason for Hamlet's melancholy, she says with bovine imperturbability, "I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage" [II. ii. 56-7]. That o'erhasty and incestuous marriage, of course, creates a reservoir of literally grievous anger in Hamlet. It suggests to him the impermanence upon which the Player King later insists, the impermanence of human affection as well as of life, and it also, less obviously, compels him to think of the violation of the union which gave him his own life and being. It is very difficult, in any circumstance, to think precisely upon our parents and their relationship without causing deep tremors in our selves, and for Hamlet the circumstances are extraordinary. In addition marriage itself has a sacramental meaning to him which has been largely lost to modern sensibility. Like the ghost, Hamlet always speaks reverently of the sanctity of marital vows, and the one occasion on which he mocks marriage is in fact an attack upon Claudius's presumption to have replaced his father. As he is leaving for England, Hamlet addresses Claudius and says, "Farewell, dear Mother." Claudius says, "Thy loving father, Hamlet," and Hamlet answers, "My mother: father and mother is man and wife; man and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother" [IV. iii. 51-2]. Behind the Scriptural image in this ferocious attack upon Claudius, it seems to me, is both Hamlet's memory of his father's true marriage with his mother, a memory which has an almost pre-lapsarian resonance, and a visualization of the concupiscence through which his mother has defiled that sacrament and made Claudius's guilt a part of her own being. This same adulterated image of matrimony, I think, lies behind his intense reproaches both against himself and Ophelia in the speech in which he urges Ophelia to go to a nunnery:
Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? [III. i. 120-28]
Some of Hamlet's anger against Ophelia spills over, as it does in this speech, from his rage against his mother, but Ophelia herself gives him cause. I don't think there is any reason to doubt her own word, at the beginning of the play, that Hamlet has importuned her "with love / In honourable fashion . . . And hath given countenance to his speech . . . With almost all the holy vows of heaven" [I. iii. 110-14]; and there is certainly no reason to question his own passionate declaration at the end of the play, over her grave, that he loved her deeply.
I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers Could not, with all their quantity of love, Make up my sum. [V. i. 269-71]
Both Hamlet's grief and his task constrain him from realizing this love, but Ophelia's own behavior clearly intensifies his frustration and anguish. By keeping the worldly and disbelieving advice of her brother and father as "watchman" to her "heart" [I. iii. 46], she denies the heart's affection not only in Hamlet but in herself; and both denials add immeasurably to Hamlet's sense of loneliness and loss—and anger. Her rejection of him echoes his mother's inconstancy and denies him the possibility even of imagining the experience of loving and being loved by a woman at a time when he obviously needs such love most profoundly; and her rejection of her own heart reminds him of the evil court whose shadow, he accurately senses, has fallen upon her and directly threatens him. Most of Hamlet's speeches to Ophelia condense all of these feelings. They are spoken from a sense of suppressed as well as rejected love, for the ligaments between him and Ophelia are very deep in the play. It is she who first reports on his melancholy transformation, "with a look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors" [II. i. 79-81]; it is she who remains most acutely conscious of the nobility of mind and form which has, she says, been "blasted with ecstasy" [III. i. 160]; and it is she, after Hamlet has gone to England, who most painfully takes up his role and absorbs his grief to the point of real madness and suicide.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are less close to Hamlet's heart, and because they are such unequivocal sponges of the King, he can release his anger against them without any ambivalence, but at least initially they too amplify both his and our sense of the increasing emptiness of his world. We are so accustomed to treating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as vaguely comic twins that we can forget the great warmth with which Hamlet first welcomes them to Denmark and the urgency and openness of his plea for the continuation of their friendship. "I will not sort you with the rest of my servants," he tells them,
for, to speak to you like an honest man, I am most dreadfully attended. But, in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?Ros. To visit you, my lord; no other occasion.Ham. Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks; but I thank you; and sure, dear friends, my thanks are too dear a half-penny. Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, come, deal justly with me. Come, come; nay, speak.Guil. What should we say, my lord?Ham. Why any thing. But to th'purpose: you were sent for; and there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to colour; I know the good King and Queen have sent for you.Ros. To what end, my lord?Ham. That you must teach me. But let me conjure you by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer can charge you withal, be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for or no? [II. ii. 267-88]
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course, cannot be direct with him, and Hamlet cuts his losses with them quite quickly and eventually quite savagely. But it is perhaps no accident that immediately following this exchange, when he must be fully realizing the extent to which, except for Horatio, he is now utterly alone in Denmark with his grief and his task, he gives that grief a voice which includes in its deep sadness and its sympathetic imagination a conspectus of Renaissance thought about the human condition. (pp. 24-31)
At the beginning of Act V, when Hamlet returns from England, that world seems to change, and Hamlet with it. Neither the countenance of the ghost nor his tormented and tormenting spirit seem any longer to be present in the play, and Hamlet begins to alter in state of mind as he already has in his dress. He stands in the graveyard which visually epitomizes the play's preoccupation with death, a scene which the clowns insistently associate with Adam's sin and Hamlet himself with Cain's, and he contemplates the "chap-fall'n" skull of the man who carried him on his back when he was a small child. His mood, like the scene, is essentially sombre, but though there is a suggestion by Horatio that he is still considering death "too curiously" [V. i. 205], there is no longer the sense that he and his world are conflated in the convulsive activity of grief. That activity seems to be drawing to a close, and his own sense of differentiation is decisively crystallized when, in a scene reminiscent of the one in which he reacts to the imitation of Hecuba's grief, he responds to Laertes's enactment of a grief which seems a parody of his own:
What is he whose grief Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow Conjures the wand'ring stars, and makes them stand Like wonder-wounded hearers. This is I, Hamlet the Dane. [V. i. 254-58]
It is an especially painful but inescapable paradox of Hamlet's tragedy that the final ending of his grief and the liberation of his self would be co-extensive with the apprehension of his own death. After agreeing to the duel with Laertes that he is confident of winning, he nevertheless tells Horatio, "But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart; but it is no matter" [V. ii. 212-13]; and when Horatio urges him to postpone the duel, he says, in the famous speech which signifies, if it does not explain, the decisive change of his spirit:
Not a whit, we defy augury: there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man owes of aught he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be. [V. ii. 219-24]
The theological import of these lines, with their luminous reference to Matthew, has long been recognized, but the particular emphasis upon death also suggests a psychological coordinate. For it seems to me that what makes Hamlet's acceptance of Providence finally intelligible and credible to us emotionally, what confirms the truth of it to our own experience, is our sense, as well as his, that the great anguish and struggle of his grief is over, and that he has completed the work of mourning. He speaks to Horatio quietly, almost serenely, with the unexultant calm which characterizes the end of the long, inner struggle of grief. He has looked at the face of death in his father's ghost, he has endured death and loss in all the human beings he has loved, and he now accepts those losses as an inevitable part of his own condition. He recognizes and accepts his own death. "The readiness is all" suggests the crystallization of his awareness of the larger dimension of time which has enveloped his tragedy from the start, including the revenge drama of Fortinbras's grievances on the outskirts of the action and that of the appalling griefs of Polonius's family deep inside it, but the line also most specifically states what is perhaps the last and most difficult task of mourning, his own readiness to die. (pp. 31-3)
Hamlet is an immensely complicated tragedy, and anything one says about it leaves one haunted by what has not been said. But precisely in a play whose suggestiveness has no end, it seems to me especially important to remember what actually happens. Hamlet himself is sometimes most preoccupied with delay, and with the whole attendant metaphysical issue of the relation between thought and action, but as his own experience shows, there is finally no action that can be commensurate with his grief, not even the killing of a guilty King, and it is Hamlet's experience of grief, and his recovery from it, to which we ourselves respond most deeply. He is a young man who comes home from his university to find his father dead and his mother remarried to his father's murderer. Subsequently the woman he loves rejects him, he is betrayed by his friends, and finally and most painfully, he is betrayed by a mother whose mutability seems to strike at the heart of human affection. In the midst of these waves of losses, which seem themselves to correspond to the spasms of grief, he is visited by the ghost of his father, who places upon him a proof of love and a task of vengeance which he cannot refuse without denying his own being. The ghost draws upon the emotional taproot of the revenge play genre and dilates the natural sorrow and anger of Hamlet's multiple griefs until they include all human frailty in their protest and sympathy and touch upon the deepest synapses of grief in our own lives, not only for those who have died, but for those, like ourselves, who are still alive. (p. 35)
Source: Arthur Kirsch, "Hamlet's Grief," in ELH, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 17-36.
Richard D. Altick
[Altick argues that Shakespeare not only emphasized the theme of bodily corruption in Hamlet, but also the "revolting odors that accompany the process." The critic then provides an analysis of various elements of the play, focusing on such images of decay as the sun as an agent of corruption, cancerous infection, and the stench which accompanies rotting. This stench, Altick observes, represents the cunning and lecherousness of Claudius's evil which has corrupted the whole kingdom of Denmark. According to the critic, these and other image patterns demonstrate that "the text reeks with terms symbolic of the loathsomeness of moral disintegration." Altick also discusses the olfactory [relating to the sense of smell) connotations of such key words as "foul," "rank," and "offence," and examines instances of punning (a kind of wordplay which manipulates the use of two words with different meanings based on their similarity of sound) between the terms "offence" and "offend."]
In writing Hamlet, Shakespeare was preoccupied with the corruption of mortal flesh. From the famous first statement of the idea in Marcellus' "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" [I. iv. 90] to Hamlet's discourse with the Gravediggers on the lamentable condition of the bodies they disinter, the reader of the play may never long forget that after death the human body putrifies. To Shakespeare's contemporaries, of course, the idea was the most familiar of commonplaces, the center of a cluster of time-worn platitudes which, by making pious capital of a universal biological process, reminded man that flesh was foul and that even a king could go a progress through the guts of a beggar. It was a commonplace, but much more. Every Elizabethan citizen knew from personal observation the reek of a gangrenous wound or a cancerous sore. Thus the fact that human flesh may well begin to rot even before death, and that the process is accelerated and even more loathsome afterwards—witness the stench of unburied "pocky corses" in plague time and of bones being transferred to the charnel house after their sojourn in hallowed ground—was removed from the abstract realm of folk-say and sermon, and made immediate and unforgettable by the nauseating testimony of the nostrils.
The ancient moral therefore was constantly and repellently illustrated in the everyday life of Shakespeare's time. In his plays generally, Shakespeare habitually uses allusions to the rotting of flesh as a vivid way of symbolizing repugnant ideas. In Hamlet, however, he not only lays heavier emphasis than in any other play upon bodily corruption, but stresses, to a degree found nowhere else, the revolting odors that accompany the process. The play indeed may justly be said to be enveloped in an atmosphere of stench. The stink that rises from dead flesh emblematizes the sheer loathsomeness of the sort of evil, cunning and lecherous, with which Claudius has corrupted the whole kingdom; the fact that once begun, the process of rotting gains inexorable headway and the odor it generates spreads far and wide, suggests the dynamic and infectious quality of sin; and the further fact that the process transforms the beautiful human body into a horrid, malodorous mass of corruption is symbolic of the dread effect of sin upon the human soul. It is not only to Hamlet that, as G. Wilson Knight has remarked, "the universe smells of mortality"; all the leading characters manifest, through their choice of language, their awareness of the odor, originating in the foul soul of Claudius, that permeates the kingdom.
Since the detailed work of Caroline Spurgeon and Wolfgang Clemen especially, no student of Hamlet has been unaware of the way in which images of corrupting disease dominate the poetic fabric of the play. But the importance of the accompanying suggestion of nauseating smell has not, I think, been generally appreciated. It is not a matter of images alone—images represent simply the points at which the hovering theme is made explicit by embodiment in a metaphor—but also of the many single related words scattered through the text whose sensory suggestion, dormant now as it was not in Shakespeare's time, is overlooked unless the chief image-motif is constantly recalled.
The opening scene has long been admired as a masterpiece of atmospheric writing. Francisco's line in the first minute of the play, "'Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart" [I. i. 8-9], not only defines the foreboding, uneasy atmosphere of the setting, but, by associating the idea of sickness with an as yet unknown evil, initiates the use of a word which from time to time will reinforce the play's dominant image. Before the end of the scene sick appears in a new context:
the moist star Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse [I. i. 118-20]
—and by the recurrence of the word in such an image we are led to feel that the disturbance in the common soldier's heart is simply a reflection, in microcosm, of the vast upset which is visiting Elsinore now as it did the state of Rome a little ere the mightiest Julius fell. (Brutus, it will be recalled, had "some sick offence" [Julius Caesar, II. i. 268] within his mind the very night that the ominous portents visited Rome.) The association between sickness and night, thus formed, is further defined when Marcellus, in one of the few lyrical passages of the play, speaks of the happy Christmas season when "the nights are wholesome" [I. i. 162], and thus makes clear that in Elsinore, at the present moment, the nights are not wholesome. The Elizabethans, of course, feared the night air as the carrier of contagion, especially from the putrescent matter in marshes and churchyards. Thus this early allusion to the unwholesomeness of the Elsinore nights begins the process, to be continued throughout the play, of appealing to the medical, the epidemiological lore of the contemporary playgoer.
This heretofore general sense of sickness is localized and given specific connection with physical decay in the second line Hamlet utters. In response to the King's question, "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" Hamlet says, "Not so, my lord. I am too much i' th' sun" [I. ii. 66-7]. The usual interpretation of the line (a quibble on son and sun—I am too conscious of my character as son, and I am uncomfortable in the presence of the King, the sun) does not convey the entire meaning. Claudius is the sun, of course; but what is often overlooked is that the sun is a powerful agent of corruption. Since Hamlet does not yet recognize the King's vast influence for evil, the line is ironical; only looking back, especially from the point where Hamlet envisions the sun breeding maggots in a dead dog, do we realize that he is characterizing the King more truly than he can, at this point, know. Like the sun, particularly in time of plague, the King can spread corruption wherever his influence falls, and Hamlet is exposed to the full glare of that malign power. The idea contained in the line is resumed in "O that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" [I. ii. 129-30]. Hamlet wishes that the physical disintegration which the sun promotes would be his own immediate fortune. (A simpler, and equally plausible, explanation which still connects the two separate passages would be in terms of the sun as the melter, not of flesh, but of snow. But the "god kissing carrion" image later on [II. ii. 182], which picks up the "too much i' th' sun" notion again, inclines me to the former interpretation.) The rest of Hamlet's speech, contrasting with the high sentences of the King's address to him, is necked with base images of decay (the world is overgrown by "things rank and gross in nature" [I.ii. 136]—rank in two senses) and of parasitism, which is often linked with decay (the Queen had clung to the elder Hamlet "As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on" [I. ii. 144-45]). There may even be a double pun in "How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!" [I. ii. 133-34]. To an Elizabethan auditor, the obvious meaning of the word stale in context, "musty," would have chimed with a second meaning, "prostitute"—appropriate enough in the light of what Hamlet proceeds to say about his mother—and even with a third, "horse's urine," which would add a certain measure to the malodorousness of the whole text and detract nothing from the auditor's appreciation of the hopelessness of Hamlet's outlook.
The concluding lines of the scene,
I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come! Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise, Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes [I. ii. 255-57]
carry on the association begun in the first scene between night and apparitions, and relate it to the image-pattern. The allusion is to the way in which decaying animal (or vegetable) matter, though deeply buried, seems to rise again at night in miasmatic mists or phosphorescent glows, or in phantasmic shapes which old superstition identified as ghosts. Evil, Hamlet's image says, may be put out of sight, but it will return, in some new manifestation which will affront not only the eyes but—the force of foul is clear—the nose. It may be no accident that in the first minute of the next scene, which followed without pause on the Elizabethan stage, Shakespeare has Laertes speak of violets and perfume; an effective contrast to the repeated foul of Hamlet's last lines.
At this point, there enters a second corruption image, which shifts attention from the putrescence of a dead organism to that in a still living one. Laertes' image "The canker galls the infants of the spring / Too oft before their buttons be disclos'd" [I. iii. 39-40], is usually, and rightly, read as referring to the action of a caterpillar, in young buds. But the other, equally common, meaning of canker—cancer—is likely to have occurred as well to the hearers of the lines. In the next scene the idea of cancerous decay in a living organism recurs, although still only by implication. In his rambling, time-filling discourse to Horatio and Marcellus as they await the Ghost, Hamlet dwells upon the "vicious mole of nature" (some particular shortcoming) in certain men which leads them "in the general censure [to] take corruption" [I. iv. 24-35]—i.e., to be condemned for that single fault. The image, although interrupted and blurred by Hamlet's nervous loquacity, is plainly suggestive of a spreading cancer (the "vicious" makes it plain that he is not thinking of an ordinary mole or skin blemish), which leads to total infection. The cancerous nature of evil is about to be illustrated by the Ghost's narrative. "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" [I. iv. 90], says Marcellus as he watches the Ghost lead Hamlet off.
The Ghost tells his story to Hamlet in language dominated by a sense of rottenness, disease, and stench. He is "confin'd to fast in fires," he says, "Til the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg'd away" [I. v. 11-13]. The word foul, given no less prominence than the key-word murther, reverberates in his solemn lines, which are among the most dramatic in all the play:
Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.Hamlet. Murder?Ghost. Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul strange, and unnatural. [I. v. 25-8]
"The fat weed / That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf," spoken of in the lines just following [I. v. 32-3], continue the idea of foulness; as [George Lyman] Kittredge notes, "the very existence of a slimy water-weed seems to be decay; it thrives in corruption and 'rots itself' through its lazy, stagnant life." The ear of Denmark is "rankly abused." Lust, says the Ghost, now for the first time applying the idea of repulsive odor to the sexual sin of Claudius and Gertrude,
though to a radiant angel link'd, Will sate itself in a celestial bed And prey on garbage [I. v. 55-7)
—the olfactory suggestion of which is made explicit by the contrast provided by the very next line: "But soft! Methinks I scent the morning air" [I. v. 58]. Rather ironically, considering the state of his own mind, as manifested in his language, the Ghost commands Hamlet, "Taint not thy mind" [I. v. 85]. But by this time evil has as vile a smell to Hamlet as it does to his father; and, being Hamlet, he reveals it by the wild and whirling play on offend/offence, to which we shall return presently.
Even in the succeeding scene, involving Polonius, Reynaldo, and Ophelia, though the subject-matter has no relation to what has just preceded, the suggestion of vile smell is not entirely absent. Polonius directs Reynaldo to take care not to set afloat any rumors about Laertes that are "so rank / As may dishonour him" but rather to "breathe his faults so quaintly / That they may seem the taints of liberty" (II. i. 20-1, 31-2). But it is only when Hamlet is seen again that the evil-smell theme is signally resumed. Hamlet identifies Polonius as a fishmonger, a term which, in addition to other appropriate aspects that have been pointed out by the commentators, has its own odorous value. And then he reads in his book: "For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion—Have you a daughter?" he suddenly asks. "Let her not walk i' th' sun. Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive" [II. ii. 181-85|. And here we have a recurrence of the image already noted in the second scene of the play: Claudius as the sun, and the sun as an agent of noisome corruption, which, according to the pseudo-science of the time, resulted in turn in the breeding of new life. Hamlet is now fully conscious of the evil influence of the King, and he warns that Ophelia too is endangered by the same corruptive force which he had, albeit unconsciously, identified in his "I am too much i' th' sun"—though Ophelia, as a woman, is imperilled in a different way. Hamlet, his father, Gertrude, and now (Hamlet fears) Ophelia: the roll of the King's victims is increasing; the evil generated by Claudius' sick soul is spreading insidiously through the court. No wonder, then, that to Hamlet the air "appeareth no other thing . . . than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours" |II. ii. 302-03]: vapors spreading the evil of a dead crime far and wide. "What a piece of work is a man" [II. ii. 303] indeed—a man whose sin has the power so to infect a whole kingdom. A far cry, this Hamlet whose "imaginations are as foul / As Vulcan's stithy" [III. ii. 83-4]—any Elizabethan's nostrils would have quivered, as ours may not, to the suggestion of thick smoke and the reek of seared horses' hoofs—from the young man who once was accustomed to utter to Ophelia "words of so sweet breath compos'd" [III. i. 97]. Where now is the perfume of his former discourse?
The hovering suggestions of physical contagion in the night air, which had been lost since the Ghost scene, are brought to a new focus in Lucianus' concluding incantation in the play-within-a-play:
Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected, With Hecate's ban thrice blasted, thrice infected, Thy natural magic and dire property On wholesome life usurp immediately. [III. ii. 257-60]
Rank, midnight, blasted, infected have powerful connotations of physical evil, especially as contrasted with wholesome. And the connection of these midnight horrors with the stench of putrifying flesh is made specific in Hamlet's speech at the close of the scene:
'Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world. [III. ii. 388-90]
The following scenes (III. iii-iv) have the highest incidence of corruption-smell images and puns in the play, which is but natural when we recall that these scenes are the direct, if delayed, sequel to the odor-laden interview with the Ghost. The King's speech beginning "O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven" [III. iii. 36], with its repeated use of words like offence, strong, foul, and corrupted, sets the tone of all that follows. Hamlet refers to Claudius as "a mildew'd ear / Blasting his wholesome brother" [III. iv. 64-5], mildew'd providing a clear image of bad-smelling fungi communicating infection to a hitherto healthy organism. The Queen envisions her soul as full of "such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct" [III. iv. 90-1], a phrase suggestive of cancerous or other corruptive growth. And, resuming the very imagery which the Ghost had used to describe the incest, Hamlet bursts out:
Nay, but to live In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love Over the nasty sty! [III. iv. 91-4]
"Mother, for love of grace," he continues after the reappearance of the Ghost,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul, That not your trespass but my madness speaks. It will but skin and film the ulcerous place, Whiles rank corruption, mining all within, Infects unseen [III. iv. 144-49]
—a deservedly admired image of the insidious action of a cancer in or near the skin, the stench of which is made unmistakably vivid by "rank corruption." Finally, Hamlet begs the Queen henceforth to avoid the "reechy kisses" of her lecherous husband. In Hamlet's mind the evil of the Queen's incest is firmly symbolized by a noisome smell; the marriage bed is associated with garbage and the nasty sty; and her sense of guilt is a cancerous sore whose spread cannot be arrested by any rationalization. In the following scene (IV.i), by a nice stroke of irony, Claudius picks up the same image of cancer and applies it, in the presence of the Queen, to Hamlet's affliction:
so much was our love We would not understand what was most fit, But, like the owner of a foul disease, To keep it from divulging, let it feed Even on the pith of life. [IV. i. 19-23]
"Diseases desperate grown," he decides after an interval—anticipating Hamlet's own conclusion following his return from England—"By desperate appliance are reliev'd, / Or not at all" [IV. iii. 9-11]. Hamlet does nothing to alleviate the morbidity of Claudius' mind when he proceeds to lecture him on the manner in which we mortal men "fat ourselves for maggots," and to assure him that, if Polonius' corpse is not meanwhile discovered, "you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby" [IV. iii. 22-3, 36-7].
Except for small reminders in the scene between Claudius and Laertes (allusions to plague, sickness, pleurisy [excess], the quick o' the ulcer, and a gangrenous sore arising from the scratch of a poisoned sword), the corruption-smell theme lapses until the graveyard scene, when, in a sense, it reaches its climax. The significance of this scene in terms of the motif we have been tracing lies not so much in the actual lines—although the Gravedigger's instructive remarks on the number of years required for a corpse to rot after the laying-in, and Hamlet's subsequent exclamation of disgust upon smelling Yorick's skull are parts of the pattern—as in the abundant suggestions which the man's mortality, the place where flesh, whose corruption may have begun in life, was laid in earth—and where flesh continued to rot after death, its fetid exhalations assaulting men's noses and not merely making their gorges rise but warning them of the danger of fatal contagion. All the preceding imagery and word-play dealing with the odor of mortality have pointed toward this scene; and after the scene is ended, the motif is heard but once more, in Hamlet's simple query to Horatio:
And is't not to be damn'd To let this canker of our nature come In further evil? [V. ii. 68-70]
In this tracing of the various forms which imagery suggestive of corruption and evil odor takes in Hamlet, we have not noticed the occurrence of dozens of detached words which support the dominant motif. Read in their immediate context, they usually seem colorless, with little metaphorical force; but read against the whole atmospheric pattern as we have just outlined it, they are revealed to have an indispensable relation to it. The text reeks with terms symbolic of the loathsomeness of moral disintegration.
The pervasiveness of the idea of the odor of disease in the play is due no more to the formal metaphors which incorporate it than to the simple recurrence of the words sick (sickly, sicklied) and disease, even when these do not in their context refer to physical illness. (Indeed, there is no actual bodily sickness in the play, unless it is the rather ambiguous malady of the Player King.) To the Elizabethans, in days long before asepsis had robbed illness of some of its malodorousness, sick and diseased probably had a specific sensory association which is now largely lost. The often-noted emphasis on these words in the play is not designed to convey the idea of an unhealthy state of mind, of moral degeneration, alone; the words contribute their share to the general effect of physical smell which in the images is so strongly associated with disease.
