The question of why Hamlet does not immediately avenge his father's death is probably the best-known critical problem in Shakespeare studies. The most obvious reply to this inquiry is that if the Danish prince moved at once upon the Ghost's report of foul "murther" and killed Claudius straightaway, then there would be no further story for Shakespeare to tell after the start of the play's second act. From this simplistic (if valid) standpoint, Hamlet's delay is essential to the tragedy's narrative progression. More important, while there is plenty of action in Hamlet (a stage work in which all of the major characters suffer untimely deaths), the play's plot is plainly subordinate to the tandem development of Hamlet's character and certain philosophical themes such as the knotty issues of mortality and chance. Absent his deferral of action, there would be no need for Hamlet to grow into his role as "scourge and minister," and no dramatic occasions at hand for his (and our) consideration of the deeper issues that Shakespeare poses in this tragedy.
A second response to this question challenges its underlying premises. It proceeds from the counter-assertion that Hamlet does, in fact, act forcefully long before the play's final act. By Act V, Hamlet has invented the "mousetrap" of the play-within-a-play, slain Polonius and dragged his corpse away, persuaded the off-stage pirates to release him from captivity, and cleverly arranged the demise of his erstwhile schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Moreover, after being told about the appearance of Ur-Hamlet's apparition on the walks of Elsinore Castle, Hamlet says to Horatio that he will speak with his father's ghost "though hell itself should gape/And bid me to hold my peace" (I, ii. ll.244-245). Indeed, Hamlet casts aside the fears of Horatio and Marcellus about what awaits him when the Ghost beckons, and orders them to unhand him so that he can speak face-to-face with this awesome, fear-provoking figure. These prior acts are not those of a passive or timid soul.
Nevertheless, neither of these pat answers is sufficient to overcome our sense that Hamlet wavers in carrying out the commission laid upon him by the Ghost. Not only does his excuse for not killing the king while he is at prayer ring hollow, Claudius's death in Act V is not the outcome of a truly deliberate act, but a seemingly chance occurrence brought about by circumstances that Hamlet's enemies have contrived. Our sense that Hamlet delays action is reinforced by his demeanor and, above all, by his own words. When we first see the Prince on stage, dressed in black and self-exiled to the periphery of the court, he assumes the role of a critical observer making disparaging asides about Claudius and his consort. After learning of his uncle's crime, Hamlet comes into court in Act II, scene ii reading a book. The association of Hamlet with "mere words" is strengthened by his penchant for ingenious but pointless verbal banter and highlighted by the inordinate number of soliloquies assigned to him by the playwright. Most explicitly, our impression that Hamlet avoids action comes from the Prince's own lips. Shakespeare's Danish prince berates himself as a "coward" in three of the play's central soliloquies. In Act II, scene ii, he declares, "O, what a rogue and a peasant slave am I!" (II, ii. l.550), and then asks the quasi-rhetorical question, "Am I a coward?" (l.571). Thereafter, he rebukes himself for not acting in the famous "To be or not to be" speech of Act III, scene i. Later, having been exiled to England for his own "safety," Hamlet encounters a captain in...
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the army of his Norwegian counterpart, Fortinbras, and contrasts the bravery of these men at arms with his own indecisiveness, exclaiming, "How all my occasions do inform against me,/And spur my dull revenge!" (IV, iv. ll.32-33).
There are at least three psychological bases that critics of the play have identified as sources of Hamlet's procrastination. First, even before he learns of his uncle's iniquity, Hamlet is in a depressed state of mind, saying directly in the play's second scene, "How (weary), stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seems to me all the uses of this world!" (I, ii. ll.133-134). At the start of the play, then, Hamlet is clearly in the midst of a crisis that has undercut his desire and his capacity to take meaningful action. Second, in partial contrast to the depressed mood explanation, many critics have asserted that there is a permanent flaw in Hamlet's character that constrains him from acting, that his penchant for playing the part of a "thinker" interferes with his ability to act the role of a "doer" or that there are internal conflicts, notably sub-conscious sexual drives, that inhibit him or divert him from his purpose. Lastly, there is the frequently voiced explanation that Hamlet can only act after he gains a sense of his own identity, proclaiming himself to be "Hamlet the Dane" in the penultimate graveyard scene (V, i. l.251).
Alternatively, there are forces external to Hamlet's psychological make-up that have been advanced as causes for his delay. To begin, there is Hamlet's lingering uncertainty about the Ghost and the story he tells in the last scene of Act I. From his surprised reaction to Ur-Hamlet's tale of his death at the hands of Claudius it is evident that the Prince did not previously suspect the true depth of his step-father/uncle's evil. It is only after watching the king's guilt surface during the "Murder of Gonzago" performance that Hamlet has any independent confirmation that what the Ghost has told him is true. Given the thin evidence available to him, Hamlet's hesitation to kill a blood relative because an apparition has told him to do so is understandable.
But something is rotten in Denmark from the outset and there is a pervasive feeling of disease in the kingdom even among the common people of the realm. Although rarely addressed by critics of the play, political forces outside the court do play a prominent role in Hamlet. For example, Claudius tells his Lords that Hamlet must be exiled because his popularity with the people poses a danger to his reign, and he then tells Laertes that they cannot punish Hamlet for the killing of Polonius because of the threat of insurrection by the Prince's supporters. This political dimension of the play actually bursts onto the stage, as Laertes and a mob calling for him to become Denmark's king literally kick down the doors of Elsinore in Act IV, scene vi. Moreover, on four separate occasions (Act I, scene ii; Act II, scene ii; Act IV, scene iv; and Act V, scene ii), the figure of Prince Fortinbras surfaces, first by report and eventually in person. These intrusions from the external world remind us that the consequences of Hamlet's actions are not restricted to the court. The killing of Claudius is a political act that constitutes the most heinous crime of Shakespeare's time, regicide, with problematic results for its perpetrator and for the kingdom at large. While political considerations are absent from Hamlet's speeches during the first four acts of the play, they come to the fore at its very end as the dying Prince directs Horatio to tell his story and appoints Fortinbras as successor to Denmark's throne. Quite simply, Hamlet may be reluctant to act because doing so is offensive not only to heaven but to the state and the peace of the commonwealth.
Perhaps one of the most perplexing problems a modern audience may have with Shakespeare's Hamlet is the obvious question: what takes him so long to act on the Ghost's request for revenge? The obvious but simple answer is that if he did not take his time, we would have 'Hamlet: The Short Story' instead of 'Hamlet: The Classic Play'. There are, however, valid reasons for Hamlet's slow behaviour. Among them are his public role in the monarchy of Denmark, his education, and the environment of Elsinore.
Hamlet is first and foremost the Prince of Denmark. There are no brothers or sisters, and he is the popular, well-liked son of an equally popular and well-liked King and Queen. Not unlike the royal families of today, the royals of Elsinore have two lives—a public one and a private one, both of which are very much interlinked. Their lives as a whole are really not their own, yet their privacy is apparently a sacrifice they are willing to make to render service to Denmark. Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, had done much to ensure that Denmark was well protected. His untimely death was marked by intense mourning at the court, as well it should have been for a man of his position.
However, Gertrude's marriage to Claudius before a month of mourning had passed could be interpreted as a breach of protocol. This is why in the opening scenes, Claudius goes to such lengths to calm and soothe the concerns of the court. When Hamlet returns to the court from school in Wittenburg, Germany, it is impossible that he can escape what awaits him.
The tenants of this castle include the King's minister, Polonius, and his family, Laertes and Ophelia, as well as a coterie of government officials (Cornelius and Voltemand), guards (Marcellus and Bernardo and their companies), and courtiers (Osric, for example). In this environment, to have even a small amount of privacy is almost impossible since there is always someone somewhere. Such a transgression as the apparently unprovoked murder of a royal minister would open all sorts of questions for Claudius that he may be able to answer.
Even Hamlet's private life is of public concern, especially when it comes to his selection of a wife. Laertes tells Ophelia in no uncertain terms that her relationship with Hamlet is fruitless:
Perhaps he loves you now, And no soil nor cautel doth besmirch The virtue of his will; but you must fear, His greatness being weighed, his will is not his own. For he himself is subject to his birth. He may not, as unvalued persons do, Carve for himself, for on his choice depends The safety and health of this whole state, And therefore must his choice be circumscribed Unto the voice and yielding of that body Whereof he is the head. (1.3.14-24)
The selection of a future queen is an issue at the very core of a monarchy's survival. On the political side, it was common practice to cement peace treaties with a marriage between two ruling houses. A wife's main function as queen was to produce a male heir for the King. In a kingdom like Denmark, which had an elected monarchy, it was doubly important that a future king be suitably matched for the peace and stability of the country.
Gertrude has produced Hamlet; however, the possibility of a direct heir for Claudius is remote, if not impossible, as Hamlet says: 'at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame' (3.4.1617). The pressure on Hamlet to continue the line and Claudius' desire to keep the Prince off the throne come into direct conflict. Ophelia, as the daughter of a minister, cannot bring either wealth or security to a marriage with Hamlet. Although Hamlet's profession of love at her funeral is moving and sincere, it is unlikely that they would have been allowed to marry had she lived. Gertrude's comment that she thought Ophelia would have been Hamlet's wife is easy to say now that the girl is dead, but implies that Gertrude recognises a worth in Ophelia that sets her apart from the other women in Elsinore. However, we only see two women, Gertrude and Ophelia. The reality of the situation is that Ophelia was unable to handle the trauma of losing her father. A future queen would have to come to terms privately with grief, and show a cool, sophisticated demeanour in public. Ophelia, then, was ill-equipped for the duality of monarchy, regardless of what Gertrude says. Furthermore, in consideration of Hamlet's public responsibilities, she would have been found lacking in queenly qualities.
Aside from these aspects of his current role, Hamlet's education at Wittenberg has its implications in his move back to Elsinore. In school, Hamlet would, presumably, have to act like a future king. As with any prince, Hamlet is aware that he can only be king on the death of the King, one of the frustrating and potentially depressing aspects of being a king-in-waiting. Queen Victoria's son, Albert, waited almost sixty years to succeed his mother, and today, Prince Charles has almost waited just as long. For Hamlet, however, there is a slight twist. Denmark had an elected monarchy so that not only did his father have to die first, but Hamlet also needed to win the election. Claudius, King Hamlet's brother, was in Denmark when Hamlet was not. Therefore Hamlet did not get the job for which he had been groomed his whole life, nor did he get the opportunity to oppose his uncle's selection. When considering the effect of such an action, he would probably have decided against contesting the election so as to avoid alienating public opinion. The Presidential election of 2000 is a prime example of how quickly public opinion can sway in the space of a few days. In Hamlet's case, his campaign would expose a rift in the royal family that could threaten national stability.
At school, his life would probably have been structured and he would probably have become accustomed to attending lectures, engaging in debates, and, as he notes in his comments to the Players, frequently amusing himself at the the theatre and avidly reading reviews of productions:
I heard thee speak a speech once, but it was never acted; or if it was, not above once, for the play. . . . But it was—as I received it, and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine—an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember one said there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation, but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine. (2.2.434-445).
By contrast, Elsinore is a hot-bed of political intrigue, a castle of rumour and spying, both necessary to, and by-products of, politics. The lack of availability of any of the arts is apparent from the greeting the Players receive when they arrive.
At school, Hamlet would also have been exposed to creative writing which allows him to write lines to insert into The Murder of Gonzago. He also has experience of how live drama affects an audience, and employs this skill to gage Claudius' guilt. With such an education, it would be impossible for Hamlet to undertake so serious an action as the assassination of an incumbent king without exploring all his options and their contingencies. When he does act in haste, the result is the murder of Polonius. He knows full well that he has procrastinated, but makes the conscious decision to only act when he deems the time to be right. His hand is forced by Claudius' continued treachery and the murder of his mother.
When Hamlet leaves Wittenberg for his father's funeral, he returns to a world in chaos. Most of Shakespeare's plays illustrate a break in the socio-political order and Hamlet is no exception. The old King has died, the new King has been installed, and the old Queen has married the new King. In a sense, the old Queen becomes the new Queen for a second time. Such complications are indicative of the instability that accompanies shifts in power. Other indications are reflected in the preparations for war, the apparition of the Ghost, and Hamlet's assessment of recent events to his friend, Horatio:
Horatio. My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.Hamlet. Pray, do not mock me, fellow student; I think it was to see my mother's wedding.Horatio. Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.Hamlet. Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. (1.2.176-181).
The disorder has filitered down even to the guards, one of whom, Marcellus, observes: 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark' (1.4.90) It is no wonder then that Hamlet takes so long to reach the point where he has no other choice but action. He has a long journey to make from the young man fresh from university, thrown into a world of political intrigue that no education has adequately prepared him for, to the man who accepts his fate as his father's avenger and not king. Along the way, he has exposed us to many truths about the human condition, has demonstrated what may possibly go on behind closed doors, but ultimately, proves to us the futility of fighting Fate.
Since the first staging of Hamlet, the very name of Ophelia has become nearly synonymous with that form of female madness that was once termed "melancholia" and marked by a nostalgic state of depression, a dissociation from reality, and a self-destructive drive. Not only does Shakespeare's Ophelia display all of these symptoms, the change that we see in her is shocking. Prior to her re-appearance as a mad woman in Act IV, scene v, Ophelia is first presented in Act I, scene iii in a carefully balanced exchange with her brother, Laertes. She then proves herself to be a sensible daughter to Polonius, agreeing to end her budding romance with Prince Hamlet. The cause of Ophelia's transformation appears to lie in the play's central Act III: at its start, Ophelia is brutalized by Hamlet's cutting, lewd rejection and by its end, her father Polonius has been incidentally killed by her former lover. These are powerful traumatic blows, and the gist of mad Ophelia's ditties and ramblings about lost love and death underscores their mutual confusion in her distracted mind. But Shakespeare did not create the character of Ophelia to serve as a clinical case study in female dementia; there is more to her madness than lost love and a father's death can explain.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare reminds us that Ophelia and Hamlet were lovers before its opening act. In her first exchange with Polonius, Ophelia says of Hamlet "He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders/Of his affection to me" (I, iii., ll.99-100). The fact of Hamlet's one-time affection for Ophelia is ironically affirmed in the rejection scene that begins Act III. And, finally, at her burying ground, as he grapples with Laertes, Hamlet declares, "I lov'd Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/Could not with all their quantity of love/Make up my sum" (V, i., ll.269-271). But Shakespeare never shows us the two as lovers and the only direct reflection of their romance appears in a love letter poem written by Hamlet in which he entreats Ophelia to "never doubt I love you" (II, ii., l.119). The words of this piece and the sentiment it conveys, however, are oddly trite and banal, especially in light of the verbal facility that a deep Hamlet has already disclosed in Act I. Moreover, in his first soliloquy (I, ii), Hamlet proclaims "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (l.146). The woman that Hamlet has in mind is, of course, his mother Gertrude, and her "frailty" lies in her hasty widow's marriage to her husband's brother. But Hamlet couches this oath in generic terms and makes no exclusion of Ophelia, for whom the word "frailty" proves a far more accurate descriptor. All of this casts some doubt about the strength of Hamlet's love for Ophelia and the significance of his rejection of her as a cause of her insanity.
This suggests that lost love is not the event that triggers Ophelia's madness, but that it is the death of her beloved father, Polonius, which pushes her beyond the brink. Laertes finds this to be the case (IV, v., ll.161-163), and when the mad Ophelia sings of "him" lying in the ground and the need for her brother, Laertes to know of it, her brother's diagnosis is reinforced. Yet at the same time, Ophelia's songs and her dissociated statements abound with lewd puns that are strongly reminiscent of Hamlet's cruel, sexual wordplay in Act III, scene i. Indeed, when Laertes says that his sister's madness is the result of her love for Polonius, not only does this ring in an association with Hamlet, we also recall that while Ophelia is a dutiful daughter who takes commands from her father and reports progress made in carrying them out, she is not especially affectionate toward him.
Ophelia's madness is not the straightforward result of her father's death, and when we turn to the text we find that the seeds of Ophelia's madness may have been planted long before they flourish in Act IV. In the rejection scene (Act III, scene i) Ophelia is subjected to sharply contradictory signals from Hamlet. After she tries to return keepsakes to him, Hamlet says "I did love you once" (III, i., l.114) to which Ophelia innocently replies, "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so" (l.115). But from this touching profession, Hamlet moves in the space of a few lines to the incredibly cruel "Get thee to a nunnery, why would'st thou be a breeder of sinners" (III, i., ll.118-119).
Although the suddenness of the turn amplifies the shock that Ophelia (and the audience) feel, this is not the first time that Ophelia has been exposed to a mixed message. On the overt level of deliberate action, Ophelia has first been directed by Polonius to break off all contact with Hamlet, and she agrees to do so without protest in the last line of Act I, scene iii, "I shall obey my lord" (l.136). But then, for the sake of the king, Claudius re-directs Ophelia to engage Hamlet in conversation without revealing the true purpose behind his instructions. At the behest of unknown forces, Ophelia is compelled by her constant duty as a daughter to act in opposite ways. But beneath this, at a subconscious level, Ophelia is the recipient of mixed messages about her identity, specifically about her sexual identity, from Polonius. After she tells her father about Hamlet's recent "tenders" toward her in Act I, scene iii, Polonius first scoffs, "Affection, puh!" He then chastises her for her naiveté as a "green girl" being toyed with by Hamlet, but then tells her to protect her "maiden presence." Is Ophelia to be a knowledgeable woman rather than a "green girl" or is she to be a chaste virgin?
Further angle on this question and what it means for Ophelia's madness can be developed by looking at the issue of her death. In Act IV, scene vii, Gertrude describes Ophelia's drowning to Laertes and implies that she "fell" into a brook and was pulled down by the weight of her water-soaked clothes to a muddy death (IV, vii. ll.166-182). The veracity of this report is immediately called into question by the two clowns of the graveyard scene (V, i.). In their vulgar discourse about the deceased, they question the coroner's official finding that Ophelia died an accidental death and is therefore entitled to a Christian burial prohibited to those who take their own lives. "How can that be, unless she drown'd herself in her own defense?" (V, i., l.6), one clown remarks, suggesting that Ophelia's suicide is common knowledge and alluding to Church law's exception on suicide by victim's of rape. The summary judgment lies with the doctor of divinity who presides at Ophelia's funeral, who says: "Her death was doubtful,/And but that great command o'ersways the order,/She should in ground unsanctified been lodg'd/Till the last trumpet" (V, i., ll.228-230). Shortly thereafter, the learned cleric makes an off-hand comment about Ophelia's "maiden strewments," an odd coupling of words given virginity's association with intact order and "strewments" connotation of dishevelment (V, i., l.233).
