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Acknowledged as one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, Hamlet centers on the actions of a young Danish prince called upon by a ghost to avenge his father's murder at the hands of his uncle, King Claudius. For scholars the central issues of the play have intersected in the character of Hamlet, specifically in regard to the themes of madness and revenge that he personifies. Some critics have been concerned with Hamlet's apparent plunge into madness during the course of the play, and whether this insanity is real or feigned. Others have concentrated on Hamlet's revenge for his father's death—which directly and indirectly leads to the demise of nearly all of the major characters in the drama, including Hamlet himself—asserting that it raises the moral question of whether or not the prince is basically good or evil in his intentions. Further subjects of interest to commentators have included assessments of the play's female characters, Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, and their often ambiguous motivations, as well as the nature of the play's varied symbolism and imagery.

The question of madness in Hamlet has consistently intrigued modern scholars, many of whom have placed this subject at the center of their interpretation of the play by focusing on the compelling and enigmatic figure of Hamlet himself and the precise nature of his alleged insanity. Some critics, such as Paul Jorgensen and Theodore Lidz, have taken a psychological approach to the issue. For Jorgensen, Hamlet is the victim of a pathological grief that manifests itself in his melancholia. The critic diagnoses this melancholy in Freudian terms as repressed rage diverted toward himself instead of his enemies, and sees the movement of the play as leading to a resolution of this perturbed state. Lidz complicates the issue by contending that Hamlet, though he suffers from certain real forms of madness, nevertheless retains his keen intellect and at times only pretends to be insane in order to thwart and baffle those who would prevent him in his quest for revenge. P. J. Aldus has observed Hamlet's madness from multiple perspectives, ranging from the clinical, including an analysis of his paranoid schizophrenia, to the mythic and archetypal, particularly in the relationship between the prince's insanity and his roles as poet, dramatist, actor, and reflection of Shakespeare. Anna K. Nardo, conversely, has asserted that Hamlet's madness derives from the impossibility of his situation; forced to avenge his father without harming his mother or tainting his honor, he escapes into insanity. Some commentators, however, such as Bernard Grebanier, deemphasize the importance of Hamlet's insanity, highlighting the prince's nature as kind, compassionate, and magnanimous. Still other critics have examined the political and cultural dimensions of madness in Hamlet. Duncan Salkeld has maintained that Shakespeare presents a paranoid world in the play, which projects his society's collective fears of subverted power and sovereignty, and Alison Findlay has examined madness as related to the instability of language and the subversive power of gender in the play.

The theme of revenge in Hamlet has also elicited much critical attention among contemporary scholars—primarily in terms of the Ghost's nature and Hamlet's moral culpability as the play's executioner. Eleanor Prosser has asserted that the ghost of what appears to be Hamlet's father is nothing more than a devil sent from hell to exhort Hamlet to perform evil acts in the name of revenge. Harold Skulsky has argued, however, that the Ghost leaves all decisions to Hamlet, forcing him to choose between his feelings of honor, responsibility, cowardice, and compassion. In addition, while many commentators have noted the primary source for the play as the so-called Ur-Hamlet—a revenge tragedy often attributed to the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Kyd—all agree that Shakespeare pushed the bounds of the source material in his complex exploration of the revenge motif. In line with these modern assessments, Michael Cameron Andrews has observed that Shakespeare avoids didacticism by refusing to make any final judgment on Hamlet's guilt, while Harry Keyishian has seen the work as less equivocal, contending that Hamlet is basically good and is motivated more by his own moral integrity than the outside urgings of malevolent forces or an inner desire for destruction.

An increasing number of contemporary critics have turned their attention to the drama's supporting cast, especially its female characters Gertrude and Ophelia. The majority of commentators have seen Queen Gertrude as a weak, passive, and sentimental woman—an assessment represented by Baldwin Maxwell, who has noted that Claudius dominates her until the play's closing moments, when she drinks a poisoned cup of wine despite his protests. More recent investigations of Gertrude's character, such as that undertaken by Rebecca Smith, emphasize not her weakness, but her deep and tragic love for two men caught in mortal conflict with one another. The dilemma of choosing between two types of love is likewise reflected in much criticism of Ophelia. Robert Tracy, for example, has explored the conflicting imagery of sensual love and virginity surrounding her character, and has noted that when faced with the dilemma of demonstrating both her love for Hamlet and respect for her father's wishes, she flees reality, descending into madness and eventual suicide.

The varied nature of Shakespeare's imagery in Hamlet has additionally been a significant topic of interest to twentieth-century critics. Commentators have long observed the symbolism of disease, decay, and corruption that pervades the work and reinforces its themes. Kenneth Muir has noted, however, that Hamlet is not limited to the images of rottenness that represent the state of Denmark at the opening of the play. Muir has asserted that the play evokes a range of symbolism, including representations of sexuality and war and images from the theater, all of which complicate the play and emphasize its concern with the contrast between appearances and realities. The play's symbolism has also been explored by Henri Suhamy, who finds its imagery at once ambiguous, contradictory, and paradoxical—further proof of the play's protean nature, rich complexity, and enduring appeal to scholars and audiences.


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Charles C. Walcutt (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Hamlet—The Plot's the Thing," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, January, 1966, pp. 15-32.

[In the following essay, Walcutt describes Hamlet as "the imitation of an action," and outlines the relationship between plot and characterization in the play.]

One hesitates to propose anything new on a play about which "everything" has been said; but I am impelled to it by the fact that Hamlet is crucial to the emergence of modern notions about character in fiction. If there have been something like three thousand books and articles published on the play since 1900, it is because (and here I can make one statement without qualification) the character of Hamlet continues to puzzle us, and everything written seeks to throw some new light on the mystery. But it seems to me that the function of plot in Hamlet has been misunderstood, and I shall try to make some fundamental points about the action as the prime mover and substance of the prince's characterization.

In general, the critical contest has been between those who would explain the play by finding the key to the mystery of Hamlet's character and those who would reduce it to melodrama and spectacle. A third team of critics dabbles in philosophical problems, but these do not greatly affect the tides of the major battle. In the main contest, those who explore the mystery of the character make it the source of the action, whereas those who have insisted on the primacy of the action generally say that the problems of motivation and character in the hero disappear if we consider the play as a rapidly moving, even melodramatic spectacle of bloody violence and revenge. I should like to look at one or two of these exegeses and then try to look at the play in a completely fresh way.