In our time foul has lost most of its power of sensory suggestion. It had begun to do so in Shakespeare's time, and we may doubt whether, on most of the scores of occasions upon which the word is used in his plays, it evoked any sensory reaction in his audience. Normally it was a rather neutral adjective of censure. But at the same time the word did continue to designate the odor generated by decaying flesh, and in appropriate contexts it did retain an unmistakable connotative power, roughly equivalent perhaps to our epithet stinking. In Hamlet this specific connotation is predominant, as it is nowhere else in the canon, because the word foul occurs frequently in conjunction with other words which serve to develop its definite, but normally latent, olfactory reference. Because of this, and because of the presence in the text of so many other passages suggestive of smell, the word, no matter how casually used, has a special significance. It is noteworthy that in two separate passages, both of them quoted above, Shakespeare uses foul in rhetorical repetition, as if to make sure that its full connotative value is not lost upon the audience.
The repulsive sensory connotation of rank ("corrupt, foul, festering") in some contexts is obscured by another meaning. But by neglecting the possibility of a pun, we fail to realize how this word too supports the prevailing theme. Actually, in several instances, in which the primary meaning is "luxuriant, overgrown," the pun is double: rank in the sense of "stinking" and also in the more specialized sense of "in lecherous heat," as in Hamlet's description of Denmark as
an unweeded garden That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely [I. ii. 135-37]
and his admonition to his mother, "Do not spread the compost on the weeds / To make them ranker" [III. iv. 151-52].
Possibly we are on less certain ground when we include offence with foul and rank as a word which recurrently supports the sickness-foul odor theme in Hamlet. Yet there is evidence that in Elizabethan times the word was frequently related to olfactory affront; for example, a passage cited in the New English Dictionary from Sir John Harington's Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) runs: "They quickly found not only offence but infection to grow out of great concourss of people"—offence referring most explicitly to the effect upon the nostrils of the sweaty, unwashed, and disease-ridden populace. In Shakespeare's mind there was an unmistakable, though of course not constant, association between offence/offend and bad odors. In the plays one can find some fifteen or twenty passages in which one or the other of these words occurs in intimate proximity to words or images of smell or disease (infected, sick, taint, foul, strong, rank, nose, breathe, corruption, rotten). I am persuaded that the repeated occurrence of offend and offence in Hamlet is part of the pattern of submerged punning. That the words embodied for Shakespeare not only the abstract concept (sin, crime) but also the symbolic sensory manifestation (something disagreeable, disgusting: specifically, a foul odor) seems clear, above all in Claudius' speech in the prayer scene, in the first line of which the connection is made between offence and smell, and in the remainder of which offence, despite the shift in image, is interlaced with other terms suggestive of smell:
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon't, A brother's murther! Pray can I not, Though inclination be as sharp as will. My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent, And, like a man to double business bound, I stand in pause where I shall first begin, And both neglect. What if this cursed hand Were thicker than itself with brother's blood, Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy But to confront the visage of offence? And what's in prayer but this twofold force, To be forestalled ere we come to fall, Or pardon'd being down? Then I'll look up; My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer Can serve my turn? "Forgive me my foul murder"? That cannot be; since I am still possess'd Of those effects for which I did the murther— My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. May one be pardon'd and retain th' offence? In the corrupted currents of this worldOffence's gilded hand may shove by justice, And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself Buys out the law; but 'tis not so above. [III. iii. 36-59]
It is remarkable that this speech, as printed in the first quarto, does not contain a single one of the recurrent quibbling allusions to foul smell; such odorless words as trespass, fault, and sin are used instead. Although most scholarly opinion today holds that the first quarto text is a debased and garbled version of that of the second quarto, and that Shakespeare did not, as was formerly thought, write two separate versions of Hamlet, it is tempting to think that Shakespeare rewrote the speech with the conscious purpose of intensifying the prevalent aura of corruption in the play. (Why, if the text known to the abridger who made the first quarto was substantially that which is printed above, did he systematically omit every offence and every other word suggestive of smell?) Noteworthy too is the fact that, as is twice the case with foul, Shakespeare employs offence recurrently within other brief passages, as if to emphasize its specific connotative significance. As early as the first act, when Marcellus' remark that something is rotten in Denmark and the Ghost's bitter reference to lust preying on garbage are still fresh in our ears, we hear Hamlet apologizing to Horatio for his wild words:
Hamlet. I am sorry they offend you, heartily . . .Horatio. There's no offence, my lord.Hamlet Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio, And much offence too [I. v. 134-37]
—a passage which amounts to a three-way, or progressive, pun, offence having not only the obvious meanings of "irritation" or "affront" (which alone is what Hamlet first intended) and "crime" (which is what he includes in the meaning after Horatio has converted the verb into a noun), but, thirdly, that of "foul odor," the physical emblem of evil. Hamlet gives the same double twist to the word in the mousetrap scene:
King. Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in't?Hamlet. No, no! They do but jest, poison in jest; no offence i' th' world. [III. ii. 232-35]
And two scenes later (the prayer scene, with its own quadruple use of the word, has intervened) Shakespeare gives fresh rhetorical emphasis to the verb:
Queen. Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.Hamlet. Mother, you have my father much offended. [III. iv. 9-10]
—an exchange which sets the tone of the ensuing interview with the Queen, in which Hamlet's utterance abounds with allusions to smell. In no other play does Shakespeare dwell so insistently upon offend/offence by having the characters thrust the words back and forth within the compass of a few lines. To me this unusual, conspicuous dwelling upon the words suggests that Shakespeare must have found a significance in them over and above their abstract suggestion of "sin" or "crime." They act as hovering puns, which, once we have recognized them as such, remind us repeatedly of the play's preoccupation with foul smell. Interestingly enough, offend appears last of all in the play by virtue of a slip of the Gravedigger's tongue [V. i. 9]. "It must be se defendendo," he should say, referring to the coroner's verdict on Ophelia's drowning; but, by having him blunder into "se offendendo," Shakespeare ekes out one more occasion for the pun.
The degree to which Shakespeare was conscious (if he was conscious at all) of his making repulsive odors as a symbol of moral corruption permeate the text of Hamlet can never, of course, be determined. Whatever his mental processes may have been, the fact remains that, in addition to the series of metaphors in which fleshly corruption so often is associated with stench, the play contains dozens of occurrences of words which intensify the dominant scent of foulness—which make the moral evil of Elsinore a stink in our nostrils. To miss them, as Dover Wilson says of Shakespeare's punning habit in general, is "often to miss the interwoven thread which connects together a whole train of images; for imagery and double meaning are generally inseparable."
The sense of evil which permeates the play, therefore, is not created merely, as critics have generally assumed, by the iterated allusions to corruption. It is deepened and made more repulsive by being constantly associated with one of the most unpleasant of man's sensory experiences. Above all, the suggestion of noisome odors reminds us of that aspect of evil which Shakespeare seems most concerned to emphasize in Hamlet: the evil residing in the soul of one man cannot be contained there, nor can a single sin be without far-reaching consequences. Insidiously, irresistibly, it spreads into a whole society, just as the reek generated by a mass of putrid flesh bears infection to many who breathe it. In an age when everyday experience made men nauseatingly conscious of the way in which the odor arising from bodily decay cannot be localized, Shakespeare's use of the language of smell must have provided an extraordinarily vivid lesson in the continuous, contagious quality of sin. (pp. 167-76)
Source: Richard D. Altick, "'Hamlet' and the Odor of Mortality," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 2, Spring, 1954, pp. 167-76.
[Muir discusses imagery and symbolism in Hamlet, beginning with an examination of what he considers the most apparent image pattern in the play—disease. The critic suggests that images of disease are not associated with Hamlet himself, but a sense of infection surrounds both Claudius's crime and guilt and Gertrude's sin. Muir attributes Hamlet's disorder to his melancholic grief over his father's death and his mother's frailty. In addition, the critic includes images of decay, flowers, and prostitution, with those of disease in the larger patterns of corruption and appearance versus reality. Finally, Muir explores war imagery in Hamlet, noting that it frequently recurs in the text and that its dramatic function is to underscore the fact that Hamlet and Claudius are engaged in a duel to the death.]
A good many of the sickness images are merely designed to lend atmosphere [in Hamlet], as when Francisco on the battlements remarks that he is "sick at heart" [I. i. 9] or when Hamlet speaks of the way the courtier's chilblain is galled by the peasant's. Other images . . . are connected with the murder of Hamlet's father or with the corresponding murder of Gonzago. Several of the images refer to the sickness of the state, which some think to be due to the threat of war, but which the audience soon comes to realize is caused by Claudius' unpunished crime. Horatio believes that the appearance of the Ghost "bodes some strange eruption to our state" [I. i. 69] and Marcellus concludes that
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. [I. iv. 90]
Hamlet himself uses disease imagery again and again in reference to the King's guilt. He thinks of himself as a surgeon probing a wound: "I'll tent him to the quick" [II. ii. 597]. He tells Guildenstern that Claudius should have sent for a physician rather than himself, and when he refrains from assassinating him he remarks:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days. [III. iii. 96]
He compares Claudius to "a mildewed ear Blasting his wholesome brother" [III. iv. 64-5] and in the last scene of the play he compares him to a cancer:
Is't not to be damn'd To let this canker of our nature come In further evil. [V. ii. 68-70]
It is true that Claudius reciprocates by using disease images in reference to Hamlet. He compares his leniency to his nephew to the behaviour of one suffering from a foul disease who conceals it and lets it feed "Even on the pith of life" [IV. i. 23]. He supports his stratagem of sending Hamlet to England with the proverbial maxim:
Diseases desperate grown By desperate appliance are reliev'd, Or not at all. [IV. iii. 9-11]
In hatching his plot with Laertes, he calls Hamlet's return "the quick of th'ulcer" [IV. vii. 123]. It is surely obvious that these images cannot be used to reflect on Hamlet's character: they exhibit rather the King's guilty fear of his nephew.
Some of the disease images are used by Hamlet in reference to the Queen's adultery at which, he tells her, "Heaven's face . . . Is thought-sick" [III. iv. 48-51]. He urges her not to lay to her soul the "flattering unction" that he is mad:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place, Whiles rank corruption, mining all within, Infects unseen. [III. iv. 147-49]
Gertrude herself, suffering from pangs of remorse, speaks of her "sick soul".
Laertes uses three disease images, two in his warnings to Ophelia not to allow herself to be seduced by Hamlet since in youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent. [I. iii. 42]
In the third he tells Claudius that the prospect of avenging himself "warms the very sickness" [IV. vii. 55] in his heart.
Hamlet uses one image to describe the cause of the war between Norway and Poland—
the imposthume of much wealth and peace That inward breaks, and shows no cause without Why the man dies. [IV. iv. 27-9]
We have now examined nearly all the disease imagery without finding any evidence to support the view that Hamlet himself is diseased—the thing that is rotten in the state of Denmark. It is rather Claudius' crime and his guilty fears of Hamlet, and Gertrude's sin to which the imagery mainly refers; and in so far as it relates to the state of Denmark it emphasizes that what is wrong with the country is the unpunished fratricide committed by its ruler. But four disease images remain to be considered.
While Hamlet is waiting for his interview with his father's ghost he meditates on the drunkenness of the Court and of the way a single small defect in a man's character destroys his reputation and nullifies his virtues in the eyes of the world—"the general censure" [I. iv. 35]. The dram of evil,—some bad habit, an inherited characteristic, or "some vicious mole of nature"—
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt. [I. iv. 24-5]
The line is textually corrupt, but the general meaning of the passage is plain. Some critics, and Sir Laurence Olivier in his film of the play [see Sources for Further Study], have assumed that Hamlet, consciously or unconsciously, was thinking of the tragic flaw in his own character. But there is no reason to think that at this point in the play Hamlet suffers from some vicious mole of nature—he has not yet been tested. In any case he is not arguing that a single defect outweighs infinite virtues, but merely that it spoils a man's reputation. The lines cannot properly be applied to Hamlet himself.
Two more disease images occur in the speech in which Claudius is trying to persuade Laertes to murder Hamlet. He tells him that love is apt to fade,
For goodness, growing to a plurisy Dies in his own too much: that we would do We should do when we would. [IV. vii. 117-19]
If we put it off,
this 'should' is like a spendthrift's sigh That hurts by easing. [IV. vii. 122-23]
The speech is designed to persuade Laertes to avenge his father's death without delay. But as Hamlet and Laertes are characters placed in a similar position, and as by this time Hamlet's vengeance has suffered abatements and delays, many critics have suggested that Shakespeare is commenting through the mouth of Claudius on Hamlet's failure to carry out his duty. It is not inherently impossible; but we should surely apply these lines to Hamlet's case only if we find by the use of more direct evidence that Shakespeare so conceived Hamlet's failure to carry out his duty.
Only one sickness image remains to be discussed, but this is the most famous one. In his soliloquy in Act III scene 1 (which begins "To be or not to be" [III. i. 55ff.]) Hamlet shows that thinking about the possible results of action is apt to inhibit it. People refrain from committing suicide (in spite of the miseries of this life) because they fear that death will be worse than life. They may, for example, be punished in hell for violating the canon against self-slaughter. Hamlet continues:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action. [III. i. 82-7]
Obviously these lines are an important clue to the interpretation of the play. I used to think that conscience meant both "thinking too precisely on the event" and also the "craven scruple" of which Hamlet speaks in his last soliloquy—conscience as well as conscience, in fact. I now think the word is used (as in the words "the conscience of the King" [II. ii. 605]) only in its modern sense. Since Hamlet foresees that in taking vengeance on Claudius he may himself be killed, he hesitates—not because he is afraid of dying, but because he is afraid of being punished for his sins in hell or purgatory. But, as G. R. Elliott has pointed out [in his Scourge and Minister], Hamlet is speaking not merely of himself but of every man:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. [III. i. 82]
It is apparent from this analysis of the sickness imagery in the play that it throws light on Elsinore rather than on Hamlet himself. He is not the diseased figure depicted by a long line of critics—or, at least, the imagery cannot justifiably be used in support of such an interpretation. On the other hand, the parallels which have been pointed out with Timothy Bright's Treatise of Melancholy do suggest that Shakespeare conceived his hero as suffering from melancholy. As depicted in the course of the play, he is not the paragon described by Ophelia, the observer of all observers, the glass of fashion,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state. [III. i. 152]
But it is necessary to emphasize that his melancholy has objective causes in the frailty of his mother and the death of his father.
Closely connected with the sickness imagery is what may loosely be called symbolism concerned with the odour of corruption. . . . Hamlet, like Webster in Eliot's poem, is much possessed by death. He speaks of the way the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog, he refers to the corpse of Polonius as "the guts"; he tells Claudius that the dead man is at supper at the diet of worms and he proceeds to show how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar. The Graveyard scene is designed not merely to provide a last expression of Hamlet's love for Ophelia, and an opportunity for screwing up Laertes' hatred of Hamlet to the sticking-point. This could have been done without the conversation between the gravediggers, and that between the gravedigger and Hamlet. The scene is clearly used to underline the death-theme. Hamlet's meditation on the various skulls serves as a memento mori [a reminder of mortality]. We are reminded of Cain, who did the first murder, of Lady Worms, "chapless and knocked about the mazard with a sexton's spade" [V. i. 89-90], of Yorick's stinking skull, and of the noble dust of Alexander which may be stopping a bung-hole. Hamlet is thinking of the base uses to which we may return; but his meditations in the graveyard, though somewhat morbid, are calmer and less bitter than his thoughts earlier in the play.
All through the play there are words and images which reinforce the idea of corruption. Hamlet, feeling himself to be contaminated by the frailty of his mother wishes that his sullied flesh would melt. He suspects "foul play" when he hears of the appearance of the ghost. The intemperance of the Danes makes foreigners soil their addition with swinish phrase. Denmark's ear is "rankly abused" by the false account of the death of Hamlet's father; and later Claudius, at his prayers confesses that his "offence is rank" [III. iii. 36]. The Ghost tells Hamlet that Lust
Will sate itself in a celestial bed And prey on garbage. [I. v. 56-7]
Polonius speaks of his son's youthful vices as "the taints of liberty" [II. i. 32]. The air seems to Hamlet "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours" [II. ii. 302-03] and he declares that if his uncle's guilt is not revealed, his
imaginations are as foul As Vulcan's stithy. [III. ii. 83-4]
In the scene with his mother, Hamlet speaks of "the rank sweat of an enseamed bed"; he urges her not to "spread the compost on the weeds To make them ranker"; and he speaks of "rank corruption mining all within". The smell of sin blends with the odour of corruption. [III. iv. 92, 151-52, 148]
The only alleviation to this atmosphere is provided by the flowers associated with the "rose of May" [IV. v. 158], Ophelia. Laertes compares Hamlet's love for her to a violet; Ophelia warns her brother not to tread "the primrose path of dalliance" [I. ii. 50], and later she laments that the perfume of Hamlet's love is lost. In her madness she distributes flowers and the last picture we have of her alive is wearing "fantastic garlands". Laertes prays that violets may spring from her unpolluted flesh and the Queen scatters flowers in the grave with the words "Sweets to the sweet" [V. i. 243]. Hamlet, probably referring to his love for Ophelia, tells Gertrude that her adultery
takes off the rose From the fair forehead of an innocent love And sets a blister there. [III. iv. 42-4]
The rose colour again reminds us of the flower. But the flowers and perfumes associated with Ophelia do not seriously counterbalance the odour of corruption.
A smaller group of images concerned with the harlot has several ramifications. In its simplest form, the harlot's cheek, "beautied with plastering art" [III. i. 50], is a symbol of hypocrisy, of the contrast between appearance and reality—the contrast between the King's deed and his "most painted word" [III. i. 52]. In the same scene Hamlet takes up the theme. He implies that, since harlots paint, women who paint, including the "beautified" Ophelia, are harlots. "God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another" [III. i. 143]. Beauty is itself a snare because
the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. [III. i. 110-13]
Hamlet tells his mother that "reason panders will" [III. iv. 88]; and he instructs Yorick's skull to get him "to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come" [V. i. 193-94]. Earlier in the play he treats Polonius as a pander, and Polonius speaks of "loosing" Ophelia to Hamlet, as though she were an animal to be mated. Both Laertes and his father assume that Hamlet will try to seduce Ophelia.
Hamlet himself is troubled by the contrast between appearance and reality, between seeming and sincerity and these harlot images reinforce the point. But the same imagery is used for a different purpose: a witty exchange between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ends with the statement that Fortune is a strumpet. Later in the same scene, in the extract from the Dido play [II. ii. 493], Aeneas cries: "Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune!" Hamlet tells Horatio that he admires him as one who is not passion's slave, one who has accepted "Fortune's buffets and rewards" [III. ii. 67], one who is
not a pipe for Fortune's finger To sound what stop she please. [III. ii. 70-1]
In the same scene Hamlet asks Guildenstern:
Do you think I am easier to be play'd on than a pipe? [III. ii. 369-70]
The Fortune theme is brought out in other ways—the Player King declares that it is not strange "That even our Loves should with our fortunes change" [III. ii. 201] and he gives as an example the desertlon of a fallen great man by his favourites; Hamlet comments on the way courtiers who used to mock Claudius now wear his portrait round their necks and on the way the adult actors have lost their popularity; and Rosencrantz, in describing how the lives of subjects depend on the life of the King, uses the image of the wheel of Fortune.
I tried to show in my book on Hamlet [Shakespeare: "Hamlet"] that before the end of the play the fortune theme is modified. Instead of the strumpet fortune, the blind fate which directs our lives, we have the idea of a providence which directs our lives. Hamlet declares:
There's a divinity that shapes our ends Rough-hew them how we will. [V. ii. 10-11]
This newly-found conviction enables him to face what he thinks may be his death, with the confidence that an opportunity will be provided for him to execute justice on his father's murderer: "We defy augury: there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow" [V. ii. 219-20]. (pp. 353-58)
I have left to the end what by my reckoning is the largest group of images. This is derived not from sickness, but from war. Many of these war images may have been suggested by the elder Hamlet's campaigns and by the activities of Fortinbras; but we should remember that Prince Hamlet himself is not without martial qualities, and this fact is underlined by the rites of war ordered for his obsequies and by Fortinbras' final tribute. But the dramatic function of the imagery is no doubt to emphasise that Claudius and Hamlet are engaged in a duel to the death, a duel which does ultimately lead to both their deaths.
Hamlet speaks of himself and his uncle as mighty opposites, between whose "pass and fell incensed points" [V. ii. 61] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had come. All through the play the war imagery reminds us of the struggle. Bernardo proposes to "assail" Horatio's ears which are "fortified against" his story. Claudius in his first speech tells of discretion fighting with nature and of the defeated joy of his wedding. Later in the scene he complains that Hamlet has a heart unfortified. Laertes urges his sister to "keep in the rear" of her affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire; [I. iii. 34-5]
and he speaks of the "calumnious strokes" sustained by virtue and of the danger of youth's rebellion. Ophelia promises to take Laertes' advice as a "watchman" to her heart. Polonius in the same scene carries on the same imagery: he urges her to set her "entreatments at a higher rate Than a command to parley" [I. iii. 122-23]. In the next scene Hamlet speaks of the way "the o'ergrowth of some complexion" breaks down "the pales and forts of reason" [I. iv. 27-8]. Polonius compares the temptations of the flesh to a "general assault". The noise of Ilium's fall "takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear" [II. iL477], and Pyrrhus' sword is "rebellious to his arm" [II. ii. 470]. Hamlet thinks the actor would "cleave the general ear with horrid speech", and says that "the clown shall make those laugh whose lungs are tickle o'th'sere" (i.e. easily set off) [II. ii. 563, 323-24]. He speaks of "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and derides the King for being "frighted with false fire" [III. i. 57; III. ii. 266]. Rosencrantz talks of the "armour of the mind" [III. iii. 12] and Claudius admits that his "guilt defeats" his "strong intent" [III. iii. 40].
Hamlet fears that Gertrude's heart is so brazed by custom that it is "proof and bulwark against sense", and he speaks of the way "compulsive ardour" (sexual appetite) "gives the charge" [III. iv. 86]. He tells his mother that he will outwit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
For 'tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petar; and it shall go hard But I will delve one yard below their mines And blow them at the moon. [III. iv. 206-09]
The Ghost speaks of Gertrude's "fighting soul". Claudius says that slander's whisper
As level as the cannon to his blank Transports his pois'ned shot. [IV. i. 42-3]
He tells Gertrude that when sorrows come,
They come not single spies But in battalions! [IV. v. 78-9]
and that Laertes' rebellion,
Like to a murd'ring piece, in many places Gives me superfluous death. [IV. v. 95-6]
In explaining to Laertes why he could not openly proceed against Hamlet because of his popularity with the people, he says that his arrows,
Too slightly timber'd for so loud a wind, Would have reverted to my bow again, But not where I have aim'd them. [IV. vii. 22-4]
Hamlet, in apologising to Laertes, says that his killing of Polonius was accidental:
I have shot my arrow o'er the house And hurt my brother. [V. ii. 243-44]
(These last two images are presumably taken from archery rather than from battle.) Gertrude compares Hamlet's hairs to "sleeping soldiers in the alarm".
Six of the images are taken from naval warfare. Polonius tells Ophelia he thought Hamlet meant to wreck her [II. i. 110] and he advises Laertes to grappe his friends to his "heart with hoops of steel" [I. iii. 63] and, in a later scene, he proposes to board the Prince [II. ii. 170]. Hamlet, quibbling on "crafts", tells his mother:
O, 'tis most sweet When in one line two crafts directly meet. [III. iv. 209-10]
In the same scene he speaks of hell that mutines in a matron's bones; and, in describing his voyage to England, he tells Horatio:
Methought I lay Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. [V. ii. 5-6]
In addition to the war images there are a large number of others that suggest violence. There are four images about knives, as when the Ghost tells Hamlet that his visitation is "to whet" his "almost blunted purpose" [III. iv. 111].
The images of war and violence should have the effect of counteracting some interpretations of the play, in which the psychology of the hero is regarded as the centre of interest. Equally important is the struggle between Hamlet and his uncle. Hamlet has to prove that the Ghost is not a devil in disguise, luring him to damnation, by obtaining objective evidence of Claudius' guilt. Claudius, for his part, is trying to pierce the secret of Hamlet's madness, using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia, and finally Gertrude as his instruments. Hamlet succeeds in his purpose, but in the very moment of success he enables Claudius to pierce the secret of his madness. Realising that his own secret murder has come to light, Claudius is bound to arrange for Hamlet's murder; and Hamlet, knowing that the truth of his antic disposition is now revealed to his enemy, realises that if he does not kill Claudius, Claudius will certainly kill him.
We have considered most of the patterns of imagery in the play—there are a few others which do not seem to throw much light on the meaning of the play—and I think it will be agreed that . . . the various image-patterns we have traced in Hamlet show that to concentrate on the sickness imagery, especially if it is divorced from its context, unduly simplifies the play. I do not pretend that a study of all the imagery will necessarily provide us with one—and only one—interpretation; but it will at least prevent us from assuming that the play is wholly concerned with the psychology of the hero. And that, I hope you will agree, is a step in the right direction. It may also prevent us from adopting the view of several modern critics—Wilson Knight, Rebecca West, Madariaga, L. C. Knights—who all seem to me to debase Hamlet's character to the extent of depriving him of the status of a tragic hero. It may also prevent us from assuming that the complexities of the play are due to Shakespeare's failure to transform the melodrama he inherited, and to the survival of primitive traits in his otherwise sophisticated hero. (pp. 361-63)
Source: Kenneth Muir, "Imagery and Symbolism in 'Hamlet'," in Etudes Anglaises, Vol. XVII, No. 4, October-December, 1964, pp. 352-63.