Did Ophelia commit suicide? The answer is yes, but the issue is not so simple as this. The Queen puts out an official version of her death that stands in opposition to both common belief (as expressed by the grave-digging clowns) and religious forensics, but neither verdict tells the whole story. Unlike the dying Hamlet, there is no Horatio to tell Ophelia's story aright to the world. As we look back over the play, we find that it is through Ophelia that the tale of Hamlet's feigned madness is related to us. It is she who sketches the portrait of a "mad" Hamlet with his "doublet all unbrac'd" (II, i., l.75), and following his inexplicable cruelty toward her in Act III, scene i., she cries out to heaven, "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" (III, i., l.150). Ophelia describes and interprets Hamlet's madness, but she cannot tell her own story because the messages that she has received about who she is and how she is to act have been completely contradictory. Long before her father's death (itself inexplicable) or even her rejection by Hamlet (through polar shifts in the designation of Ophelia's nature), the daughter of Polonius is headed toward self-destructive madness as she tries to negotiate the roles of "knowing woman" and "chaste virgin" without the anchor of self-definition.
At the conclusion of Hamlet, as the Prince, Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude all lie dead, an ambassador from England arrives on the scene with the blunt report that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" (V, ii., l.371). The inclusion of this news seems like deliberate overkill on Shakespeare's part, for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are relatively minor characters and we have already been led to surmise from Hamlet's report to Horatio that his duplicitous school chums have been sent to their death as an artifact of the Prince's ruse. The phrase itself would serve as the title of modern playwright Tom Stoppard's black comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), in which the two characters are resurrected as innocents confronting death in a situation that they do no begin to understand. Other than as material for a future playwright, the question naturally arises: why did Shakespeare insert these tandem characters into Hamlet?
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear together (as they do throughout the entire play) first in Act II, scene ii, having been summoned to court by their King and Queen, Claudius and Gertrude. They are identified as long-time friends of the Danish Prince by the Queen, who says that she knows of no other two men living to whom her son "more adheres" (II, ii., l.21). They are warmly greeted by Claudius who presents them with a twofold task: to cheer his morose stepson and to discover the source of Hamlet's discontent. Shortly thereafter, they are reunited with the Prince, who greets them as "excellent good friends," and inquires about how they each are (II, ii., l.224). Their replies are indistinguishable, each claiming to be as "indifferent children," happy in not being over happy, Guildenstern saying that "On Fortune's (cap) we are not the very button," with Hamlet adding that nor are they the "soles" of Fortune's shoe. When they reappear in the same scene, Hamlet slyly reveals his knowledge that they have been summoned to court by the King to spy on him; his companions admit that they have come back to court at Claudius's behest but do not acknowledge the function that they have agreed to perform for the King. In the very next scene of the play, they report back to Claudius. They tell the King that they have not been able to find out much of value from their conversations with Hamlet, and that they directed his attention to a company of actors that they met along the road to Elsinore. Both the motivation and the competency of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are called into question by these early events.
When we look back at their first audience with Claudius and Gertrude, we find that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not in Denmark for their friend's sake. What they want is not to serve Hamlet at a time of stress, but to serve the King as agents of whatever he has in mind. Thus, when Claudius and Gertrude ask them to carry out the twofold mission of bucking Hamlet up and getting to the bottom of his alienation, Rosencrantz first asks both majesties to put their entreaties in the form of a command rather than a mere request. Guildenstern then adds: "But we both obey/And here give up ourselves, in full bent,/To lay our service freely at your feet,/To be commanded" (II, ii., ll.29-32). What the two want, above all, is to serve their superiors without assuming any moral responsibility for the actions that they undertake.
By the mid-point of the play, the nature of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's orders have changed. No longer do they or the King maintain the pretense of helping Hamlet, for now Claudius says of his stepson, "I like him not" (III, iii., l.1). Guildenstern justifies his prospective part in escorting Hamlet to England by alluding to the welfare of all Denmark's citizens who are fed by the king; Rosencrantz adopts the same line, speaking about the "cess" (or "scope") of majesty and the "massy wheel" of sovereign power. By the time they depart for England, Hamlet is fully aware that his friends are acting in the King's hire, telling Gertrude about "my two schoolfellowes,/Whom I trust as I will adders fang'd" (III, iv., l.205).
Do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know that they bear an execution order for Hamlet to the English king? Most critics believe that they are unaware of what Claudius has in mind. But ignorance is not innocence, especially when the actors in question have expressed their willingness to go beyond steps meant to help their friend to actions intended to assist their King at Hamlet's expense. Looking back, the faith that Claudius puts in the talents of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is sorely misplaced. Not only are they unable to glean any useful information from Hamlet, they inadvertently direct his attention to the coming of the players, giving the Prince the foreknowledge that he needs to "catch the conscience of a king" through the play-within-a-play. Thereafter, they fail miserably in fulfilling the King's command to find and retrieve the corpse of Polonius. When Rosencrantz implores Hamlet to hand over the body, the Prince calls him a "sponge" who "soaks up the King's countenance, his rewards, his authorities" (IV, ii., ll.15-16). Lastly, they fail to escort Hamlet to his death and proceed in ignorance to their own.
At start of play's final scene (V, ii) Hamlet reveals to Horatio how he amended the King's letter, and Horatio realizes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent to their doom. Hamlet then issues the next to last word on the pair, telling Horatio: "Why man they did make love to this employment,/They are not near my conscience. Their defeat/Does by their own insinuation grow/'Tis dangerous when baser nature comes/Between the pass and fell incensed points/Of mighty opposites" (ll.57-61). At bottom, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have volunteered to act as pawns in a game that they do not understand (they are not aware of Claudius's murder or of his lethal intentions toward Hamlet), in which they are readily sacrificed. Hamlet has personal motivation but delays acting upon it despite the Ghost's command: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no personal motives beyond ingratiating themselves with the powerful but they are nonetheless willing to perform any act as they are commanded to do.
With the coming of Freudian theory in the first half of this century and the subsequent emergence of psychoanalytically-oriented literary criticism in the 1960s, the question of Hamlet's underlying sanity has become a major issue in the interpretation of Hamlet. While related concern with the Prince's inability to take action had already directed scholarly attention toward the uncertainty of Hamlet's mental state, modern psychological views of the play have challenged his sanity at a deeper, sub-conscious level, typically citing self-destructive and, most pointedly, sexual drives to explain his behavior, his words, and the mental processes beneath them. In a play with undertones of incest and heavy doses of sexual word-play, critics using diverse psychoanalytical approaches to Hamlet have generated new (and sometimes plausible) readings of Shakespeare's best-know tragedy. But even if we forego this maze, the issue of Hamlet's basic sanity is worth re-examining from a modern perspective.
There is a distinct division of opinion among the other characters of the play about Hamlet's sanity and the split is along gender lines. Ophelia (Act II, scene i.) and Gertrude (Act III, scene iv.) both state that Hamlet is "mad," Ophelia reporting his dishevelment to her father, the Queen being unable to see or hear her son's final exchange with the Ghost of her husband. The major male characters, on the other hand, see with Polonius (II, ii.) that there is "method" in Hamlet's "madness," that his insanity is a surface mask to shield him as he plans the darker purpose of revenge.
Since Hamlet is understandably disturbed by the sudden death of his father and his mother's hasty marriage to his uncle, King Claudius, the abnormality of his behavior is to some extent also understandable. Hamlet is naturally withdrawn, dark, and morose in the wake of these traumatic events. And, by the same token, he gives vent to his abject mood with lines like "How (weary), stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seems to me all the uses of this world!" (I, ii., ll.133-134). His self-exile and his self-reproach are essentially normal reactions to a series of events that he must avenge at his dead father's grave command but without further direction against a powerful adversary in the guilty King.
Moreover, Hamlet plainly does use the guise of madness toward tactical ends. He keeps Claudius, Polonius, and the other males of the play (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) off balance, unsure of the specific threat he poses but themselves unable to act quickly because of it. It is under cover of madness that Hamlet presents his customized "mousetrap," his "play-within-a play," to successfully "capture the conscience" of the King. He sees through the King's plot to have him executed in England, his innocent escorts being unaware of the threat that Hamlet poses to the King. Such deliberate acts in which the appearance of madness is used to advantage are not those of a madman. To be sure, Hamlet sees and speaks with a ghost, but the rational character of Horatio does the same. All of this suggests that Hamlet, while depressed, guilt-ridden, and raging inside, is sane.
On the other hand, in his treatment of Ophelia, his former lover, Hamlet displays a cruelty that is extreme, abnormal and, in fact, psychopathological. His declaration, "Get thee to a nunnery, why would'st thou be a breeder of sinners" (III, i., ll.120-121), is so vicious in its utter rejection of Ophelia's tender efforts to understand him, so lewd in its punning suggestion that Ophelia is a "whore" ("nunnery" being a vulgar Elizabethan term for brothel), and so conclusive in its denial of womanhood that we are shocked by it. Leveled against the most (and only) delicate personality in the play, we are bound to blame Hamlet's inexplicable brutality toward Ophelia as out of character even for a naturally disturbed young man acting under the guise of madness. Worse, there appears to be no good end served by Hamlet's crushing of the only flower in the Danish court. Hamlet does not advance his plans by turning Ophelia further into madness; indeed, he "accidentally" kills her father, driving her onward to suicide. In a character who harbors so deep an animosity toward his own mother that he is specifically prohibited from acting upon by his father's authority, Hamlet's hyper-aggressive displacement of wrath upon Ophelia could certainly serve as a psychiatric condition warranting further diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment. On these grounds at least, Hamlet's underlying sanity is subject to question.
Hamlet is not the only Shakespeare play to feature the appearance of an apparition or ghost. Great Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus at Sardis, a procession of eleven ghosts curse Richard III before the battle of Bosworth Field, the spirit of Banquo haunts Macbeth at his banquet. But none of these effigies has the presence or the dramatic function that Shakespeare imparts to the ghost of Hamlet's father. It is through the ghost of Ur-Hamlet that the Danish Prince (and the audience) learns of the "foul and most unnatural murther" committed by Claudius. One of the stage roles that Shakespeare himself is believed to have performed on occasion, the Ghost of Hamlet speaks at length, appears in four scenes, and establishes the basic dramatic problem as the need to exact revenge against Claudius. "'Tis very strange," Hamlet remarks to Horatio when his constant friend tells him about the spectral figure who walks the castle's walls at night. While all of the other ghosts who materialize in the Bard's plays can be dismissed as emanations of a "villain's" guilty conscious, the ghost of Hamlet is seen (and heard) by several characters who have had no part in his death and is not seen by a character, the Ghost's widow, Queen Gertrude, whom we might expect to harbor guilty feelings. Given the ways in which the Ghost of Hamlet differs from his peers in other Shakespeare tragedies, we are virtually invited by Shakespeare to contemplate "what" and "who" he is.
The process of establishing whether the ghost of Hamlet is real and is really the Prince's father unfolds in stages. In the first phase, it is Hamlet's steady ally Horatio who serves as our guide to how real the Ghost may be. Marcellus tells us that an "apparition" has been afoot two times prior to the start of the play's action and then says to Barnardo that "Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy, /And will not let belief take hold on him" (I, i., ll.23-24). Horatio's skeptical resolve is blasted asunder when the Ghost appears "in the same figure like the King that's dead." (I, i., l.41). Although the Ghost refuses to speak with him, after this initial encounter, Horatio allows that it harrows him with "fear and wonder" (I, i., l.45). When Barnardo then asks him, "Is not this something more than fantasy?" (I, i., l.55), the levelheaded Horatio admits that he now believes that the Ghost is more than a figment, having seen it with his own eyes.
Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo then try to determine what the Ghost is by discerning the reason for its appearance within a framework of current events and Christian folk beliefs. After Horatio speaks with the other members of the night watch about the possible threat of invasion by the Norwegian army of Fortinbras, the Ghost comes on stage again; Horatio connects the two, speculating that the apparition has some urgent matter of state to convey. He asks the Ghost directly about this, but he then tosses in an alternative pretext for the apparition's appearance, guessing that the Ghost may have hoarded treasure away for which "they say" the spirits of the dead walk the earth (I, i., l.136). The effort to pinpoint why the Ghost has materialized then shifts to Christian folk superstition: the members of the watch note that the Ghost vanishes at break of day "like a guilty thing" (I, i., l.148), that may be understood in light of beliefs about the Lenten season. At the end of the first scene, we are convinced that the Ghost is more than a fantasy but that only the spirit himself can shed further light on who or what he is. We are further given to believe that this will require the Ghost to speak his piece and that, as Horatio intuits, "This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him" (I, i., l.171), that is, to Prince Hamlet.
In the next scene, Horatio tells Hamlet about the Ghost. He initially relates this news as something reported by Marcellus and Barnardo, but he then admits that he too has seen this armor-clad spirit with the war-like visage of Hamlet's deceased father. While not buying into the story, Hamlet displays an open-mindedness to the reality of the Ghost. He asks Horatio whether the Ghost's face was "red" or "pale" and thereby plants the seeds for another phase in the determination of the Ghost's nature, red being associated with a demonic spirit, pale with a benevolent (or at worst, harmless) spirit. In scene iv of Act I, Hamlet and the Ghost come face to face. The Prince is at once convinced that the Ghost has substance, calling him "King, father, royal Dane." Nevertheless, Hamlet is still uncertain about whether the figure he addresses is "a spirit of health or goblin damned" (I, iv., l.40). His misgivings about whether the Ghost's intentions are "wicked" or "charitable" are left open-ended. Indeed, when the Ghost beckons for Hamlet to follow him, Horatio warns that the spirit might "tempt" his friend toward a flood or a cliff, drawing him into a mad act of suicide as is the traditional way of evil spirits.
To listen to the Ghost, all such doubts are dispelled at once in Act I, scene v, as Ur-Hamlet speaks with his son in private and proclaims: "I am thy father's spirit" (I, v., l.9). This claim is reinforced by the level and the kind of detail that the Ghost uses in describing how Claudius poured poison in his ear as he lay napping in the orchard. The Ghost's off-hand remark that it was his custom to rest in the shade at this time of day lends credibility to his story; his instruction that Hamlet must leave Gertrude's punishment to heaven further establishes the Ghost's identity as her former husband and Hamlet's father. But the matter of whether he is a good or an evil spirit remains ambivalent. The Ghost says to Hamlet that he is condemned to walk the earth in torment until the "foul crimes done in my days . . . Are burnt and purg'd away" (I, v., ll.16-17). This statement presumably refers to the crimes committed against him by Claudius, but it may also refer to sins committed by Ur-Hamlet during his reign. Clarification of this issue is pre-empted by the Ghost's claim that he is forbidden to tell the secrets of his "prison-house" limbo state.
After these revelations have been conveyed to him and the Ghost has temporarily left the stage, Hamlet affirms the reality of the Ghost and its identity as the spirit of his father, saying to Horatio and Marcellus, "Touching this vision here,/It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you" (I, v., ll.137-138). For the purpose of enlisting their cooperation in his mission of revenge, Hamlet swears Horatio and Marcellus to secrecy, and, from under the stage, the Ghost commands the two to swear by Hamlet's sword. Thus, not just Hamlet, but two other characters hear the ghost speak. Nevertheless, Hamlet does not fully trust the credibility of the Ghost's story. In Act II, scene ii, he wonders aloud about the Ghost's veracity, stating in a soliloquy that the Ghost might be lying to him about Claudius in order to tempt him into murder and eternal damnation. Whether as a pretext for delay or due to genuine uncertainty, Hamlet does not believe in the Ghost's tale enough to act until it is confirmed by the king's reaction to the "Murder of Gonzago."
After Act I, the Ghost puts in another appearance in Act III, scene iv. Set in the chambers of Queen Gertrude, the Ghost now dressed in a night gown reiterates his instructions to Hamlet about leaving his mother's fate to heaven. Nothing new is added to the Ghost's message, but Shakespeare now makes it plain that his form is invisible to and his words are inaudible to his "most seeming virtuous queen." Gertrude says to her son: "Alas, how is't with you,/That you do bend your eye on vacancy,/And with incorporal air do hold discourse?" (ll.116-118). When she asks what he is looking at, Hamlet blurts out, "On him, on him! Look how pale he glares" (l.123). The Queen again makes it plain that she neither sees nor hears anything but "ourselves," and when the Ghost exits for the last time she tells her "mad" son, "this is the very coinage of your brain" (III, iv., l.137). By this juncture, we are convinced that Gertrude is wrong about the Ghost, for the Queen is wrong about much else in the play, being kept in the dark by her false second husband.
It is significant that the Ghost does not appear at the end of the play. The final judgment about Hamlet's story is not given to the character who provides the Prince with motive and mission, but to Fortinbras, an individual who moves about in the real world of politics and military conquest. This may imply that there is no conclusive answer to the question of whether the Ghost is really Hamlet's father and that like so many issues raised in the play, the precise nature of the Ghost is ambiguous and need not be resolved to grasp the meaning of the tragedy before us.
In Act I, scene iii of Hamlet, the character of Polonius prepares his son Laertes for travel abroad with a speech (ll.55-81) in which he directs the youth to commit a "few precepts to memory." Among these percepts is the now-familiar adage "neither a borrower nor a lender be" (l.75) and the dictum: "This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou cans't not be false to any man "(ll.78-80). The occasion of the speech has been established in advance, for in the previous scene, Polonius has told the King and Queen that he has granted his son permission to extend his studies in France. This seems to be an eminently reasonable decision by a father concerned with his son's welfare and the moralisms that comprise the speech in question sound good. Indeed, the phrase "To thine own self be true" remains in widespread circulation today, having resounded through the ages in such literary works as Henrik Ibsen's play Brand. But when we take it at more than face value, there is less here than meets the ear, for we are left with the question of what "to thine own self be true" actually means.
Hamlet is a work in which words and acts are often at odds with each other, and in trying to discern what Polonius's most famous bit of advice to his son means, we must turn to their speaker and to his actions. The next time that Polonius appears on stage in Act II, scene i, we realize that he is not merely a concerned father, but a domestic plotter who does not trust his beloved Laertes to follow the precepts that he sets forth for him. Instead, Polonius dispatches his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes while the youth is in Paris. The royal counselor does not simply direct Reynaldo to keep an eye on Laertes. Instead, he orchestrates tactics that will enable his parental emissary to ingratiate himself with those "Danskers" in Paris that are part of Laertes's circle. He tells Reynaldo to impute "forgeries" on Laertes's character that are not heavy enough to slander the youth's reputation but common enough to serve as probes. He even supplies Reynaldo with a script, coaching him to bring up the subject of Laertes by saying "I know the gentleman, I saw him yesterday, or th' other day . . ." (II, i., l.53). From this we can immediately glean that Polonius is something of a hypocrite: on the surface, he extends trust to Laertes and to the boy's willingness to act according to the platitudes of the "to thine own self be true" speech. In reality, Polonius does not trust his son nor the capacity of adage to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Polonius appears in the next scene of Act II in a comic light. In the course of his report about Hamlet's behavior to Claudius and Gertrude, he proclaims that "brevity is the soul of wit" after and before long-winded passages that envelop this dictum. The clash between Polonius's praise of verbal concision and his actual verbosity is highlighted when the Queen urges him to get to the point with "more matter with less art," to which Polonius responds, "Madam, I swear I use no art at all" (II, ii., ll.95-96). Immediately thereafter, Polonius becomes the butt of the "mad" Hamlet's humor, as the Prince directs insults toward this official of state who senses the animosity being sent his way but fails to appreciate its nuances.