The general terms of the contest, suggested above, are illustrated in the Introduction to Hamlet by my revered teacher at the University of Michigan, O. J. Campbell, in The Living Shakespeare (1949). His own position and his definition of the opposition are equally interesting. He begins by dismissing as the "speculations of subjective critics" such notions as that "Hamlet was … a brooding 'philosopher of death, a scholar of the night.' The modern variant of this idea is the notion that in Hamlet the desire to die has triumphed over the desire to live. Other commentators have assumed that Hamlet's grief has paralyzed his will, so that he is ever at the mercy of a mind involved in ceaseless debate with itself. Still others," he continues, "explain Hamlet's difficulty as the revulsion of a sensitive nature against the violent revenge which the ghost has ordered him to take."1 The corrective to misguided modernism is to "search the contents of the Elizabethan mind." There we find that Shakespeare's audience had a much more precise notion of "melancholy" than we have. "It was the name given to a nervous malady described at length in all the household medical handbooks of Shakespeare's day, and Elizabethan doctors were making careful attempts to observe and describe its symptoms." Since in the seventeenth century people in such conditions were not confined or even treated, "many cases of pathological melancholy were at large in Elizabethan society and easily recognizable by anyone interested in human personality."2 In Hamlet's case, the "rhythm of his malady" is so timed that "at every crucial moment he finds himself in the grip of emotions which fit him least to deal with the situation confronting him. … With each new revelation of this irrepressible conflict Hamlet's inner tension mounts until at the final catastrophe his tortured will explodes in a wild frenzy of unconsidered action."3 Professor Campbell has elsewhere elaborated his theory with the term "manic depressive" to label the malady from which Hamlet fails to act when he would most profit by acting, and acts on impulse when he should have kept his peace and his counsel.

Professor Campbell acknowledges that many students of the play would reject this interpretation as reducing a great drama to the level of a case history of a sick psyche. They would say that Shakespeare intended to give his characters just enough individuality to perform the deeds in "an exciting story of revenge." While he acknowledges that this emphasis is a good corrective to the sort of subjective speculations mentioned above, he believes that "carried too far it puts Hamlet on the same level as scores of other Elizabethan melodramas. Something very serious is the matter with Hamlet, and the full meaning of the great tragedy will never be clear until critics discover in the drama a conscious So either "something artistic design like the one sketched above."4 So either "something very serious is the matter with Hamlet," or the play is a melodrama of violent revenge. I know that this account of Professor's Campbell's interpretation is somewhat reductive, but I think I have not done violence to the main outlines. It is perfectly clear that he considers the mystery to be in the character of Hamlet—in what he essentially is as a man, which accounts for how he acts in the play; and he sees the alternative as tending to reduce the hero to a simple figure in a melodrama on the order of the heroes of American Westerns.

Even if Hamlet is not a case history of a diseased mind (although the term "manic depressive" makes him dangerously close to being one, in spite of the disclaimer), we must acknowledge the intrusion here of modern psychological concepts of the sort that reduce the self by classifying its eccentricities and putting them in pigeon-holes where they are seen as items in the environment. The struggle of the diminished self with its environing neuroses is a mystery of exploration and understanding rather than a dramatic action. Pushed far enough, it becomes the story of a naked eyeball suffering the cold winds of the world, absorbing agony while it fights to keep from freezing into a permanent trance of horror. If Hamlet is the beginning of this transformation, he is so, I would suggest, only as seen in the perspective of hindsight; and yet I will try to show that he must have been seen in his own time as adding a new element to the idea of man. When Pepys wrote in his diary that it was the best play and the best part ever written, he must have been responding to something that, even after 1660, was still startlingly new.

I think we can identify this element, but let us for a moment consider the range of critical opinion: Lily Bess Campbell5 finds Hamlet a medical case of "sanguine adust," in the Elizabethan terminology; the great Kittredge insists there is no delay but only problems Hamlet must solve (i.e., the ghost) and opposition he must outwit with feigned madness;6 Bernard Grebanier, after a lifetime of study, declares that Hamlet never feigns madness;7 E. E. Stoll reduces the play to a hasty, opportunistic adaptation of an old play, in which revenge predominates and the hero is not to be analyzed but only watched as he flashes from scene to scene in a wild, melodramatic plot.8

Before we succumb to the temptation to write off the action of Hamlet and say that Shakespeare was using tag-ends of old plots while he wrote poetry to express the romantic despair of a new, autobiographical hero, it is worth glancing at the plots of the other major tragedies which Shakespeare was writing during the years before and after Hamlet. In every one, the action is of dominating importance, even while it serves to bring out character and, in the process, the poetry which expresses the characters' quality of mind. In Julius Caesar the story is everything. Its theme moves around the problems of sovereignty and leadership and ambition; it moves through a famous story which has been retold a thousand times. What the characters become appears in their reactions to great challenges and final decisions; and their importance is writ large on the pages of history. Othello is an overpowering story; what the hero is cannot be conceived apart from the particular action of this play. Indeed, before this action he was a great soldier and a tremendous leader of men. A towering hero, he carried the simplicities of heroism, for he lived on a battlestage where he saw his own actions against a prodigious and majestic backdrop. The warrior's simplicity entranced Desdemona and infuriated the subtle Iago, under whose management the plot moved into a labyrinth of horror where the Moor raged, struggled, and destroyed even while he could not find his way from turning to turning. It is what Othello did that he talks about in the great speech that ends with his suicide. It is what he did, beside which what he previously was is as nothing, for he has become the creature of his horrid act—a new and terrible creature who cannot undo his ghastly mistake.

There are two time schemes in Othello. To achieve the psychological intensity and the headlong rush that keeps the hero from having time to step aside and think, Shakespeare has packed the action into thirty-six hours after the arrival at Cyprus; but to allow for the probabilities of moral growth, that is, to make the canker of suspicion grow to a cancer of jealousy, takes more time, and for this Shakespeare has provided a series of clues that stretch the same events out to three weeks or so. No member of an audience would ever disentangle the two sets of time clues at a single performance. An actor could perform the part without realizing that they were there. But the artistic depth and validity produced by them is one of the great wonders of the play, as it is of Shakespeare's craft. Within a single action he has evolved the sort of moral and psychological density that comes from the double plot in Lear. The subtlety and ingenuity of this construction reveals so profound an insight into the function of the action that I do not see how we can turn from it to Hamlet and say that Shakespeare was not really interested in what happend—or that he did not dare to meddle with legendary events that his audience would insist upon seeing unchanged. No audience over five years old could be so rigid.

Not until King Lear does Shakespeare venture to make the plot grow from the character of the hero. There he does, and with the surest hand that he was ever to show, making an action of cosmic dimensions grow out of the strange mixture of vanity, fatuity, and trust in the bosom of a monarch who has but slenderly known himself because he has been insulated by the sheer mass of his authority from his court and his family. Starting with his initial folly, Lear is plunged into a nightmare which puts out the light of his mind before it has purged him of his vanity and his overweening authority. I think everyone feels that Lear is Shakespeare's most tremendous play, his profoundest search of the human heart. This greatness is achieved because he begins with a king whose first speech involves him in an action of tremendous significance—and from the initial folly a flood, an ocean, a world, a cosmos of evil pours over him and crashes on to engulf the characters in an action that is, in one way or another, final for them all. It takes two plots to explore the physical blindness of Gloucester beside the intellectual blindness of Lear. When the turmoil has passed and the King has regained contact with humanity, the depths of human suffering have been plumbed and agonies of self-knowledge have been realized. The force of the action is hinted in Albany's closing couplet:

The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

I say "hinted" because no words can begin to describe it.

In Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus the actions continue to be grand, involving issues and conflicts that challenge and define their heroes. Macbeth is not merely ambitious: he is caught up in a temptation as compelling as it is horrifying, so that it unveils the inmost mysteries of man's contradictory nature, where rational good forever struggles with impulsive evil. As the action moves into the very sovereign heart of the body politic, and moral darkness rises to disrupt the wholesome state embodied in its gentle king, so within Macbeth these forces engage in a conflict of appalling depth and intensity and he becomes as full and great as this action. The supernatural itself is called upon to figure forth the immensities of his spiritual turmoil.

Antony and Cleopatra does not have the cosmic dimensions of Lear, contained within a single spirit, but it moves in a larger world than any other play. Rome, Athens, Alexandria—the whole Mediterranean world, indeed the whole civilized world—become dazzling baubles well-lost for the exalted and devastating passion that consumes while it glorifies the heroes. Armies are betrayed, fleets of warships abandoned, kingdoms tossed aside to dramatize the relation between Antony and Cleopatra. She uses these elements to describe him:

His face was as the heavens; and therein
A sun and moon, which kept their course,
  and lighted
The little O, the earth …

His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear'd arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to
But when he meant to quail and shake the
He was as rattling thunder …
                       in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets; realms and
  islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.

And when such a one dies,

O sun, burn the great sphere thou move'st
Darkling stand the varying shore of the

Only with such a world backdrop could Shakespeare have glorified a destructive passion, a fading hero, and a sensual and imperious woman. And it is more than a backdrop: it is the substance of the action against which the demands of the passion are measured and revealed. Without these imperial choices the story would not rise to its imperial theme. Repeatedly in the play the characters are defined through their choices in situations of extraordinary importance: when Antony flaunts Caesar, when Cleopatra flees from the sea battle, when Antony flees after her, when he has to ask Eros to kill him, when Cleopatra refuses to come down from the monument, and when she makes her choice of death rather than deal with Caesar, the characters grow into their worldly and world-dominating richness. Thus we see Cleopatra's character as made of her thoughts about and her reactions (i.e., decisions) to these grand situations. She has her being, she becomes herself in these events. She is woven of the strands in this fabric of setting and action.

And likewise in Coriolanus we see an action that brings military heroism into violent confrontation with the demands of plebeian democracy—and the hero advances into a situation where he has to break the ties that gave his military leadership its meaning. Coriolanus emerges into choices and deeds that shatter his identification with State, with self, with family; and yet the State and the family still sway his decisions. We no longer respond to this play very successfully because physical heroism no longer confers utter greatness: two world wars have shown us that valor may appear at any level of society and that valor does not make for ultimate greatness. But we can appreciate the fact that the action of Coriolanus is everything; it brings the hero into new realms of the spirit; it makes him realize and enact implications of his position that could not have existed apart from this action. Again, what Coriolanus becomes is not implicit in him unless he is involved in the action of the play; it is the action that makes the emerging man.

The more we look from one great play to the next, the more difficult it becomes to sustain the notion that plot was not important to Shakespeare. If we take the proper perspective, however, we see that Shakespeare used old and famous stories precisely because plot was so important to him. It was only with important actions that he could generate important characters, and such important actions cannot be invented out of nothing; they must be drawn from the deepest springs of the society.

I propose that we should look at Hamlet as primarily, in Aristotle's terms, the imitation of an action. Then instead of wondering "what is the matter" with the hero, we shall be able to start with the simple and indeed the engaging assumption that nothing at all is the matter with him. Starting on this ground brings us the inestimable satisfaction of being able to believe what another important character says when she describes him. Everybody knows Ophelia's description, which is about as forceful and unequivocal as it could possibly be:

O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye,
  tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of
The observ'd of all observers …
                            … that
noble and most sovereign reason

Speeches of this sort are an extremely familiar convention of drama to establish the "official" view of a character. When they are so eloquently full and precise, they are there for the audience's information. The point is further supported by the fact that Ophelia is speaking only to herself, since Hamlet has just stormed off stage and the King and Polonius have not come up to her yet. She is not concealing or probing or manipulating, but speaking her heart. Nothing in the play gives any sound reason for doubting this speech. Ophelia is not mad yet, and she certainly knows Hamlet well enough to speak with authority about him. That Shakespeare should give her so eloquent a speech is in itself evidence that she is to be seen as capable of such eloquence (as Polonius and Laertes, who also comment on Hamlet, are not, the one being fatuous and tedious, the other pompous and fulsome), and it seems equally obvious that the eloquence implies some intelligence and insight. Ophelia of course is mistaken in thinking Hamlet mad at this point. In her distress and innocence, she is as easily taken in by his subterfuge as she is intimidated by his violence. But this innocence is our assurance that she speaks without subtlety and expresses the general and "official" view of Hamlet.

Her speech tells us in the plainest terms what Hamlet was. She has described the ideal Renaissance prince, and we must start by accepting this as fact. The ideal prince was as far as anyone could be from having "something the matter" with him. He was the model of courage, decision, manners—the mold of form, the expectancy and rose of the fair state. This character has been so firmly established by Hamlet's early conduct that Polonius and Laertes characterize (and damn) themselves by their suspicions of him. The ignobility of their advice to Ophelia condemns them in the speaking of it—and the fact that Hamlet needs no defense from such contemptible charges shows that his essential nobility and honor have already been made clear by his appearance, his speech, the deference of Marcellus and Bernardo, the loyalty and respect of Horatio, and the fact that they go straight to him with the dangerous story of the ghost. These early impressions are fortified by the magnificent courage and intelligence of his confrontation of the ghost in I, iv, as they have already been strengthened by the respect for him shown by Claudius and Gertrude in the court scene at the king's first audience. In this scene, and in later discussions of the errant prince, Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius never say that Hamlet was queer, or inadequate, or too intellectual; rather, they all speak of the change that has overtaken him and wonder what it means. Much later in the play the same notions of Hamlet's nobility are expressed. Claudius complains to Gertrude of the people's love—

He's loved of the distracted multitude
                                                  (IV, iii, 4)

and he tells Laertes that Hamlet is

Most generous, and free from all contriving
                            (V, vii, 135-6)

The belief that Hamlet is the ideal prince is universal; it is assumed in every reference to his change or his "madness." Ophelia's account of his coming in muddy disarray, shaking his head and looking at her accusingly (II, i), conveys her shock and fear at the change in her lover.

The hero is the ideal prince at the beginning. The play's the thing—that is, the plot does not express and grow from Hamlet's peculiar character; rather it is the plot that brings about his problem and his complex series of reactions to it. In saying that plot is the prime mover, I do not intend to suggest that the play is a melodramatic tragedy of bloody revenge in which there are many unorganized remnants from the earlier bloody plays which were included—or because Shakespeare slavishly followed his sources merely because they contributed to the violence and excitement. (This view makes the plot unimportant and the character created by the poetry.)