[Detmold addresses the question of why Hamlet delays taking revenge on Claudius by assessing his status as a tragic hero. According to the critic, a tragic hero has three prominent characteristics: (1) a will-power which surpasses that of average people, (2) an exceptionally intense power of feeling, and (3) an unusually high level of intelligence. From this definition of a tragic hero, Detmold especially focuses on Hamlet's unorthodox demonstration of will-power in the play, arguing that the protagonist's preoccupation with moral integrity is what ultimately delays him from killing Claudius. Further, the critic asserts that Hamlet is distinct from other tragedies in that its action commences in the soliloquy of Act I, scene ii where most other tragedies end: "with the discovery by the tragic hero that his supreme good is forever lost to him." Perhaps the most significant reason why Hamlet hesitates, the critic concludes, is that although he is tempted by love, kingship, and even revenge, he is long past the point where he desires to do anything about them. None of these objectives gives him a new incentive for living. For further commentary on Hamlet's character, see the excerpts by David Bevington, Maynard Mack, Robert Hapgood, Robert R. Reed, Jr., René Girard, Oscar James Campbell, Arthur Kirsch, Kenneth Muir, Edgar Johnson, Ernest Jones, Theodore Lidz and J. Dover Wilson.]
Hamlet is surely the most perplexing character in English drama. Who has not sympathized with the Court of Denmark in their bewilderment at his mercurial conduct? Theatre-goers, to be sure, are seldom baffled by him; perhaps the spectacle and melodrama of his undoing are powerful enough to stifle any mere doubts about his motives. But the more dispassionate audience of scholars and critics—if one may judge from the quantity of their published remarks—are often baffled. Seeking an intellectual satisfaction which will correspond to the pleasant purging of pity and terror in the spectator, they are only perplexed by Hamlet's behavior. They fail to understand his motives. How can a man so dilatory, who misses every opportunity to achieve what apparently he desires, who requires nearly three months to accomplish a simple and well-justified killing—how can such a man be classed a tragic hero? Is he not merely weak and contemptible? How can he be ranked with such forceful men as Lear, Macbeth, Othello, or even Romeo? And yet he is a great tragic hero, as the playgoers will testify. The spectacle of his doings and undoing is profoundly stirring; it rouses the most intense emotions of awe and admiration; it never moves us to scorn or contempt.
In order to understand Hamlet, we must be able to answer the old question about him: "Why does he delay?" Granting—as he does—that he has sufficient "cause, and will, and strength, and means" [IV. iv. 45] to avenge his father, why should he require approximately three months to do so, and then succeed almost purely by accident or afterthought? There is only one possible reason why a strong, vigorous, intelligent man does not kill another when he feels no revulsion against the deed, when his duty requires that he do it, when he is not afraid, when the man to be killed is not invulnerable, and when the consequences of the act are either inconsiderable or are not considered at all. Hamlet delays to kill his uncle only because he has little interest in doing so. His thoughts are elsewhere. Most of the time he forgets about it, as we forget about a letter that should be answered—and only occasionally does he remember it and ponder his reluctance to perform this simple duty. Rightly or wrongly, he is preoccupied with other things.
Yet revenge, especially when it entails murder, is a tremendously important affair; how can any man overlook it? What kind of man can consider what kind of thing more important? Is Hamlet in any way unique, beyond or above or apart from our experience of human nature? Let us examine him as a man and—more important—as a tragic hero.
We must realize that there is nothing curious or abnormal about him. He is recognizably human; he is not diseased or insane. If this were not so he would rouse no admiration in an audience, for it will never accord to a sick or crazy man the allegiance it usually gives to the tragic hero. The normal attitude toward abnormality is one of aversion. We worship strength and health and power, and will identify ourselves with the hero who displays these qualities. We may even identify ourselves with a Lear during his temporary insanity, but only because we have known him sane and can appreciate the magnitude of his disaster. For the Fool who is his companion we can feel only a detached and tender compassion. Hamlet rouses stronger emotions than these, and only because we can recognize ourselves in him, because he is in the finest sense a universal man: Homo sapiens, man thinking—and man feeling, man acting. The proper habitat of the freak is the side-show or museum, not the stage.
But within this humanity and universality we may distinguish three characteristics which are usually found in the tragic hero. The first of these is a will-power surpassing in its intensity anything displayed by average men; the hero admits of no obstacle and accepts no compromise; he drives forward with all his strength to his desired goal. The second is a power of feeling likewise more intense than that possessed by average men; he rises to heights of happiness forever unattainable to the majority of us, and correspondingly sinks to depths of misery. The third is an unusually high intelligence, displayed in his actions and in his power of language. Aristotle sums up these characteristics in the term hamartia: the tragic flaw, the failure of judgment, the refusal to compromise. Passionately pursuing the thing he desires, the hero is incapable of compromise, of the calm exercise of judgment.
It will be seen that Hamlet possesses these three characteristics. His power of feeling surpasses that of all other characters in the play, expresses itself in the impassioned poetic diction peculiar to great tragedy. His intelligence is subtle and all-embracing, displaying itself not only in his behavior but also in word-plays beyond the comprehension of the others in the drama, and in metaphors beyond their attainment. But what can be said of his will-power, the one pre-eminently heroic characteristic? He is apparently a model of hesitation, indecision, procrastination; we seem to be witnessing an examination of the failure of his will. And yet demonstrably it has not failed, and does at odd moments stir itself violently. In no other way can we account for the timidity of his enemies, the respect of his friends, and his own frank acknowledgement that he has "cause, and will, and strength, and means" to avenge his father. And though he is a long time in killing Claudius, he does kill him at last, and he is capable of other actions which argue the rash and impulsive nature of a man with strong will. He will "make a ghost" [I. iv. 85] of any man who tries to prevent him from following his father's spirit. He murders Polonius. He engineers the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He boards the pirate ship single-handed. He takes so long to kill Claudius only because he has little interest in revenge—not because he lacks will, but because it is inactive. Will-power does not spread itself in a circle around the possessor, but lies in a straight line toward the thing he desires.
Hamlet, then, has the heroic traits of Lear, Othello, Tamburlaine, Macbeth, and Oedipus: high intelligence, deep sensitivity, and strong will. There is another characteristic of the tragic hero without which the former ones would never be perceived: his delusion that there is some one thing in the world supremely good or desirable, the possession of which will make him supremely happy. And to the acquisition of the thing he desires he devotes all his will, all his intelligence, all his power of feeling. Thus Romeo dedicates himself to the pursuit of love, Macbeth to power, Lear to filial gratitude—and Hamlet to moral beauty.
Hamlet's dedication to moral beauty is not difficult to perceive; and once understood, it explains his every action in the play. It is probably an unusual subject for devotion: love, honor, power, wealth, intellectual supremacy are the more customary idols of the tragic hero. Yet Hamlet seems a more normal character than Coriolanus or Barabas [in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta], and a more sympathetic one than Macbeth or Othello. There should be nothing unusual in a preoccupation with morality, since man is a moral animal as well as a greedy, a passionate, or an intelligent one. And there is nothing harsh or unlovely in Hamlet's conception of the good. He is no Puritan. What he seeks among men is not mere compliance with religious and ethical standards, but a moral loveliness in their thoughts and actions. Men, in his conception, are godlike; they should not conduct themselves like beasts. "What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!" [II. ii. 303-07]—whether the words are spoken in seriousness or in irony they argue a deep-seated idealism in their author.
It is clear that, at some point before the opening of the play, Hamlet has been completely disillusioned. He has failed to discover moral beauty in the world; indeed, by the intensity of his search he has roused instead his supreme evil: moral ugliness. The majority of us, the non-heroes, might disapprove of the sudden remarriage of a mother after the death of her husband—but we would probably not be nauseated. Hamlet, supremely sensitive to the godliness and beastliness in men, was overwhelmed by what he could interpret as nothing but lust. To be sure, the marriage of his mother and uncle was technically incestuous. But his objection to it lies much deeper than surface technicalities. He has worshipped his father, adored his mother (his love for her is everywhere apparent beneath his bitterness). Gertrude has mourned at the funeral "like Niobe, all tears" [I. ii. 149]. And then within a month she has married his uncle—a vulgar, contemptible, scheming drunkard—exposing without shame her essentially shallow, thoughtless, amoral, animal nature.
The blow has been too much for Hamlet, sensitive as he is to moral beauty.
O, most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! It is not, nor it cannot come to good. [I. ii. 156-58]
That is, it cannot come to his conception of the good, whatever may be said for Gertrude's. He is unable to offer her understanding or sympathy, since to do so would mean compromising with his ideal of her. He fails to realize that no amount of scolding will ever improve her. Instead of accepting her conduct as inevitable or even endurable, he fights it, exaggerates it into a disgusting and intolerable sin against everything he holds dear. And because the sin may not be undone, and since it has destroyed his pleasure and purpose in living, he wishes to die. The only thing that restrains him from suicide is the moral injunction against it:
O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. [I. ii. 129-32]
The longing for death, once the supreme good has been destroyed, is entirely normal and usual in the tragic hero. Romeo, hearing that Juliet is dead, goes immediately to her tomb in order to kill himself:
O, here Will I set up my everlasting rest And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars From this world-wearied flesh. . . . Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark. [Romeo and Juliet, V. iii. 110-14]
Othello, when he realizes that in seeking to preserve his honor he has ruined it, prepares to die in much the same state of mind:
Here is my journey's end, here is my butt And very sea-mark of my utmost sail. [Othello, V. ii. 267-68]
Macbeth, discovering at last that his frantic efforts to maintain and increase his power have only destroyed it, finds life a tale told by an idiot—and he too longs for death:
I 'gin to be a-weary of the sun, And wish the estate of the world were now undone. Ring the alarum bell. Blow wind, come wrack, At least we'll die with harness on our back. [Macbeth, V. v. 48-51]
Lear, instead of dying, is driven mad. His counterpart, Gloucester, who also has lived for the love of his children, tries to throw himself from the cliff at Dover. Oedipus [in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex], too, when he discovers that he has ruined the city he tried to save, finds life worthless—blinds himself, and begs to be cast out of Thebes. As a general rule, whenever the tragic hero discovers that in his efforts to attain his supreme good he has only aroused his supreme evil, he kills himself, or goes mad, or otherwise sinks into a state that is death compared to his former state. Once he has lost all hope of gaining what he desires, he quite naturally finds no reason for continuing to live. Life in itself is always meaningless to him; he lives only for the good that he can find in it.
The curious thing about Hamlet is that it begins at the point where most other tragedies end: with the discovery by the tragic hero that his supreme good is forever lost to him. The play is surely unique among great tragedies. Elizabethan drama usually presents a double reversal of fortune—the rise and fall in the hero's prosperity and happiness—or sometimes, as in King Lear, the fall and rise. Greek tragedy, limited to a single curtainless stage and thus to a late point of attack in the plot, could show only a single reversal—usually the fall in fortune from prosperity to misery, as is observed by Aristotle. But certainly nowhere else is there a tragedy like Hamlet, with no reversal at all, which begins after the rise and fall of the hero have taken place, in which the action does not coincide with his pursuit of the good, and which presents him throughout in despair and in bad fortune. We never see Hamlet striving for or possessing his good. Rather, he knows only the evil which is its counterpart; and in this unhappy condition he finds nothing further desirable except death. The kingship does not interest him; love does not interest him; revenge never interests him for long. He can think only about the foulness of mankind, of the beastly conduct of those people from whom he has expected the most godly—and in his despair he is intensely unhappy. Death, he knows, will be his only release. We find him longing for death at the outset of the play, in his first speech to us. Death is continually on his mind until he finally attains it at the end, the only "felicity" of which life is capable.
We are now in a position to understand why Hamlet takes so long to effect his revenge. Everyone in the play, including himself, recognizes that he is potentially dangerous, that he has the necessary courage and will to accomplish anything he desires. But the demand upon these qualities has come at a time when he has forever lost interest in exercising them. Upholding the divinity of man, he is betrayed by the one he thought most divine, exposed to her rank shameless adultery, bitterly disillusioned in all mankind, and desperate of any further good in existence. The revelation by the Ghost that murder has cleared a way for the new husband shocks Hamlet to the base of his nature, but it gives him no new incentive for living; it merely adds to his misfortune and confirms him in his despair. The further information that his mother has committed adultery provides a final shock. All evidence establishes him immovably in his disillusion. The Ghost's appeal to him for revenge is, remotely, an appeal to his good: if he may not reestablish the moral beauty of the world he may at least punish those who have violated it. But it is a distant appeal. The damage already done is irreparable. After giving passionate promises to "remember" his father, he regrets them:
The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right. [I. v. 188-89]
Within ten minutes after his first meeting with the Ghost he has succumbed again to his anguish, which is now so intense after the discovery of his mother's adultery and the murder of his father that his mind threatens to crack under the strain. His conversation with his friends is so strange that Horatio comments upon it:
These are but wild and whirling words, my lord. [I. v. 133]
A few minutes later Hamlet announces his intention to feign madness, to assume an "antic disposition"—presumably as a means of relieving his surcharged feelings and possibly forestalling true madness, but certainly not as a means of deceiving Claudius and thus accomplishing his revenge. At the moment there is no point in deceiving Claudius, who knows of no witnesses to the murder and who is more vulnerable to attack now than he will be at any point later in the play.
Two months later the antic disposition has succeeded only in arousing the King's suspicions. Hamlet has not effected his revenge; there is no sign that he has even thought about it. All we know is that he is badly upset—as Ophelia reports to her father:
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet, Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac'd, No hat upon his head, his stockings foul'd, Ungartered and down-gyved to his ancle, Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other, And with a look so piteous in purport As if he had been loosed out of hell To speak of horrors, he comes before me, [II. i. 74-81]
It is doubtful that he wishes to deceive the court into thinking that he is mad with unrequited love—only the fool Polonius is so deceived. Most probably he goes to Ophelia because he loves her as he loves his mother, and fears to discover in her the same corruption that has poisoned his mind towards Gertrude. He suspects that her love for him is insincere; his suspicions are later reinforced when he catches her acting as the decoy of Claudius and Polonius. But the one significant thing here is that his mind is still upon his old sorrow and not upon his father.
He does not recall his father until the First Player, in reciting the woes of Troy, speaks of the "mobled queen" who
saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport In mincing with his sword her husband's limbs. [II. ii. 513-14]
Shortly afterwards Hamlet asks him to "play the Murder of Gonzago" and to "study a speech of some dozen lines, which I would set down and insert in't" [II. ii. 541-42]. This, as we learn in the following soliloquy, is to be a trap for the conscience of Claudius. And why is a trap necessary? Because perhaps the Ghost was not a true ghost, but a devil trying to lure him to damnation. Most likely Hamlet is here rationalizing, trying to find an excuse for his dilatoriness, for forgetting the injunction of his father—yet the excuse is a poor one, for never before has he questioned the authenticity of the Ghost. Furthermore, he does not wait for the trap to be sprung; throughout the performance of "The Mousetrap" he seems convinced of the guilt of Claudius, he taunts him with it. But for a while he has stilled his own conscience and found a refuge from the flood of self-incrimination.
Before "The Murder of Gonzago" is enacted we see Hamlet alone once more. What is on his mind? His uncle? His father? Revenge? Not at all. "To be, or not to be, that is the question" [III. i. 55ff.]. He is back where he started, and where he has been all along, with
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to. [III. i. 61-2]
He is still preoccupied with death.
"The Mousetrap" convicts Claudius beyond any doubt; he bolts from the room, unable to endure for a second time the poisoning of a sleeping king. And yet Hamlet, fifteen minutes later, with an admirable opportunity to kill his uncle, fails to do so—for reasons that are evidently obscure even to himself. He wishes, he says, not only to kill the man, but to damn his soul as well, and thus will wait to kill him unconfessed. At this, apparently, the Ghost itself loses patience, for it returns once more to Hamlet in the next scene and exhorts him:
Do not forget: this visitation Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose. [III. iv. 110-11]
The exhortation is wasted. On the same night, Hamlet allows the King to send him to England. Possibly he has no recourse but obedience; probably he knows what is in store for him; quite likely he does not care, may even welcome a legitimate form of dying; certainly he cannot, in England, arrange to kill his uncle. The next day, on his way to exile and death, he meets the army of Fortinbras, whose courage and purposefulness stimulate him to reflect upon his own conduct:
How all occasions do inform against me, And spur my dull revenge! [IV. iv. 32-3]
He considers how low he has sunk in his despair:
What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. [IV. iv. 33-4]
Lamenting nothing in men so much as their beastliness, he has become little better than a beast himself. Why has he not performed the simple act of vengeance required by his dead father? He does not know:
Now, whether it be Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple Of thinking too precisely on the event,— A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom And ever three parts coward,—I do not know Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do,' Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means To do 't. [IV. iv. 39-46]
He is ashamed to have forgotten his duty:
How stand I then, That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd, Excitements of my reason and my blood, And let all sleep . . . ? [IV. iv. 56-9]
And with the resolve:
O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! [IV. iv. 65-6]
he is off for England, where even the bloodiest thoughts will be utterly of no avail.
When he returns he is unchanged, still preoccupied with death. He haunts the graveyard with Horatio, reflects upon the democratizing influence of corruption. Overcome with disgust at the "rant" at Ophelia's funeral (he has seen too much insincerity at funerals), he wrestles with Laertes. He acquaints Horatio with the crimes of Claudius and resolves to revenge himself—and then accepts the invitation to the fencing match, aware that it is probably a trap, but resigned to whatever fate is in store for him. And with the discovery of his uncle's final perfidy, he stabs him with the envenomed foil and forces the poisoned wine down his throat. But there is still no thought of his father or of the accomplishment of an old purpose. He is stirred to action principally by anger at his mother's death:
Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, Drink off this potion: is thy union here? Follow my mother. [V. ii. 325-27]
The murder of Claudius is simply accomplished. We see how easily it could have been managed at any time in the past by a man like Hamlet, with whatever tools might have come to his hand. Even though the King is fully awake to his peril he is powerless to avert it. The only thing necessary is that Hamlet should at some time choose to kill him.
That Hamlet finally does so choose is the result of accident and afterthought. The envenomed foil, the poisoned wine, Laertes and Gertrude and himself betrayed to their deaths—these things finally arouse him and he strikes out at the King. But he has no sense of achievement at the end, no final triumph over unimaginable obstacles. His uncle, alive or dead, is a side-issue. His dying thoughts are of the blessedness of death and of the sanctity of his reputation—he would clear it of any suggestion of moral evil but realizes that he has no time left to do so himself. Accordingly he charges Horatio to stay alive a little while longer:
Absent thee from felicity a while, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story. [V. ii. 347-49]
Then, after willing the kingdom to Fortinbras, he sinks into the oblivion which he has courted so long, and which now comes to him honorably and gives him rest. (pp. 23-34)
Source: George Detmold, "Hamlet's 'All but Blunted Purpose'," in The Shakespeare Association Bulletin, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January, 1949, pp. 23-36.
[Jones applies Sigmund Freud's techniques of psychoanalysis to Hamlet's character, asserting that the prince is afflicted with an Oedipus Complex. This psychological disorder involves the unconscious desire of a son to kill his father and take his place as the object of the mother's love. According to the critic, Hamlet delays taking revenge on Claudius because he identifies with his uncle and shares his guilt. Thus Hamlet's inaction stems from a "tortured conscience," and his affliction is caused by "repressed" feelings. Furthermore, this theory accounts for Hamlet's speaking to Gertrude like a jealous lover, dwelling on his mother's sexual relations with Claudius, and treating his uncle like a rival. Significantly, the critic also claims that while his father's murder evokes "indignation" in Hamlet, Gertrude's perceived "incest" awakes his "intensest horror." In addition, Jones maintains that the prince suffers from "psychoneurosis," or "a state of mind where the person is unduly, often painfully, driven or thwarted by the 'unconscious' part of his mind." This internal mental conflict reflects Hamlet's condition throughout much of the play..]
[The] whole picture presented by Hamlet, his deep depression, the hopeless note in his attitude towards the world and towards the value of life, his dread of death, his repeated reference to bad dreams, his self-accusations, his desperate efforts to get away from the thought of his duty, and his vain attempts to find an excuse for his procrastination; all this unequivocally points to a tortured conscience, to some hidden ground for shirking his task, a ground which he dare not or cannot avow to himself. We have, therefore, . . . to seek for some evidence that may serve to bring to light the hidden counter-motive.
The extensive experience of the psycho-analytic researches carried out by Freud and his school during the past half-century has amply demonstrated that certain kinds of mental process show agreater tendency to be inaccessible to consciousness (put technically, to be "repressed") than others. In other words, it is harder for a person to realize the existence in his mind of some mental trends than it is of others. In order therefore to gain a proper perspective it is necessary briefly to inquire into the relative frequency with which various sets of mental processes are "repressed." Experience shows that this can be correlated with the degree of compatibility of these various sets with the ideals and standards accepted by the conscious ego; the less compatible they are with these the more likely are they to be "repressed." As the standards acceptable to consciousness are in considerable measure derived from the immediate environment, one may formulate the following generalization: those processes are most likely to be "repressed" by the individual which are most disapproved of by the particular circle of society to whose influence he has chiefly been subjected during the period when his character was being formed. Biologically stated, this law would run: "That which is unacceptable to the herd becomes unacceptable to the individual member," it being understood that the term herd is intended here in the sense of the particular circle defined above, which is by no means necessarily the community at large. It is for this reason that moral, social, ethical, or religious tendencies are seldom "repressed," for, since the individual originally received them from his herd, they can hardly ever come into conflict with the dicta of the latter. This merely says that a man cannot be ashamed of that which he respects; the apparent exceptions to this rule need not be here explained.
The language used in the previous paragraph will have indicated that by the term "repression" we denote an active dynamic process. Thoughts that are "repressed" are actively kept from consciousness by a definite force and with the expenditure of more or less mental effort, though the person concerned is rarely aware of this. Further, what is thus kept from consciousness typically possesses an energy of its own; hence our frequent use of such expressions as "trend," "tendency," etc. A little consideration of the genetic aspects of the matter will make it comprehensible that the trends most likely to be "repressed" are those belonging to what are called the innate impulses, as contrasted with secondarily acquired ones. . . . It only remains to add the obvious corollary that, as the herd unquestionably selects from the "natural" instincts the sexual one on which to lay its heaviest ban, so it is the various psycho-sexual trends that are most often "repressed" by the individual. We have here the explanation of the clinical experience that the more intense and the more obscure is a given case of deep mental conflict the more certainly will it be found on adequate analysis to centre about a sexual problem. On the surface, of course, this does not appear so, for, by means of various psychological defensive mechanisms, the depression, doubt, despair, and other manifestations of the conflict are transferred on to more tolerable and permissible topics, such as anxiety about worldly success or failure, about immortality and the salvation of the soul, philosophical considerations about the value of life, the future of the world, and so on.
Bearing these considerations in mind, let us return to Hamlet. . . . We . . . realize—as his words so often indicate—that the positive striving for vengeance, the pious task laid on him by his father, was to him the moral and social one, the one approved of by his consciousness, and that the "repressed" inhibiting striving against the act of vengeance arose in some hidden source connected with his more personal, natural instincts. The former striving . . . indeed is manifest in every speech in which Hamlet debates the matter: the second is, from its nature, more obscure and has next to be investigated.
This is perhaps most easily done by inquiring more intently into Hamlet's precise attitude towards the object of his vengeance, Claudius, and towards the crimes that have to be avenged. These are two: Claudius' incest with the Queen, and his murder of his brother. Now it is of great importance to note the profound difference in Hamlet's attitude towards these two crimes. Intellectually of course he abhors both, but there can be no question as to which arouses in him the deeper loathing. Whereas the murder of his father evokes in him indignation, and a plain recognition of his obvious duty to avenge it, his mother's guilty conduct awakes in him the intensest horror. (pp. 64-8)
Now, in trying to define Hamlet's attitude towards his uncle we have to guard against assuming offhand that this is a simple one of mere execration, for there is a possibility of complexity arising in the following way: The uncle has not merely committed each crime, he has committed both crimes, a distinction of considerable importance, since the combination of crimes allows the admittance of a new factor, produced by the possible inter-relation of the two, which may prevent the result from being simply one of summation. In addition, it has to be borne in mind that the perpetrator of the crimes is a relative, and an exceedingly near relative. The possible inter-relationship of the crimes, and the fact that the author of them is an actual member of the family, give scope for a confusion in their influence on Hamlet's mind which maybe the cause of the very obscurity we are seeking to clarify.
Let us first pursue further the effect on Hamlet of his mother's misconduct. Before he even knows with any certitude, however much he may suspect it, that his father has been murdered he is in the deepest depression, and evidently on account of this misconduct. (p. 69)
According to [A. C] Bradley, [in his Shakespearean Tragedy], Hamlet's melancholic disgust at life was the cause of his aversion from "any kind of decided action." His explanation of the whole problem of Hamlet is "the moral shock of the sudden ghastly disclosure of his mother's true nature," and he regards the effect of this shock, as depicted in the play, as fully comprehensible. He says:
Is it possible to conceive an experience more desolating to a man such as we have seen Hamlet to be; and is its result anything but perfectly natural? It brings bewildered horror, then loathing, then despair of human nature. His whole mind is poisoned. . . . A nature morally blunter would have felt even so dreadful a revelation less keenly. A slower and more limited and positive mind might not have extended so widely through the world the disgust and disbelief that have entered it.