It is important to note that Polonius has already told his daughter Ophelia to cease all contact with Hamlet and to return his love letters. This behavior establishes Polonius as a stereotypical blocking character, a father barring the way between his daughter and a young man. Shakespeare was certainly familiar with such characters from his reading of the Roman comedy playwright Plautus's works. Moreover, Polonius's characteristic penchant for empty talk proclaims him to be a stock character of the Italian Commedia Dell-Arte theater, a pompous "Pantaloon" modeled, in turn, upon the "irate father" figures of ancient Roman comedy. Consistent with this stereotypical nature, Polonius interprets Hamlet's madness within the "boy loses girl" framework of Plautus's amusing stage works: he believes that his command to Ophelia to end her relationship with the Prince that had driven Hamlet to distraction.
At this point, the meaning of "to thine own self be true" seems plain: the phrase means nothing at all, it is simply an empty platitude that a character like Polonius would utter and thereby reveal himself to be a Pantaloon. But Polonius ventures beyond the boundaries of comedy by involving himself in what he takes to be the affairs of another disturbed family, Hamlet's. He gives Claudius and Gertrude love letters written by Hamlet to Ophelia (II, ii); he directs Ophelia to engage Hamlet in conversation while he and the King eavesdrop (II, ii), which she dutifully does in the first scene of Act III. Shortly thereafter, Polonius tells Claudius that Hamlet is on his way to Gertrude's quarters and volunteers to spy on their meeting. Here we note that this device implies that the Queen cannot be trusted to give an accurate report of her son's words and demeanor to her own husband. As with Reynaldo in Act II, Polonius even coaches Gertrude about what to say to her son in order to draw him out.
Believing the "rat" behind the curtains in Gertrude's chambers to be Claudius, Hamlet stabs Polonius. Hamlet expresses mild regret that he has killed the wrong man, saying "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!/I took thee for thy better" (III, iv., ll.31-32). Yet it is evident that Hamlet is not deeply disturbed by the death of Polonius, for he immediately shifts gears and launches into a diatribe against his mother's infidelity. His final word on Polonius is "to be busy is some danger" (III, iv., l.33).
That is precisely the point: having apprised his son to steer clear of all extraneous involvements, Polonius has inserted himself into affairs that are beyond his domestic sphere as father to Ophelia and Laertes and, in fact, beyond his comprehension. He is a comic figure misplaced in a tragic world whose demise comes about when he violates his own platitudes. In the end, his speech to Laertes in Act I is ironic, especially the "to thine own self be true" motto. Not only does Laertes act rashly when he learns of his father's death, he acts falsely by using a poisoned rapier in his duel with Hamlet. On one level, then, "to thine own self be true" is just a vapid stock phrase; on another plane, it carries a tragic irony as Laertes realizes to late that his failure to be "true" results in his death and that he has been "false" to another man, Hamlet.
According to Colin Wilson, author of The Occult, some people believe that numbers have an influence on human affairs. It is well known that the Elizabethans were more superstitious than most, and the influence of numbers can readily be seen in Shakespeare's Hamlet. There are two women (Gertrude and Ophelia), two uncles (Claudius and Norway), and six countries (Denmark, England, France, Germany, Norway, and Poland), the result of two times three. The number three itself is a major, though often neglected, motif of the play. Wilson comments on its significance:
Three: the number of versatility and plenty; traditionally lucky ('three times lucky'); people with the number three are gay, charming, adaptable, talented, lucky, but inclined to be 'other directed', living too much for the approval and liking of other people.1
A close analysis of Hamlet reveals how very appropriate this description is for Shakespeare's play.
When the play first opens, we meet two of the three soldiers that will appear on stage, Marcellus and Bernardo. These two men form an important bridge in the play between the common people outside Elsinore who are affected by the happenings within the castle, and the people within Elsinore's walls. They are the observers of 'unnatural' events and the episodes caused by the politicians, and it is Marcellus who observes 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark' (1.5.90). As members of the guard, they must adapt to the changing from the reign of King Hamlet who had taken them into a war against Norway and the new king, Claudius, who is preparing to defend Denmark from invasion by Norway. By the play's end, it is they who have escaped the carnage, but not the invasion. They must adapt once more at the end of the play to the new Norwegian king, Fortinbras.
The third soldier is the Captain of Fortinbras' army, who voices the mission of the Norwegian army as Hamlet is being escorted to England by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He tells the Prince that the army goes to fight for a piece of land in Poland that is not worth very much except in terms of honour. Metaphorically, this is an encapsulation of Hamlet's problem: his assassination of Claudius is not worth very much except to him as revenge for his father's murder. It is a domestic problem, not a political one. In the Captain's case and Hamlet's such a tiny action can still have far-reaching effects. The Norwegian victory in Poland allows Fortinbras to turn his attention to Denmark, while Hamlet, returned from England, so distracts the villainous Claudius that Denmark is unprepared for invasion. For these three soldiers, adaptability and versatility necessitated by their military training proves to be the provider of lucky circumstances for survival.
The opening of the play also introduces us to Horatio, Hamlet's close friend, who shows himself to be a loyal, true friend to Hamlet, a sharp contrast to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who appear later in the play. Within this circle of three friends, all 'gay' and 'charming', there is only one in whom Hamlet can have unshakeable trust: Horatio. It is Horatio who, alone at the play's end, can relate the story
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, And, in this upshot, purposes mistook Fall'n on th'inventors' heads. (5.2.383-387).
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet immediate death in England, and this fact emphasises their roles as outsiders in the events of the play. Ultimately, their fate as two school friends equates with that of the two women and the two uncles.
The number three is apparent in the number of sons, Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras, to an equal number of fathers, King Hamlet, Polonius, and old Fortinbras. These relationships are uncannily parallel. Laertes is sent to France to learn dagger, rapier, and other pugilistic arts:
He [Lamord, a Norman warrior] made a confession of you, And gave you such a masterly report For art and exercise in your defense, And for your rapier most especial, That he cried out 'twould be a sight indeed If one could match you. (4.7.96-101)
Hamlet is sent to Wittenberg where he pursues the arts and can write and direct plays:
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had lief the town crier spoke my lines. (3.2.14)
The two young men are obviously on different career paths. Hamlet and Laertes are almost professional students at foreign schools, Hamlet in Germany, Laertes in France, preparing for the day when they must assume their leadership roles, whereas Fortinbras has seemingly completed his education and is plying his trade as a military and political leader in Norway. While King Hamlet killed Fortinbras's father over a mere wager, Hamlet will mistakenly kill Laertes' father through misjudgment. Laertes will lead a rebellion into the very heart of Elsinore. All three will seek revenge for their fathers' deaths. Fortinbras alone will achieve his goal.
The three fathers also merit a look. Both King Hamlet and King Fortinbras have had hopes that their sons would become King. Apparently they were both loving fathers, since Hamlet is in deep mourning for the death of his father, and Fortinbras is raising an army to avenge his father under the pretext of invading Poland. Polonius, the one father whose parenting skills are on display for us to watch and ponder, is not only a careful father, but also a politically astute one, who could very easily use his children for his own advancement, as evidenced by his hiring of Reynaldo to spy on Laertes while he is in France. Polonius' manipulation of the Ophelia-Hamlet affair results, he thinks, in Hamlet's madness. His motivation in both instances is that he does not want any untoward behaviour on the part of his children to reflect on him. As unfatherly as that may sound, Polonius' death, nonetheless, is the catalyst that drives his daughter to real madness. Furthermore, all three men have acted rashly, interfering in affairs they thought they could handle, and all three have met violent death.
Of the three, only King Hamlet returns from the after-life to spur his son on to revenge, hardly the act of a loving father. If King Hamlet had had Hamlet's best interests at heart, he would have stayed dead and buried. For him to seek revenge over an act that could never be reversed demonstrates his own desire to get even with his brother, a matter that was Hamlet's to resolve. In addition, he couches his request in the one statement that he knows will affect his son: 'If thou didst ever thy dear father love . . . Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder' (1.5.24, 26). At this point in the play, we know that Hamlet is in acute emotional turmoil from dealing with the public funeral of his father who died while he was away, the shortened mourning period, and the remarriage of his mother to his uncle. In such a state, Hamlet's response must be emotional, not rational. Later in the play, Hamlet will do his best to verify the Ghost's story to make sure he was not having a reaction caused by grief.
In a sense, Hamlet is indeed 'three times lucky' through three escapes. He escapes from a murder charge for the death of Polonius, he escapes from the pirates that attacked his ship, and he escapes from the death warrant sent by Claudius to England via Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While these may seem to be plot machinations to add to the intensity of the drama, they are also events which underline his belief that his destiny is tied to the Ghost's behest.
The motif of the number three can also be found in the political aspects of the play. At the beginning, Claudius sends two ambassadors, Cornelius and Voltemand, to reach a negotiated settlement with old Norway, Fortinbras' uncle. In the final scene, immediately after Fortinbras invades Elsinore, the English ambassador arrives to announce 'that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead' (5.2.373). It is Horatio who answers both the ambassador and Fortinbras, saying that Hamlet 'never gave commandment for their death' (5.2.376). In all the chaos, we may have forgotten that Hamlet changed the names on the death warrant. However, in the interest of political expediency, and to avoid the maligning of his dead friend, Horatio acts in an honourable fashion, saying that any more comment 'while men's minds are wild' will probably cause 'more mischance/On plots and errors [to] happen' (5.2.396-397).
The play ends as it had begun: two men, one Dane and one Norwegian, trying to reach a peaceful settlement. There is nothing more that can be done for the dead, except to bury them. And there will be more than three funerals: Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet. For them, their number is up.
1. Colin Wilson. The Occult. London: Panther, 1979, p. 404.
Shakespeare's most famous play, Hamlet, exists in three versions known as the First Quarto published in 1603, the Second Quarto published in 1604, and the text in the First Folio (1623). All three versions differ from each other, and are often combined to make what editors call a conflated text. The version that is taught in many schools and used by most performance people is the conflated version of Hamlet that has 3760 lines.
Of the film versions now available on videotape, two have been demonstrated to be more popular than any of the others: Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 version with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, and Kenneth Branagh's effort with himself and Julie Christie. As with the texts of Hamlet, there are many differences between the two films, but perhaps the most significant is that Zeffirelli omits the character of Fortinbras, and Branagh keeps him. Shakespeare clearly felt that Fortinbras' influence was necessary to the thematic threads of the play, and possibly reinforces this importance in the character's name and development beyond the traditional sources. The name Fortinbras has its root in two Latin words: fort meaning strong, and bras meaning arms. Horatio answers Marcellus' questions about what is going in Elsinore by relating the story of the battle between old King Hamlet and old Fortinbras. The emphasis throughout Horatio's story of the single combat between two mature, experienced men is on the legality and contractual nature of the arrangement. By contrast,
. . . young Fortinbras Of unimproved mettle hot and full . . . (1.1.95)
has resorted to raising an illegal army without commission in Norway. He has made 'the levies,/ The lists, and full proportions' (1.2.31-32) for this army without his uncle's knowledge or permission. According to Horatio, Fortinbras 'sharked up' (1.2.98) this army, and Shakespeare invokes the image of a ruthless sea predator attacking swiftly and killing silently to help us visualise this man. Fortinbras is a proactive personality who will fight for what he considers an honourable cause, a view confirmed by an inactive Hamlet:
. . . Rightly to be great Is not to stir without great argument But greatly to find quarrel in a straw When honour's at stake. (4.4.53-56)
Although Shakespeare only devotes sixty lines, strategically scattered over the five acts of the play, to Fortinbras and the threat that he poses, these lines give momentum to Fortinbras' political importance to the events in Denmark. But Fortinbras is an overbearing presence in silent, non-political ways.
The Ghost of Hamlet's father, a symbol of Denmark's past greatness as a military power, contrasts sharply to the present threat of Fortinbras from Norway. Claudius raises the issue of Fortinbras right after he announces his marriage to Gertrude to the court, sending Voltemand and Cornelius to Fortinbras' uncle to bring the young man into line. Their success in this mission deepens not only the court's confidence in Claudius's political skills but also the contrast between Claudius and Hamlet. But perhaps the most important role of Fortinbras is as the third son in the play's father/son motifs of Hamlet/King Hamlet, Polonius/Laertes, Fortinbras/King Fortinbras. Given Fortinbras' importance to the play, it is interesting to compare the Zeffirelli and Branagh versions to see what is lost or gained by this character's exclusion or inclusion.
Zeffirelli only retains approximately 1178 lines (thirty-one percent) of the conflated text, and deliberately transposes, interpolates, and rewrites Shakespeare's play, reshaping the text into a viable screenplay, not only reaping box office benefits but also incurring the wrath of purists. Zeffirelli explains his sound, directorial reasons behind the cuts:
. . . when you go into the kingdom of cinema, you must obey the laws of that kingdom. You must have a point of view, make a really precise choice as to what you want to show.1
Having established his point of view on the main character, Hamlet, Zeffirelli bends the text to that view, beginning his film with a long shot of Elsinore reaching into the sea with the word 'Hamlet' boldly emblazoned on the screen. He makes no attempt on Shakespeare's authenticity: this film 'is based on the play by William Shakespeare. Screenplay by Christopher De Vore and Franco Zeffirelli'. The director supports his dissection of the text with logical visuals; for example, when Claudius and Gertrude enter Hamlet's dark room, Gertrude moves the huge window covering and the room is filled with sunlight on 'I am too much in the sun'.
Like Branagh, Zeffirelli has fashioned a context in which Shakespeare's words can live as they were written (more or less) but which also have a particular relevance to a modern audience. Since he has chosen to focus on the domestic tragedy in Elsinore, that of a son who cannot fathom his mother's remarriage nor seems to find time to exact revenge for his father's murder, he is perfectly justified in his comments:
Once you have focused on that story, all the other stories fall like dead branches. Who needs the political thing? Who needs Fortinbras? Who needs Norway?2
Fortinbras would be misplaced in this adaptation. The focus on the double domestic problem eliminates any need for a political dimension. Throughout the film, Claudius and Gertrude are portrayed as a sexually vital couple, a happy match, which intensifies Hamlet's jealous rage which reaches full fury in the closet scene. However, Zeffirelli also includes the Polonius family as a vital ingredient, making his film an essay on the play, one with a wider view. Fortinbras and war have no place in this interpretation. Claudius, even without the additional emphasis of his political capabilities, is still a complex villain, and because of the solidarity of the Polonius family, Ophelia's distress at his murder and Laertes' motivation for fighting Hamlet are very clear. The need for Laertes to be a premonitory event before Fortinbras' entrance in 5.2 is negated, and the resolution of the domestic tragedy precludes the need for further comment by Fortinbras or Horatio.
Zeffirelli is more dependent on his film editor than on the camera man, and this editing adds another layer to the already edited text. The continual, rapid cutting makes this film entirely a 'hands-on' Hamlet. Although the placement of Fortinbras throughout the play does more than add a political gloss, the actor Paul Scofield who played the Ghost defends Zeffirelli's omissions:
. . . since Shakespeare's audience often could not see the actor's eye or expressions, Shakespeare tended to repeat key ideas. With the close-ups of film, there's no need.3
Apparently, Kenneth Branagh saw things differently in 1996 and demonstrated that perhaps there was a 'need' for filming the full text of Hamlet. Released in the same year as Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Branagh Hamlet was nominated for four Academy Awards. It was known as the 'eternity' Hamlet because its running time was 232 minutes. Branagh had stated that he believed that that the characters of the play 'can be understood in direct, accessible relation to modern life'.4 In fact, however, much of length is attributable to Branagh's cinematic additions, what is known as 'extra-textual' business. In regard to Fortinbras, these extra-textual images expand the role of Fortinbras even further into the affairs of the Danish court, from his first mention to the film's conclusion.
Set in 'an impression' of nineteenth century Europe, the film preserves the fear and uncertainty initiated by the appearance of the Ghost and the preparations for war.5 The metaphor of war is essential to Branagh's interpretation, as are the inability to ascertain identity or truth and the question of kingship. Branagh's is the first film to allow Fortinbras complete inclusion, a decision which carries many benefits and many problems. When Claudius sends Voltemand and Cornelius to Fortinbras' uncle, Old Norway, the entire episode of Fortinbras' raising an army is shown by a flashback-within-a-flashback. By inserting these flashbacks, Branagh can give the audience something to look at while the long speeches are spoken, creating a visual subtext:
It's the full text which means it takes four pages to say you're going for a walk. If the camera was still and you just photographed people saying the words, it would be terribly boring—you need the excitement to hold the audience.6
Unlike Zeffirelli's film, Hamlet is not the centre of the Danish universe, merely a part of it, tempered by the presence of Fortinbras. On film, Fortinbras is the essence of the shark: his approach has been soft and he attacks swiftly. His coming into court at the film's end is diametrically opposed to any entrance by Claudius. His tactics are expedient and pragmatic in the world of politics, and, offering a true alternative to the unredeemably evil Claudius, 'What he sees shakes him to the core'.7 There is a strong sense in Branagh's film that the events in Denmark are not only national, but quite possibly, international events, with far-reaching ramifications. Branagh's strong development of Fortinbras with textual and extra-textual support, especially in the last scene, caused one critic to comment:
By privileging Fortinbras' figure and fortune, Branagh's Hamlet becomes not the story of the prince's tragedy but a heroic tale of Fortinbras' inexorable rise to power.8
Branagh's choice to give a fully realised Fortinbras confirms beyond all question the importance of this character to the events of the play.
If we view the screenplays and films of Hamlet as a piece of tapestry, we can see that the removal of even one thread causes distortion and damage to the entire work, but not necessarily to the destruction of the piece. Zeffirelli's film remains an absorbing, psychological study of the play's domestic and sexual themes, letting the fabric of the play be seen in a particular light. The story may be less rich and powerful, but it still provides a satisfying cinematic experience.
Branagh's film presents the 'complete' play, but in spite of the Oscar nominations, it failed to realise its box office potential. For educational purposes, the production company edited the film down to about an hour and a half—all Shakespeare and fewer extra-textual moments. It is still the only version that includes the entire conflated text.