The plot should be taken much more seriously—and it will be taken seriously if we adopt the view that it accounts for—indeed produces—the subtleties and complexities of characterization that appear as it unfolds. Then instead of an amorphous modern intellectual (or a high-level beatnik) imposed upon a patchwork fable scrambled hastily together from Saxo Grammaticus, Belleforest, and Thomas Kyd (I say "scrambled," yet these are also represented as authorities whose fables had to be slavishly followed lest the audience rebel, although it is never made plain how three conflicting sources could all be respected at the same time), we shall have an extraordinarily complex plot that generates an extraordinarily complex hero, step-by-step, as he moves through it. If plot were thus of absolutely first importance—which it was—Shakespeare would have given most careful attention to it. He would have scrutinized it item by item in order to make every incident work into the developing situation and character of his hero. I assume that Shakespeare was responsible for every detail in the final plot. I am not willing to concede that anything in Hamlet was forced on Shakespeare by the fictitious authority of a story that his audience would not allow him to change—or by any grand heedlessness of consistency or relevance on Shakespeare's part.

I have seen a good many performances of Hamlet. In every one, the hero has become dissociated from the plot by Act III. Thereafter he ponders, postures, and performs, but he does not seem to know which of the fifty Hamlets of criticism he is. As the end approaches he becomes less and less aware of what he is saying—until at worst he lapses into a sort of sleepwalking declamation, going through a set of motions that are not connected by a developing action but rather appear as set pieces or famous little vignettes with fine speeches. Part of the trouble lies in the length of the play and the fact that big chunks are omitted without proper transitions, so that at worst the play becomes a series of soliloquies; part of the trouble is that the language is so magnificent that the purple passages overpower the actor; but basically the trouble is that the actor has these fifty Hamlets milling around in his brain and they are all Hamlets of various critics' contriving rather than Hamlets caught up in a formidable, dominating series of events. The actor's grip on his role steadily weakens, until the final catastrophe is endured by an audience somewhat listlessly waiting for "Absent thee from felicity a while …" and "Good night, sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

The condition that establishes a dynamic and organic relation between Hamlet and the action is that he finds himself in a situation where he does not understand his own reactions. It must be shown that Hamlet is the most baffled and bewildered character in the cast. How does this come about? Plot and character meet, as we have seen, in the interplay of values, manners, and customs which is the design and substance of the social fabric. The subject of Hamlet is at the utter center of this design. It is the question of sovereignty, which is to say it is the principle that makes the state and holds it together—the life and mind of the body politic. The king is, according to the powerful symbol of mediaeval and Rennaissance polity, the head of the body politic. Cut off that head and the state is naught. It is the source of order or "degree"; "untune that string" and chaos is come again. Sovereignty is the initial concern of any Renaissance historian; it is the central concern of most. It is the subject of Shakespeare's history plays: what happens when the string of order is untuned by the murder of a king or the usurpation of proper succession? The theme attracted Shakespeare again and again. "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings," wailed Richard II, in a play that many critics feel to be a trial run for Hamlet.

Before Hamlet knows anything of the ghost, he is presented, in the second scene, garbed in solemn black, brooding on the fringe of the gay company that has assembled to bask in the first sunshine of the new sovereign. Claudius is strong, confident, masterful. He offers thanks to his followers, makes a virtue of his hasty marriage to Gertrude, dispatches a few items of important business—and then turns to his most serious problem, Hamlet, who is lurking somberly on the edge of the gathering. The first speeches are supercharged:

Claud: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,—
Ham: (Aside) A little more than kin, and less than
Claud: HOW is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Ham: Not so, my lord, I am too much i' the sun.
                                          (I, ii, 64-7)

What strikes one most forcefully here is that Hamlet is out of the act; he has no role; where everyone else is participating in the new order of sovereignty, he is apart and aside, glooming on the edge, not fitting into the drift or spirit of the occasion. The ideal prince is a man of action: he translates the thought into the deed on the instant in a manner exemplifying his readiness, his courage, his leadership. Here Hamlet's aversion for Claudius, which alone would not disturb his princely dedication to sovereignty, is exacerbated by his doubts about his own status. He is both son and nephew—and neither; he is chief mourner except for Gertrude—and she paradoxically has become chief celebrant; he is witness to luxury, incest, and wassail—and yet there is no proper position from which he can positively act. Sovereignty is firm and confident; only Hamlet does not know where he stands.

His two replies quoted above, which are his first words in the play, have been subjected to exhaustive analysis. A dozen meanings have been found in them—and properly so, for they are supercharged, exploding from a brilliant intelligence under the tension which characteristically in Shakespeare produces a flood of puns or turgid mixed images. Only Shakespeare, I think, has been able so magnificently to represent the energy of the powerful mind under extreme stress. With his rebellious garb and his eruption of puns, he declares himself totally apart—and without a part. As the scene continues, he becomes more incisively rude, and in his next speeches he actually foreshadows the notion that, having no proper part, he must invent a role:

Ham: Ay, madam, it is common.
Ger:                     If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
Ham: Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black …
              These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
                              (I, ii, 74-86)

Lurking on the edge of the company has given him the sense of alienation which comes out in the phrase "a man might play." It is the familiar sense of unreality that comes to an observer who is partly in and partly out of the scene that he observes. For Hamlet, it is a baffling and an exasperating experience, which produces in him tension and violence of speech. At this point Hamlet must not be seen as aloof, superior, or intellectually detached. Nor is he sick with melancholy. Quite the contrary, he is emotionally engaged in the situation but baffled by his inability to do anything meaningful. This must be a new sensation for him, and its newness accounts for the violence to which his bewilderment gives rise. Inability to match the deed to the thought is something that the glass of fashion and the mold of form, the observ'd of all observers, never dreamed of suffering. The ideal prince will think deep thoughts, but these thoughts will not inhibit action or replace it.

It is therefore not Hamlet's nature but the situation that evokes these violent, exasperated speeches. It does, of course, require a certain kind of man to respond so; the point is that the response is produced by the situation and would never have come without this particular situation. The following soliloquy—"O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt"—not only specifies what is most on Hamlet's mind (his mother's hasty and incestuous marriage) but also reveals the element of theatricality generated by suppressed emotions and inability to act; and when Horatio enters a moment later with news of the ghost, Hamlet suddenly comes alive, delighted to join thought and deed as he asks searching questions and instantly plans to watch that night with Horatio and the soldiers.

Before Hamlet talks with the ghost, he hears the cannon bruiting the king's carouse and comments on the unwholesome excesses of his land:

This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc'd and tax'd of other nations.
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish
Soil our addition …
                                   (I, iv, 17-20)

The speech tells us what, after his mother's hasty marriage, troubles Hamlet most; the drunkenness in Denmark is a second form of moral deterioration. His distress is redoubled by the ghost's disclosure. In a state of tremendous excitement, he twice begins to reveal to his companions what the ghost has told—and twice he catches himself in mid-sentence and retreats into "wild and whirling words." From this acting, he turns to the business of demanding a solemn oath of secrecy, which is interrupted by the ghost's speaking under the platform. This sets Hamlet off into more extravagant play-acting by which he dissembles both his knowledge and his feelings; and he ends the scene by telling his companions in mysterious terms that he will be doing strange things, that he may "perchance hereafter … think meet / To put an antic disposition on—" and that they must not give him away.