But we can rest satisfied with this seemingly adequate explanation of Hamlet's weariness of life only if we accept unquestioningly the conventional standards of the causes of deep emotion. Many years ago [John] Connolly, a well-known psychiatrist, pointed out [in his A Study of Hamlet] the disproportion here existing between cause and effect, and gave as his opinion that Hamlet's reaction to his mother's marriage indicated in itself a mental instability, "a predisposition to actual unsoundness"; he writes: "The circumstances are not such as would at once turn a healthy mind to the contemplation of suicide, the last resource of those whose reason has been overwhelmed by calamity and despair." In T. S. Eliot's opinion, also, Hamlet's emotion is in excess of the facts as they appear, and he specially contrasts it with Gertrude's negative and insignificant personality [in his The Sacred Wood]. . . . We have unveiled only the exciting cause, not the predisposing cause. The very fact that Hamlet is apparently content with the explanation arouses our misgiving, for, as will presently be expounded, from the very nature of the emotion he cannot be aware of the true cause of it. If we ask, not what ought to produce such soul-paralysing grief and distaste for life, but what in actual fact does produce it, we are compelled to go beyond this explanation and seek for some deeper cause. In real life speedy second marriages occur commonly enough without leading to any such result as is here depicted, and when we see them followed by this result we invariably find, if the opportunity for an analysis of the subject's mind presents itself, "that there is some other and more hidden reason why the event is followed by this inordinately great effect. The reason always is that the event has awakened to increased activity mental processes that have been "repressed" from the subject's consciousness. His mind has been specially prepared for the catastrophe by previous mental processes with which those directly resulting from the event have entered into association. . . . In short, the special nature of the reaction presupposes some special feature in the mental predisposition. Bradley himself has to qualify his hypothesis by inserting the words "to a man such as we have seen Hamlet to be."
We come at this point to the vexed question of Hamlet's sanity, about which so many controversies have raged. Dover Wilson authoritatively writes [in his What Happens in Hamlet]: "I agree with Loening, Bradley and others that Shakespeare meant us to imagine Hamlet as suffering from some kind of mental disorder throughout the play." The question is what kind of mental disorder and what is its significance dramatically and psychologically. The matter is complicated by Hamlet's frequently displaying simulation (the Antic Disposition), and it has been asked whether this is to conceal his real mental disturbance or cunningly to conceal his purposes in coping with the practical problems of this task? (pp. 70-3)
What we are essentially concerned with is the psychological understanding of the dramatic effect produced by Hamlet's personality and behaviour. That effect would be quite other were the central figure in the play to represent merely a "case of insanity." When that happens, as with Ophelia, such a person passes beyond our ken, is in a sense no more human, whereas Hamlet successfully claims our interest and sympathy to the very end. Shakespeare certainly never intended us to regard Hamlet as insane, so that the "mind o'erthrown" must have some other meaning than its literal one. Robert Bridges has described the matter with exquisite delicacy [in his The Testament of Beauty, I]:
Hamlet himself would never have been aught to us, or we To Hamlet, wer't not for the artful balance whereby Shakespeare so gingerly put his sanity in doubt Without the while confounding his Reason.
I would suggest that in this Shakespeare's extraordinary powers of observation and penetration granted him a degree of insight that it has taken the world three subsequent centuries to reach. Until our generation (and even now in the juristic sphere) a dividing line separated the sane and responsible from the irresponsible insane. It is now becoming more and more widely recognized that much of mankind lives in an intermediate and unhappy state charged with what Dover Wilson well calls "that sense of frustration, futility and human inadequacy which is the burden of the whole symphony" and of which Hamlet is the supreme example in literature. This intermediate plight, in the toils of which perhaps the greater part of mankind struggles and suffers, is given the name of psychoneurosis, and long ago the genius of Shakespeare depicted it for us with faultless insight.
Extensive studies of the past half century, inspired by Freud, have taught us that a psychoneurosis means a state of mind where the person is unduly, and often painfully, driven or thwarted by the "unconscious" part of his mind, that buried part that was once the infant's mind and still lives on side by side with the adult mentality that has developed out of it and should have taken its place. It signifies internal mental conflict. We have here the reason why it is impossible to discuss intelligently the state of mind of anyone suffering from a psychoneurosis, whether the description is of a living person or an imagined one, without correlating the manifestations with what must have operated in his infancy and is still operating. That is what I propose to attempt here.
For some deep-seated reason, which is to him unacceptable, Hamlet is plunged into anguish at the thought of his father being replaced in his mother's affections by someone else. It is as if his devotion to his mother had made him so jealous for her affection that he had found it hard enough to share this even with his father and could not endure to share it with still another man. Against this thought, however, suggestive as it is, maybe urged three objections. First, if it were in itself a full statement of the matter, Hamlet would have been aware of the jealousy, whereas we have concluded that the mental process we are seeking is hidden from him. Secondly, we see in it no evidence of the arousing of an old and forgotten memory. And, thirdly, Hamlet is being deprived by Claudius of no greater share in the Queen's affection than he had been by his own father, for the two brothers made exactly similar claims in this respect—namely, those of a loved husband. The last-named objection, however, leads us to the heart of the situation. How if, in fact, Hamlet had in years gone by, as a child, bitterly resented having had to share his mother's affection even with his own father, had regarded him as a rival, and had secretly wished him out of the way so that he might enjoy undisputed and undisturbed the monopoly of that affection? If such thoughts had been present in his mind in childhood days they evidently would have been "repressed," and all traces of them obliterated, by filial piety and other educative influences. The actual realization of his early wish in the death of his father at the hands of a jealous rival would then have stimulated into activity these "repressed" memories, which would have produced, in the form of depression and other suffering, an obscure aftermath of his childhood's conflict. This is at all events the mechanism that is actually found in the real Hamlets who are investigated psychologically.
The explanation, therefore, of the delay and self-frustration exhibited in the endeavour to fulfil his father's demand for vengeance is that to Hamlet the thought of incest and parricide combined is too intolerable to be borne. One part of him tries to carry out the task, the other flinches inexorably from the thought of it. How fain would he blot it out in that "bestial oblivion" which unfortunately for him his conscience contemns. He is torn and tortured in an insoluble inner conflict. (pp. 76-9)
Source: Ernest Jones, "The Psycho-Analytical Solution," in his Hamlet and Oedipus, 1949. Reprint by Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1954, pp. 51-79.
[Johnson discusses the major interpretations of Hamlet's character that have evolved over the past two centuries, concluding with Ernest Jones's Freudian reading of the role (see excerpt above). The critic takes particular exception to Jones's view of Hamlet, asserting that if such a perspective were true, there would be no moral dilemma in the tragedy. Johnson then details his own interpretation of the protagonist as a hero whose complex "dilemma is to disentangle himself from the temptation to wreak justice for the wrong reasons and in an evil passion, and to do what he must do at last for the pure sake of justice, for the welfare of the State, to weed the unweeded garden of Denmark and set right the time that is out of joint." The critic also focuses on the concept of appearance versus reality in Hamlet, applying this issue to the characters of Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, and Laertes.]
Hamlet is a play and Hamlet is a character in that play. In exploring our topic, "The Dilemma of Hamlet," although the problem of the play and the problem of the man are tightly interknit, it is important for us to keep clearly in mind when we are talking about the one and when about the other.
My thesis about the play is that its leading theme is the relationship of appearance and reality—that its dilemma, or the series of dilemmas it poses for us, so to speak, is the difficulty of distinguishing between the actuality and the plausible appearance of wisdom or virtue or right action. This note is struck almost at the beginning, with Hamlet's acid, "I know not 'seems'" [I. ii. 76], and his hatred of hypocrisy and deception, coming hard upon his own distrustful and evasive answers to Horatius and Marcellus after speaking with his father's ghost, and followed immediately by his assumption of an "antic disposition" apparently designed to deceive Claudius and the Court into believing him insane, but leaving the spectator as well sometimes uncertain whether Hamlet's madness is assumed or whether his reason is breaking down under inward emotional strain. Madness and sanity, true wisdom and corruptly shrewd worldliness, real kingly leadership and tricky opportunism, genuine heroism and its showy counterfeit; these are some of the distinctions the play challenges us to make. But they lead us to Hamlet the man, about whom my thesis—partly paralleling that of G. R. Elliott [in his Scourge and Minister: A Study of "Hamlet" As Tragedy of Revengefulness and Justice]—is that his dilemma is not only to bring about justice but to do so in a right frame of mind and feeling, acting as the scourge and minister of heavenly justice, not poisoned in soul by vengefulness and hatred.
In order to test these two theses and explore the dilemmas they deal with, we must glance at what Hamlet himself is like and what happens in the drama that bears his name. It might seem at first that this is simply done, merely by reading the play or seeing it performed. But history shows an extraordinary chaos of voices offering confused and contradictory explanations of both.
First, there is what may almost be called the orthodox version of the past one hundred and fifty years, the romantic interpretation that sees the young Prince Hamlet as an introvert entangled in hesitating thought to the point where he is frustrated to follow any course of action. This is the view of Hamlet's character most early and most eloquently voiced by [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe and [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge. "A lonely, pure, noble and most moral character, without the strength of nerve that forms the hero," Goethe says of Hamlet, "sinks beneath the burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. Impossibilities are required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds, and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils; is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind."
This description seems to imply that Shakespeare's hero was a fusion of Goethe's own Werther and Wilhelm Meister [in The Sorrows of Young Werther and Wilhelm Meister's Travels]; Coleridge paid Hamlet the compliment of assuming that Shakespeare had been painting a sixteenth century version of the nineteenth century Coleridge. "He intended," wrote Coleridge, "to portray a person in whose view the external world and all its incidents and objects, were comparatively dim and of no interest in themselves, and which began to interest only when they were reflected in the mirror of his mind. . . . [Hamlet indulges in] endless reasoning and hesitating—constant urgency and solicitation of the mind to act, and as constant an escape from action; ceaseless reproaches of himself for sloth and negligence, while the whole energy of his resolution evaporates in these reproaches. This, too, not from cowardice, for he is drawn as one of the bravest of his time—not from want of forethought or slowness of apprehension, for he sees through the very souls of those who surround him; but merely from that aversion to action which prevails among such as have a world in themselves."
Such a view of Hamlet is on the whole accepted by [A. C] Bradley and E. K. Chambers, and is essentially that of Laurence Olivier's film version of the play [see Sources for Further Study], where, in the beginning, while ghostly mists swirl around the battlements and cold vaulted interiors of Elsinore, a disembodied voice intones, "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."
Opposed to this judgment is the approach of those like [George Lyman] Kittredge, who see Hamlet as a man of action moving to avenge his father's death with no essential hesitation and all practicable dispatch, his self-reproaches caused only by chafing at the slowness imposed upon him by circumstances. This Hamlet demands, in conscience, to be sure, reasonable certitude that he has not been deceived by a lying phantom. When he has that assurance, in the King's guilty reaction to the play-within-the-play, he is still delayed by the difficulty of producing objective proof, convincing to the world, that he has not simply invented an accusation to justify regicide and a merely ambitious desire to seize the throne. This view argues, furthermore, that as a King, Claudius—except on the one accidental occasion when Hamlet comes on him at his prayers—is constantly surrounded by armed courtiers and attendants and even a corps of Swiss mercenaries; and after Hamlet has put him on his guard by showing that his crime is known, he not only takes steps for his own safety by sending Hamlet off to what he hopes will be the nephew's death in England, but would not be likely to let Hamlet approach him thenceforth without being surrounded by protection. In the culminating duel scene, it is only the conspiracy between Claudius and Laertes to kill Hamlet that allows him to be in the King's presence armed—and even then only in consequence of seizing Laertes's foil, the single one with an unbated point.
J. Dover Wilson, in turn, takes issue with a part of this argument by insisting that Hamlet never wanted to prove to the world that Claudius was his father's murderer. Such a view would always leave at least a stain of suspicion that Queen Gertrude was implicated, and, indeed, until after the play scene, in the interview in his mother's closet, Hamlet himself is by no means certain that she has not been privy to his father's death. But the ghost has bade Hamlet leave her to heaven, and therefore Hamlet has with great ingenuity, Wilson argues, devised the play to show Claudius that his guilt is known, but at the same time to make it appear to the scandalized court that it embodies his own threat to murder the present King. (Hamlet himself, you will recall, identifies the murderer in the play as nephew to the King.)
W. W. Greg has devised a still more radical overturn of previous themes. For him, the reason Claudius fails to be alarmed by the dumbshow of the murder, but breaks up the performance of the play, is that he is in fact innocent. He has not recognized the dumbshow as directed against himself, but does, with the court, take the subsequent action of the play as prefiguring an attempt on his own life. The ghost's accusations, heard by no one but Hamlet, are simply a hallucinating projection of his own deluded suspicions and have no basis in fact. Hamlet is in truth even madder than he has been pretending to be.
T. S. Eliot concludes that none of these explanations will really do. More, Hamlet's self-disgust and his revulsion at his mother's adultery and what Hamlet calls her incest, the nauseated loathing with which his imagination dwells in revolted detail upon "The bloat King" "honeying and making love" to his mother "in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed" "over the nasty stye" [III. iv. 182, 92-4], seem to Eliot emotions so excessive for the facts that he regards them as insufficiently motivated in the drama, and drawn from some hidden source in Shakespeare himself. "Hamlet," he says, ". . . is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art." Consequently, "So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is certainly a failure."
At this point, generations of theatergoers who have regarded Hamlet with absorbed sympathy and no conscious puzzlement whatever might well feel tempted to exclaim in the witty words of one Shakespearean commentator, "Are the critics of Hamlet mad or only pretending to be?" We seem to be in [Edmund] Spenser's wandering wood in which the thousands of paths lead only to Error's Den [in The Faerie Queene]. But there is one more, with which I shall bring this survey of the critics to a conclusion, the psychoanalytic theory originally propounded by Freud and elaborated by Ernest Jones.
According to this, Hamlet is suffering from what he cannot possibly recognize himself, the Oedipal desire of a son to kill his father and supplant him in his mother's love. Only so, Jones claims, can we explain Hamlet speaking to her like a jealous lover, torturing himself with hideous images of her love-making, and hating the King with all the hysterical loathing of a rival. But because Claudius has done only what Hamlet himself desired to do, killed the father and mated with the mother, Hamlet partly identifies himself with his uncle, shares his guilt, and cannot bring himself to execute vengeance on one who has put into action what he himself dreamed in childhood fantasy. He consequently oscillates, between his conscious and acquired adult devotion to his father and his infantile hatred and aggression, and is inhibited from acting upon either. He would never be able to act effectively on either of his divided motives, and only accident brings the play to a catastrophic ending as fatal to himself as to Claudius.
The refutation of the argument is essential in my position, for if Jones is right, there is no moral dilemma in the drama. By definition Hamlet cannot understand his difficulty; only if—what is impossible—we could bring a twentieth century psychoanalyst to the imaginary twelfth century court of Elsinore as described by the sixteenth century dramatist, could Hamlet be taught to resolve his own confusions and solve his problems. Such an objection, of course, does not dispose of Jones's theory, nor does any mere skepticism about Shakespeare having thus foreshadowed a Freudian case history. Only if there are within the play itself and its effect upon a fit audience elements that do not square with this explanation, may we set aside it or the Goethe-Coleridge interpretation of which it is a more scientific sounding variant. And in the same way, to deal with any of the interpretations we have surveyed, we must look to the play and the impression it must produce on an audience that responds to it in the way molded by the dramatist.
But there are such elements to negate many of these interpretations. It is a minor caveat, no doubt, to object that the interview between mother and son in the Queen's closet, with Polonius hiding behind the arras, does not take place in her bedroom, as Freud and Jones say, with Hamlet violently flinging her upon the bed in the way Olivier does in the film. In Shakespeare's day, a closet was a small private room or study; Queen Gertrude would no more receive Polonius in her bedroom than Queen Elizabeth II would Winston Churchill. But (what is more fatal for the entire Jones-Freud-Coleridge-Goethe theory) Hamlet has not, before the opening of the play, been at all a frustrated introvert entangled in morbid thought and incapable of action, nor, as I shall show, does he really— except in certain very limited respects—show himself inactive in the course of the play.
It is true that with his father's death he has been plunged into the deepest grief and melancholy and that his mother's hasty marriage has filled him with horror and revulsion. Hamlet does indeed bear within him a misery "that passes show" [I. ii. 85], and feels that the earth is "a sterile promontory" [II. ii. 299], the heavens "a pestilent congregation of vapors" [II. ii. 303], man a "quintessence of the dust" [II. ii. 308]. But it is important to note that the world had not been so for him; it had been a "goodly frame," the heavens a "majestical roof fretted with golden fire" [II. ii. 301], and man "the beauty of the world" [II. ii. 307], "the paragon of animals" [II. ii. 307]. In saying he has lost his mirth and foregone all customary exercise, he reveals that melancholy and inactivity had not been his habits when his father lived (of whom, according to Jones, he was no less secretly jealous than he now is of his uncle). But even now, throughout his present distresses, he does exercise, and has even moments of highspirited jesting. Before he becomes suspicious that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spying emissaries of the King, his greeting of them is gay rather than gloomy; and we learn later that he has been practising fencing daily all the while Laertes has been in France, and see Hamlet easily outmatch that skilled swordsman.
Others in the play testify not only to his multitudinous and shining accomplishments, but to his ease, grace, and charm. "The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword; The expectancy and rose of the fair state; The glass of fashion and the mold of form, the observed of all observers," Ophelia says of him [III. i. 151-54]. These are not the words in which one would describe a melancholy moper, who could not take the place of brilliant leadership at court to which his rank entitled him. When he is dead, Fortinbras, decreeing him a soldier's burial, summarizes general report in the valediction that "he was likely to have proved most royally" [V. ii. 397-98]. Are these the things others would say of an ineffectual dreamer?
Hamlet's behavior during the course of the play, furthermore, reveals none of the inwardturned embarrassment in social relations that characterize the introvert. He talks readily and cordially with soldiers, actors, gravediggers, gets along well with pirates, and is so beloved by the common people that Claudius dares not openly harm him, the last a popularity that introverts have seldom enjoyed with the populace. He easily takes command of any conversation in which he participates, usually with unassuming courtesy; and in the play scene he dominates the whole court. He is not hesitant or inhibited in action, even against Claudius; he plans the play to test the King's conscience in a flash, and carries it out flawlessly; he stabs Polonius through the arras more than half suspecting it to be the King (what of the notion that he cannot act against Claudius?); he sends the traitorous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths instantly and without a qualm; he leaps on board the pirate ship before any can follow him; he accepts Laertes's challenge without a moment's pause; he sends Claudius a letter announcing himself landed naked in his Kingdom, as it were warning Claudius of his intentions; and he calmly plans to use the period before news can arrive from England to finish his task.
Jones argues that Hamlet's "mother fixation" stands between him and his courtship of Ophelia, but it does nothing of the kind. He has written her letters so ardent that Laertes warns her not to be moved by them, and won her with "words of so sweet breath composed," she herself says, "as made [his gifts] more rich" [III. i. 97-8]. He has not drawn back from her; it is she, obedient to her father's command, not of her own will, who has repulsed him. Where in all this is the self-frustrated lover?
Given Hamlet's intense but not at all abnormal devotion to his father, is there anything excessive in his disgust at his mother's conduct? In any society except that of second century Rome, Hollywood, or the fast set of a modern cosmopolitan city, a son might well be shocked at his mother's adultery. And for an Elizabethan audience there was no question that her marriage to Claudius was incest as well. When Henry VIII married his elder brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, in 1509, it was necessary to support a dispensation permitting it by bringing forward testimony that her previous marriage had never been consummated, and the feeling of horror that such a wedding violated biblical law endured long past Shakespeare's day. Hamlet only gives eloquent voice to an emotion all sixteenth century audiences understood.
Finally, there is the allegation that Hamlet delays unconscionably, unintelligibly, and fatally in executing justice upon Claudius. One might ask why it is no sign of Claudius's having some Freudian complex that he delays, no less fatally for himself, to kill Hamlet, long after he has realized that his nephew is dangerous. But the truth is that neither is dilatory except for quite intelligible reasons. It was entirely clear to an Elizabethan audience that a ghost might be a lying spirit and that a Prince intent on acting justly must prove its accusations, however strongly he felt impelled to believe them. The events of Acts II and III, and the first half of Act IV, all take place in a single day and night, and that day is so short a time after Polonius has forbidden Ophelia to see Hamlet, that only then has Hamlet become aware that her avoidance of him is deliberate and made his way into her chamber. The very next day the players come to Elsinore, Hamlet forms his plan, and puts it into effect. After he has lost his one chance to kill the King at prayer, he is packed off to England under guard. The intervening time is only long enough to bring Laertes back from Paris and permit Hamlet to land from the pirate ship. Hamlet can hardly slay Claudius during Ophelia's burial, on sacred ground, but he knows he has until messages arrive from England, coolly plans to use that interim, and, when he finds himself poisoned, kills the King an instant later. What an indecisive, will-less jack-o'-dreams!
In thus analyzing the Freudian interpretation, I have also dealt implicitly with most of the others I outlined in the first third of this paper, but I should still say a few words about Greg's theory that Claudius is innocent and Hamlet suffering from delusions. Dover Wilson's suggestion that during the dumbshow Claudius is discussing with Polonius the renewed display Hamlet has just given them of love-madness, and consequently has not observed the pantomime, in my opinion, partly answers Greg, but he is fully refuted by Claudius's own soliloquy in the prayer scene where the King explicitly admits "the primal curse" of "a brother's murder" [III. iii. 37-8]. This is unanswerable and we need say no more of it.
There remains only to sketch in such aspects of my own position as have not been anticipated in the previous part of the discussion. The theme of the play, I have said, is the relationship of appearance and reality, the gradual classification of moral identities deliberately portrayed ambiguously in the beginning. "Something is rotten in the State of Denmark" [I. iv. 90], says Marcellus, and Hamlet cries out that it is "an unweeded garden" [I. ii. 135], lamenting "the time is out of joint: Oh cursed sprite, that ever I was born to set it right" [I. v. 188-89]. But we do not know at this point lest perhaps it is Hamlet himself who is the canker in the State, proud, revengeful, consumed with frustrated ambition to ascend the throne himself and rationalizing his fury at having been passed over in the election. (We might note that, like Hamlet, Fortinbras has failed to secure his father's throne, which is likewise now occupied by an uncle, but that unlike Hamlet he seems to feel no sense of injustice in this; he is more concerned to win back the half of Norway his father lost to the elder Hamlet.)
During the opening scenes of the play, I must re-emphasize the point, we do not know whether Hamlet or Claudius is in the right. Let us try to imagine seeing or reading it for the first time, without having heard anything about it. Can we tell with certainty that Hamlet's jealousies and suspicions are true in fact? The original Hamlet story in Saxo Grammaticus was a pure revenge drama, with small moral cause to prefer the murdered King to his fratricide brother; and Hamlet's motives are entirely those of filial partisanship demanding an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, not those of horror at a noble and virtuous King done to death by an evil one. Not, of course, that the Elizabethan audience before whom Shakespeare's play was first acted was likely to have known anything about Saxo Grammaticus, but the earlier Hamlet play of the 1590's, from which Shakespeare probably derived his own, also seems in turn to have been derived from Saxo Grammaticus and possibly Belleforest, and to have been straight melodrama, with a ghost crying "Hamlet, revenge!" Elizabethan playgoers may well have been surprised by the turn Shakespeare gave the old materials. From neither the opening of Hamlet nor its title have we any more assurance that Hamlet will be justified in its sequel than we have of Julius Caesar being the hero or Macbeth the villain of the Shakespearean plays that bear their names.
In the same way, we have in the pseudo-kingly Claudius, at first, a deceptively persuasive imitation of genuine kingliness: dignity, courtesy, affability, vigorous and effective diplomatic and military action against external danger, an eloquent and seemingly sincere statement of sound principles, both of feeling and of conduct. It is possible, for all we know at the moment, that Hamlet may indeed be giving way to a too protracted, unmanly, and self-indulgent grief in which he evades his duty to himself and to others. There is even a real regard for Hamlet in Claudius at first, a genuine kindness and good feeling, and there is no question of his affection for his Queen. Even when by degrees we pierce beneath his smiling mask, we find that he still struggles with conscience, that his slowness to act against his dangerous nephew is not all policy, and that only after his situation has grown desperate is conscience strangled.
With the old councillor Polonius, we have an impressive appearance of wise understanding and justice of judgment gradually yielding to vanity, worldliness, and senility. When he bids Laertes be faithful in friendship, and tells him "To thine own self be true" [I. iii. 78], his morality sounds like that of Socrates, but the rest of his maxims are all prudential and concerned with the figure a man cuts in the world, rather than with essence—like his advice on money and on dress, a mere cautiousness of conduct or of taste. As the action proceeds, he sinks lower, and we see him willing to dispatch spies and informers upon his own son, eavesdropping and spying himself, flattering and hypocritical, obstinately determined to prove his own theories, a conceited busybody foolishly self-deceived.
Laertes is the pseudo-heroic as Claudius is the pseudo-kingly. How gallant a figure he seems at first, how earnest is his concern for his sister, how admirable his promptness of action in demanding an explanation of his father's death (strikingly contrasted with Hamlet's seeming—though only seeming—slowness). But then, in more significant contrast to Hamlet's insistence on having proof and acting in right conscience, see Laertes storming into the King's presence, shouting before he knows the facts, "Conscience and grace to the pro-foundest pit" [IV. v. 133], "To hell allegiance" [IV. v. 132], and follow how easily the smooth King not merely deludes htm but works him to a weak participation in villainy. Laertes, like his fattier, is concerned with appearance, not reality; he wants "formal ostentation" of funeral rites for Polonius and is concerned lest the world think he has not done enough. "What ceremony else?" [V. i. 223], he demands at Ophelia's grave, and his showy sorrow revolts Hamlet's inward grief "which passes show" [I. ii. 85].