Understanding the practical and creative process of film-making and the myriad decisions that accompany a film project, especially that of a Shakespeare play, allows us to appreciate Shakespeare's plays as living artefacts, amenable to changes that can enrich Shakespeare's overall design for his characters when his text is set down in a screenplay and brought to filmic life. Other films, especially Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, have demonstrated beyond a doubt that 'the play's the thing'.
1. Zeffirelli quoted in 'Franco goes to Elsinore', The Independent on Sunday, 14 April 1991. 2. Ibid 3. Cyndi Stivers. 'Hamlet revisited'. Premiere, February 1991, vol. 4, no. 6, p. 54. 4. Kenneth Branagh. 'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare: Screenplay and Introduction by Kenneth Branagh; Film Diary by Russell Jackson. London: Chatto & Windus, 1996, p. viii. 5. Kenneth Branagh. Trailer for Hamlet on videotape of Othello (USA, 1994) 6. Kenneth Branagh quoted in 'Hamlet in the round', Eyepiece. Reading, Berkshire, September, 1996. 7. See footnote 4. 8. Robert F. Willson, Jr. 'Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet or the Revenge of Fortinbras'. The Shakespeare Newsletter, Spring 1997, p. 7.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss two of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, Hamlet and Macbeth, to compare the themes, characters, and the conclusion of each play, and to focus in particular upon the concept of evil as it is treated by Shakespeare in each play. Each play primarily concerns the downfall of a man who has the potential for greatness, but finds himself caught in a web of evil woven by others. In the case of Macbeth, we have a man led by greed, an uncontrollable appetite for power, and the urging of an insane wife, who in the course of the play, turns from a noble man into a monster. Hamlet, on the other hand, is led to his end by a desire for revenge which he allows to go out of control, and by the continued contact with his mother, whose part in his father's death haunts him.
In the tragedy of Macbeth, the theme of evil is introduced and sustained by the witches, and by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth himself becomes a victim of the impulses within him which lead him to consult these vile creatures, and to believe in the power of evil rather than the power of good. The tragedy here is that Macbeth possesses a potential for goodness and nobility which he is led to deny; he is an imaginative man, with a mind which could have been turned to creative governing, but which is instead filled with dreams of ghosts, and of his victims. Macbeth "is a doomed man before he even commits his crime. He knows it, and the witches know it. It is what gives to this tragedy its deep and appalling quality. Macbeth does not go to hell; he starts there."1
On the other hand, the evil in Hamlet is one which develops in the course of the play, for in the very beginning Hamlet himself is not a man capable of the murder of Polonius nor of his mother and the king. Thus the evil here is not yet a reality for the audience of this play when it begins; the witches in Macbeth do not function in the same way as does the elder Hamlet's ghost. The ghost tempts Hamlet to revenge, but not to ambition or to power; the revenge itself need not be the source of evil, for according to the beliefs of the day, the murder of a rightful ruler could justly be revenged by his son. Thus, while the two plays have similar auras surrounding the evil events which transpire (mysterious doings at night, witches and ghosts), they stem in conception from two very different approaches to the problem of evil. Perhaps the divergence is best pointed out by the fact that Hamlet is at first inclined to believe that the ghost is an agent of the devil; he is not prepared to act until he is certain the ghost has told the truth. Macbeth, on the other hand, knows that only the evil way of the witches will lead him to fulfill his ambitions, and he consciously chooses that evil over the good qualities, such as loyalty, towards which he is drawn.
Although the fate of Hamlet and Macbeth is resolved in much the same way at the end of each play, the two characters could not be more different in conception. Hamlet is, and remains throughout the play, a noble and essentially well-intentioned man; he is an idealist—a man not afraid to follow his emotions. Macbeth, a much stronger and more decisive man than Hamlet, has a streak of selfishness and stoicism which Hamlet lacks. Shakespeare thus approaches a similar theme—the murder of a king—from the viewpoint of two very different men, and yet finally arrives at a single philosophical position which is based upon a single human principle: violence engenders violence, and murder ultimately brings about the death of the murderer as well as innocent victims.
An interesting contrast between the two plays is the importance of Lady Macbeth to Macbeth and of Gertrude to Hamlet. In both cases devotion to the woman—wife or mother—and a concomitant fear and repulsion towards her, acts as a prime factor in the decision making process of the man. But Macbeth envisions a throne which he will share with his Queen, while Hamlet can feel nothing but rage against his mother's betrayal of his father. Macbeth is joined in his choice of evil by his wife, while Hamlet falls into evil alone. There is no equivalent to Ophelia, with her influence towards salvation for Hamlet, in Macbeth.
While avoiding the question of a Freudian interpretation of Hamlet's character, it is interesting to note that the genesis of his drift into evil is more understandable and more forgivable than Macbeth's. It has been said of Hamlet that "Blocked by the double obstruction (the death of his father and the marriage of his mother to his murderer), his life energy flows backward and floods his mind with images of disintegration and death."2 Hamlet was not made for revenge, was not meant to bear the burden of his own mother's evil, and yet both fell upon him. Macbeth, on the other hand, was a brave man and a strong leader. He could have accomplished much on his own. He was not a victim of his parents, nor even of his king, for the king in this case was a good man. There is ample indication in the text that Macbeth possesses the strength of character to resist his wife's ambitions for him. Yet he falls more easily than Hamlet. "The murderer of Duncan inherits Hamlet's sensibility, his nervous irritability, his hysterical passion, his extraordinary gifts of visualization and imaginative expression; and under the instigating influence of his wife the 'rashness' and 'indiscretion' of the later Hamlet are progressively translated into a succession of mad acts."3
If Macbeth is Hamlet taken to the limits of his violent potential, the more accurate comparison between characters in these plays would involve Claudius and Macbeth. The murder of a good king by a usurper invariably brings about an uncontrollable chain of events which will eventually ruin that usurper in Shakespeare's world. Yet as horrible as Claudius' deed was, we do not feel the repulsion for him that we feel towards Macbeth. Claudius stands outside the circle of violence until Hamlet draws him in, at the last moment. Macbeth is in the center of his play, his hands bloody after every murder.
Despite the murders in which Hamlet is involved—the deaths of Polonius, Claudius and Gertrude, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—and the madness of the innocent Ophelia, many critics have found it difficult to see in Hamlet an embodiment of evil. Rather, "Hamlet is the quintessence of European man, who holds that man is 'ordained to govern the world according to equity and righteousness with an upright heart', and not to renounce the world and leave it to its corruption. By that conception of man's duty end destiny he is involved in those tragic dilemmas with which our own age is so terribly familiar."4 Thus the evil deeds which occur are at least partially neutralized by Hamlet's intention to eradicate far worse evils, according to this interpretation. Is it possible that Macbeth too can be seen in this light. It has been argued that despite his crimes, "Macbeth is the protagonist, the hero, with whom as such, for the right tragic effect, there must, naturally, be some large measure of sympathy."5 He gains our sympathy through Shakespeare's "power of poetry . . . by the exhibition of the hero's bravery and virtue at the beginning, by emphasizing the influence of the supernatural . . . and of his wife's inordinate ambition distinctly mentioned. . . ."6 Thus while the dramatist must make his audience aware of the fall into evil of both men, he must also make provision for the tragic element, which presupposes a capacity for goodness and even greatness on the part of the hero.
The answer to the problem of evil in each play is that "Shakespeare has again enclosed his evil within a universe of good, his storm center within wide areas of peace."7 This world of good includes Malcolm and Macduff, Ophelia, and all the others who survive to carry on the job of building peace on the ruins of war, and of healing violence through their gentleness. The tragedy of both Hamlet and Macbeth, "imaginative brothers"8, is that they are both capable of reflecting back to their innocence, which has been irretrievably lost:
The time has been, my senses would have cool'd To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir As life were in 't, I have supp'd full with horrors; Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, Cannot once start me. (Macbeth, V, v, 10-15)
1. Louis Auchincloss, Motiveless Malignity (Boston, 1969), p. 48.
2. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1962), vol. I, p. 344.
3. Ibid. volume II, p. 111.
4. Helen Gardner, "Hamlet and the Tragedy of Revenge" in Dean, ed., p. 225.
5. Elmer Edgar Stoll, "Source and Motive in Macbeth and Othello" in Dean, ed., p. 318.
7. Mark Van Doren, "Macbeth" in Dean, ed., p. 360.
8. Goddard, volume II, p. 110.
Auchincloss, Louis. Motiveless Malignity. Boston: Houghton Co., 1969.
Dean, Leonard F., editor. Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Volume I and Volume II. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Shakespeare, William. Twenty-three Plays and the Sonnets. Thomas Marc Parrott, editor. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.
First published in a 1952 issue of The Yale Review, Maynard Mack's essay "The World of Hamlet" remains one of the most widely-cited explications of that Shakespearean tragedy. As Mack observes, Hamlet is the most "elusive" of Shakespeare's works, for the dramatic world that the Bard created in this play is "a world of riddles" that are not conclusively answered by its end and, in fact, appear to have been deliberately intended to create doubt in the eyes of the viewer (1952/1964, p.45). Mack identifies three salient attributes that pervade the "world" which Shakespeare created in Hamlet; its mysteriousness, its stress on the "playing" or pasts, and, most relevant to this essays’ particular concerns, "the problematic nature of reality and the relation of reality to appearance" (p.48). In Hamlet "things" are often not what they appear to be on the surface. This is most evident in the kingship of Claudius, who seems to be a competent and legitimate sovereign, but who is, at bottom, the murderer of his own brother. It is also apparent in Hamlet's feigned madness and the other forms of duplicity and deceit that move the plot forward. But as we shall proceed to explain in the analysis at hand, the contrast between "reality" and "illusion" is more than a matter of individuals being ignorant of the machinations of other characters. As Mack argued some fifty years ago, the play is essentially about "seeming" and "appearance" as an inherent dimension of human experience.
In Act I, scene ii, Hamlet appears as a sullen figure lurking in the background of the court. His withdrawn demeanor is understandable given that his father died just two months earlier. Nevertheless, his mother, Queen Gertrude, asks her son why he cannot accept ur-Hamlet's death as a natural occurrence that must arise for all mortals, questioning, "Why seems it so particular with thee?" To this, the Danish prince replies:
Seems, madam? Nay, it is, I know not seems. ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, Nor customary suits of solemn black. . . . Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief, That can denote me truly. These indeed, seem, For they are action that a man might play: But I have that within which passeth show— These but the trappings and suits of woe. (I, ii., ll.76-86)
In this, the first extended speech by the play's main protagonist, the audience is directed to consider the difference between "seeming" and "real" grief. Indeed, this passage encompasses a complex fabric of elements which, as we shall soon see, articulate the dichotomy between reality and appearance.
This is not the first instance in which the term "seems" rises to prominence in the play. We recall the Ghost's denunciation of his "seeming virtuous queen" (I, v., l.46), and, above all the exchanges between Hamlet and the members of the night watch about the nature of the apparition that has appeared to Horatio and his cohorts on the walls of Elsinore castle. In this context, we note the repetition of the word "assume, " as in the apprehensive observation that the Ghost "hath power to assume a pleasing shape" and in Hamlet's vow that he will speak to the Ghost "if it assume my noble father's person." The word "assume," of course, can connote the conscious "taking on" of an appearance that is at odds with underlying reality. In this instance, Hamlet and his friends are clearly justified in their misgiving about whether the Ghost is a spectral embodiment of the dead king or some "thing" that is merely pretending to be ur-Hamlet, the devil, for example. The entire play proceeds on the word of an apparition, for it is from the Ghost that we learn of Claudius's true iniquity and, hence, of the need to exact revenge upon him. Nevertheless, the possibility remains that the Ghost (and his tale) is false, the product of some evil spirit intent upon misleading Hamlet (and other characters of the play) into mad and heinous actions. This possibility is reinforced when Hamlet reproaches Gertrude in Act III, scene ii, for while Hamlet sees the ghost again, his mother sees nothing at all. From the time of the ghost's first appearance (indeed, from the preliminary reports of the night watch), like Hamlet, we confront the uncomfortable situation of being unable to trust our own senses.
Before Hamlet's utters his retort about "seeming" in the second scene of Act I, we are faced with the character of Claudius, and we soon learn that he is not only a man who is hiding something, he is a man who is pretending to be a virtuous regent, but who has, in fact, "poisoned the ear" of Denmark (I, v., l.136). Later on, as Hamlet stages his "mousetrap" for Claudius, we are told that he and Horatio are watching the King's behavior "in censure of his seeming" (III, ii., l.92). Claudius himself "confesses" that he is a foul usurper, and that he must engage in deception to keep his crimes secret. But as Cedric Watts (1988) has noted, his past sins apart, Claudius appears to us as a competent monarch, capable of commanding loyalty and of skillfully handling affairs of state. "Even if he is only playing the part of a rightful king," Watts says of Claudius, "he does so with skill and panache" (p.59). Claudius is plainly the "villain" of the play, but even on this count we have some doubts, for he displays features, such as his love for Gertrude, that underscore a duality in his character. Claudius is not what he seems, yet there remain questions about how great the difference is between a "false" and a "true" king. Hamlet repeatedly brings attention to the contrast between his father and his uncle, but he does so because Claudius presents an otherwise convincing portrait of a wise, benevolent ruler.
Then there is the character of Ophelia, who "seems" to be a beautiful, and above all, "innocent" virgin. With regard to his "beloved," Hamlet points to a "falseness" that simple is not congruent with what we see in the daughter of Polonius, repeatedly characterizing her as a whore masquerading as a maid. But even after her apparent suicide, questions remain about Ophelia. After all, she does willingly take part in the efforts of Hamlet's opponents to determine whether the Prince's madness is real or not. Moreover, suicide is not an action that we associate with a seemingly "pure" and "guiltless" maid. Is Ophelia what she seems to be, or is there something valid in Hamlet's disparaging comments about her? We suspect the former, but as in the case of the Ghost, we cannot be entirely certain.
In his response to Gertrude's question about why he cannot accept his father's death as a natural part of life, Hamlet makes reference to his "inky cloak" as well as to other garments and trappings that give the outward show of grief. Indeed, immediately before her son's speech, the Queen bids him to "cast they nightly colour off" (I, ii., l.68). Throughout the play there are numerous references to clothes and to costumes as a reflection of character. For example, in his advise to Laertes, Polonius tells his son that "the apparel oft proclaims the man" (I, iii., l.72), and shortly thereafter, he characterizes Hamlet's profession of love to Ophelia as "false apparel." The most noteworthy instance of external garments being used as an index to an internal reality occurs when Ophelia reports to her father that she saw "Lord Hamlet with his doublet all unbrac'd. No hat upon his head: his stockings foul'd, Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle" (II, i., ll.73-74). This disarray of costume in Hamlet, who was once considered to be "the glass of fashion and the mould of form" (III, i., l.156), is taken as a sure sign that the Prince is mad. But we know that Hamlet is not (as) mad as he pretends to be, and that his disheveled attire is merely part of an "act" meant to deceive Claudius and the other members of the court.
According to Mack (1952/1964), "the most pervasive of Shakespeare's image patterns in this play . . . is the pattern evolved around the words 'show,' 'act,' and 'play'" (p.52). As Hamlet himself proclaims, "the play is the thing" by which he plans to ensnare Claudius in his own guilt and to expose his uncle for what he really is (II, ii., l.605). Several critics have observed that there is a marked disparity between Hamlet's "tough" talk about exacting vengeance upon Claudius, e.g., his remark that he could "drink hot blood," and his otherwise passive demeanor. Cedric Watts, for example, notes that "such conventionally vengeful speeches contrast so strongly with the introspective sensitivity and humanity which Hamlet displays elsewhere that readers are usually reluctant to take his words at face value." (1988, p.62). Here we note with David Scott Kastan (1995) that Hamlet is "never quite as apt a revenger as either he or the ghost would like" (p.199). One explanation for Hamlet's "failures" (including his famous failure to "act") is that Hamlet is unable to embrace the "role" of an avenger. "It is legitimate to say that Hamlet is an actor who has been offered a choice of roles," Nigel Alexander (1971) tells us, but Hamlet "is unable to determine which part he ought to play" (p.14). Hamlet is confronted with the perceived need to "play" the avenger, but it is a part with which he has no natural affinity. Hamlet attempts to "rehearse" this role and to gain the motivation to play the part through his soliloquies. Nevertheless, until the play's concluding act, Hamlet is "ill-cast" as both "minister and scourge."
The theme of "play acting" is embodied in the performance of the Murder of Gonzago, the "play within a play" which "tends to dissolve the normal barriers between the fictive and the real" (Mack 1952/1964, p.53). On stage, we see both a "player" king and a real individual, Claudius, who is actually playing or pretending to be Denmark's king. Hamlet goes so far as to direct the troupe in their task, telling the Player King "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature" (III, ii., ll.17-19). Here Hamlet advocates a "realistic" style of acting, one in which the line between reality and illusion is all but obliterated. The Prince admires, even envies, the Player King's talent at assuming a part and creating the illusion of a real person, "his whole function suiting/With forms to his conceit" (II, ii., ll.556-557). We gain the sense that the Prince wishes that he could be as convincing in his role as avenger as the Player King is in his part on stage.
Returning once more to Act I, scene ii, Hamlet avows that he has something in his nature that "passeth" mere surface appearance. By the graveyard scene, that "something" has come to the fore. It is through a confrontation with his own mortality that Hamlet gains a sense of his nature that extends beyond external appearances and assumed roles. As Mack notes, the connection between mortality and authenticity is innate in human nature, "for death puts the question, 'What is real?' in its irreducible form and in the end uncovers all appearances" (p.59). In the play's final act, Hamlet casts aside all external trappings of grief, madness, and revenge, embraces the function (but not necessarily the character or role) of avenger assigned to him by circumstance and attains an heroic authenticity as he proclaims himself to be Hamlet the Dane.
At the conclusion of the play, questions and quandaries remain with the audience. Shakespeare does not resolve the dichotomy between reality and illusion, leaving critics to argue endlessly about what actually takes place in the play. Still, we are left with the impression that Hamlet himself, through a confrontation with the ultimate reality of death, is sure of his own identity and that he wants it to be reported "right" to the world at large. The basic message conveyed is that there is, in fact, a difference between what seems to be and what is, but that mere mortals cannot discern it until they face the prospect of all "reality" being swept away by death.
Alexander, Nigel. Poison, Play and Duel: A Study in Hamlet. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1971.
Joseph, Bertram. "The Theme," Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bellington. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp.93-103.
Kastan, David Scott. (Ed.). "'His Semblance Is His Mirror': Hamlet and the Imitation of Revenge," Critical Essays on Hamlet. New York, NY: G.K. Hall, 1995, pp.198-209.