Before the ghost's revelation, Hamlet had had time to think about the question of sovereignty as he saw it incarnate in Claudius and Gertrude. He had also thought about play-acting. Now personal danger, uncertainty about the ghost's message, and the knowledge that for better or worse Claudius is the state make him retreat from a situation in which he has no role to the feigning of an antic disposition—or madness—in which he can maintain the intolerable dilemma of having to act and not being sure enough to act—or not being able to make himself act. Many forces are in tension. Pulling one way are respect for sovereignty, a disinclination to violence, a sense that more is wrong than murder, possible doubt of the ghost, and the earlier speculation that has begun his detachment; pulling the other way are murder and the filial duty of revenge. Of course, there are more, many more, which have been set forth by a long line of distinguished critics, but what it boils down to—and it has to be boiled down to be stageable—is that the situation puts Hamlet where he cannot act, where as an ideal man of action he is bewildered and furious at his inability to act, and from which he escapes into the invented role of madman. This role gives him time for speculation, which increases his detachment; it requires antic conduct, which works with the tensions produced by his frustrations; it keeps him in the presence of the murderer-sovereign, which exacerbates his guilt.

Most extraordinary is the manner in which Shakespeare has contrived so that his hero has acted himself into this state—first in solemn black, then in theatrical soliloquy, and then in wild and whirling responses to old Truepenny calling "Swear!" from the cellarage. The state of vexation and uncertainty in which he finds himself is expressed by his closing words to this remarkable act:

The time is out of joint;—O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right!

A superb verbal touch is that Hamlet uses the image of a bonesetter, which he certainly is not.

The key to a performance that will allow the plot to dominate, as it should, will be that Hamlet constantly shows that he is changing under the impact of events which have effects on him that he does not understand. If this failure to understand his own responses is properly rendered, the actor-hero will come through as a man discovering himself under totally unforeseen pressures and evolving under them into a new sort of man. The action stays a step ahead of Hamlet, all the way to the end.

The most powerful confusion forced on Hamlet by the action is the madness, which slips back and forth over the lines between clowning, exasperated fury, and hysteria. He is clowning with Polonius and Osric, he is furious with Ophelia and Gertrude because his assumed madness has got between him and them, and he goes just over the edge when he rants at Ophelia, kills Polonius, and jumps into the grave with Laertes. These shadings must be seen in relation to each other. The feigned madness comes out of the first tension with the ghost, after the days of brooding over the real ambiguities of sovereignty and kinship which make Claudius outside the law because he is the law and further because Hamlet is the son and nephew of Claudius. The feigning begins, indeed, as a wild compulsion. It becomes a habit and a safety valve. And it becomes a trap. People look askance at him just when he wants to be taken most seriously; so he cannot communicate, and so he jumps from one role to the next. In the second state—exasperated fury—he is well on the way to the third, where he will endanger himself and his program with conduct that is irrational if not mad. Surely it is the uneasy sense of being looked at askance that motivates his long speech to Horatio before the Mousetrap.

These drifts between clowning and hysteria must be seen as functions of the plot; that is, they are not inherent in Hamlet but forced upon him by the developing situation, and he must show himself to be repeatedly surprised by what he does. This is what makes character grow out of the action. It links hero-and-event in an exciting and wonderfully interesting sequence. It makes every detail in the action important, but only if Hamlet is as tense and curious as the audience about what will happen next … I suspect that twentieth-century attitudes make it extravagantly difficult for us to see the play this way. Drugstore Hamlets are a dime-a-dozen today because so many people do not know what is important in the world. The common question today is, "What should I want, and why?" In this context, uncertainty and indecision are more common than resolution and confidence. How many of T. S. Eliot's memorable lines rest just on this theme!

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire … 

I will show you fear in a handful of dust … 

I can connect
Nothing with nothing …

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and
  dying …

                     … Multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors.

                     [History] gives too late
What's not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion … 

Ironic juxtapositions abound as commentaries on this condition:

Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney's knees …

Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the waters in his bath.
The masters of the subtle schools
Are controversial, polymath.

In this modern world, it would be hard enough to imagine Hamlet's state as utterly new and bewildering even if we were not all familiar with the story; being familiar with it, we find it immeasurably more difficult to experience the suspense that brings meaning to the action. But we must try, if we are to see what the play meant to the Elizabethans. Everything, in fact, depends on the actor; if he really feels his part he will be able to convey it, no matter how old the story is. We must see the roles as becoming forces upon Hamlet with which he is unable to cope because he cannot stay the passage of events as they come flooding over him.

If Act I sets the stage and establishes the conflict, Act II develops that conflict. In criticism and in performances of the play, Act II is the prime source of confusion. A good deal of time has passed, the hero has changed, the action drags, the disgressions mount, and the critics really dig in … What is really happening is that Hamlet, having adopted a role in order to conceal his doubts, his tensions, and his consequent reluctance to act against Claudius, has got himself into a melancholy and speculative paralysis. His real part as prince of the realm having been destroyed by murder and incest, he has adopted the role of madman. Playing his role has further dissociated him from his true role of prince. He becomes, not mad of course, but increasingly detached in spectatorship. Once having stepped out of his real self—for whom noble action would be instantaneous—he finds that delay and speculation possess him; and the more he observes and speculates, the more complexities he sees.

He tries, for example, to explore Ophelia's heart by appearing to her as a madman, disheveled and muddy. What he sees in her eyes adds a heavy stone to his burden of doubt. It was a diversion and a distraction, a trying-out of the power derived from a concealing role; but the consequences are shaking. Ophelia, terrified and speechless, seems to be concealing something herself: a new element of doubt thereafter confuses his speculations.

As the complexities grow, the temptation to go on observing and speculating becomes stronger; but with delay the tension from his failure to act becomes increasingly painful until it exacerbates him to sudden violence. The violence itself becomes a refuge because it enables him to play the mad role at the same time that he releases his pent-up wrath and exasperation. He taunts Polonius (while revealing alarm at the discovery that Polonius is probing him) with ambiguous remarks upon corruption and sovereignty:

HAM: For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion,—Have you a daughter?

POL: I have, my lord.

HAM: Let her not walk i' the sun. Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive …

It may be noted at this point that there is no need at all for Dover Wilson's elaborate emendation of the stage directions, to make Hamlet overhear Polonius planning to "loose [his] daughter to him",9 for Hamlet's suspicions have had plenty of time to develop since he tried to read Ophelia's thoughts. "There's no art," says Duncan in Macbeth, "to read the mind's construction in the face," but Hamlet has not learned this truth yet. Hamlet's attitude toward Ophelia would not harden into violence so quickly; she has been part of the corrupt setting since the beginning of the play.