But Hamlet, the hero, too, is not all heroic, or only gradually becomes so. His wit is fiercely intolerant of stupidity and sycophancy; he is mockingly contemptuous of the affected Osric. He is consistently and publicly rude to Claudius, even before he knows the ghost's accusations; he is indecently discourteous, almost invariably, in deriding Polonius, whose daughter he loves; he is brutally harsh to his mother. Until well on in his plans, he is mistrustful of the sane and truehearted Horatio, refusing to confide in him, seeking neither the comfort nor the good counsel of a faithful friend, but bottling all his feelings and his purposes up within his breast in a proud and suspicious secrecy. He is insultingly suspicious of Ophelia, leaping from the realization that her pathetic attempt to return his gifts means that their encounter is no accident, as it was meant to seem, to the raging conviction that she is her father's willing tool conniving to betray him. With furious bitterness he all but calls her a whore, and, despite the likelihood that spies are listening, recklessly shouts, "We'll have no more marriages. Those that are married already, all but one, shall live" [in. i. 147-48]. Worst of all, for more than half the play, his determination to avenge his father's murder is a ferocious, hysterical, vindictive, bloody hatred that he can hardly keep within bounds. It is revenge with hardly a trace of concern for any nobler concept of justice.
This is the dilemma of Hamlet the Prince and Man—to disentangle himself from the temptation to wreak justice for the wrong reasons and in evil passion, and to do what he must do at last for the pure sake of justice, for the welfare of the State, to weed the unweeded garden of Denmark and set right the time that is out of joint. From that dilemma of wrong feelings and right actions he ultimately emerges, solving the problem by attaining a proper state of mind. At the end of the play scene, it is true, he refuses to kill Claudius at prayer, and excuses that evasion to himself by arguing that he wants to damn his uncle's soul more deep in hell by taking him at some time that has no relish of grace or salvation in it. But there is no improbability in suggesting that Hamlet is trying here to excuse a reluctance he does not yet understand but that springs from a revolt of his own conscience against acting with such poisonous feeling. He is acting—or rather refraining—on right motives, but giving himself mistaken reasons. (It is a dramatic irony of course, that Claudius has been unable to pray with sincerity, and is not in a state of grace.)
Slowly, however, in the course of the last two acts, Hamlet subdues his violence of feeling. Even by the end of the interview in his mother's closet, he sorrows for bis impetuous murder of Polonius: "For this same Lord," he says, "I do repent" [in. iv. 173]; and he gently bids his mother good night, telling her, "When you are desirous to be blest, I'll blessing beg of you" [in. iv. 171-72]. He prays Laertes's pardon for the wrong he has done him, and throughout all the ending moderates even those wild and whirling words of hatred he has previously spoken against Claudius. Instead he asks, calmly, "Is't not perfect conscience to quit him with this arm?" and prevent "This canker of our nature" from proliferating "further evil" [V. ii. 67-70]. He has resolved the moral dilemma of vengeance versus justice. (Although it is true that when he has transfixed the King with Laertes's "envenomed point" he has a last spasm of hatred for the "incestuous, murderous, damned Dane" \V. ii. 325].) At the end, Hamlet is even able to thiiik of providing for a peaceful succession to the crown by giving his dying voice to Fortinbras. He expires with noble serenity, "The rest is silence" [V. ii. 358]. He has purged his nature of its fierce passions and become the great and heroic figure we always felt struggling in him to be born. As restoring peace descends over troubled Denmark, we can echo Horatio:
Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! [V. ii. 359-60] (pp. 99-111)
Edgar Johnson, "The Dilemma of Hamlet (William Shakespeare: 'Hamlet'), " in Great Moral Dilemmas in Literature, Past and Present, edited by R. M. Maclver, 1956. Reprint by Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1964, pp. 99-111.
[Muir analyzes the Ghost in Hamlet in several ways, first by proposing several attitudes an Elizabethan audience may have held regarding its nature. The apparition may have been viewed as an illusion, a portent foreshadowing danger to Denmark, a spirit returning from the grave because a task was left undone, a spirit come from purgatory with divine permission, or a devil who assumes the form of a dead person to lure mortals to their doom. According to the critic, Hamlet tests each of these perspectives during the play's course of events, most notably in his production of "The Mousetrap." Muir also discusses the Ghost's two warnings to Hamlet, namely not to taint his mind and to leave Gertrude "to heaven." In addition, the critic explores Hamlet's reaction to his meeting with the Ghost by studying the nature of the prince's depression and his assumption of an "antic disposition."]
The first act of Hamlet, except for the third scene, is concerned with the revelation by the Ghost that Claudius is a murderer and Gertrude an adultress. This revelation is carefully prepared. The Ghost appears twice in the first scene without speaking; and before his appearance, Shakespeare, without the aid of scenery or artificial lighting, creates in the course of the dialogue a vivid impression of time, place, coldness, and expectancy, and after the Ghost has vanished an equally vivid impression of dawn, four or five hours having passed in ten minutes of playing-time. We also hear in the first scene of preparations for war, and Bernardo thinks that the Ghost has come to warn them of the threat to the state. The scholar, Horatio, at first believes that the Ghost will not appear, and later addresses it as 'illusion'. According to the various beliefs current in Shakespeare's day, a ghost could be either an illusion, 'a phantom seen as a portent of danger to the state', a spirit come from the grave because of something left undone, a spirit come from purgatory by divine permission, or a devil disguised as a dead person in order to lure the living into mortal sin. All these theories are tested in the course of the play. Horatio, abandoning the idea that the Ghost is an illusion, assumes first that it has come as a portent and then that it can be laid if they carry out its wishes. When the Ghost appears to Hamlet himself in the fourth scene, both Marcellus and Horatio are afraid that it is a goblin damned rather than a spirit of health, and that it will drive the Prince into madness and suicide; and, although Hamlet, after he has listened to the Ghost's message, is fully convinced that it is indeed his father's spirit, later on he has moments of doubt when he thinks it may be the devil. He has, in any case, to obtain confirmation of the truth of the Ghost's story.
Hamlet appears for the first time in the second scene of the play, dressed in black, which is an implied criticism of the royal marriage which has just been celebrated. Claudius, although Hamlet dislikes him and regards him as a usurper, appears to be a competent and even an amiable ruler. After referring diplomatically to his marriage, dispatching ambassadors to Norway, and giving Laertes permission to return to France, he urges Hamlet to stop his excessive mourning, and not to return to Wittenberg. The audience, having already seen the Ghost, is aware that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and will sympathise with Hamlet's feelings about his mother's hasty re-marriage, especially as marriage with a deceased husband's brother was not permitted without a special dispensation.
Hamlet's first soliloquy is designed to show his state of mind before his interview with the Ghost. He is profoundly shocked by Gertrude's marriage to his uncle in less than two months after her first husband's death, although he has no conscious suspicion that his father has been murdered or that his mother had committed adultery. He wishes suicide were permissible, he compares the world to Eden after the Fall, he contrasts Gertrude's two husbands, the godlike and the bestial, and, with a tendency to generalise characteristic of him, he assumes that all women are like his mother: 'Frailty, thy name is woman!' [I. ii. 146]. We learn later that the melancholy and disillusionment apparent in this soliloquy are not part of his normal state of mind. It is necessary to emphasise this, because those critics who form a low opinion of his character tend to forget that his behaviour in the play is partly explicable by the successive shocks he receives.
His depression and his tears are underlined by his initial failure to recognise Horatio; but he rouses himself sufficiently to make the bitter witticism about the funeral baked meats, and his cross-examination of the three men who have seen the Ghost reveals that his intelligence has not been blunted by his grief. It is apparent from the four-line soliloquy at the end of the scene, in which he speaks of 'foul play' and 'foul deeds', that he now suspects that his father has been murdered.
In the fourth scene, before the appearance of the Ghost, Hamlet is given a speech on the drunkenness of the court, which leads him to generalise on the way 'some vicious mole of nature' [I. iv. 24] or some bad habit outweighs a man's good qualities and destroys his reputation in the eyes of the world. Hamlet had already referred in the second scene to the drinking habits of the new court, and one function of this speech is to show the deterioration of Elsinore in the reign of Claudius. Another function, equally important from the theatrical point of view, is to distract the attention of the audience so that they are surprised by the reappearance of the Ghost, and this function is aided by the extreme complexity of the syntax, which would require the undivided attention of the audience.
Bernard Shaw spoke of the Ghost's part as
one of the wonders of the play. . . . The weird music of that long speech . . . should be the spectral wail of a soul's bitter wrong crying from one world to another in the extremity of its torment.
He is, apparently, released from purgatory, although Shakespeare makes use of some of the characteristics of the classical Hades. He speaks of his 'foul crimes', which suggests that Hamlet has idealised his character; and it is stressed that he has been sent to his account 'Unhous'led, disappointed, unanel'd' [I. v. 77]—without having taken the sacrament, unprepared, and without having received extreme unction. Hamlet promises to sweep to his revenge, and the Ghost leaves him with two cautions:
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive Against thy mother aught. [I. v. 85-6]
Gertrude is to be left to the prickings of conscience; but the meaning of the first four words of this sentence is ambiguous. They could refer to Hamlet's attitude to his mother, or they may have a more general application: he is to execute justice on Claudius, without allowing his own mind to become tainted with evil. It is important to realise that Hamlet's task is almost impossible. How can he kill Claudius in such a way that justice appears to be done, without at the same time exposing the guilt of his mother? It is apparent from the speech Hamlet utters immediately after the Ghost's disappearance that he is more concerned with his mother's guilt than with his uncle's blacker crime: he speaks first of her. It is also clear from this soliloquy and from the scene which follows that Hamlet's mind is reeling in the distracted globe of his skull. Knowing that he will be unable to behave normally till his vengeance is accomplished, he decides to 'put an antic disposition on', as Hieronimo (in The Spanish Tragedy) had done, or—to use a comparison made in The Historie of Hamblet—as the Brutus who had driven out the Tarquins had done. How near to breaking-point Hamlet is after the revelation by the Ghost is made apparent by his inability to stand, by his 'wild and whirling words' [I. v. 133] to his friends, and by the hysterical remarks about the 'fellow in the cellarage' [I. v. 151], which are not a sign of his egotism and callousness as Rebecca West assumes, but which may well make his friends suspect that the Ghost is the devil in disguise. The antic disposition is not merely a defence mechanism. It also enables Hamlet to play the role of Fool and so make remarks which will appear mad to everyone except the guilty King, and which are a means of undermining his self-control, so that his conscience will be caught by the performance of 'The Murder of Gonzago'.
Hamlet nearly reveals the Ghost's secret twice: first, when he breaks off to inform Horatio and Marcellus that
There's never a villain dwelling in all Denmark But he's an arrant knave; [I. v. 123-24]
and, secondly, when he begins:
It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you . . . [I. v. 138]
and then finishes:
For your desire to know what is between us, O'ermaster it as you may. [I. v. 139-40]
Later on, off-stage, he makes Horatio his confidant; but he keeps the secret from Marcellus because he realises that his own safety depends on secrecy. The scene ends with a significant couplet:
The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it rightl [I. v. 188-89]
These lines, in which Hamlet both accepts and revolts against his mission, contrast with his earlier promise to 'sweep to his revenge' [I. v. 31 ], and with his determination to confront the Ghost, when his fate cries out: they prepare the way for the long months of inaction. (pp. 20-3)
Kenneth Muir, in his Shakespeare: Hamlet, Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1963, 61 p.
[Joseph examines the concept of appearance versus reality with regard to Claudius's character in Hamlet. When the play begins, the critic asserts, there is no indication that Claudius is a villain; rather, he appears to be the consummate monarch, who effectively transacts private and public business. As the play progresses, however, the quality of his villainy is gradually revealed to the audience. Joseph also defines the term "hypocrisy" in relation to Claudius, maintaining that Elizabethans viewed it as a particularly serious character flaw. The king's hypocrisy is perhaps most evident in his eloquent speech in Act I, scene ii in which he openly discusses his hasty marriage to Gertrude and downplays its awkwardness by providing sound reasons for establishing the union. As a result, the grief-stricken Hamlet—with whom we are supposed to identify—seems to be the only abnormal character at the court The critic explores several Renaissance perspectives on Claudius's character which might not be apparent to a modern audience. For instance, Joseph maintains that an Elizabethan audience would not likely sympathize with the monarch as he tries to pray in Act III, scene iii, for his admission of sinning coupled with his inability to repent only makes his wickedness more pronounced. Further, the critic shows how Elizabethan audiences would understand that images of sickness and disease in the play relate to Claudius's hypocrisy. Finally, Joseph notes that the king's duplicity reflects a truly evil devilishness and discusses the concept of "white devil"—a term given to hypocrites by Martin Luther—in relation to this observation.]
The last minutes of the play are taken up with preparations for the dead to be placed "high on a stage . . . to the view," as silent witnesses when Horatio comes to tell the
yet unknowing world How these things came about. [V. ii. 379-80]
What is there to be told? No more than we, the audience or the readers, have just lived through in our imagination with the poet. And yet we have not imagined the whole of the story as it was present in its author's mind unless we remember, unless we are acutely conscious of, the fact that it is concerned with a country still completely unaware of what has been taking place since the murder of the elder Hamlet.
Horatio has now to speak of that murder, telling how it was committed by Claudius, the brother who seized the throne and lived incestuously with the murdered king's widow. There will be mention of the Ghost, the Mousetrap, the unintentional killing of Claudius and its results. Denmark must learn of the plot to kill the Prince in England, of the foul details of the second plot after his sudden return home. It is a story of rebounding treachery and multiple slaughter, with the wiping out not of Hamlet alone, but of Gertrude, Laertes, and finally of Claudius himself. At this moment, if we imagine Horatio about to tell all this to the Danes, with the grim procession forming, we know for certain that the truth in the dying words of Laertes can be applied not merely to one episode, but to all the crime and horror of the story—
—the King, the King's to blame. [V. ii. 320]
But when the play opens it is by no means certain that Claudius is a villain. Even when the Prince swears vengeance there is still a strong possibility that the Ghost's word ought not to be taken. What we have seen of Claudius suggests a clear conscience: we have been present whilst a very gracious and most noble-looking renaissance monarch transacted private and public business with an admiring court around him. With competence and regal assurance he disposes of the problem of young Fortinbras, sending a statesmanlike embassy to the old king. Claudius never appears to better advantage than in this scene: with what sincere interest in the affairs of a trusted adviser does he assure the young Laertes:
You cannot speak of reason to the Dane And lose your voice. What wouldst thou beg, Laertes, That shall not be my offer, not thy asking? The head is not more native to the heart, The hand more instrumental to the mouth, Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father. [I. ii. 44-9]
When Claudius turns to "my cousin Hamlet, and my son" [I. ii. 64], there is the same healthy assurance, tempered now with a sympathetic restraint which suggests immeasurable reserves of strength and kindliness. He seems to be justified in everything that he says to cajole or persuade Hamlet to take more interest to the incidents of everyday life.
In the face of his nephew's inability to reconcile himself to that "common theme," the "death of fathers" [I. ii. 104], Claudius seems sincere. When the Prince has promised his mother to remain, the gloriousness of Claudius is even more pronounced: now the court departs in a magnificent procession, joyfully expectant of great splendour and felicities to come, with their king proclaiming to the world a liberality and magnanimity of soul which renaissance minds found fittting to a monarch. The scene moves inevitably to his final speech; and this sets the seal on the picture which Shakespeare wants us to have of a personage whose grandeur swells more and more until at last he holds the stage, dominating the whole company with a radiant splendour:
No jocund health that Denmark drinks today But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell, And the King's rouse the heaven shall bruit again, Re-speaking earthly thunder. [I. ii. 125-28]
For Claudius, this is the moment of greatest triumph; in his appearance, in the attitude of others toward him, there is no suggestion that he is anything but an ideal king, with all the superb qualities which that implies. To look at him no one would imagine the foul crimes of which he is guilty, the murder of a brother, the filthy, animal sin of incest. Not the mark of Cain, but a clear conscience seems to show itself on Claudius' brow; he seems to emanate health and brightness of soul, and a gracious spirit of nobility. And yet as he wrote the play, Shakespeare, even as he imagined Claudius seeming so splendid, had also imagined him guilty at this very moment of two horrid, ugly crimes. A few scenes later, in the heat of his first reaction to the Ghost's tale, Hamlet cries bitterly:
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! My tables—meet it is I set it down That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain; At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark. [I. v. 106-09]
Yet even Hamlet begins to wonder if what the Ghost says is true, and no ordinary mortal looking at Claudius and his loving queen, surrounded with a joyful court, a picture of all that is healthily vital in human beings, could be expected to peer beneath the smile and find the villain. We would rather be disposed to think that of the world in general it is true that "one may smile, and smile, and be a villain," but if ever there were a sure exception to that rule it is to be found in this particular case of Denmark, and of Claudius, its magnificent king.
From one point of view, then, the progress of the play is a revelation of the quality of Claudius' villainy; only gradually do we come to a true experience of his real nature. How successfully he imposes on Denmark, and how difficult it is to prevent oneself from being deceived by this kind of person, is exemplified excellently by his very first speech. The peculiar quality of this hypocrite lies in his ability not merely to hide evil, but to present it openly when he chooses, in a manner which leads ordinary people not to recognize it emotionally for what it is, but to respond to it as good. Claudius reminds his listeners that his behaviour could indeed be regarded as not in accordance with what is normally held as the best of taste:
Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death The memory be green; and that it us befitted To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom To be contracted in one brow of woe; Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature That we with wisest sorrow think on him, Together with remembrance of ourselves. [I. ii. 1-7]
As this scene develops, with an obviously admiring court and a loving queen, from none of whom comes any hint of shame or disapproval, it is easy to accept Claudius' words as perfectly reasonable, and to forget that he is guilty of at the least a gross breach of etiquette in marrying so soon, and in putting an end to court mourning within two months of the last king's death. In a sense which Claudius did not intend his words, "so far hath discretion fought with nature" that he has managed to marry his brother's widow without stimulating in his courtiers their normal reaction to incest; and yet in this case, too, he does not attempt to hide what he has done, he merely contrives to make the world mistake the real quality of his actions:
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, . . . Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy, . . . Taken to wife; nor have we herein barr'd Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone With this affair along. [I. ii. 8-16]
It is the measure of his uncle's success that Hamlet, the only person to react normally to an abnormal situation, is himself made to seem abnormal. The sight of Claudius, to hear him speak, is enough to dispel disapproval; and in the behaviour of Gertrude is so much love and radiance that we can be forgiven for not realizing that this is a woman who buried a beloved husband in frenzied grief a few short weeks ago. Shakespeare has presented the facts in such a way that our own normal reactions are dulled, and if we recognize later how strange it was that we had no comprehension of the true facts at this moment, we become more aware of the evil emanating from Claudius as a part of the poet's fundamental conception of his play.
Claudius' nature, then, adds to the difficulties of Hamlet's task. After the King has betrayed himself, when the Mousetrap has been sprung, the position is rectified to a certain extent: the Prince and his only friend are now sure that the appearance of a murderer who does not look guilty is not to be weighed against the word of a Ghost which might have been false. But we, the audience, do not react correctly to The Murder of Gonzago, unless we are conscious of the kind of problem which it solves, and this means an awareness of Claudius as a hypocrite in the renaissance understanding of that term.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, hypocrisy may be defined as:
The assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, with dissimulation of real character or inclinations, esp. in respect of religious life or beliefs; hence in general sense, dissimulation, pretence, sham.
We tend to interpret "the assuming of a false appearance" metaphorically; but the renaissance looked literally at the face and actions which in a hypocrite were by definition considered to express the opposite of the real nature within; for instance, Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabetical (1604) states: "such a one as in his outward apparel, countenance and behaviour, pretendeth to be other than he is indeed, or a deceiver." (pp. 50-5)
It is because men are only human that hypocrites like Claudius are able to pass themselves off successfully. Only God and the evil-doer's own conscience, says the renaissance, know him as he is with certainty. "Our inward disposition is the life of our actions," [Bishop] Hall declares [in his Works, I], "according to that doth the God of Spirits judge us, while men censure according to our external motions." It is for this reason that the disguise of the hypocrite makes him so dangerous: "wicked hypocrites care not to play with God, that they may mock men." And we are assured that: "An open wicked man doth much hurt, with notorious sins; but an hypocrite doth at last more shame goodness, by seeming good" [Works, VIII]. (pp. 60-1)
Claudius dares to be both a villain and a hypocrite; his heart does not smile with his face; he is guilty of murder and incest, the smile on his face hides guilt and the planning of yet more villainy in his heart. Pericles treats a situation resembling that in Hamlet: like Claudius, Antiochus is guilty of incest and plans fresh murder; and like Claudius he dissembles: where Hamlet cries that "one may smile and smile and be a villain" [I. v. 108], Pericles comments:
How courtesy would seem to cover sin, When what is done is like an hypocrite, The which is good in nothing but in sight! [Pericles, I. i. 121-23]
As Hall says: "Hypocrisy gains this of men, that it may do evil unsuspected" [Works, I].
After the moment when Claudius has shown his guilt fleetingly in his face and gesture, "upon the talk of the poisoning" [III. ii. 289], there is no more doubt for Hamlet and Horatio, and for audience and reader. And up to this moment Shakespeare does not show Claudius in such a way that we know him for what he is: but once murder has spoken with miraculous organ we can see him without the disguise. Denmark, however, is still deluded; his subjects cannot peer through the smile to the guilty heart. And as a result he is able to send Hamlet away to a treacherously planned death: and even when the Prince returns, Claudius still appears to be the splendid monarch striving hard to reconcile his nephew and Laertes in a fair and generous manner.
Claudius shows himself to us as hypocrite in the use he makes of Laertes:
Laertes, was your father dear to you? Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, A face without a heart? [IV. vii. 107-09]
These words are spoken by the very man who turned to chide another sorrowing son; to Hamlet, Claudius declared at the beginning of the play:
to persever In obstinate condolement is . . . . . . unmanly grief; . . . Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven, A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, To reason most absurd; whose common theme Is death of fathers. [I. ii. 92-104]
Shakespeare put these sentiments into the mouth of the character whom he had imagined guilty of the murder of the man for whom such grief was being shown. The same hypocritical murderer, as he incites Laertes to yet more killing, asks:
what would you undertake To show yourself in deed your father's son More than in words? [IV. vii. 124-26]
And when the answer comes: "to cut his throat i' th' church" [IV. vii. 126], Claudius approves with every show of honest sympathy and indignation, using words which are unwittingly a sentence passed on himself:
No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize; Revenge should have no bounds. [IV. vii. 127-28]
Shakespeare makes Claudius a hypocrite in what he says and does as the action progresses, and when the last scene has arrived we have been able to understand the land of villainy that lurks beneath his fair and smooth appearance. It is obvious then that he has been created by the playwright as this particular kind of dangerous person, the hypocrite, who by virtue of his position and of his seeming splendour can pervert not merely his queen, but the very land which he has stolen from his victim. Claudius is not a mixture of good and bad, he is an evil man who seems good.
But it might well be objected that the King tries to pray, that he shows remorse, especially when admitting to himself the justice of the remark made by Polonius:
'Tis too much prov'd, that with devotion's visage And pious action we do sugar o'er The devil himself. [III. i. 46-8]
Then Claudius admits to himself:
O, 'tis too true! How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience! The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art, Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it Than is my deed to my most painted word. O heavy burden! [III. i. 48-53]
At this point the audience cannot be certain that the King's guilt involves murder of a brother, but incest and usurpation are burdens enough. Yet the trouble with Claudius from the renaissance point of view is that however smart a lash his conscience may receive, it is powerless to make him really contrite. For Elizabethans there was no more to be seen in his behaviour, especially when he tries to pray (III. iii.); nothing more than horror at the realization of the consequences of his wrongdoing. As Bishop Hall puts it: "Consciences that are without remorse, are not without horror: wickedness makes men desperate." He says this in his commentary on the story of Cain and Abel: and Claudius, who has also slain his brother, is another example of despairing wickedness.
When Claudius tries to pray he fails, because, like Faustus [in Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus], he cannot bear to part with the fruits of his sinning; and as a result, in another more deadly sense, he learns to feel the full quality of those fruits as a burden round his neck, pressing him down into the swamp of hell:
"Forgive me my foul murder"! That cannot be; since I am still possess'd Of those effects for which I did the murder— My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. May one be pardon'd and retain th' offence? [III. iii. 52-6]
And the answer which he gives himself is in tune with what we have heard in other renaissance comments on hypocrisy:
In the corrupted currents of this world Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice; . . . . . . But 'tis not so above: There is no shuffling; there the action lies In his true nature. [III. iii. 57-62]
But Claudius has reduced himself to a state of such depravity that in the corruption of his will his soul is limed:
that, struggling to be free, Art more engag'd. [III. iii. 68-9]
As he rises from his knees, having given every outward sign of penitent devotion, he seems to the sentimental modern mind to be pathetic and not all unworthy. But the Elizabethan would not necessarily have had this view: he would more likely have given a verdict more in keeping with John Bulwer's denunciation of hypocrites [in his Chirologia]:
Idolaters and hypocrites, in lifting up their hands in prayer, are but apes, who while they by the outward symbol profess to have their minds erected upwards, the first of them stick in the wood and stone, as if God were enclosed there: the second sort, entangled in vain cares, or wicked cogitations, lie grovelling on the earth, and by a contradiction of gesture, bear witness against themselves.