Kerrigan, William. Hamlet's Perfection. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Levin, Harry. The Question of Hamlet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Mack, Maynard. "The World of Hamlet," Shakespeare: The Tragedies. Ed. Alfred Harbarge. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp.44-60.
Shakespeare, William. "Hamlet," The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. Harry Levin. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974, pp.1135-1196.
Watts, Cedric. Hamlet. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishing, 1988.
Shakespeare's Hamlet was first published in 1603, although it had been performed prior to that date. Today, it remains perhaps the best known play in the English language. The story is set in Denmark. The title character, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is ". . . himself . . . almost more of a satirist than a philosopher".1 Indeed, despite the play's undeniable status as a tragedy, its satirical and comedic elements often threaten to take precedence over the more sober, weighty considerations encountered within. Nearly every character of note dies, a kingdom changes hands, the fate of many rides in the balance. Furthermore, the reader cannot help but be somehow concerned (whether attracted or repelled, of course, is a matter of personal taste and interpretation) with the activities of the prince and how they effect those around him. "Hamlet is one of those plays in which the central character so occupies the attention that it is attractive to investigate the symbolic relationship of the other characters to him".2
Yet, part of Shakespeare's strength and attraction as a writer has always been the ability to draw believable, interesting characters of lesser rank in the proceedings, as well as providing them with dialogue and action which is simultaneously illuminating and propulsive (in terms of deepening and directing the plot). "The words of Shakespeare . . . have in them all shades of . . . meaning. Beyond this joy . . . there is the added joy of character. . . . no writer . . . has touched the depth and height of character as . . . William Shakespeare".3 This is apparent even so late in Hamlet as the Fifth Act (the last), where the courtier Osric and the gravediggers (or clowns) are introduced. These characters contribute, in their separate ways, to bringing about the conclusion of the drama, while reinforcing its central themes through their activities and speeches. At this seemingly late juncture in the play's progress, Shakespeare manipulates these characters so that their presence is far more meaningful to the play's final development than might ordinarily be expected by a cursory examination of their purported functions.
Long before the written word there existed in the human consciousness a belief of the power of prophecy in that period of time immediately preceding death. Its origin can perhaps be traced to the generally assumed "fact" that the soul becomes divine in proportion to the loosening of its connection to the mortal body. Shakespeare makes this consideration apparent with the opening words of Act Five, uttered by the first clown (he and his companion may also be identified as gravediggers because they are carrying "spades and mattocks" and they dig deep into the surface of the graveyard), who says: "Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation?".4 The reference to "salvation" indicates interest in the passage of the soul from the body; the "she" referred to is, of course, Ophelia, who took her own life in Act Four. The very setting of the graveyard is a predestination of coming events. By the end of the play Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius all join Ophelia in death.
Yet much of the conversation in the graveyard scene of the Fifth Act, Scene One, might be classified as "lighthearted banter," at least if taken only on a surface level. The clowns (gravediggers) speak of death in a manner that is simultaneously humorous and profound, displaying what has come to be called "black humor," speaking lines like: "Come my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and gravemakers; they hold up Adam's profession".5 This utterance is followed a little later by: ". . . the gallows is built stronger than the church . . ."6 and after that: ". . . 'a gravemaker': the houses that he makes last till doomsday".7 Perhaps even more revealing is this interchange between Hamlet and the First Clown, where the prince asks: "'. . . Whose grave is this, sir?' [and the clown replies] . . . 'mine, sir'".8 The exchange between the two leads to the famous remark concerning Yorick’s skull, which in turn leads to a short converstation between Hamlet and Horatio that ends with the observation: "Imperious Ceasar, dead and turn'd to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away . . .",9 an apt indication of the fate (death and decay of the body) common to all humanity. It is also a cunning hint by Shakespeare of the coming death of the remaining leading characters.
If Shakespeare satirizes much of the human condition with the gravedigger characters, his use of the courtier Osric goes somewhat beyond this, although, once again, satire is central to the character's purpose. "We should not be surprised to find that Shakespeare creates a range of great satirists as well as tragic heroes, clowns, romantics, and warriors. . . . many of these . . . categories are intermixed in the satirist".10 Besides propelling the plot by conversing cleverly with the prince and delivering his message, there has been some speculation that Osric was instrumental in satirizing political events contemporaneous with his own day. Indeed, ". . . at the time he lived there was . . . an affectation of quaintness and adornment, which emanated from the Court . . . against which satire was directed by Shakespeare in the character of Osric in Hamlet".11 Osric, then, serves a twofold purpose: he simultaneously satirizes prevailing conditions in the English royal court while delivering the message to Hamlet which leads to the fatal and fateful duel between the prince and Laertes. Indeed
. . . Osric, the fashionable courtier, an object of . . . detestation . . . a pretty little man with nothing to recommend him but his wealth . . . clothes and . . . manners . . . comes to carry the King's request that Hamlet shall fence with Laertes. . . . this will be the end.12
Therefore, rather than simply permit characters already in existence to carry the play to its end, Shakespeare introduces new characters in the final act who are not extraneous, but serve useful dramatic purposes. Whether these characters were introduced by the playwright out of necessity (i.e., the play might have lost momentum if existing characters were called upon to do the job the new ones do, etc.), is a question for literary critics to decide upon. What is undeniable is that the gravediggers and Osric function admirably within the context Shakespeare provided for them, and Hamlet is stronger for their contributions.
1. C.A. Swineburne, A Study of Shakespeare, (NY: AMS Press, Inc., 1965), p.161.
2. W.D. Swott, Shakespeare’s Melancholies, (London: Mills & Boon, Ltd., 1962), p.106.
3. S. Thorndyke, ed., The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (London: REX Library, 1973), p.6.
4. Thorndyke, ed., "Hamlet," p. 876.
5. Thorndyke, ed., "Hamlet," p. 876.
6-9. Thorndyke, ed., "Hamlet," p. 876-878.
10. A.L. Birney, Sataric Catharsis in Shakespeare, (Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1973), p.13.
11. S.T. Coleridge, Lectures on Shakespeare & Milton, (NY: Dutton, 1960), p.105.
12. G.B. Harrison, "Hamlet," (in Hamlet, Shakespeare, Hoy, ed., NY: Norton, 1963), p.248.
Birney, Alice L. Sataric Catharsis in Shakespeare. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1973.
Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative & Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960.
Coleridge, Samuel T. Lectures on Shakespeare & Milton. T.M. Royster, ed. New York: Dutton, 1960.
Dyer, T.F.T. Folklore of Shakespeare. New York: Dover, 1966.
Harrison, G.B. "Hamlet." In Hamlet, Shakespeare. C. Hoy, ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1963.
Knights, L.L. Some Shakespearean Themes & an Approach to Hamlet. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1966.
Swineburne, Charles A. A Study of Shakespeare. New York: AMS Press, 1965.
Swott, W.D. Shakespeare's Melancholics. London: Mills & Boon, Ltd., 1962.
Thorndike, Sybil, ed. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. London: REX Library, 1973.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is dominated by the complex, absorbing character of its primary figure, that being the young prince Hamlet. There is scarcely a single scene in the play in which Hamlet does not greatly determine the course of the action either by his forceful presence or, in his absence, by the preoccupation of Claudius and his cohorts as they plot to remove Hamlet as the major obstacle blocking the functioning of their regime. Keeping this fact in mind one must be exceedingly careful not to neglect the importance of the other characters, both principal and minor, in the play. In some cases their development as unique personalities, with identities separate and distinct from the purposes to which they are put by the dominant characters in the play, is not successfully accomplished, nor is it absolutely necessary that they are all seen as complete characters in order for the play to be a literary success. For example, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Marcellus and Bernardo are not exhibited as full blown personalities and it is not imperative that the reader know that much about their characters. Such is not the case with Horatio. Horatio is one of the major characters in the play and because of his central position as the personal confidant of Hamlet he appears frequently throughout the play and consequently we get to know him quite well.
In a play it is not always an easy task to reveal to the audience the inner workings of each of the characters. There are established and repeatedly successful ways of making the audience intimate with the personality of a character. However, not all of these literary techniques can be used on each and every character. For example, Hamlet reveals a great deal of himself during his introspective forays which reveal themselves to the audience in his numerous soliloquies. He is a troubled character beset with tremendous challenges and as such he is allowed to unburden himself by constant soul searching and the author, utilizing the appropriate literary style, lets the audience glimpse the inner workings of the mind of this person. Horatio is not afforded the opportunity to so reveal himself. And yet he still emerges as a well rounded person, although certainly not as fully revealed as is Hamlet, the King, or Polonius. The problem of developing the character or personality of a supporting player is succinctly summarized by the Shakespearean critic Granville-Barker:
Horatio dwells in Hamlet's shadow, yet he is very much himself and (again) few things are more difficult in drama than to give a character standing of its own, except by setting it in opposition to others, and enkindling it, so to speak, by friction."1
Horatio is with us throughout the entire play, dominating the first scene of the play and surviving the carnage of the last scene, and because of his close association with Hamlet and his longevity we get to know him quite well. A common observation of those who study the first scene is that Horatio is possessed of unusual intelligence. He does not show great fear in the presence of the ghost although he does react to the immediate appearance of the spirit with a combination of apprehension and fear:
How now, Horatio! You tremble and look pale.2
Horatio quickly conquers his fear and addresses the spirit. Marcellus and Bornardo react in an opposite fashion as is evidenced in a speech Horatio makes to Hamlet:
whilst they, distill'd Almost to Jelly with the act of fear, Stand dumb and speak not to him.3
All things being relative we must compare Horatio's courage with that of Hamlet and doing so we find Horatio showing poorly in the comparison. Horatio, fearing that the ghost may assume on evil form and deprive Hamlet of his reason thereby drawing him into madness, forbids Hamlet to pursue the beckoning image of the dead kin. Hamlet rebuffs his futile attempts to restrain him and dauntlessly ventures forth.
Horatio does have the presence of mind to speak to the ghost and while speaking he vividly demonstrates the product of his formal studies at Wittenburg as he speaks to it in the classical language of the scholars. Once again referring to Granville-Barker we have his observation on Horatio's intelligence:
. . . and besides Marcellus’ word for it that he is a scholar, we have him citing Plutarch.4
Within the opening framework of the play Horatio reveals that he is a well schooled individual. He is a learned man who can interpret within the framework of knowledge that was considered correct in his day, the actions of the ghost. He knows of some of the reasons why ghosts might be prompted to wander the earth and elaborates upon them to Bernardo and Marcellus:
Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life Extorted treasure in the womb of earth, For which, they say, you spirits oft walk the earth in death.5
To the sophisticated reader this may sound like little more than the delusional whimperings of a man frightened by hobgoblins and beasties. Yet to the Shakespearean audience Horatio must have appeared to be both intelligent and brave. Intelligent because he knew the origins of supernatural belief and brave because he is willing to risk his life by confronting an actual ghost.
While Horatio is a scholar possessed of limitless intelligence, he seems to lack the spontaneity, creativity and free flowing wit which usually categorizes the extreme upper strata of the intellectually gifted. Nor does he possess the introspective bent of Hamlet, the guile of Claudius, or the wit of Polonius. One gains the impression that as a scholar Horatio must have been much as he shows himself to be in non-scholarly pursuits. He is a hard working, straight ahead type of person who attacks each problem which besets him by drawing on his store of knowledge. He never shows the capacity to improvise to any great extent nor does he ever dwell on larger than life issues as does Hamlet. This fact of Horatio's character is explicitly detailed by A.C. Bradley:
. . . and it is noticeable that Horatio, though entirely worthy of his friendship, is like Ophelia, intellectually, not remarkable.6
Horatio's inability, or reluctance, to dwell on philosophical questions of moral complexity is revealed in the fifth act of the play when Hamlet asks Horatio if he is not now justified in killing the King:
. . . is't not perfect conscience To quit him with this arm? and isft not to be dam'd To let this canker of our nature come In further evil? [spoken by Hamlet to Horatio]
[Bradley's interjection] . . . He [Horatio] declines to discuss that unreal question, and answers simply,
It must be shortly known to him from England What is the issue of the business there. [Horatio speaking to Hamlet]
In other words, "Enough of this endless procrastination. What is wanted is not reasons for the deed, but the deed itself."7
Passing on from on analysis of Horatio's cerebral ability to come to another of his most dominant traits, that being his unstinting friendship with Hamlet. That his allegiance to Hamlet, revealed in the first act of the play, persists with unflagging determination through the many and varied personality changes of Hamlet is significant in itself. Horatio is a surprisingly solitary man. He does not have many friendships and consequently his allegiance, once offered, is not quickly withdrawn. He and Hamlet have known each other a long time, having been fellow students at the University of Wittenburg although you would not readily discern this fact from the way Hamlet first greets Horatio in the second scene of Act I:
I am glad to see you well: Horatio, or I do forget myself.8
Considering that they have been students together and that the association was probably a long one inasmuch as Hamlet, although still a student, has reached the age of thirty his inability to immediately recognize Horatio is indeed strange. But perhaps it can be explained by the fact that he has been overcome with remorse and driven to a state of deep distraction by the death of his father and the hasty marriage of his mother.
Horatio is a loyal friend whose first duty always seems to be serving the prince Hamlet. Having witnessed the ghostly specter of the dead king in the first scene of the play he suggests:
Let us impart what we have seen to-night Unto young Hamlet; for upon my life, This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.9
From the onset of the play Horatio expresses his friendship for Hamlet and in return Hamlet confidently reveals his plans for revenge to Horatio and as the plans assume greater and greater complexity and involve Hamlet in more complicated moral decisions Horatio is repeatedly turned to for support and guidance. When Hamlet learns of the foul murder of his father, and determines that he will revenge the act he confides to Horatio that in the future he may appear mad on occasion but that it is a madness with a purpose, a madness designed to distract from his primary intent. Horatio is the only major character in the play entrusted with this information and it is information, if once revealed to the King or Polonius, which would probably mean certain death for Hamlet. We therefore realize that Hamlet returns the confidence and faith that Horatio shows for him.
As Hamlet's plan to avenge his father's death unfolds, Horatio assumes more and more of an integral part in the action. The Player's Scene, certainly one of the most important scenes for substantiating the accusations of the ghost, sees Horatio assuming a role of crucial importance. During the play he is to keep a critical eye on the King and following the play he is to confer with Hamlet and corroborate or deny that which Hamlet himself observes during the play. In doing so Horatio helps to keep Hamlet from doubting his own senses and restrains him from believing that he is suffering from delusions.
The news of Claudius' ill fated effort to dispatch Hamlet once and for all by sending him to an ally who will see him executed must need be related by Hamlet to someone and not surprisingly he chooses Horatio. A small point perhaps but it once again reveals that Horatio is the one person that Hamlet can trust and the need for Hamlet to unburden himself of the inner workings of his mind seems great indeed at this point. To maintain sanity every human being needs someone he can confide in with a precise deal of honesty. Hamlet, who holds a precarious grip on his own sanity, has only Horatio to speak to honestly and frankly. Small wonder then that Horatio need be possessed of an even and honest temperament.
As the play continues to build rapidly to its bloody conclusion Horatio remains as Hamlet's one true ally. In the churchyard scene the intellectual shortcomings of Horatio are made abundantly obvious when, as Hamlet's faithful confidant, he accompanies him on a soul searching tour of a cemetery. During the first two hundred lines of the scene Hamlet broods on the meaning of life, the stark realization of one's true meaning which is made so vitally important by direct confrontation with death, and Horatio appears as someone who is there to listen and to comment or add very little to the conversation. For every seven or eight lines that Hamlet speaks Horatio adds scarcely one short utterance and it usually echoes the feelings of Hamlet without adding to the complexity of the thought:
Hamlet: That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once; . . . that did the first murder! This might be the pate of a politician . . . one that would circumvent God, might it not?Horatio: It might, my lord.10
And so the constructive phrases of Horatio come rolling out. We repeatedly see Hamlet dwelling on complex moral thoughts and Horatio, ever present, adding support with his stolidity and unambiguous reasoning.
Horatio, towards the end of the play, gives wise counsel to Hamlet but it is ignored. He impugns him to withdraw from the confrontation with Laertes, but, partly because his previous advice, though honest and direct, lacked foundation, he is ignored. In this case it proves disastrous for Hamlet who dies a treacherous death.
That his sense of loyalty is indeed strongly developed is without question when one considers that Horatio, faced with the terrible loss of Hamlet, immediately decides to commit suicide. Like the ancient Romans who served only one master Horatio considers that his life is to end with the death of his one true friend.
Horatio is also motivated by a commanding sense of pride in his country. With the stage strewn with the corpses of men who have plotted and connived in order to gain personal political advantage Horatio moves in to set things straight. Harboring no personal need for power he assumes the responsibility of carrying out the deathbed wish of Hamlet that Fortinbras should assume control of Denmark. In addition he plans a public address in which the people will hear of how their leaders usurped each others power.
The final scene completes the profile of Horatio and we see that he is, on occasion, capable of exceptional behavior. Having lost his best, and possibly only friend, he contemplates suicide only to bounce bade in a matter of minutes to see that everything is clarified and that justice is done. It reminds the reader of the skilled and experienced politician who assumes that the workings of state assume precedence over personal feelings of remorse occasioned by human tragedy.
In summation the character Horatio is a strikingly solitary person, holding only one true friendship, possessed of a deep love for his country and holding a simple moral system that sees wrong and tries to right it with straightforward action, noted for its simplicity and lacking the thinking that often hinders the actions of Hamlet. He is intelligent but lacking in introspection, wit, creativity and cunning. He experiences feelings deeply enough to contemplate suicide when his best friend and he are separated by death.
Possibly most important of all is his ability to survive. He is the only character of major significance who does survive at the end of the play. This simple ability to survive says an awful lot about a person, particularly a person in this Shakespearean play. It seems that the other major characters in the play, while not being totally evil, are possessed of flaws that do not appear in the character of Horatio. Lacking greed and personal desire for power he is not drawn into any of the deadly plots of the others.
1. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Granville-Barker, Princeton, New Jersey, University Press 1940, p.198.
2. Ibid. p.198.
3. Hamlet, edited by George Hylands, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1963. p.65.
4. Prefaces to Shakespeare, p.198.
5. Hamlet, p. 56.
6. Shakespearean Tragedy, A.C. Bradley, Macmillan and Co., London, 1941 p.112.
7. Shakespearean Tragedy, p.99.
8. Hamlet, p. 63.
9. Ibid, p.57.
10. Ibid, p.172.
Act II, scene ii is set simply in "a room in the castle." As Claudius and Gertrude greet some of their guests—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the ambassadors from Norway—the room should be elegant and comfortable. As the set and costuming for this production is particularly understated, the room is suggested through the draping of five large swatches of diaphanous material—three violet and two grey (as opposed to the setting of the state room which is hung with many, multi-colored swatches of material). Two of these swatches—one violet and one grey—are draped across the length of the stage ceiling, while the remaining swatches are draped from the ceiling to the floor at several different points to suggest walls. A simple sofa/loveseat in grey is located downstage-right (and angled towards upcenter) and a large grey chair is located nearby, upcenter of the sofa. As the scene opens (at line 85) Gertrude and Claudius are standing immediately stage-right of center, watching as Voltimand and Cornelius depart downstage-left. Polonius is standing a little upstage-left, waiting to speak with Gertrude and Claudius.