A moment later he runs circles around the prying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose clumsy attempts to discover the cause of his distemper merely serve to expose the fact that they are pawns of Claudius. It is therefore the highest dramatic irony that the duplicity of these sycophants, probing Hamlet's assumed role, should no sooner be discovered than they tell of the players newly arrived—and Hamlet is thrust into further contemplation of play-acting. The idea of the detached actor-observer began as an impulse; it grew with the wild foolery after the ghost's appearance and the successful attempt to frighten Ophelia; and now fortune draws Hamlet into it to the point where it becomes more real, more compelling, than his business of revenge. The player's recitation of the speech from "Aeneas' tale to Dido" moves Hamlet profoundly. Many critics have treated this speech as a parody of Marlowe or Kyd, meant to be somewhat ludicrous. Nothing could be more inappropriate to these climactic moments of the action. I find it an absolutely superb speech and a deeply moving one. It is archaic and therefore a bit rigid, of course, but Shakespeare, who almost certainly wrote it himself, would want it to be different from the "real life" language of his own characters. That is, if his poetic language is an imitation of real life, then the language of the players-within-his-play must be a step further removed from common speech. Illusion within illusion must define itself by a difference in form. Indeed, this is fairly simple compared with the passage wherein the boy-actor playing Cleopatra complains that if "she" is carried to Rome by Caesar "she" will be mocked by boy-actors:

                        the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' the posture of a whore.
                            (V, ii, 216-221)

Let no one say that Shakespeare was not aware of these subtleties!

Harry Levin even proposes that the Player's speech be seen as a carefully wrought mirror image of Hamlet's following soliloquy.10 Both involve the slain king and the mourning queen, Hecuba passionate, Gertrude seemingly indifferent. The Player describes action; Hamlet talks instead of acting. The Player curses Fortune; Hamlet curses himself—and so on. Most brilliantly conceived is the contrast between the Player's fustian dramatization of the theatrical, which moves him to tears, and Hamlet's "realistic" commentary on himself, which surely rises to a shriek with

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, landless
O, vengeance!

The ironies latent here would be best realized if the Hamlet-actor actually lost control, tore the passion to tatters, and became more involved in his performance than the Player had just been in his,—the point being that the true artist in performance must maintain a certain objectivity in order to bring out the emotions in his part. If he lets himself experience these emotions, he will be worn out and his acting will fail. Hamlet is feigning but has become so involved that he has lost the objectivity of true feigning: the play-world has become in considerable part his real world.

This magnificent contrivance brings the interpenetration of drama and "reality" to the point where the audience itself is involved in the uneasy footing. It shares some of Hamlet's doubts. Earlier in Act II, he confounded Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with teasing ambiguities over the question of dreams and reality:

GUIL: Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

HAM: A dream itself is but a shadow.

ROS: Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow's shadow.

HAM: Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretch'd heroes the beggars' shadows …

Now he is caught up in the thing itself.

There is far more method in his madness furthermore than just filling out a long act with a contribution to the War of the Theatres. It is right here that Hamlet's preoccupation with acting begins to carry him so far that he cannot come back, but I must repeat that the plot brings the players on the scene, and it is in the plot that Hamlet finds with them an occasion for doing something direct and specific in the way of his revenge. The irony is that he is carried further and further into the realm of illusion. What came to him from a ghost, he will now have reenacted by the players, so that the real problem is wrapped in layers of dramaturgy which inevitably blunt the bright edge it should have. And as he becomes entangled in his contrived roles and plots, he frets and rages at himself and his situation; in the great soliloquy ending Act II (O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!) he first wonders what the player would say if, instead of Hecuba, he had

              the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appall the free …

He is now thinking in terms of the stage and its actors, and after accusing himself of the abominable sin of cowardice, he comments on the fact that he is speaking instead of doing, which is another way of saying that he has escaped into his assumed role. And this is not all; his next step is to repeat his plan for the Mouse-trap. Having ended Act I with the grotesque metaphor of a bonesetter, he ends Act II acknowledging that he has become a director:

                      The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.

The scene that follows is controlled by the elements that have been developed: Play-acting, and thinking about play-acting, where illusion and reality are united and confused, compelled to feign madness until the evening's performance, exacerbated beyond bearing by the delays and cross-purposes in which he has become entangled, Hamlet first speculates on mortality and suicide—and then turns in half-real and half-feigned mad fury on Ophelia. He is now indeed caught in the role he has contrived, to the point where he can act only through it—and where his conduct adds to the suspicions of the spying Claudius and begins to close the net that will carry him to England. This role is now necessary to his preservation but intolerable for the ideal prince. It is an image of the predicament of modern man as he slips from the certain certainties of the Divine and feudal state into the agonies of moral relativism that inescapably accompany detachment and speculation. While his intellectual world grows, the strait-jacket of his role tightens about him. Small wonder that he should lash out with bitter speeches: his tongue is his only weapon!—And rather than speculate about exactly when in the Nunnery scene Hamlet becomes aware of the King and Polonius eavesdropping, we should realize that his struggle is, primarily, with the situation into which he has slipped: this makes him lash out at Ophelia, and when he discovers the two spies he can only lash out more furiously from his mad role and increase their suspicions. He has already lost control of the situation; the next scenes will bring climax and consequences.

Scene ii begins with a necessary breathing-spell after the violence of the Nunnery scene, but it is not wasted. Hamlet's advice to the players dwells on the excesses of false art—on the actors who tear a passion to tatters, the clowns who "laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered"—and on the ideal of holding the mirror up to nature, "to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image." He is also ironically throwing light on the predicament of one who has exchanged the image for the actuality. Like Alice in Allen Tate's poem, he has passed through the looking glass and shattered the real world:

Turned absent minded by infinity
She cannot move unless her double move,
The All-Alice of the world's entity
Smashed in the anger of her hopeless love.

In the speech to Horatio, he makes a great effort to justify the Mousetrap and even speaks as the ideal prince in commanding him to watch the king:

Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe mine uncle. …

But this comes after he has revealed his sense of isolation by describing the man he ought to be but no longer is:

                     and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she pleases. Give me that
That is not passion's slave…

In the context that has grown through the plot—the ideal prince trapped in play-acting not so much through weakness as through the combination of circumstances operating on his special virtues of idealism and intellectuality—the Mousetrap scene epitomizes the situation while it is the very substance of the plot, for there we see the crisis of action-and-character as they have become entangled. Hamlet must direct his play, calculate its effect, and also carry on with his own play—but in fact he is involved in several "plays" by now. He is a mocking and frightening lover to Ophelia; he is mad with love to Polonius, mad with (perhaps) ambition to the king; he is a rational truth seeker to Horatio; and he is all these things plus a philosopher and a producer-director to the audience. He is also caught in the scene he has set, which includes Claudius, Gertrude, the court, and the archaic performance of The Murder of Gonzago.