Even so does Claudius grieve, that "above," malefactors are
compell'd, Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults, To give in evidence. [III. iii. 62-4]
Thus for Elizabethans the enormous extent of his guilt became more visible with his own despairing recognition:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go. [III. iii. 97-8]
When William Lathum, in Phyala Lachrymarum (1633), gives a list of the flowers fit to be thrown upon the bier of his friend, Nathaniel Weld, tulips are rejected:
No gaudy tulips here admitted be, (Emblems of false (fair-fained) sanctity), Whose worth all outward is in show alone, But inward scent hath not, ne virtue none.
From one point of view, Claudius is like the "gaudy tulips," but fundamentally they are inadequate as symbols for what Shakespeare has imagined of him. The dramatist is thinking of Claudius in terms of Cain, who is associated in the Bible, not only with the murder of a brother, but with a hypocritical sacrifice which was literally a foul stench. For that reason we are reminded of Cain when Claudius exclaims in horror:
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon 't— A brother's murder! [III. iii. 36-8]
This is his second reference to his biblical prototype: the first occurs in the early hypocritical reproof to Hamlet for mourning his dead father:
a fault to nature. To reason most absurd; whose common theme Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried From the first corse till he that died to-day, "This must be so." [I. ii. 102-06]
The "first corse," Abel, was killed by his brother, Cain, in fulfilment of the primal curse; but while this is an appropriate example, I do not think its appearance here should be taken as anything more than contributory evidence of the way in which Shakespeare himself was reacting to his story; for there is direct evidence enough later when Claudius refers openly to the nature of his own offence. It is, however, important not to neglect the association of Claudius with Cain, for here we have an essential element in Shakespeare's conception of the Hamlet story.
In Shakespeare's Imagery (1935), Professor [Carolyn F. E.] Spurgeon calls attention to the number of images in Hamlet in which disease is involved:
In Hamlet there hovers all through the play in both words and word pictures the conception of disease, especially of a hidden corruption infecting and destroying a wholesome body.
Professor Spurgeon suggests that the reason for this lies in the author's having imagined Hamlet as infected and killed by disease of the spirit: she believes that the imagery of this play suggests that Hamlet's tragedy is the result of
a condition for which the individual himself is apparently not responsible any more than the sick man is to blame for the infection which strikes and devours him.
But the Elizabethans knew of a form of sickness for which there was no doubt that the sick man was himself to blame, and that was hypocrisy. Where Professor Spurgeon has assumed that the imagery of disease expresses Shakespeare's attitude to Hamlet, there are stronger grounds for suggesting that the hidden corruption which hovers all through the play emanates from the central conception of Claudius and the part which he occupies in the story as a whole. It is here that we perceive the importance of the association with Cain; for not only did Cain slay his brother, like Claudius, and is known for the foulness of his sacrifice, but Cain like Claudius was a hypocrite. Moreover, the renaissance, with the authority of Holy Writ, often speaks of hypocrisy itself as an inner corruption, a conception which we have retained with the term "whited sepulchre." Claudius' mention of his "rank" offence, just before his useless show of prayer, should be imagined in the light of the distinction made by Hall between sin and penitence:
There is no sense, that gives so lively a refreshing to the spirits, as that of smelling: no smell can yield so true and feeling delight to the sense, as the offerings of our penitence, obedience, praise, send up into the nostrils of the Almighty. [Works, V]
But sins, he adds, are unsavoury: "no carrion is so noisome." (pp. 62-8)
It is not strange that the world in which Claudius flourishes should be seen by Hamlet in its true light as
an unweeded garden That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely. [I. ii. 135-371]
And "rank" is the word which Claudius himself uses of his offence.
When Hamlet breaks away and follows the Ghost, Horatio asks: "To what issue will this come?" And Marcellus gives the right answer: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" [I. iv. 89-90]. But what neither of them can yet realize is that the rottenness lies at the heart of the country, its king. We cannot understand fully what Hamlet has to fight unless we realize that the triumph of Claudius means spiritual death for Denmark. No wonder that he himself describes his subjects as:
muddied. Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers. [IV. v. 81-2]
And so it must be until the foul deed, never hidden from the sight of God, has risen to the eyes of men, and the cause, the core of corruption, the seemingly fine king, has been removed.
This view of Claudius becomes even more justified if we consider yet another aspect of the hypocrite as conceived of in the renaissance: he is not only rotten, he is devilish. Hall describes how when a hypocrite meets a friend in the street, "the other thinks he reads his heart in his face," and rejoices at receiving a vague invitation which will never materialize into hospitality: and in his heart all the time the hypocrite mocks:
In brief, he is the stranger's saint; the neighbour's disease; the blot of goodness; a rotten stick, in a dark night; a poppy, in a cornfield; an ill tempered candle, with a great snuff, that in going out smells ill; an angel abroad, a devil at home; and worse when an angel than when a devil.
Another devil of this kind to whom Shakespeare gave a central part is Angelo in Measure for Measure. In each play the situation is similar: a hypocrite rules in each. Isabella finds that it would be useless to
tell the world Aloud what man thou art. [Measure for Measure, II. iv. 153-54]
Angelo sneers triumphantly:
Say what you can: my false o'erweighs your true. [II. iv. 170]
And the Duke sums up as he moralizes in a string of couplets at the end of the Third Act:
O, what may man within him hide, Though Angel on the outward side! [III. ii. 271-72]
In Measure for Measure the audience can appreciate the truth of this at once: from what has been shown of Angelo we recognize that Isabella is not mistaken in her words to her brother:
This outward-sainted deputy . . . is yet a devil; His filth within being cast, he would appear A pond as deep as hell. [III. i. 88-93]
The ordinary kind of devil is black within and black without: that is why Thomas Adams followed Martin Luther in applying the term "White Devil" to a hypocrite: "A devil he was," writes Adams of Judas, "black within and full of rancour, but white without, and skinned over with hypocrisy; therefore to use Luther's word, we will call him the white devil" [The White Devil, or the Hypocrite Uncased].
Claudius shows so white that it takes half a play before we know him for what he is, and a second half before anyone is in a position to unmask him in public. Much of the horror of the situation with which Hamlet is confronted lies in the certainty that in virtue of his "seeming," Claudius can continue to impose on the world. In Measure for Measure, the Duke has retired, but only temporarily: in Hamlet the king has been murdered, and everything lies at the murderer's feet. Isabella can cry in public to her legitimate ruler:
do not banish reason For inequality; but let your reason serve To make the truth appear where it seems hid, And hide the false seems true. [V. i. 64-7]
But there is no one to whom Hamlet can make this appeal; even his own friends and well-wishers are, without knowing it, at the usurper's disposal. Again, when Isabella is at first unsuccessful in her supplication to the Duke, she comforts herself with the apostrophe:
O, you blessed ministers above, Keep me in patience; and, with ripened time, Unfold the evil which is here wrapt up In countenance! [V. i. 115-18]
But Hamlet must not delay, he cannot afford to wait for time to "unfold the evil" which is here "wrapt up" in Claudius' countenance.
In Isabella's speech, Shakespeare has used the image of wrapping and unfolding in association with a countenance: in Hamlet he concentrates on the smile into which a face folds when it covers villainy: but in Titus Andronicus, that early play, he combines the two. There the word "fold" means not only "wrap," but "cover," "protect," "conceal," with the suggestion of "crease," ending in the concrete "smile." Tamora is made to wonder greatly
that man's face can fold In pleasing smiles such murderous tyranny. [Titus Andronicus, II. iii. 266-67]
And crude as Titus Andronicus undoubtedly is, the situation there is nevertheless not so different from what we have in Hamlet, in each play deceit seems to triumph, the normal ways in which murder may be denounced are frustrated. Where Hamlet must say nothing, the opponents of evil in the Roman play lose tongues and hands, the symbols and "adjuncts" of expression, in each play a smile hides villainy, and in each, murder speaks at last with most miraculous organ.
To read Pericles, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice and Titus Andronicus is to find that whenever Shakespeare deals with the elements which for him are present in the story of Hamlet, he reacts in the same way, stressing the contrast between inside and outside, linking apparent health with hidden corruption, the seeming angelic with the actual diabolic. Centuries earlier, The Proverbs of Alfred had observed:
Mony appel is bryht with-ute And Bitter with-inne.
The early Middle English Lambeth Homily declares that the hypocrite is "al swa is an eppel iheoweth. he bith with-uten feire and frakel with-innen"— "like a rosy apple, fair without and rotten within." And the tradition went on into Shakespeare's own day.
In this tradition Claudius can be viewed in the right perspective, not as an unfortunate mixture of good and bad qualities, but as an example of how utter corruption can pass itself off as good, an example who makes the words of Antonio in Twelfth Night ring true:
Virtue is beauty; but the beauteous evil Are empty trunks o'erflourish'd by the devil. [Twelfth Night, III. iv. 369-70]
If anyone objects today that to take Claudius thus is to reduce him from a credible human being, a mixture of good and bad in tragedy, to an impossible puppet, a villain who fits nothing but melodrama, only one reply can be given. Shakespeare's age believed that people of this sort actually existed, and that tragedy was often the outcome of their success in deception. And if it be objected further that this is thrusting Shakespeare back into his age, the reply is that he wrote for that age, and that his plays could have succeeded in the theatre only if they had been intelligible to his contemporaries, offering them situations and ideas which were familiar to the early seventeenth century. For Shakespeare's contemporaries, Claudius as a hypocrite in their sense of the word was no caricature. To say that one could smile and be a villain was to express a deep truth which goes right into the nature of things in a world which has suffered a fall; and for the renaissance that was the world of all who came after Adam. To read into Hamlet's words nothing more than a picturesque statement that Claudius is not to be trusted would be to blind ourselves to a great part of Shakespeare's vision of this particular battle between good and evil as involved in the continual struggle of Satan to assert himself. Only when we are prepared to consider Claudius as an overwhelmingly evil person, whose seeming is the opposite of his being, are we able to appreciate how his creator has organized the elements of the story of the Prince of Denmark into a shape which awakens an understanding of what was to the renaissance mind a true comment on the place of evil in the world. (pp. 68-73)
Source: Bertram Joseph, "'—The King, the King's to Blame'," in his Conscience and the King: A Study of "Hamlet," Chatto and Windus, 1953, pp. 50-73.
[Hellbrun contends that, contrary to the predominant critical opinion, Gertrude is not a weak character who lacks "depth and vigorous intelligence." The critic then evaluates Gertrude's lines in Hamlet to demonstrate that while the queen is not "profound," she is certainly never "silly." The character's actions in fact reveal her to be clear-headed and courageous, especially during the closet scene in Act III, scene iv when, after Hamlet accuses her of lust, she accepts his judgment and admits her sin. Heilbrun also provides an Elizabethan definition of the term "adultery," asserting that the word does not necessarily imply that Claudius and Gertrude had an affair while King Hamlet was alive, rather it suggests that their marriage reflects an unchaste sexual relationship. The critic concludes that while Gertrude is indeed lustful, she is also "intelligent, penetrating, and gifted with a remarkable talent for concise and pithy speech."]
The character of Hamlet's mother has not received the specific critical attention it deserves. Moreover, the traditional account of her personality as rendered by the critics will not stand up under close scrutiny of Shakespeare's play.
None of the critics of course has failed to see Gertrude as vital to the action of the play; not only is she the mother of the hero, the widow of the Ghost, and the wife of the current King of Denmark, but the fact of her hasty and, to the Elizabethans, incestuous marriage, the whole question of her "falling off", occupies a position of barely secondary importance in the mind of her son, and of the Ghost. Indeed, Freud and Jones see her [see excerpt in section on Hamlet's character], the object of Hamlet's Oedipus complex, as central to the motivation of the play. But the critics, with no exception that I have been able to find, have accepted Hamlet's word "frailty" as applying to her whole personality, and have seen in her not one weakness, or passion in the Elizabethan sense, but a character of which weakness and lack of depth and vigorous intelligence are the entire explanation. Of her can it truly be said that carrying the "stamp of one defect", she did "in the general censure take corruption from that particular fault" [I. iv. 35-6].
The critics are agreed that Gertrude was not a party to the late King's murder and indeed knew nothing of it, a point which on the clear evidence of the play, is indisputable. They have also discussed whether or not Gertrude, guilty of more than an "o'er-hasty marriage" [II. ii. 57], had committed adultery with Claudius before her husband's death. I will return to this point later on. Beyond discussing these two points, those critics who have dealt specifically with the Queen have traditionally seen her as well-meaning but shallow and feminine, in the pejorative sense of the word: incapable of any sustained rational process, superficial and flighty. It is this tradition which a closer reading of the play will show to be erroneous.
Professor [A.C.] Bradley describes the traditional Gertrude thus [in his Shakespearean Tragedy]:
The Queen was not a bad-hearted woman, not at all the woman to think little of murder. But she had a soft animal nature and was very dull and very shallow. She loved to be happy, like a sheep in the sun, and to do her justice, it pleased her to see others happy, like more sheep in the sun. . . . It was pleasant to sit upon her throne and see smiling faces around her, and foolish and unkind in Hamlet to persist in grieving for his father instead of marrying Ophelia and making everything comfortable. . . . The belief at the bottom of her heart was that the world is a place constructed simply that people may be happy in it in a good-humored sensual fashion.
Later on, Bradley says of her that when affliction comes to her "the good in her nature struggles to the surface through the heavy mass of sloth."
[Harley] Granville-Barker is not quite so extreme. Shakespeare, he says [in his Prefaces to Shakespeare],
gives us in Gertrude the woman who does not mature, who clings to her youth and all that belongs to it, whose charm will not change but at last fade and wither; a pretty creature, as we see her, desperately refusing to grow old. . . . She is drawn for us with unemphatic strokes, and she has but a passive part in the play's action. She moves throughout in Claudius' shadow; he holds her as he won her, by the witchcraft of his wit.
Elsewhere Granville-Barker says "Gertrude who will certainly never see forty-five again, might better be 'old'. (That is, portrayed by an older, mature actress.) But that would make her relations with Claudius—and their likelihood is vital to the play—quite incredible." Granville-Barker is saying here that a woman about forty-five years of age cannot feel any sexual passion nor arouse it. This is one of the mistakes which lie at the heart of the misunderstanding about Gertrude.
Professor [John] Dover Wilson sees Gertrude as more forceful than either of these two critics will admit, but even he finds the Ghost's unwillingness to shock her with knowledge of his murder to be one of the basic motivations of the play, and he says of her "Gertrude is always hoping for the best" [What Happens in Hamlet].
Now whether Claudius won Gertrude before or after her husband's death, it was certainly not, as Granville-Barker implies, with "the witchcraft of his wit" alone. Granville-Barker would have us believe that Claudius won her simply by the force of his persuasive tongue. "It is plain", he writes, that the Queen "does little except echo his [Claudius'] wishes; sometimes—as in the welcome to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—she repeats his very words," though Wilson must admit later that Gertrude does not tell Claudius everything. Without dwelling here on the psychology of the Ghost, or the greater burden borne by the Elizabethan words "witchcraft" and "wit", we can plainly see, for the Ghost tells us, how Claudius won the Queen: the Ghost considers his brother to be garbage, and "lust", the Ghost says, "will sate itself in a celestial bed and prey on garbage" [I. v. 55-7]. "Lust"—in a woman of forty-five or more—is the key word here. Bradley, Granville-Barker, and to a lesser extent Professor Dover Wilson, misunderstand Gertrude largely because they are unable to see lust, the desire for sexual relations, as the passion, in the Elizabethan sense of the word, the flaw, the weakness which drives Gertrude to an incestuous marriage, appals her son, and keeps him from the throne. Unable to explain her marriage to Claudius as the act of any but a weak-minded vacillating woman, they fail to see Gertrude for the strong-minded, intelligent, succinct, and, apart from this passion, sensible woman that she is.
To understand Gertrude properly, it is only necessary to examine the lines Shakespeare has chosen for her to say. She is, except for her description of Ophelia's death, concise and pithy in speech, with a talent for seeing the essence of every situation presented before her eyes. If she is not profound, she is certainly never silly. We first hear her asking Hamlet to stop wearing black, to stop walking about with his eyes downcast, and to realize that death is an inevitable part of life. She is, in short, asking him not to give way to the passion of grief, a passion of whose force and dangers the Elizabethans were aware. . . . Claudius echoes her with a well-reasoned argument against grief which was, in its philosophy if not in its language, a piece of commonplace Elizabethan lore. After Claudius' speech, Gertrude asks Hamlet to remain in Denmark, where he is rightly loved. Her speeches have been short, however warm and loving, and conciseness of statement is not the mark of a dull and shallow woman.
We next hear her, as Queen and gracious hostess, welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the court, hoping, with the King, that they may cheer Hamlet and discover what is depressing him. Claudius then tells Gertrude, when they are alone, that Polonius believes he knows what is upsetting Hamlet. The Queen answers:
I doubt it is no other than the main, His father's death and our o'er-hasty marriage. [II. ii. 56-7]
This statement is concise, remarkably to the point, and not a little courageous. It is not the statement of a dull, slothful woman who can only echo her husband's words. Next, Polonius enters with his most unbrief apotheosis to brevity. The Queen interrupts him with five words: "More matter with less art" [II. ii. 95]. It would be difficult to find a phrase more applicable to Polonius. When this gentleman, in no way deterred from his loquacity, after purveying the startling news that he has a daughter, begins to read a letter, the Queen asks pointedly "Came this from Hamlet to her?" [II. ii. 114].
We see Gertrude next in Act III, asking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with her usual directness, if Hamlet received them well, and if they were able to tempt him to any pastime. But before leaving the room, she stops for a word of kindness to Ophelia. It is a humane gesture, for she is unwilling to leave Ophelia, the unhappy tool of the King and Polonius, without some kindly and intelligent appreciation of her help:
And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish That your good beauties be the happy cause Of Hamlet's wildness. So shall I hope your virtues Will bring him to his wonted way again, To both your honors. [III. i. 37-41]
It is difficult to see in this speech, as Bradley apparently does, the gushing shallow wish of a sentimental woman that class distinctions shall not stand in the way of true love.
At the play, the Queen asks Hamlet to sit near her. She is clearly trying to make him feel he has a place in the court of Denmark. She does not speak again until Hamlet asks her how she likes the play. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" [III. ii. 230] is her immortal comment on the player queen. The scene gives her four more words: when Claudius leaps to his feet, she asks "How fares my Lord?" [III. ii. 267].
I will for the moment pass over the scene in the Queen's closet, to follow her quickly through the remainder of the play. After the closet scene, the Queen comes to speak to Claudius. She tells him, as Hamlet has asked her to, that he, Hamlet, is mad, and has killed Polonius. She adds, however, that he now weeps for what he has done. She does not wish Claudius to know what she now knows, how wild and fearsome Hamlet has become. Later, she does not wish to see Ophelia, but hearing how distracted she is, consents. When Laertes bursts in ready to attack Claudius, she immediately steps between Claudius and Laertes to protect the King, and tells Laertes it is not Claudius who has killed his father. Laertes will of course soon learn this, but it is Gertrude who manages to tell him before he can do any meaningless damage. She leaves Laertes and the King together, and then returns to tell Laertes that his sister is drowned. She gives her news directly, realizing that suspense will increase the pain of it, but this is the one time in the play when her usual pointed conciseness would be the mark neither of intelligence nor kindness, and so, gently, and at some length, she tells Laertes of his sister's death, giving him time to recover from the shock of grief, and to absorb the meaning of her words. At Ophelia's funeral the Queen scatters flowers over the grave:
Sweets to the sweet; farewell! I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife. I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid, And not t' have strew'd thy grave. [V. i. 243-46]
She is the only one present decently mourning the death of someone young, and not heated in the fire of some personal passion.
At the match between Hamlet and Laertes, the Queen believes that Hamlet is out of training, but glad to see him at some sport, she gives him her handkerchief to wipe his brow, and drinks to his success. The drink is poisoned and she dies. But before she dies she does not waste time on vituperation; she warns Hamlet that the drink is poisoned to prevent his drinking it. They are her last words. Those critics who have thought her stupid admire her death; they call it uncharacteristic.
In Act III, when Hamlet goes to his mother in her closet his nerves are pitched at the very height of tension; he is on the edge of hysteria. The possibility of murdering his mother has in fact entered his mind, and he has just met and refused an opportunity to kill Claudius. His mother, meanwhile, waiting for him, has told Polonius not to fear for her, but she knows when she sees Hamlet that he may be violently mad. Hamlet quips with her, insults her, tells her he wishes she were not his mother, and when she, still retaining dignity, attempts to end the interview, Hamlet seizes her and she cries for help. The important thing to note is that the Queen's cry "Thou wilt not murder me" [III. iv. 21 ] is not foolish. She has seen from Hamlet's demeanor that he is capable of murder, as indeed in the next instant he proves himself to be.
We next learn from the Queen's startled "As kill a king" [III. iv. 30] that she has no knowledge of the murder, though of course this is only confirmation here of what we already know. Then the Queen asks Hamlet why he is so hysterical:
What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue In noise so rude against me? [III. iv. 39-40]
Hamlet tells her: it is her lust, the need of sexual passion, which has driven her from the arms and memory of her husband to the incomparably cruder charms of his brother. He cries out that she has not even the excuse of youth for her lust:
O Shame! where is thy blush? Rebellious hell, If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones, To flaming youth let virtue be as wax And melt in her own fire. Proclaim no shame When the compulsive ardor gives the charge, Since frost itself as actively doth burn, And reason panders will. [III. iv. 81-8]
This is not only a lust, but a lust which throws out of joint all the structure of human morality and relationships. And the Queen admits it. If there is one quality that has characterized, and will characterize, every speech of Gertrude's in the play, it is the ability to see reality clearly, and to express it. This talent is not lost when turned upon herself:
O Hamlet, speak no more! Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct. [III. iv. 88-91]
She knows that lust has driven her, that this is her sin, and she admits it. Not that she wishes to linger in the contemplation of her sin. No more, she cries, no more. And then the Ghost appears to Hamlet. The Queen thinks him mad again—as well she might—but she promises Hamlet that she will not betray him—and she does not.
Where, in all that we have seen of Gertrude, is there the picture of "a soft animal nature, very dull and very shallow?" She may indeed be "animal" in the sense of "lustful". But it does not follow that because she wishes to continue a life of sexual experience, her brain is soft or her wit unperceptive.
Some critics, having accepted Gertrude as a weak and vacillating woman, see no reason to suppose that she did not fall victim to Claudius' charms before the death of her husband and commit adultery with him. These critics, Professor Bradley among them, claim that the elder Hamlet clearly tells his son that Gertrude has committed adultery with Claudius in the speech beginning "Ay that incestuous, that adulterate beast" [I. v. 41ff.] Professor Dover Wilson presents the argument:
Is the Ghost speaking here of the o'er-hasty marriage of Claudius and Gertrude? Assuredly not. His "certain term" is drawing rapidly to an end, and he is already beginning to "scent the morning air." Hamlet knew of the marriage, and his whole soul was filled with nausea at the thought of the speedy hasting to "incestuous sheets." Why then should the Ghost waste precious moments in telling Hamlet what he was fully cognisant of before? . . . Moreover, though the word "incestuous" was applicable to the marriage, the rest of the passage is entirely inapplicable to it. Expressions like "witchcraft", "traitorous gifts", "seduce", "shameful lust", and "seeming virtuous" may be noted in passing. But the rest of the quotation leaves no doubt upon the matter. . . .
Professor Dover Wilson and other critics have accepted the Ghost's word "adulterate" in its modern meaning. The Elizabethan word "adultery", however, was not restricted to its modern meaning, but was used to define any sexual relationship which could be called unchaste, including of course an incestuous one. Certainly the elder Hamlet considered the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude to be unchaste and unseemly, and while his use of the word "adulterate" indicates his very strong feelings about the marriage, it would not to an Elizabethan audience necessarily mean that he believed Gertrude to have been false to him before his death. It is important to notice, too, that the Ghost does not apply the term "adulterate" to Gertrude, and he may well have considered the term a just description of Claudius' entire sexual life.
But even if the Ghost used the word "adulterate" in full awareness of its modern restricted meaning, it is not necessary to assume on the basis of this single speech (and it is the only shadow of evidence we have for such a conclusion) that Gertrude was unfaithful to him while he lived. It is quite probable that the elder Hamlet still considered himself married to Gertrude, and he is moreover revolted that her lust for him ("why she would hang on him as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on" [I. ii .143-44]) should have so easily transferred itself to another. This is why he uses the expressions "seduce", "shameful lust", and others. Professor Dover Wilson has himself said "Hamlet knew of the marriage, and his whole soul was filled with nausea at the thought of the speedy hasting to incestuous sheets"; the soul of the elder Hamlet was undoubtedly filled with nausea too, and this could well explain his using such strong language, as well as his taking the time to mention the matter at all. It is not necessary to consider Gertrude an adulteress to account for the speech of the Ghost.