Gertrude is tall and stately-looking but her smoldering sexuality somehow reinforces her regal quality. Her speech is measured and she weights individual words for effect. She is wearing a simple and form-fitting, floor-length gown in deep purple. Her long hair is drawn back from her face, up into a sleek silver crown, and then falls down her back. Claudius is also tall and stately—together he and Gertrude make an attractive pair, almost seeming to merge as one. They share the same physical coloring, which is particularly offset by the identical material and similar cuts of their costumes. In fact, during their time together on stage they often are touching one another, or standing with their arms about each other. Overall, Claudius' attitude is wary. Though he is very controlled in both speech and movement, one always has the sense that his temper, were he to demonstrate it, would be devastatingly violent. He wears a floor-length robe—in the same material as Gertrude's—open over a tunic belted with a long silver rope. He wears a more substantial crown than Gertrude's, also in silver.
Polonius wears a royal blue, floor-length robe belted at the waist with a rope in navy blue. He cuts a much less imposing figure than either Claudius or Gertrude—smaller in height, slighter in build, and less striking in physical feature. His speech is always self-conscious—moving between extremes of rapid-fast, nonsensical patter and ponderous, self-important proclamations and rhetorical declamations.
As Voltimand and Cornelius depart, Polonius moves down center to face Claudius and Gertrude as he says, somewhat offhandedly: "This business is well ended." Taking a deep breath—which causes Gertrude and Claudius to exchange a knowing look of knowing exasperation—Polonius launches into his "introduction" to the topic at hand. Between lines 86 and 92 Polonius is rapidly and excitedly babbling. He pauses self-importantly before declaring "Your noble son is mad." Just prior to this, Gertrude has left Claudius standing, facing Polonius, and gone to sit on the sofa—indicating that she knows Polonius is going to be too long in making his point. It is from here that she impatiently prompts Polonius with "More matter, with less art."
Here Polonius moves down right, past Claudius, to address Gertrude more directly. From lines 96 through 104 Polonius resumes his excited and nonsensical babblings, turning from Gertrude to Claudius and then back to Gertrude; he punctuates his word play on "effect," "defect," and "effect defective," with presumably unconscious hand gestures (right hand out, then left hand out, then right hand out, etc.). All the while, Gertrude and Claudius are growing increasingly impatient, with Gertrude staring pointedly at Polonius and Claudius occasionally shifting his weight from foot to foot.
As Polonius begins to read Ophelia's letter he moves down right, below the sofa, periodically turning in to check the effect of his words on Gertrude and Claudius. Gertrude attempts to speed him along with "Came this from Hamlet to her?", but Polonius will not be dissuaded and grandly (pretentiously) continues to read, slowly striding from downstage right to downstage left. As Polonius reads (from line 116 to 124), Claudius moves toward Gertrude and sits in the chair near her. They both begin to listen more attentively.
At line 125 ("This in obedience . . ."), Polonius moves back center towards Gertrude and Claudius, holding out the letter to show them. As Claudius says his line, Gertrude gestures to Polonius with her hand that she wants to see the letter herself. Before he hands it to her he responds to Claudius: "What do you think of me?" Reassured by Claudius’ response, he hands the letter to Gertrude and moves downstage-right, past the sofa. Cheating up towards Claudius he becomes more thoughtful in his wording of the following monologue. At line 143 (". . . she should lock herself from his resort"), he moves upstage-center, behind the couch, until he is positioned between (and behind) Gertrude and Claudius. Leaning in to them he relates his advice to Ophelia and on "by this declension, into the madness . . ." he stands—speaking with just a touch too much solemnity and earnestness.
Although the next exchange is clearly reserved for Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius has already moved center and around the chair, arriving stage left of Claudius to state "'Tis so." Polonius again becomes obtuse with "If circumstances . . . within the center," but Claudius and Gertrude are now taken with Polonius' theory and no longer impatient. At line 163, Claudius stands to look back upstage-left, where Polonius is gesturing to the "arras." As Claudius and Polonius face each other talking, Gertrude spies Hamlet off downstage-left. She stands to announce his arrival and the three look off in that direction. Polonius instructs Gertrude and Claudius to leave and they exit by passing down right of the furniture, and then turning upstage right to exit off between the drapes, upstage-right.
Polonius turns to greet Hamlet, who now enters from downstage-left. Hamlet is an "average guy" in looks, build and stature. He is not as tall as Gertrude and Claudius, but he is close, and taller and better proportioned than Polonius. Though he is an "Everyman" of sorts, his courage and integrity are immediately apparent. His ability to live comfortably in his own skin—despite the suggestions of the "To be, or not to be" monologue—make him particularly attractive. For this alone, he is one of those individuals whom others believe to be better looking than he actually is. He is dressed in dark grey leggings and a lighter grey tunic, drawn by a black belt.
Hamlet enters in a "manic" state—intent on playing with Polonius. His responses to all Polonius' questions are larger than life—he speaks loudly and fervently. When Polonius asks how he is, Hamlet responds with gusto: "Well, God-a-mercy." His reaction to this simple question is so broad, so wild, that Polonius doubts that Hamlet recognizes him. Polonius moves down left to where Hamlet has stopped on line 173 and Hamlet leans in to peer closely at his face before loudly announcing "Excellent well. You are a fishmonger." They remain standing face to face for the next few lines until at line 181 ("For if the sun breed maggots . . .") Hamlet suddenly dashes by Polonius, jumps onto the sofa and his rant trails off with the word "carrion." He suddenly turns around and quite seriously asks Polonius if he has a daughter.
All the while, Polonius is rooted in his spot downstage-left—a little too intimidated to move. On Hamlet's next lines (185-187) he steps slowly and surely off the sofa moving deliberately towards Polonius until on "friend, look to 't," he is actually nose to nose with Polonius. Immediately, Polonius takes the opportunity to break away with his aside, pushing past Hamlet and moving stage right. On "I'll speak to him again," (line 192) he sits himself down on the sofa, facing Hamlet. Here Polonius assumes a condescending, paternal tone; he is going to "help" Hamlet by patronizing him. His question "What do you read, my lord?" is exactly the sort of irrelevancy which people, faced with an uncomfortable situation, employ in an attempt to regain control.
Hamlet's response is delivered with the same seriousness of tone with which Polonius asks his foolish question. The following is really a brief comic exchange, not unlike that of the Marx Brothers. When Polonius asks, "What is the matter?", Hamlet races over and sits on the sofa next to him and with great curiosity and eagerness asks "Between who?", as if he expects Polonius to tell him a secret. On "Slanders, sir . . ." Hamlet leaps up from the sofa, resuming his manic attitude and stalks towards center, around the back of the chair during his following lines, until he is directly behind Polonius on the sofa. On line 205 ("for yourself, sir . . .") he leans in and stage whispers into Polonius' ear. Polonius takes his aside while still seated, but then stands up with "Will you walk out of the air, my lord?" leaving Hamlet to topple dramatically over the sofa where, splayed out over the couch and partially on the floor he responds: "Into my grave."
Polonius does not know what to make of this show. He is embarrassed by the prince's lack of control and he is torn between suspecting Hamlet may be leading him on and believing Hamlet is mad in his love for Ophelia. During the aside beginning at line 211, Polonius moves back to center stage, ostensibly lost in thought but actually quite eager to get away from the deranged prince. It is from this point at center stage where he turns to Hamlet, still splayed over the couch but who is now "amusing" himself by playing with his hands and fingers and quietly humming to himself—seemingly lost in mad reverie. On Polonius' exit line, Hamlet grandly and somewhat jeeringly (and certainly sincerely) states that he is delighted to see Polonius go. As Polonius heads towards his exit downstage-left, Hamlet sinks to the floor off the sofa and repeats to himself in a preoccupied manner—"except my life, except my life, except my life."
This is the only brief glimpse we have into Hamlet's despair in this portion of the scene. It is a moment that stands out, not simply for the starkness of the language, but for the wild and boisterous manner with which Hamlet plays the entire rest of the scene, and which he abandons at the final moment. He is winded—given the acrobatics and theatrics of his encounter with Polonius—and this final mantra is the scene's comedown. It is not so much a climax as it is an anticlimax—a preparation for the theatrics yet to come.
The nature of Hamlet's character may well be the most controversial topic in English literature. Yet the background which frames Hamlet’s character seems too uncomplicated to produce such controversy.
Hamlet’s father has been murdered with malicious premeditation and for the most reprehensible reasons. Not only has his being been defiled in order to attain these ends, but his memory has also been profaned in their coming to pass. Claudius and Gertrude are both complicit in murder; Claudius has violated the divinity of rule by committing treason; and Gertrude has gone against the tenets of custom and the sanctity of the marriage vows by so improperly displaying her lack of grief and allegiance to her husband. Hamlet’s duty then would seem clear and justified. How is it that he fails to take decisive action in the face of such overwhelming provocation?
How stand I then, That have a father killed, a mother stained. (Act IV, scene iv)
Over this, the controversy rages.
Because his grounds for acting would appear to be many and obvious, some critics have asserted that his failure to act indicates timidity at least, if not outright cowardliness. But Hamlet is never portrayed as being sheepish, for as early as the first scene Horatio describes him as “our valient Hamlet” (Act I, scene i). His lack of action is not natural to his character then, and therefore it must be that there are underlying elements of the basic situation which keep him from taking what would otherwise be a direct course.
There are several of these subtle philosophical contradictions, but before examining then we must realize that from his perspective the grounds which appear so obvious to us are not quite so overt. He cannot take his extreme revenge until he is absolutely certain that his uncle has murdered his father. He is confident that he can always see through appearances to reality but later on he loses confidence in his own insight. His father's ghost seems to suggest his uncle is guilty, but is the ghost an apparation from Heaven, or from Hell?
The spirit that I have seen May be a devil . . . I'll have grounds more relative than this. (Act II, scene ii)
The contrived play which Hamlet hoped would give him this more "relative evidence" seems to convince him of the ghost's validity when the king reacts in the anticipated manner.
I’ll take the ghost's word for a thousand pounds. (Act III, scene ii)
Hamlet, however, still finds reasons to put off his gruesome task. Finding Claudius at prayer, he convinces himself not to take the opportunity for revenge, since this would mean too good a fate for his uncle who gave no similar chance to his father.
Am I then revenged, To take him in the purging of his soul, When he is fit and seasoned for his passage? (Act III, scene ii)
But is this his real reason, critics ask, or is he just rationalizing his inaction? Subsequent events would suggest that he is sincere. Thinking it the king behind the curtain in his mother's bedchamber in the next scene, Hamlet shows no hesitancy in doing away with him. If anything he is too hasty.
Shakespeare's construction here may have been more for dramatic effect than for consistency of character portrayal. By disposing of Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes (all innocent and well-intentioned bystanders) in such regrettable ways, Shakespeare heightens the overall sense of tragedy climaxed at the finish of the play.
That Hamlet has a strong sense of adherance to Christian ethics is attested to in many places. And perhaps this is the strongest consideration that enters into Hamlet's procrastination. In realizing the necessity of framing one's actions in deference to a higher authority than earthly expedience, Hamlet is a symbol for all mankind which cannot simply act to the limits of its power in order to gratify its personal immediate wants. This is the thrust of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy—"to be or not to be"—and is more the basic issue of the play than any other. If Hamlet is a coward in refraining from action it is only because
Conscience does make cowards of us all. (Act III, scene i)
The basic fiber which his life is woven of is an oppressive sense of loneliness. On a symbolic level this loneliness is representative of each individual’s isolation from all other men. Coupled with the acute awareness all men have of the speedy passing of time, of the impermanence this causes, of the inconstancy humans cultivate even in the face of this general mutability of emotion, Hamlet becomes a most effective symbol for the tragedy of all life itself. But his particular circumstance is worsened many tines beyond this universal level of suffering.
When the knowledge of the travesty is revealed to him, Hamlet is saddled with the worst sort of duty. Because of this knowledge and because taking his uncle's life would make him king, Hamlet’s life is never to be his own. His hesitancy in revenging his father may be in part because it will only bring on another kind of burden—the burden of rule.
Love desired is always falling away from Hamlet. He feels he cannot turn to Ophelia; although perhaps mistakenly, for she is not really untrue to him, as she is only obeying her father as Hamlet is his. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lost to his confidence because they have placed more faith in their loyalty to the kinship than to Hamlet's friendship. And so the prince is completely alone and his introspection intensified. The large number of soliloquies Hamlet utters, along with his constant double-entendre discourses with others, are effective devices to make the audience aware of Hamlet's disassociation with everything around him.
Totally alone, uncertain of the ultimate scheme to which he should be subject, Hamlet's procrastination is nothing worse than a cautious analysis of his position. Since most of the elements are abstract and indefinite, and since any one of them is important enough in itself to change the balance, his lack of action is carefulness, not cowardliness.
One of the most perplexing problems of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and certainly one which has received a great deal of critical attention, is the question of why Hamlet delays the killing of Claudius. The Prince eventually succeeds in avenging his father's death, but this occurs only in the play's final scene. Before that point, Hamlet has numerous opportunities to accomplish his task: the prayer scene, for example, in which both characters come face to face alone. Yet Hamlet demurs. On this matter critical opinion is divided into essentially two schools of thought. There are the "objective" critics who view Hamlet's delay as being externally determined: Hamlet does not act because of restraints which exist outside the workings of his own mind. On the other hand, there are the "subjective" critics who attribute Hamlet's delay to internal, i.e. psychological, forces operating within the Prince's mind.
We shall now turn our scrutiny to examination of two explanations of Hamlet's behavior, G. R. Elliott's argument in Scourge and Minister, representing the objective school and Waldeck's essay "Anxiety, Tragedy and Hamlet's Delay" providing a subjective argument. In Scourge and Minister Elliott initiates his explication of Hamlet's delay by asking yet another often overlooked question: Why does Claudius delay in killing Hamlet? Relatively simplistic answers have been offered to satisfy this point. It has been observed that Claudius does not simply execute the troublesome prince because of concessions to Gertrude and because he has just recently ascended to the Danish throne and does not wish to incur the emnity of the populace by killing a royal Dane. However, as Elliott contends, such explanations are far too superficial to explain Claudius' actions. We must recall, Elliott reminds us, that Claudius has succeeded in dispatching Ur-Hamlet in total secrecy and certainly he could have devised a similar clandestine fate for the son. Indeed, throughout the play, "his vicarious and elaborate plotting against Hamlet, while extremely clever . . . stands out otherwise in vivid contrast to the method of his initial crime." Elliott offers a preliminary explanation of Claudius' delay by noting that the new King, for all his faults, has a conscience and is, in fact, revolted by his past deed.
Elliott's analysis does not end here, however, for the critic has an aesthetic answer to the original question of Hamet's delay. Hamlet's delay is part of an aesthetic design within the piece, as Elliott elaborates:
Parallel is the case of Hamlet. The main plot point which emerges in Act I is not merely the prince's delay: it is the delay of king and prince taking action against each other, each thereby laying up trouble for himself in the future. . . . The King’s postponing of action against the ominously hostile prince in the second scene prepares the way dramatically for the prince’s postponing of action against the murderous king in the fifth scene.
Hamlet’s delay then, according to Elliott, is part and parcel with Claudius' delay, the two phenomena reinforcing each other as elements in the work's aesthetic design.
To substantiate his thesis Elliott notes the similar states of mind evinced in the characters of Hamlet and Claudius during the pivotal prayer scene. Elliott analyzes the prayer scene in the following fashion:
Normally the king would have guarded himself at this juncture. Normally, but the point is that in the Prayer episode, as a result of the Play scene, Claudius's state of mind is abnormal, uniquely so, owing to a crucial conflict that is taking place within him. And the same is true of Hamlet. The two cases are designed by Shakespeare to play into, interpret and accentuate each other.
To demonstrate this point Elliot turn to a close reading of the text. He observes that the King's postponing words "prepare" and "forthwith" in the opening of the Prayer episode are dramatic antecedents of the Prince's postponing words at the close of the scene, "this physic but prolongs thy sickly days." Both Claudius and Hamlet are experiencing sharp inner conflict at this point in the play, and their similar states of mind complement each other. What is essential is that both Claudius and Hamlet, while committed to ultimate action, give indications of further delay during the prayer episode, and that this mutual posture contributes both to the broad action of the drama and to the specific language employed by the two.
Why then does Hamlet ultimately stab Claudius at the play's conclusion? Simply because at this point Claudius has resolved to take direct action against the Prince: he has handed him the cup and released Hamlet from his bond of delay. It is not until Claudius's direct attempt to do away with Hamlet that Hamlet can himself make a direct attempt on his uncle's life. It has been suggested that up until this point Hamlet is not yet fully convinced of the King's guilt, that Hamlet's action is triggered by Claudius's action but that this is essentially an internal and subjective determination. Elliot’s analysis is quite different though, for what bars Hamlet from action is the aesthetic design of the play, the interweaving of the respective machinations of Hamlet and Claudius.
By way of contrast, Peter Waldeck in his "Anxiety, Tragedy and Hamlet's Delay”, offers an internal subjective explanation of the Prince's failure to act directly. Unfortunately, the first half of Waldeck’s analysis is taken up with some vague ruminations concerning angst, cartharsis and tragedy, which in no way serve to expand and illuminate Waldeck's position in the manner in which the critic, presumably, expects. Despite this shortcoming, Waldeck, in the second part of his essay, does offer a cogent explanation of the Prince's delay. He observes that, "inhibitions are also not limited to the pathological, but include the quite normal, useful, perfunctory restraints, as well, many of which arise from the needs of civlization." Such is the case in Hamlet's delay for, "Hamlet's inhibition against killing is the concrete social reality of his opponent, and particularly his friendly or smiling face." Central to Waldeck's argument is the emphasis which is put upon the visage of Claudius. As the critic details:
Hamlet emphasizes the smiling Claudius while programming his task. It is particularly through the face that social presence and the cause of this inhibition manifests itself, and it is specifically the smiling, civilized exterior of Claudius that concerns Hamlet when he writes in his tables.
The problem for Hamlet is to overcome this inhibition concerning the external civility of his intended victim which preoccupies Hamlet and dictates his behavior in the course of the drama.