The strange repetition involved in having the dumb-show before the spoken play—for which scholarship has found no precedent11—must be significant. Let us not, at this crucial point, try to argue that Shakespeare nodded, or that he has been misrepresented. The dumb-show is in the Second Quarto as well as the Folio. It must be essential to Shakespeare's plan and plot. Philosophically, it adds a layer to the several layers of unreality that have been developed and projected: there is play within play within play. Practically, the repetition is needed if we are to follow Hamlet into all the relationships that have grown up about him. Particularly if the play is presented as an imitation of an action, the complexities of Hamlet's character will appear in what he does as he acts his relations to the others and further finds himself in each act. As each moment and event add something to Hamlet's character, he must be acted as discovering himself, and he must be more surprised by his conduct than the audience is. This is asking a good deal, but it indicates the direction that will be taken in the staging in order to put the emphasis of the performance on the events (which of course include the relationships, the ideas, and the values involved) and show that as they take place the characters respond to them.

Well, one may reply, it takes a character to do something, since all that happens is what people do. Yes, but especially in Hamlet it is common to see the hero displaying himself, reciting Shakespeare, and regarding the stage and the rest of the cast as foils to his performance. The importance of shifting the emphasis to the action is that doing so brings more effective forces to bear on the hero.

The Mousetrap scene must show Hamlet trying almost desperately to play all his roles at once. He must direct the players, who may overdo it and "give all away." He must "use" Ophelia somehow in order to confuse Polonius and those who think he is mad for love, while he also vents his wrath in sarcasm because he is not sure what he thinks of her or how much he needs her. It is because of such conduct—in which only a part of his attention comes to focus on her—that he can contribute to her distraction partly by heedlessness and partly by an explosive rather than an intended cruelty. He must watch Gertrude, whom he suspects of complicity in the murder and whose lecherous compliance disgusts him; here, again, his responses are more heedless than reasoned. Attempts to carry out Dover Wilson's suggestion that Hamlet is, to the court, mad with ambition, have not been successful; yet the idea is unmistakably present in his own words, "This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king," describing the poisoner. Either this is a planned threat to poison Claudius in order to convey the theme of madness-from-ambition—or it may come as an impulsive exclamation, unplanned and as dangerous to his cause as his wild words in the Nunnery scene. Of all his tasks, Hamlet's most urgent is that he watch Claudius, even though he has assigned this duty to Horatio. There must also be time for the audience to observe Claudius in various states of boredom, infatuation, anxiety, and terror.

To convey this tremendous complexity of action, illusion, and perception, two performances are scarcely enough. If the dumbshow is omitted, it is because the director does not have anything to "say" through it, and that will be because he does not take the plot seriously because he is tracing everything to "what is the matter" with Hamlet. It would be a great challenge to a director to convey the three-level phantasmagoria of reality and illusion, where the stately court is a false front and the archaic play is the starkest actuality. This confusion of illusion and reality might be portrayed with lighting. It could have been rendered on Shakespeares stage if one group of actors were stiffly artificial and the other the opposite. Thus the Mousetrap players could talk their quaint verse but act like contemporaries, whereas Claudius and the court could appear like cardboard figures while speaking their "real life" English. I think we tend today to underrate the poetic and expressive subtleties that must have been easy to the Elizabethan-Jacobean stage. There was a relatively small community; the actors worked together month after month; the sensitivity to language was certainly more richly cultivated than it is today where there are so many other media of communication; the greatest poet of our language, at the very apogee of an exploding art form, was working with complexities of language and imagery which must have been rendered with subtleties of acting and staging that we do not see in the clumsy models and pictures of the Globe Theatre that we know. All this would have to be presented with exactly the right balance between the bewildering action and the reactions of Hamlet. Trying to manage all his roles and his inquiries, trying to understand what is happening around him, the Prince is caught up in a fury of activity. That he is not completely confused is a tribute to his great courage and intelligence, but he is far from being in control of the situation.

Right after the Mousetrap, when Claudius has run off in panic and Hamlet has danced a triumphant jig, the interview with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern follows naturally enough. Hamlet has to contain his wild exhilaration and conceal his intentions. And Shakespeare has to give some relief from the tension built up with the climax of the Mousetrap; he knew that tension would at a point give way to laughter if it were not relieved, and he had an instinct for timing his relief in a manner that advanced or enriched the action. The entrance of these two timeservers shows that the forces against Hamlet are gathering and that he is so much in disfavor that these upstart courtiers dare to speak severely to him. At no point in the play, perhaps, does Hamlet jump about so in language and manner: he pours out puns and veiled attacks; he feigns madness most energetically; and yet he must also use the recorder for a thinly-veiled censure of these impertinent upstarts who are so obviously trying to sound a man who is worlds beyond them—worlds beyond, yet confused enough to reveal his intensity and his intelligence at the very moments when he is also letting off steam in his wild foolery and feigning madness to the top of his bent! The scene is an extraordinary epitome of the action thus far; and the short concluding soliloquy, delivered so fiercely and confusedly, beginning with "Now could I drink hot blood, / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on," and in the next sentence directing all this to his mother along with an injunction "O heart, lose not thy nature … speak daggers to her, but use none,"—this shows the accumulated fury and confusion of a man who is far from being in control either of himself or the situation.

If the Mousetrap were handled as I propose, the mystery of the following prayer scene would clear itself up. The impact of the former would account for Hamlet's being unable to come to terms with his opportunity when it offered itself. It comes too soon, and there is far too much on Hamlet's mind when it comes. One might say that the walls have hardly stopped whirling around him. He has been transported into a world of thought, and the poor figure of Claudius at prayer is a dim grey shadow on the fringe of this inner light. Hamlet must be shown struggling to believe in its reality, and his soliloquy must show how his created imaginings put him into such a detachment from the living Claudius that he must invent the pretext for passing him by and going on to his mother in her closet. There the rupture of illusion-reality takes a form with which he thinks he may be able to cope. And it is not improbable, psychologically, that an individual would organize his scattered forces by bringing himself somewhat violently to bear on a single "manageable" issue. This is what Hamlet does in going to his mother. He will wring her heart and make her see the true moral image of her conduct. But again events take command. Polonius stirs behind the arras, and Hamlet is galvanized into action. Having killed Polonius, he is again beside himself with the intensities and complexities of the situation.

He is, indeed, so carried away by the violence generated in killing Polonius that he goes on and on in his attack on Gertrude until the ghost himself intervenes to protect her. Here the confusions of illusion and reality multiply with a vengeance. The outraged spirit of Hamlet's father comes back a second time to protect the incestuous queen who has figured so largely in the court life that dismays Hamlet. And here Hamlet learns not only that Gertrude was innocent of any part in the murder of her husband but also something of the utmost importance—namely, that the ghost is genuine.