Gertrude's lust was, of course, more important to the plot than we may at first perceive. Charlton Lewis, among others, has shown how Shakespeare kept many of the facts of the plots from which he borrowed without maintaining the structures which explained them. In the original Belleforest story, Gertrude (substituting Shakespeare's more familiar names) was daughter of the king; to become king, it was necessary to marry her. The elder Hamlet, in marrying Gertrude, ousted Claudius from the throne. Shakespeare retained the shell of this in his play. When she no longer has a husband, the form of election would be followed to declare the next king, in this case undoubtedly her son Hamlet. By marrying Gertrude, Claudius "popp'd in between th' election and my hopes" [V. ii. 65], that is, kept young Hamlet from the throne. Gertrude's flaw of lust made Claudius' ambition possible, for without taking advantage of the Queen's desire still to be married, he could not have been king.
But Gertrude, if she is lustful, is also intelligent, penetrating, and gifted with a remarkable talent for concise and pithy speech. In all the play, the person whose language hers most closely resembles is Horatio. "Sweets to the sweet," she has said at Ophelia's grave [V. i. 243]. "Good night sweet prince", Horatio says at the end [V. ii. 359]. They are neither of them dull, or shallow, or slothful, though one of them is passion's slave. (pp. 201-06)
Source: Carolyn Heilbrun, "The Character of Hamlet's Mother," In Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1957, pp. 201-06.
[Maxwell takes exception to Carolyn Heilbrun's reading of Gertrude as a strong and intelligent character (see excerpt above) and provides a scene-by-scene analysis of the queen to prove that she is highly dependent on, and manipulated by, Claudius. The critic maintains that because Gertrude has generally fewer lines than the other characters with whom she interacts, principally Claudius and Hamlet, she is at best a minor force in the play. Maxwell also compares the queen to her counterpart in the Belleforest version of Hamlet, one of the chief sources for Shakespeare's tragedy. Unlike Shakespeare's queen, the critic observes, the Gertrude of the Belleforest account is "neither weak nor neutral." Maxwell then presents examples of the queen's ineffectuality; when Gertrude describes her marriage as merely "o'er-hasty," she does not recognize the union as adulterous or incestuous because she has been duped by Claudius's charm to accept it as normal; and, during the closet scene when she asks Hamlet "What shall I do?" (III. iv. 180), she further demonstrates her lack of initiative because she needs to depend on others for guidance. Perhaps the most startling evidence of Gertrude's pronounced dependence, the critic continues, is that she submissively remains with Claudius after Hamlet has told her of the king's crimes. Maxwell further contends that Gertrude's first independent act occurs when she defies Claudius and drinks from the poisoned cup, but "her crossing him means her death."]
In an article entitled "The Character of Hamlet's Mother" [see excerpt above], Miss Carolyn Heilbrun expressed strong disagreement with what had been the generally accepted estimate of Queen Gertrude. Seemingly unaware of the essay by Professor [John W.] Draper [in his The Hamlet of Shakespeare's Audience], the Queen's most ardent defender, Miss Heilbrun wrote that "critics, with no exception that I have been able to find, have accepted Hamlet's word 'frailty' as applying to [Gertrude's] whole personality, and have seen in her . . . a character of which weakness and lack of depth and rigorous intelligence are the entire explanation." She, as had Professor Draper, rejected almost in toto the views of such critics as A. C. Bradley, Miss Agnes Mackenzie, H. Granville-Barker, and others who had declared the Queen "weak", "neutral", or "little more than a puppet".
Professor Draper, who thought Gertrude innocent of adultery prior to King Hamlet's death, not only denied her weakness but excused her hasty and incestuous marriage as politically necessary because of a national crisis, "a marriage more of convenience than of love." To him the Queen appeared "dignified, gracious, and resourceful", one who "as a wife, as a mother, as a queen . . . seems to approximate, if not the Elizabethan ideal, at least the Elizabethan norm". She is, he insisted, "no slave to lust." It is only on this last point that Miss Heilbrun and Professor Draper markedly disagreed. Although persuaded that Gertrude was innocent of adultery prior to the elder Hamlet's death, Miss Heilbrun argued that her marriage to Claudius was brought about not by a need to settle a national crisis, not by the witchcraft of Claudius' wit, but by lust alone, "the need of sexual passion" in her widowhood. Apart from this passion, the Queen is, Miss Heilbrun believed, a "strongminded, intelligent, succinct, and . . . sensible woman", who is, except for her description of Ophelia's death, "concise and pithy in speech, with a talent for seeing the essence of every situation presented before her eyes."
This view of the Queen's character is at such variance with that previously current that one may wish to reexamine her appearances in the play, scene by scene, for light upon the impression Shakespeare sought to create. Little time is needed to do so, for however important the part of the Queen in the story of Hamlet, her role in the play is definitely subordinate. She appears in ten of the play's twenty scenes, but in those ten scenes she speaks fewer lines than does Ophelia, who appears in only five; and, unlike Ophelia, the Queen is never the central or dominant figure on the stage. She speaks but one brief aside and never the concluding line of a scene. To be sure, a gifted actress may, by clever stage business and a gracious manner, provide for the role an illusion of importance; but this importance is not supported by the lines she speaks and presumably was not purposed by Shakespeare.
Practically all recent critics have agreed that Gertrude was not only innocent of complicity in the murder of her first husband but wholly unaware of it. That she was, however, guilty of an "o'erhasty [second] marriage" [II. ii. 57], she herself testifies. Nor is it permissible to see that marriage as other than incestuous. The one sin of which the Queen has been accused but of which her guilt may be debatable is that she had been Claudius' mistress while the elder Hamlet was alive.
When in I. ii, the Queen appears on stage for the first time, the audience has heard nothing whatsoever about her. It is prejudiced neither in her favor nor against her. She doubtless enters on the arm of King Claudius, who directs his ingratiating smile towards her during part of the remarkable speech with which the scene opens and from which we learn that he, having shortly before lost a brother, has recently taken to wife his brother's widow. Incest, to be sure—a horrible sin in the eyes of both church and state. But with such consummate skill has the King's speech been phrased that all on the crowded stage—or at least all but one—show neither shock nor disapproval. As a result the audience may naturally assume that the general satisfaction should outweigh the displeasure of one individual, and, in the absence of other details, accept the unusual marriage—at least for the time being—as an act which may well be shown to be both wise and—under the circumstances—permissible.
After the King has explained the present situation and expressed "For all, our thanks" [I. ii. 16], the Queen, apart perhaps from a smile, offers no word of thanks for herself. She remains silent as the King instructs the departing ambassadors and questions Laertes and Polonius on the former's desire to return to France. Gertrude is the last to speak. Upon Hamlet's bitter punning reply to the King,
Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun, [I. ii. 67]
the Queen makes her first speech—six lines, one of the three longest she speaks in the entire play. She urges Hamlet to "look like a friend on Denmark", to cease mourning for his father since
Thou know'st 'tis common. All that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity. [I. ii. 69, 72-3]
That she misunderstands Hamlet's reply to her cliché, "Ay madam, it is common", is shown by her then asking
If it be, Why seems it so particular with thee?— [I. ii. 74-5]
indicative not only that she has herself ceased to mourn her late husband's death but as well that she completely fails to understand her son. After Hamlet's answer, the King, his composure recovered, quickly speaks thirty-one lines, ending with the wish that Hamlet remain at Elsinore. This wish the Queen now seconds in her third and last speech of the scene:
Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet. I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg. [I. ii. 118-19]
Nine lines later all exeunt save Hamlet.
Such is the Queen's part on her first appearance. She speaks slightly over nine lines in her three speeches—nine lines to the King's ninety-four. Her speeches are short but hardly seem more "concise and pithy" than speech in dramatic verse normally is. Nor do they, composed as they are of a cliché, a misunderstanding, and an echo, encourage the view that she is a "resourceful", "strong-minded" woman, "with a talent for seeing the essence of every situation presented before her eyes". Perhaps, too, her obedient rising at the King's "Madam, come", suggests her domination by him. Such a suggestion is supported by her leaving the stage in three later scenes upon similar words from the King ("Come, Gertrude", IV. i; "Let's follow, Gertrude", IV. vii; "Sweet Gertrude, leave us", III. i) and by her only once speaking as she makes her exit.
Such is our introduction to Queen Gertrude. So much do we know about her when Hamlet later in the scene, in his first soliloquy, expresses his disgust that his mother
A little month, or ere those shoes were old With which she followed my poor father's body Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she— O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason Would have mourned longer—married with mine uncle, My father's brother. . . . O, most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! [I. ii. 147-57]
That unusual marriage, upon which we had earlier in the scene passed no verdict, we now begin to question. But Hamlet is only one; the court as a whole had seemed neither to disapprove of the marriage nor to condemn its haste. Yet Hamlet's view, as we are soon to learn, is not peculiar to him, does not spring from thwarted ambition or from an excess of filial affection for his mother. Before we again see Queen Gertrude we are to hear another witness, one eminently qualified to judge her. Three scenes later the Ghost of the dead king is to inform Hamlet that his uncle,
. . . that incestuous, that adulterate beast, With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts— O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen. . . . But virtue, as it never will be moved, Though lewdness court it in the shape of heaven, So lust, though to a radiant angel linked, Will sate itself in a celestial bed And prey on garbage. [I. v. 41-57]
Surely we are not now likely to attribute Gertrude's quietness during her earlier appearance either to remorse for her o'erhasty marriage or to an awareness that her former husband was to her present as "Hyperion to a satyr" [I. ii. 140].
But, one may ask, is the Ghost a wholly disinterested witness? Are we to accept everything he relates? Does he really know whereof he speaks? To the accuracy of his knowledge of the present and the future, I must return later, but I think it can hardly be contested that we are to assume that he has, from his vantage point beyond the grave, learned specifically all that concerned his murder. He was asleep when the poison was poured into his ear, and the dumb-show of the play-within-the-play—though that at best is only Hamlet's interpretation of what the Ghost had revealed—does not show him as awakening before he died. Yet, be it noted, the Ghost reveals not only the identity of the murderer and the instant effect which the poison had upon him but, even more remarkable, the very poison used—the "juice of cursed hebona" [I. v. 62]. Further, the King's reaction to the play-within-the-play confirms the Ghost's account of the murder in every detail. Must we not assume, therefore, that every other revelation of the past which the Ghost gives is equally accurate: that Claudius,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts . . . won to his shameful lust The will of [the] most seeming-virtuous queen. [I. v. 42-6]
Miss Heilbrun, who thinks Gertrude had not been Claudius' mistress, denies that Claudius had won her by the witchcraft of his wit. The real reason Gertrude had entered upon her hasty second marriage, Miss Heilbrun claimed, was given by the Ghost later in the same speech:
But virtue, as it never will be moved, Though lewdness court it in the shape of heaven, So lust, though to a radiant angel linked, Will sate itself in a celestial bed And prey on garbage. [I. v. 53-7]
But if we accept as true one part of the Ghost's speech, must we not accept the other also? And do not the last three lines quoted above suggest a violation of the marriage vows? That they were intended to do so is evidenced by the Ghost's having protested in the same speech, in lines immediately preceding, that his
. . . love was of that dignity That it went hand in hand even with the vow I made to her in marriage; [I. v. 48-50]
and that Hamlet understood the Ghost's words as indicating Gertrude's adultery is shown by his charging her in the Closet Scene with
Such an act That blurs the grace and blush of modesty, . . . makes marriage vows As false as dicers' oaths. [III. iv. 40-5]
So much, then, do we learn of Gertrude in Act I. On these lines must be based the original impression Shakespeare wished to give us. It is interesting and, I suspect, significant that a very large part of what we have so far learned of Gertrude and Claudius represents modification or elaboration by Shakespeare of what is found in Belleforest's account. There, of course, Gertrude is neither weak nor neutral. Although she is not said to have participated in planning the murder of her husband, she was an accomplice after the murder, for she did not deny her lover's claim that it was in defence of her that he had slain his brother. Where, asked Belleforest, would one find "a more wicked and bold woman?" Such a question would never be asked by one writing of the Gertrude of the play. Her character Shakespeare has decidedly softened, even though in the play she appears guilty on every count cited by Belleforest except that of giving support to a false account of her husband's slaying. Shakespeare has softened her character not only by making her ignorant of the murder of her husband but by elaborating, in a way most effective upon the stage, that artful craft of Claudius as reported in Belleforest's account. There the murderer "covered his boldnesse and wicked practise with so great subtiltie and policie, and under the vaile of meere simplicitie . . . that his sinne found excuse among the common people, and of the nobilitie was esteemed for justice". Claudius' persuasive cunning is further suggested by Belleforest's observing that Gertrude, "as soone as she once gave eare to [her husband's brother], forgot both the ranke she helde . . . and the dutie of an honest wife". To portray this smooth persuasiveness and subtle craft the dramatist introduced a brilliant dramatic touch for which there is no suggestion in Belleforest—the ingratiating smiling which leads Hamlet to declare Claudius a "smiling damned villain", and to cry out:
My tables—meet it is I set it down That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark. [I. v. 106-09]
So much for Act I. The Queen next appears in II. ii. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been summoned to spy upon Hamlet, and Gertrude's first two speeches merely echo in fewer words the welcome given them by the King. With one exception her five remaining speeches in this scene are of one line or less, most of them designed to break and give a semblance of dialogue to Polonius' artful narration. The one exception is a speech of two lines in reply to the King's reporting to her that Polonius claims to have found
The head and source of all your son's distemper. [II. ii. 55]
The Queen replies:
I doubt it is no other but the main, His father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage. [II. ii. 56-7]
This speech, which some critics (mistakenly, I think) have seen as evidence that the Queen's conscience is already troubled, Miss Heilbrun pronounced "concise, remarkably to the point, and not a little courageous." One could the more readily agree with her had Gertrude omitted the word "o'erhasty". When the King first announced his marriage to his brother's widow, he passed quickly on to important affairs of state, but since then we have heard the incestuous nature of that marriage emphasized by both Hamlet and the Ghost. Are we to assume from her mentioning only the hastiness of their marriage—a censurable indiscretion perhaps but no mortal sin—that Gertrude failed to realize that her marriage to Claudius, no matter when performed, must bear the graver stain of incest? As she is at the time alone with the King, I think we must so assume. She hardly reveals here "a talent for seeing the essence of every situation presented before her eyes". But how can she have been so blind to the true nature of her marriage? The only explanation would seem to be that she is blinded by the traitorous gifts of Claudius, by the witchcraft of his wit. She thinks as he directs, acts as he wishes.
The next scene in which the Queen appears is III. ii—the play scene. Here she is on stage for 187 lines and speaks a total of two and one half lines. When to her first speech, "Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me" [III. ii. 108], Hamlet replies that he prefers to sit by Ophelia, the Queen is silent until 127 lines later, when, to emphasize the purport of such lines as "None wed the second but who killed the first", Hamlet asks, "Madam, how like you this play?" She answers simply, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" [III. ii. 180; 229-30]—a speech which need not suggest stupidity, for she, unlike us, has not heard the ghost and knows not what is in Hamlet's mind; but unless we are to think of her as an artful villainess indeed, the simplicity of her reply is enough to urge her complete innocence of any participation in the murder. She now follows the play intently, saying nothing more until, when the frightened King rises, she anxiously enquires "How fares my lord?" [III. ii. 267] In this scene then, aside from the first clear indication that Gertrude has been no accomplice in the murder, we see in her just what we see in her in other scenes—her love for her son, her devoted concern for Claudius, and her remarkable quietness, with long periods of silence.
It is when she next appears, in III. iv.—the so-called Closet Scene—that the Queen has her biggest part. The scene opens with Polonius' hiding himself behind the arras that he may overhear the interview between mother and son—an interview in which the Queen has promised to "be round with him" [III. iv. 5] in the hope of discovering the cause of Hamlet's strange behavior. The scheme had been conceived by Polonius and suggested to Claudius in II. ii, when Gertrude was not on stage. We do not witness the King's persuading the Queen to assist in this eavesdropping upon her son, but that she had received specific instructions on how the interview should be conducted is brought out in her conversation with Polonius before Hamlet enters:
Polonius: 'A will come straight. Look you lay home to him. Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with, And that your grace hath screened and stood between Much heat and him. I'll silence me even here. Pray you be round with him. . . .Queen: I'll warrant you; fear me not. [III. iv. 1-6]
The Queen had consented to these "lawful espials", as she had consented earlier when Ophelia had been used as a decoy, probably both because she is hopeful that such a scheme may indeed unearth the secret of Hamlet's strange behavior and because the stronger Claudius is able always to dominate her will and persuade her to serve his purpose. That this second explanation is sound is, I believe, shown by a departure which Shakespeare here makes from the account of the Closet Scene as related by Belleforest. In Belleforest the King and his councillor, without taking the Queen into their confidence, arrange for the councillor to secrete himself where he may overhear mother and son; the Queen not only has no part in planning the interview, but does not suspect the presence of the eavesdropper until he is discovered by the crafty and suspicious Hamlet's beating his arms upon the hangings. By this change in the Queen's part from that of an unwitting participant to that of an active accomplice Shakespeare seems to emphasize the extent to which Claudius dominates her and uses her as his tool.
The Queen begins the closet interview with bluster and some confidence. She has apparently been well briefed as to what she shall say. But when Hamlet proves recalcitrant, when in an ugly mood he assumes the offensive and by so doing throws her out of the part she has been coached to play, she is for a brief moment bold and stubborn. "What have I done?" she cries:
What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue In noise so rude against me? [III. iv. 39-40]
But as Hamlet becomes more specific in his charges, Gertrude has neither the strength nor the inclination to bluster it further. She appears, indeed, stricken in conscience:
O Hamlet, speak no more, Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct. [III. iv. 88-91]
O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain. [III. iv. 156]
Although in this scene the Queen has more speeches and more lines than she has in any other scene, she is throughout overshadowed by Hamlet. In the same number of speeches he speaks four times as many lines as does she. Of her twenty-four speeches, thirteen—more than half—are one line or less, and four others are less than two lines.
Some of her speeches invite comment. Miss Mackenzie has noted that Gertrude sees her penitence not as the consequence of her own actions but rather as a result of Hamlet's harsh words to her:
O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain. [III. iv. 156]
Second, it is important to note that the question which she, contrite, puzzled, and helpless, addresses to Hamlet as he prepares to leave, "What shall I do?" [III. iv. 180], illustrates the lack of initiative and independence which mark her throughout. Too weak to determine any procedure for herself, she must rely upon others for guidance in every action.
More puzzling is the Queen's last speech in the scene—a reply to Hamlet's
I must to England, you know that?Ger. Alack, I had forgot. Tis so concluded on. [III. iv. 200-01]
No one has ever questioned Gertrude's devotion to her son, although in urging him earlier to "stay with us, go not to Wittenberg" [I. ii. 119], she may have spoken the instructions of Claudius as well as her motherly affection. It is impossible that by "I had forgot" she could have meant other than that the many unhappy events of the evening had crowded out of her mind the realization that Hamlet was to be sent to England. But the King's decision that he be sent away she had apparently accepted without protest as one accustomed to accepting without question what others decide for her.
In Belleforest's account the Queen, although she never appears after the Closet Scene, is definitely and actively an ally of her son, working in his absence to facilitate his revenge. In Shakespeare, although she protests to Hamlet:
Be thou assured, if words be made of breath, And breath of life, I have no life to breathe What thou hast said to me, [III. iv. 197-99]
and although she keeps her promise, the Queen utters not one word in condemnation of the crimes of Claudius which Hamlet has revealed to her, and indeed in the very next scene greets him as "mine own lord" [IV. i. 5]. Never is there an indication in the later scenes that her attitude toward Claudius or her relations with him have been altered by what Hamlet has told her. True it is that immediately following the Closet Scene she apparently lies to the King in an effort to protect her son. Although Hamlet has confessed to her that he is "not in madness, But mad in craft", she assures the King that Hamlet is
Mad as the sea and wind when both contend Which is the mightier. In his lawless fit, Behind the arras hearing something stir, Whips out his rapier, cries 'A rat, a rat!' And in this brainish apprehension kills The unseen good old man. [IV. i. 7-12]
And she reports that Hamlet has gone
To draw apart the body he hath killed; O'er whom his very madness, like some ore Among a mineral of metals base, Shows itself pure. 'A weeps for what is done. [IV. i. 24-7]
One need have little hesitation in concluding that Gertrude is here lying in an effort to render Hamlet's act less responsible and therefore more pardonable. The Queen has not seen Hamlet since the audience witnessed their parting, and Hamlet was surely not weeping then. But though the Queen lies to help her son, it is important to add in any assay of her character that it was not upon her own initiative that she does so. Here no more than earlier is she acting independently. Incapable of herself determining any course of action, she is merely following the course which Hamlet had suggested to her. To her helpless "What shall I do?" Hamlet had replied:
Not this, by no means, that I bid you do: Let the bloat King . . . Make you to ravel all this matter out, That I essentially am not in madness, But mad in craft. 'Twere good you let him know, For who that's but a queen, fair, sober, wise, Would from a paddock, from a bat, a gib, Such dear concemings hide? Who would do so? No, in despite of sense and secrecy, Unpeg the basket on the house's top, Let the birds fly, and like the famous ape, To try conclusions, in the basket creep And break your own neck down. [III. iv. 180-96]
Such is Hamlet's sarcastic direction in answer to the Queen's uncertain "What shall I do?" She must decide upon some course immediately, for the King is impatiently awaiting a report of the interview. Accordingly she follows Hamlet's direction; she lies to keep his secret, perhaps because maternal love demands that she protect him, but also because, accustomed to having others make all important decisions for her, she is incapable of substituting for Hamlet's direction any procedure of her own.
In Belleforest, as has been said, the Queen never appears after the account of the interview in her closet. Although we learn later that she had kept her promise to assist her son in his revenge upon her second husband by fashioning, during her son's absence in England, the means of his revenge, we are told nothing of her later life—how she conducted herself in her relations with the King or how she died. In Shakespeare's play, however, she figures in five later scenes—exactly half of the total number in which she appears. Her part in these scenes, having no basis in the older accounts, must have been added either by Shakespeare or by the author of an earlier lost play. The first of these scenes is that just mentioned—that in which she reports to the King. In only one of them, IV. v, her next appearance, does she reveal any remorse or any sense of guilt; and before the end of that scene her sense of guilt seems completely erased by a determination to follow the easier way, to accept the status quo, to continue a way of life she had found pleasant.
IV. v opens with her refusal to admit the mad Ophelia to her presence—a refusal due perhaps to a characteristic desire to escape any distressing situation, or perhaps to her already being burdened with grief and remorse. When Ophelia enters, Gertrude is sympathetic but quite inarticulate. Her three speeches to Ophelia are—in full:
1. How now, Ophelia? 2. Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song? 3. Nay, but Ophelia— [IV. v. 22, 27, 34]
Then, upon the King's welcome entry, with "Alas, look here, my lord" [IV. v. 37], the Queen turns the unpleasant situation over to him and retires into silence until after Ophelia has departed. Her unwillingness to see Ophelia and her inability to express any words of comfort or sympathy may, as I have said, be due in part to her being, at the moment, too heavily oppressed by her own griefs and her own sense of guilt. As Ophelia enters, Gertrude offers in an aside the only admission of guilt she makes after the Closet Scene:
To my sick soul (as sin's true nature is) Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss. So full of artless jealousy is guilt, It spills itself in fearing to be split. [IV. v. 17-20]
Before the end of the scene, however, the Queen is to cry out upon Laertes' mob threatening the King:
How cheerfully on the false trail they cry! O, this is counter, you false Danish dogs! [IV. v. 110-11]
and, in order to save Claudius, is first to seize Laertes' arm and then to assure him that it was not Claudius who had caused the death of his father. Having, perhaps unconsciously, directed Laertes' hatred towards Hamlet, she offers no fuller explanation and is silent for the remaining ninety lines of the scene. Her extended silence here is certainly not indicative of remorse for her earlier acts; it has been characteristic of her throughout the play. In this scene she reveals perhaps, as she reveals nowhere else in the play, the sensual side of her love for Claudius. Before the scene is half over her sense of guilt has been crowded out of her mind. She shows no repentance. Unlike the Queen in Belleforest or the Queen in the pirated first quarto, she has not aligned herself on the side of her son. Now that he has gone, she finds it easier simply to continue the life she had led before he had made his dreadful revelation. Had Hamlet remained in Denmark, had he been at hand to remind her of her weakness and to answer whenever necessary her question "What shall I do?" it is possible that her sense of guilt might have persisted, that she might even have repented and changed her way of life. But without initiative and independence, she can in Hamlet's absence only drift with the current.
Only twice, then, does Gertrude reveal the least remorse—in the latter part of the Closet Scene and in the single aside as she awaits the entrance of the mad Ophelia. From that time on, as earlier in the play, her actions and speeches evince no prick of conscience although the Ghost, in his instructions to Hamlet in I. v, had implied that she was to suffer the consequence of her sins. ". . . Howsomever thou pursues this act", the Ghost had told his son,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge To prick and sting her. . . . [I. v. 85-8]
The Ghost is, as I have noted, most accurately informed of the past. That ghosts were often well informed of the future is indicated by Horatio's beseeching the Ghost to speak
If thou art privy to thy country's fate, Which happily foreknowing may avoid. [I. i. 133-34]
But that ghosts might be ignorant of the future and even uncomprehending of the present is shown in The Spanish Tragedy by the repeated questioning by the Ghost of Andrea as he watches the play unfold. The Ghost of King Hamlet clearly expects his son to sweep to a swift revenge; he does not understand the delay; nor surely did he expect such complete catastrophe to engulf the entire royal family. In spite of his exact knowledge of the past, therefore, it would appear that the Ghost's knowledge of the immediate present and of the future was far too limited to warrant our acceptance as testimony of Gertrude's remorse his mention of
. . . those thorns that in her bosom lodge To prick and sting her. . . . [I. v. 87-8]
Indeed, if one may, without confusing life and art, delve into the past of characters in a drama, it may be said that King Hamlet had ever but slenderly known his wife. Created in an heroic mould, he understood not the mortal frailties which might lead his "most seeming-virtuous queen"
to decline Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor To those of [his]. [I. v. 46, 50-2]
Just as he had, before learning of her transgressions, been deceived by his wife's seeming-virtue, so, after learning of them, he expected her to be tortured by the stings of conscience. He was apparently twice deceived.