Waldeck offers a powerful proof of his thesis through reference to three separate incidents before the final resolution. As to the dumb show sequence which Hamlet uses to confirm his suspicions regarding Claudius's role in his father's death, Waldeck states that it, "is intended to remove any doubt of his guilt and the same time to disrupt the paralyzing visage of 'custom' in a friendly countenance." Turning to the Prayer episode, Waldeck observes that prayer is a peaceful and contemplative activity in which the human countenance is refined and beatific. Hamlet would prefer to murder Claudius while he is "drunk asleep, in essence, when he has lost his civilized countenance and the play of his sins upon his unconscious visage is evident." Finally, in regard to the stabbing of Polonius, Waldeck asserts that this is a course of action which, is open to Hamlet because he cannot, with Polonius behind the curtain, see the character's face. Presuming that the figure behind the curtain is Claudius, Hamlet is able to commit his deed because he does not have to come face to face with his victim, "in this way bypassing Hamlet's inhibition.”
Waldeck's interpretation of the final scene is qualified and equivocating. He reiterates his point that it has been social inhibition which has delayed the moment of vengeance. He asserts that Hamlet, "finally manages to run the king through, without avoiding his social presence." Unfortunately, Waldeck does not suggest why Hamlet is now able to conquer the inhibitions that have barred his action throughout the course of the play. Perhaps it is the knowledge of his own impending demise, this knowledge, in turn, allowing Hamlet to relinquish his social/civilized relation to Claudius, but, again unfortunately, Waldeck does not attribute Hamlet's transformation to any specific cause. Waldeck concludes that, "In Hamlet, Shakespeare has created not Weak and Melancholy Man, not Religious, Oedipal, or Marxist Man, but Civilized Man." Waldeck's argument belongs to the subjective school of interpretation on Hamlet's delay: Waldeck finds internal psychodynamics to be the motive force behind Hamlet's failure to act.
We have attempted to delineate two diverse approaches to the classic problem of Hamlet's delay, one being primarily aesthetic in character, the other psychoanalytical. Our personal preference is for the former over the latter, partially because of a bias toward form and aesthetics as the basis of art, partially because Elliott does not confuse his analysis with external materials. Yet both the "objective" and "subjective" perspectives on the problem of Hamlet’s failure to act are legitimate methods of explication, per se, and both contribute to our understanding of the meaning and motive of the delay.
Elliott, G. R. Scourge and Minister. New York: AMS Press, 1965.
Waldeck, Peter B. "Anxiety, Tragedy and Hamlet's Delay", in Perspectives on Hamlet. Holzberger and Waldeck, eds. PA: Bucknell University Press, 1985.
I. ANALYSIS OF E.M.W. TILLYARD'S CLASSIFICATION OF HAMLET AS A PROBLEM PLAY
The initial chapter of E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's Problem Plays concerns Hamlet which is usually considered to be a tragedy rather than a problem play. Tillyard uses three vaguely defined processes inherent in tragedy to accomplish this distinction between Hamlet and the remainder of Shakespeare's tragedies. A tragedy, according to Tillyard, is primarily concerned with suffering, and the critic is willing to allow that in this sense Hamlet conforms to the genre. He states, however, that Hamlet lacks "a complication and an enrichment common in much tragedy: that of being to some extent, even a tiny extent, responsible for his own misfortunes"; and here we must make our first objection to Tillyard's analysis, for it is evident that Hamlet is the active agent who willingly accepts the task bestowed upon him, and in the graveyard scene actively exercises his fate, as well as allowing the king time to plot a complex web which eventually ensnares him through his delay.
Secondly, a tragedy, in Tillyard's opinion, should contain sacrifice, and again the critic must admit that Hamlet conforms to this characteristic. Here it is interesting to note that Tillyard uses three nebulous features to define what he eventually distinguishes as a highly "formal" genre with "clear-cut" processes. Finally, and it is on this point that Tillyard's thesis rests, tragedy should have, in the critic's opinion, an element of renewal or evolved viewpoint on the part of the protagonist. Here Tillyard's argument appears inordinately flimsy for he defines tragedy by what he calls "the usual dramatic means" of fulfilling the function of renewal as "a change of mind in the hero," thus, disallowing unusual and exceptional means of renewal in an undoubtedly unusual and exceptional play.
Our opinion runs directly counter to that of Tillyard, particularly on this point, for Hamlet does indeed contain an element of renewal, in the person of Fortinbras. Indeed, it would be difficult to explain Fortinbras's presence in the work at all if Shakespeare had not intended to parallel the youthful hero with Hamlet. Fortinbras assumes the position of king after Hamlet's demise and represents an extension of the character beyond the grave. We cannot accept Tillyard's narrow and qualified definition of renewal in tragedy, for Shakespeare's inclusion of Fortinbras refers us to a larger pattern of renewal in the cosmos, one that transcends individual characters and the limited viewpoints of his critics.
II. CRITIQUE OF C. S. LEWIS'S "HAMLET—THE PRINCE OR THE POEM?"
In his address to the British Academy, "Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?", C. S. Lewis distinguishes three separate critical approaches which have been applied to the question of why Hamlet delays in carrying out his plan to murder the regent. The first of these approaches as identified by Lewis finds Hamlet's failure to act as a basic flaw in the work, explaining the failure to act as primarily an artificial extension of the play. Lewis rejects this collective opinion by appealing to the value which Hamlet has had for the majority of its audience. The second approach, with which Lewis also finds fault, considers Hamlet's delay to be based on pragmatic grounds, reasons of state and decorum. Lewis's rejection of this viewpoint is based on the fact that Hamlet "pronounces himself a procrastinator . . . even a coward and the ghost in part agrees with him," a point to which we shall return later. A third school, in Lewis's opinion, finds the delay to be rooted in the character's psychological make-up and gives Lewis the opportunity to insist upon the over-emphasis which critics have put upon character delineation in explicating Shakespeare's work, to which he counters with an appeal for an interpretation of the play as a poetic medium rather than simply a dramatic conflict.
Lewis, having distinguished his own emphasis on the poetic aspects of Hamlet from that of a dramatic emphasis, then asserts that the work is not about "a man who has to avenge his father," but instead about "a man who has been given a task by a ghost," and it is at this point that we must take exception to Lewis's view. In attempting to downplay the Freudian aspects of Hamlet, Lewis has gone too far, for undoubtedly Hamlet has some special relation to the ghost, otherwise any of the night-watch would have suited the purposes of Ur-Hamlet. It is Hamlet, however, that identifies the apparition as his own father for our benefit. It is Hamlet who exclaims, "I'll call thee Hamlet/King, Father, royal Dane," and, certainly, the rest of what follows must be considered a revenge movement with deep-seated psychological implications and a high degree of complex tension.
A further exception we must take to Lewis's address concerns the critic's failure to apply a consistent methodology. As we have said, Lewis bases his rejection of the pragmatic explanation of Hamlet's delay on words taken directly from the character's mouth and presumably, at least in Lewis's usage, referring exclusively to himself. However, later in the address Lewis cites a passage in which Hamlet professes to be describing his own character, "I am indifferent honest . . ." and explains that Hamlet means the passage, in fact, as a universal description of mankind's condition. There seems, in our view, to be two separate standards of evidence, two contradictory approaches to the evaluation which the critic makes on the applicability of Hamlet's self-description. We find then that while we sympathize with Lewis's attempt to balance the poetic and dramatic aspects of Hamlet by placing his interpretive emphasis on "that darkness which enwraps Hamlet and the whole tragedy," rather than "the mystery in Hamlet's motives," we cannot accept his wholesale rejection of the latter or the inconsistency of his method.
III. ANALYSIS OF JOHN DOVER WILSON'S EXPLICATION OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HAMLET AND OPHELIA FROM WHAT HAPPENS IN HAMLET
In the chapter "The Attitude of Hamlet toward Ophelia" from What Happens in Hamlet, John Dover Wilson attempts to explain the profanities which Hamlet heaps upon the naïve Ophelia with whom he was previously in love. Wilson bases his analysis rather precariously on a reinterpretation of the play's stage instructions, noting that a change in Hamlet's professions toward Ophelia occurs directly after the discussion between Polonius and the king in regard to a ploy for finding what the prince is about. Directly following Polonius's avowal that he will "loose his daughter" upon Hamlet, the prince in his cryptic manner begins to infer Polonius as a panderer and a pimp, a "fishmonger" and Ophelia as a prostitute who should get herself to a nunnery. Wilson's explanation is that "Hamlet must have heard what Polonius said to the King," and attributes the lack of specific stage directions to indicate his overhearing to an oversight in transcription.
Even Wilson himself must admit that Hamlet's changed attitude was prepared by Ophelia's rejection of his prior overtures, as well as the prince's general distrust of women based upon Gertrude as a model. However, he gives these slowly evolving elements a secondary or preparatory role in the transformation of Hamlet's attitude toward Ophelia, while his awareness of Ophelia's usage by her father as the primary factor in motivating his "inexcusable treatment" of the girl. Certainly resting one's entire argument on a supposed oversight is a risky business; and, in our opinion, we cannot base Hamlet's transformation into Ophelia's taunter on this single hinge or even see it as a primary factor. Hamlet must have been aware that Ophelia's rejection of his notes was based upon duty to her father's instructions. Certainly his pronouncement earlier in the play that frailty's name is woman implies his overall evolvement of a misogynist viewpoint, for the seeds of Hamlet's "disgraceful" behavior toward the maid permeate the entire work and cannot be attributed to a single and supposed incident.
In this regard we would like to advance an alternative thesis as to Hamlet's changed attitude. Hamlet is basically a decent enough fellow, a loyal companion to Horatio, a dutiful son, in fact, he is more of a school boy than an avenger, all of which leaves him particularly unsuited to the task of murder. In order to prepare himself for the role, he must first reject all his past associations, a painful process which includes the characterization of Ophelia as unworthy. One cannot simultaneously play the role of the revenger and the lover, and in his verbal insults toward Ophelia, Hamlet is opting for the former over the latter.
In this essay we will discuss the historical, mythical, and religious content of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and briefly its relationship to the political and social setting of its time and its influence on Western literature. Although it is difficult to separate these into clearly distinguishable and exclusive categories, and perhaps even misleading to do so, we will, for the sake of clearer organization and understanding present them individually. It will be seen that they will overlap and mingle with one another, and hopefully thereby they will in the end be an integrated whole.
The origins of Shakespeare's Hamlet exist both in literature and in human life, in man's psyche, in his myth, his religion, his wishes, dreams, fantasies, and fears. And Hamlet, the character and the play reflect all of these elements. Some critics see these elements of the play as being unified, as fitting into patterns of human behavior which can be explained by theories of psychology or theology, others see these same elements fitting into nothing more than the history and scope of man's experience, explainable by little beyond their own existence, and others see confusion and irremediable conflicts.
The story from which the material for Shakespeare's play comes is an old Icelandic legend recorded by Saxo Grammiticus, a Danish author of the late 12th and early 13th centuries in his Historica Danica. In this tale Hamlet is called Amlethus. It was translated into French in a volume entitled Histoires Tragiques in 1570, and into English in 1608.1 Between these translations and Shakespeare's play however there were at least two other productions of the Hamlet story, and probably more.
Robert Bussel Benedict in The Mystery of Hamlet refers to ". . . a German play on the same subject, which translated is entitled 'Fratricide Punished; or, Prince Hamlet of Denmmark.'"2 Benedict also says that
The German Hamlet, as we know it, is a translation of an old play, preserved in German manuscript bearing the date October 27, 1710, and which is probably a copy, or an adaptation, from a much older manuscript. There is fairly good evidence that this version of Hamlet is a rough and vulgarized adaptation of an English play on the same subject, written some years before the appearance of the Shakespearean Hamlet.3
There is evidence that prior to Shakeseare’s Hamlet, but around the same time, there was a Hamlet play written by Thomas Kyd. B.B. Harrison points out that in 1589 Thomas Nashe published in a preface to a novel by Robert Greene a reference to "shifting companions that run through every art and thrive by none"4 who, if you ask them will "afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches."5 Harrison feels that this passage refers to Thomas Kyd, and if it does "it seems likely that Kyd had followed up the success of The Spanish Tragedy with another story of revenge telling how the young Prince Hamlet took vengeance for his murdered father."6
The source of these plays of course is from the Historica Danica of Saxo. But there is yet an earlier reference to Hamlet than Saxo. In 1230 Snorri Sturlason compiled a collection of poetry known as The Prose Edda in which he quotes an ancient Icelandic poem by Snaebjorn:
"'Tis Said," sang Snaebjorn, "that far out, off the yonder ness, the Nine Maids of the Island Mill stir amain the host-cruel skerry—quern—they who in ages past ground Hamlet's meal. The good Chieftain furrows the hull's lair with his ship's beaked prow."7
What "Hamlet’s meal" refers to is a question which will be dealt with somewhat in the discussion of myth in Hamlet, but suffice it to say for now that this passage points both to an ancient origin of the Hamlet story in Iceland, and perhaps to an understanding of what the human and universal bases of that myth may be.
Beyond this, historically, Israel Collanez has suggested that
whatever Northern elements may be detected in Saxo's Hamlet story, there can be no doubt that some important incidents have been borrowed from legendary Roman history. The merest outline of the plot cannot fail to show the striking likeness between the tales of Hamlet and Lucius Jumius Brutus.8
Giorgio de Santillana disagrees with this conclusion however, and sees it only as an attempt by conventional-minded philologists to ground the myth in a classical source, and sees the passage quoted above from Snaebjorn pointing to sources in "early Norse myth—or at least run through it from a still more ancient lineage."9
There are many versions of what is going on in Hamlet, and, as I.J. Semper points out it "has been said that every generation reads its own meaning into Hamlet."10 It may also be true that every mind reads its own meaning into Hamlet, and that these different readings, if not harmonious, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Insofar as myth is the product of man’s imagination, man's psyche, we will include psychology in this section on myth.
It would probably be acceptable to most critics to say that the origin of Hamlet is in the internal drama of man’s mind as it confronts and lives in the world.
Take the origin of music. Orpheus and his harrowing death may be a poetic creation born in more than one instance in diverse places. But when characters who do not play the lyre but blow pipes get themselves flayed alive for various absurd reasons, and their identical end is rehearsed on several continents, then we feel we have got hold of something, for such stores cannot be linked by internal sequence. And when the Pied Piper turns up both in the medieval German myth of Hamelin and in Mexico long before Columbus, and is linked in both places with certain attributes like the color red, it can hardly be a coincidence. Generally, there is little that finds its way into music by chance.11
Early in his book Hamlet and Oedipus Ernest Jones states a similar premise to de Santillana's, with modifications which lead him in an entirely different direction. He sees Hamlet as suffering from conflict, and says that "experience has shown that no motive exists besides the need to be relieved of suffering that will bring a human being to reveal the truly intimate core of his personality."12 And further, "the neuorotic symptoms that had given rise to the suffering proceed from primordial difficulties and conflicts inherent in every mind, and that they are merely one of the various ways in which attempts are made to cope with these. . . ."13 Thus does he view Hamlet.
Jones begins his analysis and understanding of Hamlet with the notion of the "problem" in the play. The "problem" of course, is why Hamlet delayed in killing Claudius, why he was so hesitant, a hesitancy which in the end led to immense catastrophe. Discarding the views of Hamlet as a melancholy person, or on indecisive person, Jones agrees with Hartley Coleridge who pointed out in his book On The Character of Hamlet that
there is every reason to believe that, apart from the task in question, Hamlet is a man capable of very decisive action, with no compunction whatever about killing. This could be not only impulsive, as in the killing of Polonius, but deliberate, as in the arranging for the death of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. His biting scorn and mockery toward his enemies, and even towards Ophelia, his cutting denunciation of his mother, his lack of remorse after the death of Polonius; these are not signs of a gentle, yielding, or weak nature. His mind was as rapidly made up about the organization of the drama to be acted before his uncle, as it was resolutely made up when the unpleasant task had to be performed of breaking up with the no longer congenial Ophelia. He shows no trace of hesitation when he stabs the listener behind the curtain, when he makes his violent onslaught on the pirates, leaps into the grave with Laertes or accepts his challenge to what he must know was a duel, or when he follows his father’s spirit on to the battlements. . . .14
There are arguments against this view, and we do not think that it can by any means be accepted outright. This killing is of a king—no ordinary task, and by the time the murder of Polonius takes place Hamlet has traveled a great distance in terms of his mental and emotional state from the time the ghost first spoke to him on the battlements. Blood was already in the air. Jones points out other critics who disagree with him, notably Klein and Werder whose arguments he summarizes as follows:
The nature of Claudius' crime was so frightful and so unnatural as to render it incredible unless supported by a very considerable body of evidence. If Hamlet had simply slain his uncle, and then proclaimed, without a shred of supporting evidence, that he had done it to avenge a fratricide, the nation would infallibly have cried out upon him, not only for murdering his uncle to seize the throne himself, but also for selfishly seeding to cast an infamous slur on the memory of a man who could no longer defend his honour. In other words, it was the difficulty not so much of the act itself that deterred Hamlet as of the situation that would necessarily result from the act.15
Also, as Harrison notes,
the word of a ghost seen alone at midnight is hardly good enough evidence to kill anyone. Moreover, according to contemporary theological notions, a Christian knew that the appearance of a spirit or wraith in the shade of a person newly dead might be evil.16
So the ghost may not be Hamlet's father at all, but the devil, urging Hamlet on to some evil task. Hamlet says, when he first sees the ghost, "Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,/ Bring with thee airs from Heaven or blasts from Hell/ Be thy intents wicked or charitable."17
This question of Hamlet's character is one which has been long debated and mulled over, with pressing arguments on many sides. It is not a question, however, which is central to this essay, and so we will not follow it further. It was necessary to raise insofar as it is a pivotal issue in a discussion of the psychoanalysis of Hamlet. Jones accepts the view that Hamlet was otherwise "staunch of character and will, capable of committing whatever acts he felt necessary." And this is the beginning and the basis of his argument that Hamlet hesitated in killing Claudius, and hesitated in this only because it was an Oedipal murder:
In other words, whenever a person cannot bring himself to do something that every conscious consideration tells him he should do—and which he may have the strongest conscious desire to do—it is always because there is some hidden reason why a part of him doesn’t want to do it; this reason he will not own to himself and is only dimly if at all aware of. That is exactly the case with Hamlet.18
Jones traces the history of the Hamlet legend back to the ancient Iranian legend of Kaikhosrav, and finds "striking cousins"19 to this legend in the Cirakarin in the Mahabharata, the Greek Bellerophan legend, and the Finnish legend of Kullero.20 The common elements of these myths are that the "hero had the task of avenging his father, who had been murdered by the latter’s brother,"21 and "the success of a young hero displacing a rival father."22
For reasons of repression, says Jones, either repression of the idea of patricide altogether, or in order to split the father into two, one good and one evil so that the evil one may be murdered, the character of the father in these myths, and in particular in Hamlet, is given to two different roles. In Hamlet these are the Ghost and Claudius. In this variant the "'tyrant' who commits the murder is a substitute for the son who repudiates the idea."23 Hence we have Claudius killing the old Hamlet instead of the young Hamlet who could not directly kill his father, then the young Hamlet killing Claudius who represents Hamlet’s father.