But to continue tracing the Queen's part in the play. She appears, of course, in all of the last three scenes. She enters late in IV. vii, after the King and Laertes have completed their plans for bringing about Hamlet's death, and in her longest speech in the play announces Ophelia's drowning. Her purpose here, however, is that of a messenger; her speech throws little light on her character—and certainly reveals no awareness of her own responsibility for the young girl's death.
In V. i, the scene in the graveyard, the Queen first mentions in a single speech her thwarted hope that Ophelia might have been Hamlet's bride, and then, as Hamlet and Laertes struggle in the grave, she, in her remaining speeches, follows the lead of Claudius:
King: Pluck them asunder.Queen: Hamlet, Hamlet!King: O, he is mad, Laertes.Queen: For love of God, forbear him. [V. i. 264, 272-73]
This is mere madness; And thus a while the fit will work on him. Anon as patient as the female dove . . . His silence will sit drooping, [V. i. 284-88]
The Queen, of course, does not know of the treachery plotted by Claudius and Laertes. She must by these speeches have sought to end the struggle in the grave and to lessen Laertes' resentment at Hamlet's behavior, but it is noticeable—and I think characteristic—that in each of her speeches she echoes or enlarges upon ideas just expressed by Claudius.
In V. ii, the concluding scene of the play, the Queen for the first time, I believe, acts with initiative and speaks for herself. Just before the court enters to watch the fencing match, an unnamed lord brings a message to Hamlet: "The Queen desires you to use some gentle entertainment to Laertes before you fall to play" [V. ii. 206-07]. As the effect of this message would be to lessen any suspicions of foul play, to encourage Hamlet's acceptance of the match as a "brother's wager frankly play[ed]" [V. ii. 253], one is tempted to suggest that the Queen's message may have originated with the King, that here as earlier the Queen is being used to further the plan of another. (It will be remembered that immediately after the play-within-the-play Polonius brought Hamlet word that "the Queen would speak with you, and presently" [III. ii. 375], but, as previously noted, the idea of the interview was not the Queen's. It had originated with Polonius, and the King, to whom he suggested it [III. i. 182ff.], had off-stage persuaded the Queen to cooperate.) However, in the absence of any statement to the contrary, I presume we must accept the message as the lord delivers it, as the Queen's own suggestion. And in some respects it is a thoroughly characteristic suggestion, revealing as it does her recurring hope that in spite of all that had gone before, she and others, without being required to pay the price of penitence, may go on enjoying the present by simply refusing to remember the past.
During the closing scene the Queen is silent for the first sixty-one lines she is on stage. She then within a space of twenty-four lines has four speeches, totaling six pentameter lines. She refers to Hamlet's scantness of breath and offers her napkin to mop his brow. Then, for the first time in the play escaping the dominance of Claudius, she acts independently and counter to his expressed wish—and her crossing him means her death.
Queen: . . . The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.King: Gertrude, do not drink.Queen: I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me. [V. ii. 289-91]
And so she drinks from the poisoned cup. I can see no justification whatsoever for the view of a critic who sought to defend the Queen's character by suggesting that she, suspecting the wine to be poisoned, drank it to protect Hamlet and to atone for the wrongs and sins of her past. Others, like the author of the New Exegesis of Shakespeare (1859), have remarked that her death was "as exquisitely negative as possible—that is, by poison, from her own hand, in a VINOUS BEVERIDGE [sic], and THROUGH MISTAKE." But however negative her death, it was, ironically, the result of her one act of independence. And her final speech, in answer to the King's hasty explanation, "She swounds to see them bleed":
No, no, the drink, the drink! O my dear Hamlet! The drink, the drink! I am poisoned— [V. ii. 309-10]
Here for the first time the Queen seems to understand the essence of the situation. Only in this last speech does she recognize or admit to herself the villainy of her second husband. Only here—long after her counterpart in Belleforest had done so—does she take her position beside her son and against the King. (pp. 235-46)
Baldwin Maxwell "Hamlet's Mother," in Shakespeare 400: Essays by American Scholars on the Anniversary of the Poet's Birth, edited by James G. McManaway, Holt Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1964, pp. 235-46.
[Lidz argues that Shakespeare dramatized Ophelia's madness to provide a countertheme to action surrounding Hamlet's own insanity. But whereas the playwright remains ambiguous about the reality of the prince's madness, the critic continues, he portrays Ophelia as classically insane. According to Lidz, Ophelia's descent into madness does not merely result from her father's murder, but rather his murder by Hamlet, whom she loves. As a result Ophelia is placed in "the intolerable predicament of having to turn away from the person she loves and idealizes because that person is responsible for her father's murder."]
Shakespeare carefully places Ophelia's madness in apposition to Hamlet's, illuminating the causes of each by making Ophelia's plight the female counterpart of Hamlet's dilemma. The action around Ophelia's insanity forms the countertheme to the action surrounding Hamlet's madness, balancing the plot and leading to Hamlet's death as well as to Ophelia's. Each dies more or less because there is nothing left for them but to desire death as an escape from an existence that has become intolerable.
Whereas Shakespeare is ambiguous about the reality of Hamlet's insanity and depicts him as on the border, fluctuating between sanity and madness, he portrays Ophelia as definitely, one might even say classically, insane. Even before she comes on stage, a gentleman gives us an excellent description of her condition. Would that psychiatric texts could describe as clearly!
She speaks much of her father; says she hears There's tricks i' the world; and hems and beats her heart; Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt, That carry but half sense; her speech is nothing, Yet the unshaped use of it doth move The hearers to collection; they aim at it, And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts; Which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them, Indeed would make one think there might be thought, Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily. [IV. v. 4-13]
She does not storm, or "take arms against a sea of troubles" [III. i. 58]; but rather, as a passive, obedient and very feminine person she is simply
poor Ophelia, Divided from herself and her fair judgement, Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts. [IV. v. 84-6]
She sings one ditty about her love who is dead and gone, as if referring to her father, then another about a girl abandoned because she let her valentine tumble her before being wed—a bawdy bit that has led some critics to consider that the sweet Ophelia might have been distraught because she had given in to Hamlet's "unmaster'd importunity" [I. iii. 32] and was now pregnant, with marriage to Hamlet no longer possible. However, to most, including those in the play, who knew her best, the cause of Ophelia's madness seems apparent. Claudius says:
Oh, this' the poison of deep grief; it springs All from her father's death. [IV. v. 75-6]
And Laertes muses about his mad sister:
O heavensl is't possible a young maid's wits Should be as mortal as an old man's life? Nature is fine in love, and where 'tis fine It sends some precious instance of itself After the thing it loves. [IV. v. 160-64]
The comment is accentuated by Ophelia's chant:
They bore him barefaced on the bier; Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny; And on his grave rain'd many a tear.— [IV. v. 165-67]
The gentle Ophelia, it seems, cannot absorb her father's murder. However, it is not her father's murder that has driven her mad but, rather, his murder by Hamlet, the person she loves and upon whose love she has placed her hopes. Now, she can never marry him, and worse still, she has an obligation to hate him; indeed she must feel hatred toward him for depriving her of her beloved father, her original love. Shakespeare, then, has not only placed Ophelia's insanity in apposition to Hamlet's but has emphasized the same crucial human frailty as the cause of the emotional disturbance in both the hero and heroine.
As we have seen, Hamlet mourns for his father, but his melancholy is induced by his bitterness against his mother because of her hasty marriage to his uncle; and his anguish and rage against his mother become intolerable when he learns that she has been untrue to his father. Hamlet is tormented by his desire to take vengeance against his mother, the person who had once been closest and most dear to him. He manages to control his matricidal impulsions, but his mother is lost to him as a love object. He struggles to regain her by imploring her to renounce her sexual life with Claudius and return to him and become faithful to his father's memory. At the very moment when Hamlet believes he may have succeeded, he inadvertently kills Polonius bringing new woes on himself and sealing Ophelia's fate.
Ophelia, like Hamlet, mourns for her father, but his death is not a sufficient reason for her to lose her sanity. She, too, is in the intolerable predicament of having to turn away from the person she loves and idealizes because that person is responsible for her father's murder. Her father is dead, and Hamlet, as his slayer, is barred to her affections. She can no longer transfer her attachment from her father to Hamlet. Her entire orientation to the future has suddenly been destroyed.
Both Hamlet and Ophelia, then, are faced by the sudden and irretrievable loss of a love object because of that person's unforgivable behavior in killing, actually or symbolically, a beloved parent whose death requires vengeance. Shakespeare clearly saw how such situations could engender a violently confused emotional state and lead a person to feel that the world was empty and worthless and those who inhabit it perfidious and deceitful. Life becomes intolerable; the sufferer escapes the dilemma by abandoning rationality and when that fails, by abandoning life itself.
Now, the reader might not think that Polonius, a man already in his dotage, a spying busybody whom Hamlet considered a tedious old fool, could be so important to Ophelia. Indeed, one might similarly wonder why Hamlet should be so concerned about the deceitful and wanton Gertrude. Oedipal attachments do not, as we know from countless patients, involve a rational evaluation of the parent. If raised with reasonable parental care, the boy has a deep attachment to his mother, and the girl to her father. Ophelia's attachment to Polonius is accentuated by her motherless state. As a widower, Polonius may have been overly protective of his daughter and especially affectionate to her; and Ophelia, as commonly happens in such situations, may have felt free to fantasy that she could become a replacement for her mother in her father's life, and thus form a particularly intense attachment to him. Similarly, Hamlet is fatherless, but his situation differed from Ophelia's as he had lost his father much more recently. Nevertheless, as we have noted, his father's death could lead to a recrudescence of Hamlet's old attachment to his mother as well as a heightening of his identification with his father. He could then feel that his mother's infidelity to his father was also an infidelity to him.
Ophelia, we should note, is already under considerable emotional stress at the time her father is killed. The vacillations in Hamlet's attitude and behavior toward her could not but be extremely unsettling to the very young woman who idolized and idealized him. She is, one day, his most beloved, who must never doubt his love [II. ii. 116-24]; shortly thereafter, she is the object of his venom and the recipient of his malignant curse; and then, on the same day, she finds him bantering salaciously with her. She cannot know that Hamlet's attitude toward her reflects his disillusionment in his mother. To her, Hamlet's inconstancy can only mean deceitfulness or madness. Ophelia finds him mad, and. hopefully, mad because she has been forced to reject him. Hamlet slays Polonius by mistake: he had not, like Claudius, committed a premeditated murder for his own advancement. We must even consider that were Hamlet not so out of control, he might still beg Ophelia's forgiveness for his error. However, that is not the way the play was written, or could have been written. (pp. 88-92)
Source: Theodore Lidz, in his Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in "Hamlet," 1975. Reprint by International Universities Press. Inc., 1990. 258 p.
J. Dover Wilson
[Wilson provides a detailed interpretation of the "nunnery scene" between Hamlet and Ophelia in Act III, scene i. The critic discusses Ophelia's role as a decoy, describing how she makes the prince suspicious of a plot by overplaying her part when returning his love letters. Hamlet is disgusted by her role as a decoy, Dover Wilson maintains, for it mirrors his own mother's betrayal when she married Claudius. According to the critic, Hamlet tests Ophelia by asking where her father is, but when she lies, she provokes the frenzy with which the prince concludes the scene. Wilson also emphasizes Hamlet's repetition of the word "nunnery," maintaining that for Elizabethans the word not only meant a convent, but also carried the bawdy connotation of a brothel. For a defense of Ophelia's character and motives in the "nunnery scene," see the essay by Harold Jenkins cited in the Sources for Further Study.]
[In Act III, scene i, the] King bids the Queen leave him with Polonius and Ophelia; and tells her of their purpose. He insists, and she accepts the point without question, that they are "lawful espials". The innocent little scheme is justified in the interests of Denmark, and of Hamlet himself; and she expresses the hope that the outcome will bring happiness for them all, Ophelia included. Gertrude is always hoping for the best. The King's words.
For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither. That he, as 'twere by accident, may here Affront Ophelia. [III. i. 29-31]
should be carefully noted in passing, if we wish to understand exactly what follows. Hamlet is not coining to the lobby of his own motion; he has been sent for. Not, of course, ostensibly by Claudius, but "closely", that is privately or without his knowledge of the real sender of the message. Nevertheless some kind of pretext has been given; and, when he arrives, he will find, not what he expects, but Ophelia. There would be no flaw in this expedient, if the object of it had not happened to overhear the whole plot the day before.
The snare is now laid; the decoy made to appear at once innocent and tempting; and the fowlers take cover. Polonius gives Ophelia a prayer-book, and says "walk you here" [III. i. 42]; "here" being, of course, the lobby at the back of the stage. There is, however, a theatrical tradition that she should be kneeling when Hamlet enters, which is I think a sound one; for, if she is only walking up and down with a book in her hands, how does he know that she is at her "orisons"? I presume, therefore, that some kind of prie-dieu stood in the lobby. Finally, before actually "bestowing" himself behind the arras, Claudius utters an aside, which it is also important not to miss. "Read on this book", says the moralising father to his daughter,
That show of such an exercise may colour Your loneliness; we are oft to blame in this, 'Tis too much proved, that with devotion's visage And pious action we do sugar o'er The devil himself; [III. i. 43-8]
upon which the King comments to himself:
O, 'tis too true, How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience. The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art, Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it, Than is my deed to my most painted word: O heavy burden! [III. i. 48-53]
It is the first indication in the play that Claudius possesses a conscience; and it leads up to the "blenching" in the play scene and to the prayer that follows. But there is more in it than this. The reference, after "devotion's visage", to
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art
is leitmotiv on Shakespeare's part. The linked images hark back to the "fishmonger" and his "good kissing carrion" [II. ii. 174, 182]; and reopen a theme which Hamlet will presently elaborate.
Hamlet walks into the trap in complete unconsciousness. As he enters, his mind is not on the plot, his uncle or Ophelia. If he remembers the Ghost at all, it is to write it off as a snare of the evil one. He is back again where he was when we first had sight of his inner self; back in the mood of the soliloquy which begins
O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. [I. ii. 129-32]
But he is no longer thinking of his own "sullied flesh", still less of the divine command. By constantly turning it over he has worn the problem to the bone:
To be, or not to be, that is the question. [III. i. 55]
A like expression of utter weariness is not to be found in the rest of human literature. Sleep, death, annihilation, his whole mind is concentrated upon these; and the only thing that holds his arm from striking home with "the bare bodkin" [III. i. 75] is the thought of "what dreams may come", "the dread of something after death" [III. i. 65,77]. . . . He believes in immortality, which means that by death he may exchange one nightmare for a worse. Eternity has him in a trap, which dwarfs the little traps of Claudius and Polonius to nothingness. No one but Shakespeare could have interrupted an exciting dramatic intrigue with a passage like this. The surprise and the audacity of it take our breath away, and render the pity of it the more overwhelming.
As the meditation finishes, Hamlet sees Ophelia behind him upon her knees. The sight reminds him of nothing except "the pangs of disprized love", and those have long been drowned in "a sea of troubles" [III. i. 71, 53]. "The fair Ophelia!" [III. i. 88] he exclaims; the words have no warmth in them. And, when he addresses her, he speaks in irony:
Nymph, in thy orisons Be all my sins remembered. [III. i. 88-9]
Romantic actors interpret this as gushing tenderness; and even [Samuel] Johnson calls it "an address grave and solemn, such as the foregoing meditation excited in his thoughts". [Edward] Dowden, however, sees "estrangement in the word 'nymph'"; and I find deliberate affectation in that word and in "orisons". They are both pretentious expressions, while the reference to "all my sins", the sins for which she has jilted him, the sins he will enlarge upon later in the scene, surely indicates a sardonic tone. In any event, it is certain that most critics have completely misunderstood the dialogue that follows, because in their sympathy with Ophelia they have forgotten that it is not Hamlet who has "repelled" her, but she him. She had refused to see him and had returned his letters; she could not even speak a word of comfort when in deep trouble he forced his way into her room with mute pitiable appeal.
After that he had done with her; and the Ophelia he now meets is a stranger. Stranger indeed! For listen:
Good my lord, How does your honour for this many a day? [III. i. 89-90]
Is she implying that he has neglected her? It was only yesterday he had been with her despite her denial of his access. But at first he takes small note of her words and answers with polite aloofness:
I humbly thank you, well, well, well. [III. i. 91]
It is a form of address he employs later with people like the Norwegian Captain and Osric, while the repeated "well" sounds bored. Nevertheless, she continues:
My lord, I have remembrances of yours, That I have longed long to re-deliver. I pray you now receive them. [III. i. 92-4]
What should that mean? Once again, however, he brushes it aside: "I never gave you aught" [III. i. 95],—the woman to whom I once gave gifts is dead. Yet still she persists:
My honoured lord, you know right well you did, And with them words of so sweet breath composed As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost, Take these again, for to the noble mind Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind. There, my lord. [III. i. 96-101]
And here she draws the trinkets from her bosom and places them on the table before him.
The unhappy girl has sadly overplayed her part. Her little speech, ending with a sententious couplet, as Dowden notes, "has an air of being prepared". Worse than that, she, the jilt, is accusing him of coldness towards her. Worst of all, Hamlet who has been "sent for", who meets her in the lobby "by accident", finds her prepared not only with a speech but with the gifts also. She means no harm; she has romantically arranged a little play scene, in the hope no doubt of provoking a passionate declaration of affection, which perhaps
Will bring him to his wonted way again, [III. i. 40]
as the Queen had remarked just before Hamlet's entrance, and will at any rate prove to the King that she and her father are right in their diagnosis of the distemper. But the effect upon Hamlet is disastrous. Until that moment he had forgotten the plot; it is a far cry from thoughts of "the undiscovered country" [III. i. 78] to this discovery. But he is now thoroughly awake, and sees it all. Here is the lobby and the decoy, playing a part, only too unblushingly; and there at the back is the arras, behind which lurk the Fishmonger and Uncle Claudius. His wild "Ha, ha!" the fierce question "are you honest?" [III. i. 102] that is to say "are you not a whore?" together with a significant glance round the room, are enough to show the audience that he realises at last, and warn them to expect "antic disposition". Everything he says for the rest of the scene is intended for the ears of the eavesdroppers. As for the daughter who has been "loosed" to him, she will only get what she deserves. For play-acting has completed her downfall in his eyes. First the abrupt breaking-off of all intercourse between them, without any reason given, then the failure to meet his last appeal, then the overhearing of the plot in which she was to take a leading part, and last this willing and all too facile participation: is it surprising that to an imagination "as foul as Vulcan's stithy" [III. ii. 83-4] such things should appear in the worst possible light, or that he should treat her from henceforth as the creature he believes her to be? He puts her to one final test before the scene is over; but the dice are loaded against her. Thus, through a chain of misconceptions, due to nothing worse than narrowness of vision and over-readiness to comply with her father's commands, Ophelia blackens her own character in her lover's eyes. The process has been obscured hitherto owing to the absence of one important link in the chain; but the link now in place makes all clear, explains Hamlet's attitude, and shows her fate as even more pathetic than we had supposed.
Everything he says, I repeat, for the rest of the scene is intended for the ears of Claudius and Polonius, whom he knows to be behind the arras. The restored entry at [II. ii. 167] happily rids us of the traditional stage-business of Polonius exposing himself to the eye of Hamlet and the audience, which has hitherto been the only way open to stage-managers of putting any meaning at all into the scene. It is a trick at once crude and inadequate: crude, because the chief councillor of Denmark is neither stupid nor clumsy, and to represent him so, as producers are apt to do, is to degrade intrigue to buffoonery; inadequate, because it only tells Hamlet of one, whereas his words clearly lose a great deal of force if he is not known to be conscious of the presence of two. He speaks at both; but he speaks, of course, to Ophelia, while as he speaks he has yet a fourth person constantly in mind, his mother. If this be remembered, and if we also keep in view Hamlet's habitual lack of self-control once he becomes excited, the dialogue is easy to follow.
I return to it:
Hamlet. Ha, ha! are you honest?Ophelia. My lord?Hamlet. Are you fair?Ophelia. What means your lordship?Hamlet. That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty. [III. i. 102-07]
If, that is, you were the chaste maiden you pretend to be, you would not allow your beauty to be used as a bait in this fashion. Ophelia, of course, misunderstands and, supposing him to mean that her beauty and his honesty ought not to discourse together, wonderingly enquires: "Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?" [III. i. 108-09] To which he, twisting her words back to his own meaning, replies:
Ay truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd, than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. [III. i. 110-14]
To paraphrase again: "physical Beauty is stronger than virtue, and will make use of Virtue herself as her procuress. People used to think this incredible, but your conduct proves its truth." He refers to "devotion's visage" and the "pious action" with which Ophelia had tried to "sugar o'er" her designs upon him. But he is probably also thinking of his mother's conduct, as is suggested by the talk of "our old stock" that follows [III. i. 117]. Indeed, from this point onwards Ophelia becomes identified in his mind with the Frailty whose name is Woman, and that in turn leads to thoughts of his own "sullied flesh". He goes on: "I did love you once" [III. i. 114], that is, before my mother took off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love. [III. iv. 43]
But a son of Gertrude is "rank and gross in nature" [I. ii. 136] and capable of nothing except lust; so that I did not really love you. "Conception is a blessing" [II. ii. 184], but what children could a man like me and a woman like you hope for save a brood of sinners? Better a nunnery!
So far Hamlet's talk has been in fishmonger-vein, and is meant for the Jephthah [cf. II. ii. 403ff.] behind the arras. But now is the turn for Uncle Claudius. The mention of corrupt stock leads by natural transition to an elaborate confession of criminal propensities on Hamlet's part which we know to be ridiculous, but which is intended to make the King's blood run cold. "I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious" [III. i. 123-24] is the gist of it. Could any other three epithets be found less appropriate to Hamlet? But Claudius says he is ambitious; and Claudius is a reasonable man. The following, too, sounds terrible:
with more offences at my beck, than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in: [III. i. 124-25]
—until we scan it and find that it amounts to nothing at all, since the same might be said of any mortal.
At this point Hamlet gives Ophelia her last chance with his sudden "Where's your father?" [III. i. 129]. She answers with a lie, as it would seem to him, though of course she is observing the most ordinary precautions and, as she thinks, humouring a madman. But it is this crowning proof of her treachery, I suggest, that provokes the frenzy with which the episode closes. He goes out, perhaps in the hope that the rats may emerge from their hole and that he may catch them in the act of so doing. Twice he rushes from the room and with each return his manner grows more excited. His two final speeches are mainly food for fishmongers, and he concludes by coming very near to calling Ophelia a prostitute to her face. The repeated injunction "to a nunnery go" [III. i. 120, 129, 136, 139, 149] is significant in this connection, since "nunnery" was in common Elizabethan use a cant term for a house of ill-fame. And that this was the traditional interpretation of Hamlet's meaning on the seventeenth-century stage is shown by the Der bestrafte Brudermord which makes him say "go to a nunnery, but not to a nunnery where two pairs of slippers lie at the bed side".
As he leaves for the last time he throws his uncle one more morsel to chew: "I say we will have no mo marriage—those that are married already, all but one, shall live, the rest shall keep as they are" [III. i. 147-49]. Why, it may be asked, does Hamlet deliberately and recklessly threaten the King in this way? Partly, as I have already suggested, because Hamlet always acts as if he were just on the point of killing his uncle, and partly for reasons which will become clear later, in any event, these threats show that the Prince has thoroughly grasped the hints about ambition dropped by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and is now posing as the discontented heir thirsting for revenge, a role he will play to remarkable purpose in the next scene.
After Hamlet's final departure, Ophelia is given twelve lines of lamentation over his fallen state, before the espials steal warily from their hiding place, a circumspection natural after his repeated exits, but surely enough to warn us that Polonius, with whom caution is almost a disease, could never have revealed his presence to Hamlet, as the traditional stage practice makes him do. The discussion of what they have heard shows that their points of view have in no way converged. Claudius scornfully dismisses the forlorn love theory; nor does he think that melancholy has yet developed into utter madness. But Hamlet has said enough to prove himself to be in a very dangerous frame of mind; too dangerous to remain any longer near the royal person:
He shall with speed to England, For the demand of our neglected tribute. Haply the seas, and countries different, With variable objects, shall expel This something-settled matter in his heart, Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus From fashion of himself. [III. i. 169-75]
At present Claudius thinks of England as a health-resort; it is only after the play scene that he sees it as a grave. Polonius agrees with the scheme but cannot subscribe to his royal master's diagnosis of the disease. "But yet I do believe", he mutters while assenting to the projected voyage,
The origin and commencement of his grief Sprung from neglected love; [III. i. 176-78]
and he urges that the theory shall be put to one more test before the voyage takes place. (pp. 125-36)
Source: J. Dover Wilson, in his What Happens in Hamlet, third edition, Cambridge at the University Press, 1962, 357p.