Jones goes on to include almost every other character in the play in the acting out of a part or variant of the Oedipal myth. Polonius represents the antipathetic characteristics of both the father and the grandfather of mythology, so we are not surprised to find that, just as Perseus "accidentally" slew his grandfather Acrisios, who had locked up his daughter Danae so as to preserve her virginity, so does Hamlet "accidently" slay Polonius, by a deed that resolves the situation as correctly from the dramatic as from the mythological point of view.24
The sister, says Jones, is the first woman to replace the mother in the constant unfolding of the Oedipus complex. Ophelia represents that position in Hamlet. And because Laertes' attitude toward Ophelia is almost identical to Polonius', he, Laertes, represents to Hamlet another figure of the "tyrant father" whom Hamlet slays. In that slaying Hamlet is to Laertes as, in the order of the old king, Claudius is to Hamlet. For to Laertes Polonius was not the "tyrant father" but the "good father." So, to complete the mythological cycle Laertes kills Hamlet.
Another element of the Oedipal drama is Hamlet's relationship to Ophelia. Jones notes that in the early Icelandic saga Ophelia "was said to be a foster-sister of Amleth; in the still earlier Norse source which served Saxo, the Skaane, she is actually the hero's sister."25 Jones draws the conclusion then that we have to see Ophelia, in terms of the mythology of the play, as Hamlet's sister. This being so we can now "trace a still deeper reason for Hamlet's misogynous turning from her and for his jealous resentment of Laertes' passion over Ophelia."26
What Jones omits in his attempt to fit all of the relationships of the play into the Oedpial myth is the existence of other, equally common and similar psychological myths recurrent in literature. First, there is the theme of fratricide. Claudius, kneeling to pray says, "Oh, my offense is rank, it smells to Heaven./ It hath the primal curse upon 't, / A brother's murder."27 The primal curse Claudius mentions must, of course, refer to Cain and Able.
There is also the mythical element of matricide. Although Hamlet does not kill his mother he is clearly tempted to, out of an almost uncontrollable bitterness for the part she plays in the crime against the old king. When Polonius calls Hamlet to his mother's chambers after the performance of the play by which Hamlet is convinced of Claudius' guilt Hamlet says, "O heart, lose not thy nature, let not ever/ The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom/ Let me be cruel, not unnatural./ I will speak daggers to her, but use none."28
Neither does Jones recognize the simple and pressing need of revenge. He cannot, because it does not fit into the pattern of his theory. Revenge is unquestionably and obviously an important element, if not the central motivation of the play. Hamlet is called upon to avenge the death of his father, not for the sake of vengeance alone, for, as the old king tells Hamlet,
I am thy father's spirit Doomed for a certain term to walk the night And for the day confined to fast in fires Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purged away.29
Whatever melancholy Hamlet must have felt for the death of his father (note Claudius' statements about Ophelia after her father's death: "Oh, this is the poison of deep grief. It springs/ All from her father's death."30) would have been compounded tenfold by this knowledge that until that death is avenged his father is condemned to purgatory. As mentioned earlier, revenge was not an uncommon theme on the Elizabethan stage, and it was certainly the central element in the original Icelandic myth.
In quoting the poem which we earlier quoted from Gollanez by the ancient Icelandic poet recorded in the The Prose Edda Giorgio de Santillana adds one more line: "Here the sea is called Amlodhi's Mill."31 In the introduction to this book, Hamlet's Mill, de Santillana gives us a precise and clear explanation of the meaning of Amlodhi's or Hamlet's Mill. Here we quote it in its entirety, for it is crucial to an understanding of what de Santillana has to say.
Amlodhi was identified, in the crude and vivid imagery of the Norse, by the ownership of a fabled mill which, in his own time, ground out peace and plenty. Later, in decaying times, it ground out salt; and now finally, having landed at the bottom of the sea, it is grinding rock and sand, creating a vast whirlpool, the Maelstrom (i.e. the grinding stream, from the verb "mala," "to grind"), which is supposed to be a way to the land of the dead. This imagery stands, as the evidence develops, for an astronomical process, the secular shifting of the sun through the signs of the zodiac which determines world–ages, each numbering thousands of years. Each age brings a World era, a Twilight of the Gods. Great structures collapse; pillars topple which supported the great fabric; floods and cataclysms herald the shaping of the new world.32
This is the most basic understanding of the myth of Hamlet, for it sees Hamlet as a figure of Fate, a figure of the world of the "cycles of change."33
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is, as all people are, a carrier of fate, and hence of time. His fate is raised to heroic/tragic proportions for the sake of a clear vision of it, and for the sake of drama, but it is essentially the fate that all mankind carries. "My fate cries out," says Hamlet before his meeting with the ghost, "And makes each pretty artery in this body/ As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve."34 And fate is Hamlet's mill grinding out first peace and plenty, then salt and sand. It is the cycle of time moving, and caught in it, as all living things are, is Hamlet. The cycle of time, of change, is one of dissolution and re-creation, and it is Hamlet's fate to be the agent of dissolution, of turn and return; "Great structures collapse; pillars topple which supported the great fabric; floods and cataclysms herald the shaping of a new world."35
Thus it is, with this basic and indivisible myth as the central element of Hamlet, that de Santillana finds parallel myths around the world, in Finland, Iran, Greece, in the Christian Bible (especially, Samson), in India, in British Columbia, in South America, and in many other places, presumably in as many other places as there are people living who have imaginations and create myths.
It is most difficult to separate the religious and the mythical elements of Hamlet; religion is myth, myth is religion. But Shakespeare's Hamlet came from ancient Icelandic sources and assumed a Christian setting. It is this Christianity of the play which we will discuss.
Whether Hamlet is an orthodox religious believer, or a renaissance skeptic and anti-Christian is a question to which only partisans need a direct and simple answer. The partisans in the audience were most probably all assuaged in their prejudices; "if a Papist and King James and Timothy Bright had seen the play, as they all probably did, each would have gone home confirmed in his own opinion about ghosts."36
The question of the ghost, of whether he is a Protestant or a Catholic ghost, or a ghost merely of a stage device is, again not an important question to answer, but one which by its asking points out some of the religious tone of the play.
The ghost appears from Purgatory, a nether-world where he must dwell in "fast and fires"37 until the crimes against him have been avenged. I.J. Semper sees the ghost as an "anomaly of a Catholic ghost from Purgatory urging blood-vengeance as a sacred duty."38 He presents an argument which then will explain that anomaly:
Shakespeare’s Hamlet was based on a crude revenge play by Thomas Kyd, with a moral atmosphere akin to that of the original story by Saxo Grammiticus; but this is a counsel of despair, for it argues that theologically speaking, Shakespeare was a muddled thinker, who mixed Christian and pagan elements in his play with an utter disregard for ethical fitness.39
Semper goes on to refute this argument, and to substantiate an argument that the Catholic host urged revenge in a divine sense, revenge for a crime whose hidden nature would make it impossible for law-abiding men on earth to uncover and punish. Hence it is, argues Semper, that Hamlet's task is not one of personal revenge; "But, howsoever thou pursuest this act/ Taint not thy mind"40 says the Ghost to Hamlet. Semper sees this as part of Hamlet's conflict, for his mind is certainly tainted with motives of personal hatred and revenge.
It is clear that Hamlet is confused as to the origin of the Ghost. "Bring with thee airs from Heaven or blasts from Hell"41 he asks the ghost. And some critics contend that much of Hamlet's resistance to the regicide have to do with his doubts in this regard, and that it is not until after the play scene that Hamlet is convinced. Semper argues that even after the play scene Hamlet wavers, and that he does so because his motives are still impure.
Eleanor Prosser, in her book Hamlet and Revenge sees the problem here compounded, and argues that Hamlet is torn between his duty to his father, and his duty to the Christian prohibition against revenge. In addition:
The sixteenth-century controversy between Catholics and Protestants over the nature of ghosts arose out of Protestant attacks on the Catholic belief in the efficacy of good works and thus of prayers for dead. Because man is justified by faith alone, the Protestants argued, either he is in a state of grace at the moment of his death and goes immediately to Heaven, or he is damned and goes immediately to Hell.42
Hence we have a Catholic ghost and a "Protestant Prince who fears that this ghost may be a devil in disguise."43 It has been suggested that Shakespeare was mirroring in his play the arguments of Catholics and Protestants on Purgatory and the issue of man's fate after death.44
This argument seems to us to be an accurate reflection of the shaping of the play, as does the one which Semper cites and rejects that Shakespeare fused Christian and pagan themes in the play. This does not make Shakespeare a "muddled thinker" but a playwright. Were he to have written either a Catholic or a Protestant version its reception would have been less enthusiastic, and the play would have been less interesting. The religious aspect of Hamlet is most vividly evident not in how the characters live, but in what happens to them after death. In the play there is no resolution of a position, but a constant probing which embodies all the approaches of Catholics, Protestants, and skeptics.
In his soliloquoy on suicide Hamlet egresses doubt in many directions. "To sleep—perchance to dream. Aye, 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."45 Whither it be, Heaven, Hell, or Oblivion? It is doubt which intercedes between us and our putting ourselves out of misery:
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.46
Later, in the prayer scene Hamlet seems clearly to believe in a Christian Heaven and Hell. Hamlet restrains himself from killing Claudius at that point, for Claudius is in a state of grace, kneeling at prayer:
How might I do it pat, now he is praying And now I'll do 't. And so he goes to Heaven, And so I am revenged. That world be scanned: A villain kills my father, and for that I, his sole son, do this same villain send To Heaven.47
Yet, later, after Hamlet has killed Polonius Claudius asks him where Polonius is, and Hamlet replies:
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.48
As Shakespeare fills his play with these controversies of the time so also does he model the play, in its manners and politics, after his own time. ''Hamlet is an English Prince, the court of Elsinore is modelled on the English court, and the Danish constitution that of England under the Virgin Queen."49 Marchette Chute, in Shakespeare of London says that Hamlet was a character "caught in the general backwash of gloom and indecision that characterized the final years of Elizabeth's reign,"50 and that he
was born in part of the young men who had been glooming about the universities and the Inns of Court in the fin de siecle atmosphere of the late 90's and passing remarks on the hollowness of life, the futility of heroic action and the degrading nature of sexual intercourse.51
It is the genius of the play that it is both contemporary and universal, both human and cosmic without strain at either. Chute quotes a line from Anthony Scoloker’s introduction to one of his books which is indicative of Hamlet’s power as literature; Any piece of writing should, says Scoloker, "Faith, it should please all, like Prince Hamlet."52
1. G.P. Bradley, The Problems of Hamlet. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1928), p. 7.
2. Robert Russel Benedict, The Mystery of Hamlet. (Philadelphia and London: J.P. Lippincott, 1910), p. 35.
3. Benedict, p. 38.
4. G. B. Harrison, ed., Shakespeare, Major Plays. (Harcourt, Brace, and Company, New York, 1948), p. 600.
6. Harrison, p. 601.
7. Israel Gollanez, Hamlet In Iceland. (David Nutt, London, 1898), p. xi.
8. Gollanez, p. xxxi.
9. Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet's Mill. (Boston, Gambit, 1969), p. 25.
10. I.J. Semper, Hamlet Without Tears. (Dubuque, Iowa: The Loras College Press, 1946), pp. 8-9.
11. de Santillana, p. 7
12. Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1949), p. 18.
14. Jones, p. 267.
15. Jones, p. 40.
16. Harrison, p. 603.
17. Hamlet, I, iv, 40-42.
18. Jones, p. 60.
19. Jones, p. 147.
22. Jones, p. 148.
23. Jones, p. 152.
24. Jones, p. 156.
25. Jones, p. 160.
27. Hamlet, III, iii, 36-38.
28. Hamlet, III, ii, 411-414.
29. Hamlet, I, v, 9-13.
30. Hamlet, IV, v, 76-77.
31. de Santillana, p. 87.
32. de Santillana, p. 2.
33. de Santillana, p. 5.
34. Hamlet, I, iv, 81-83.
35. de Santillana, p. 2.
36. Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes, p. 84.
37. Semper, p. 17.
40. Hamlet, I, v, 84-85.
41. Hamlet, I, iv, 41.
42. Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, (Stanford, California: Stanford Univ. Press, 1967), p. 107.
43. Semper, p. 30.
44. See F.W. Moorman, "Shakespeare's Ghosts," Modern Language Review, Vol. I, pp. 192-201.
45. Hamlet, III, i, 65-68.
46. Hamlet, III, i, 83-88.
47. Hamlet, III, iii, 73-95.
48. Hamlet, IV, iii, 20-26.
49. John Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet. (London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970), p. 28.
50. Marchette Chute, Shakespeare of London. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1949), p. 228.
52. Chute, p. 229.
Shakespeare's Hamlet is one of the most familiar works of Renaissance literature. The drama of this play concerns problems as revealed through an individual family. The problems of society at large are seen through the eyes, actions and thoughts of members of that family. A ruler is holding power, and a great deal of the action is related to questions about the nature of that power. The general theme of the play deals with a society that is, or has already gone to pieces.1
Another theme of the play is that of revenge. Hamlet must avenge his father's death. Revenge is important in Elizabethan thought. From a moral perspective, one can see that revenge has a tendency to perpetuate itself. The typical writer at that time wondered if people had a right to revenge. If they didn't, then people have no recourse to justice. There are certain instances in which revenge is justified in Elizabethan thought. Although Hamlet is not a typical revenge character, the plot in which be operates is a typical revenge-based one. Vengeance corrupts him.
One other theme that pervades this play is that of insanity. The play concerns many of the basic issues of existence. Shakespeare shows how sin corrupts, how this corruption breeds disillusionment, and how this in turn creates a preoccupation with death. When one is constantly thinking about death, then life and lore are destroyed. One psychotherapist has this to say about Hamlet: "Madness is the means Shakespeare used to convey the disillusion and despair that pervades the characters, and leads them to rash and self-destructive acts, and to express the dissolution of their world. Madness is, moreover, essential to the structure of the play as well as to the development of its themes."2
One soliloquy that illustrates these themes and others is found in Act III, Scene I, lines 55-89. This is the rather famous "to be or not to be” passage. It is a very pessimistic scene, and expresses the tone of the whole play. Madness is indicated in the sudden change of passion within a short period of time. It is a scene of passion "at a still, white beat, fused into thought."3 This change is deliberately made in order to give the audience an insight into the madness that Hamlet is experiencing.
His obsession with revenge has corrupted him and left him incapable of enjoying life. He constantly thinks about death. The whole soliloquy deals with whether or not life is worth living. He is asking whether the outcome of life and the enduring of so much pain is really worth it. Those who live long lives actually suffer more. Men suffer under oppressors and under those who have power. There is no real justice in the world. Even in love one suffers from rejection. Therefore it might be better just to kill oneself.
Besides being an indication of Hamlet's madness the soliloquy deals with the basic issues of existence, one of the stated themes of the play. This is, of course, the key existential dilemma. He weighs the goodness and badness of his own life and the lives of other men. He seems to conclude that it is not the love of life that keeps people from taking their own lives. Rather, it is the fear of death and what might lay beyond. As he points out, no traveler has ever returned from the land of the dead and it is a place shrouded in mystery and apprehension.
The reason that men don't take their lives more often could also be due to their individual consciences. Perhaps man innately senses that it might be morally wrong, or a great sin to God, to kill oneself. It might be better to endure life than to suffer punishment for eternity at the hands of an angry God.
When his thought is centered in this area Hamlet is not concentrating on his father's murder or on revenge. He probably would rather ignore it and walk away from the whole mess completely. But then he might be walking into a vacuum. He could kill his uncle and inherit the throne. But this might not bring satisfaction either.
Another reason he prefers death to life is that he has been disillusioned, which is the next step after corruption. He bas been disillusioned with someone he loved ("The pangs of despised love . . ."). This person was essential to his well-being. Now he has no good reason to live except for fear of death and conscience-related reasons.
In order to go on living, and live a productive life, Hamlet has to solve the problem raised in this soliloquy. He is a grief-stricken man, caught in the middle of a great number of difficulties and dangers. The only remedy to his problem lies in the curing of his mind. Only then will he be able to rise above the many serious problems he faces. Renaissance moralists have pointed out that all men have to deal with this problem. They criticize him for allowing himself to become "lapsed in time and passion" so that he continually lets go "the important acting of a dread command."5 His mind is spoiled with the interests and cowardice of the world.
Through the problems of this individual, one can see the problems of society as a whole. He criticizes himself, not just for his own personal faults, but for those of man in general. In Hamlet, one can see how fragile he is.
Hamlet's struggle, then, is more significant than it would appear to be at first glance. He is not asking this question just for himself, but for man in general. Human misery and misfortune provides the background over which Hamlet must rise.
Hamlet's realization of the corruption and decadence of the world leads to this soliloquy. His depression is echoed in the lines. The disillusionment found in this passage is indicative of the mood of the entire play. It modifies Hamlet's character, highlights his indecision, his sense of vanity and disenchantment with society. Through Hamlet we can seen how "the relation between thought and deed, intent and realization is confused in the same way that the norms and institutions which would regulate the life of a well-ordered court have been deprived of their original purpose and beauty."6 Hamlet cannot rise above the corrupt society of which he is part.
This particular soliloquy does show, however, that Hamlet is trying to do just that. His philosophizing seems to be a kind of moral compromise. He is showing himself and the world that be is above the decadence. He is not satisfied with the present, and is trying to rise above it. He does aspire to some sort of moral perfection. The struggle itself elevates him.
1. Maynard Mack, gen. ed. World Masterpieces, Vol. I, (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1965) , pp. 1173-1174.
2. Theodore Lidz, Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in Hamlet, (London: Vision Press Ltd, 1976) p. 33
3. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol. I, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1946), p. 77.
4. Lidz, p. 66.
5. Hardin Craig, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Co., 196l), p. 902.
6. Mack, p. 1174.
Barker, Harley Granville. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Vol. I. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946.
Craig, Hardin, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, and Co., 1961.
Lidz, Theodore. Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in Hamlet. London: Vision Press, Ltd., 1976.
Mack, Maynard, gen. ed. World Masterpieces. Vol. I. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1965.
Priestly, J.B. and Spear, Josephine, eds. Adventures in English Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963.