Three centuries of critics have explored the question whether the ghost is "a spirit of health or goblin damned," and from a hundred angles. At one extreme it is dismissed as a trivial matter; at the other extreme it is the question that accounts for Hamlet's delay. I think Hamlet believed the ghost when he first saw it but came to doubt it as he doubted everything when the tensions and contradictions in his situation became overpowering. When the ghost intervenes to protect Gertrude, he proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that he is indeed the ghost of the dead king. Only a true spirit would show such tender concern for his lost and faithless wife. Yet this important proof has been largely ignored by the critics—because they are no longer interested in the action. The question of "what is the matter with Hamlet" comes to a dead end, a paralysis, with the prayer scene, and the play seems to break in two at that point for the psycho-philosophical critics. The arguments for sparing Claudius are too horrible, so horrible that many critics have been reduced to saying that Hamlet must spare Claudius in order to permit a fourth and fifth act! Not knowing why he fails to kill Claudius, they have no bridge to the next scene, in the queen's closet. The "action" has become only a patchwork assembled to give Hamlet a stage for ranting over the praying king and, presently, the obtuse and libidinous queen.

But if the action is taken seriously, we can see the complexity of event-and-reaction that Shakespeare has contrived. From the dim praying king, Hamlet goes to the guilty queen. Killing Polonius, he is himself galvanized to fury. The ghost comes to protect the queen and, as he says, "to whet thy almost blunted purpose," and for a moment he does succeed in bringing Hamlet back to a more controlled and reasonable disposition. But right here another factor comes to bear: the queen thinks Hamlet is indeed mad, because she does not see the ghost, and the exasperation of trying to convince Gertrude that he is not mad, so that he can bring her thoughts back to her own guilt, raises him immediately to a new pitch of fury. He goes on and on with his lecture, but, between the queen's terror of his violence and her desire to ignore his "mad" reproofs, he has lost what slight control of the situation he might have gained. He is right, and his words are wonderfully eloquent, but Gertrude has neither the desire nor the ability to see this Tightness through the chaos of violence in which she is plunged. We don't carry on a quiet talk about morals while the body of a murdered counsellor is lying, still warm, a few feet away! Yet Hamlet has not time to wait for a calmer hour; he must make matters worse by driving ahead, and his very lucidity only furthers the queen's bewilderment.

Interpreters of the first scene in Act IV have a way of assuming that Shakespeare has not written what he intended and so must be "explained." If they want to argue that Hamlet has convinced Gertrude of his sanity in the previous scene, they then claim that Gertrude is pretending in this scene; but elsewhere they tell us that Shakespeare frequently gives the most explicit stage directions right in the dialogue. He does, and nowhere are these directions more precise than here. Claudius says, "There's matter in these sighs, these profound heaves; / You must translate; 'tis fit we understand them." Sighs and profound heaves do not describe terror but sorrow—nothing else. Gertrude is heaving deep, sorrowful sighs because she knows now that Hamlet is mad. And when she says he is "Mad as the seas and wind, when both contend / Which is the mightier. In his lawless fit, / Behind the arras hearing something stir, / He whips his rapier out, and cries, 'A rat, a rat!' / And, in his brainish apprehension, kills / The unseen good old man," she is saying exactly what she believes. This is no time—and there is not that much room in the drama—for a while new set of speculations about Gertrude's motives, or about her pretending now in order to protect Hamlet from the king's wrath. She has not been convinced; she has not come over to Hamlet's side; simple-mindedly as always she has reacted as almost anyone would react when a son raves and raves and then sees a ghost that isn't there.

The point of this scene is that Hamlet's roles have taken over. He has spoken with brilliance, deep feeling, and great lucidity. The audience understands him perfectly. It must also be allowed to understand that Hamlet has complete and utterly failed to get his message across to his mother. This is the final irony and the final step in his isolation: his mother loves him, and yet she has not "heard" a word that he has said to her. Grieving deeply, she only wants to get him out of the country, and she utters no word opposing Claudius's decision to send him to England. Claudius, of course, knows better; he understands Hamlet almost as well as the audience does. He certainly grasps the practical aspects of the problem, and he acts instantly to get Hamlet out of the way. In fact, the communication between Hamlet and Claudius has always been pretty accurate. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear to put Hamlet, in effect, under arrest (IV, ii), he feigns madness to the top of his impudent bent, even while letting the audience feel his confusion, his justified rage, and his desperation at having worked himself into a situation where he cannot act—to say nothing of his having thought so much about it that he has got out of the way of acting. But when these rascals bring Hamlet to the king, there is a real moment of truth when between the pass and fell incensed points, the mighty opposites look one another in the eye with total, but secret, understanding:

Claud: … The bark is ready, and the wind
  at help,
The associates tend, and everything is bent
For England.
Ham:            For England?
Claud:                     Ay, Hamlet.
Ham:                                Good.

Claud: SO is it, if thou knew'st our purposes.
Ham: I see a cherub that sees them.

Such directness is now neither irresponsible nor a luxury, for Claudius has already signed the order for Hamlet's death. This moment of truth is the lowest ebb of the hero's fortune up to this point; now, in whatever role, he has lost not only the initiative but also his freedom of action—and almost his life.

In the rest of Act IV and the first scenes of Act V, we have a typical Shakespearean device: the action slows down and spreads out, so that the audience has time to assimilate the meaning of what has happened and become ready to receive the full impact and meaning of what follows. If we have followed Hamlet up to this point, we have seen an ideal Renaissance prince becoming entrapped by situations and responses to them that make him detached, speculative, philosophical—and also alienated among his unstable, unpractical roles—and also exasperated and violent both because of his inability to act and to communicate and because of seeing himself performing in a manner that is totally surprising to him.

Now with the fourth-act expansion and relaxation, we have time to grasp and feel what Hamlet has become: He has become wiser and deeper. He does not feel quite so close to his burden of revenge; he is not hemmed-in and exasperated; and he is thinking of man in larger perspectives than he could have before. This summary is of course a barren thing beside the wonders of Shakespeare's poetry; it is meant only to indicate what the audience will feel if the performance has brought it up through a consistent action in which the actor has developed with the characterization so that he thinks his lines instead of merely reciting them.

If Hamlet is more objective, he is also more removed from the immediate pressure of bloody revenge: the examples of a drunken, lustful king and a complaisant mother are not before his eyes. Yet the problem remains. The ideal prince is still burdened with his grisly duty, which honor enjoins as severely as it ever did. And Hamlet still knows, still accepts it, but with the great difference that is expressed in his humorous and philosophical attitude toward the gravediggers. He has placed the warring elements in a perspective, not of resignation but of wisdom, the depth of which makes the contrast between Hamlet and the twentieth-century hollow man appear vast indeed. Today's hero would continue to doubt everything, and the story would end in guilt and despair, with perhaps some adventitious affirmation of the essential dignity of man. I say adventitious because although deeply felt it would not have been realized in the action. Hamlet's insights do not make him doubt the essential values of his world. If he has lamented being its scourge and minister, yet he has accepted the task and has now grown more convinced of its dignity and importance. The cost of such wisdom is that he returns to Denmark not knowing how the forces against him will be organized.

And of course the facts soon fly at him thick and fast. When he sees Ophelia being buried with maimed rites and the crass Laertes beating his breast in the grave, his wild roles take instant possession, and an ultimate epitome of his feigning-mad-furious-hysteria occurs. Never was Hamlet so earnestly idealistic, never does he appear more insane to the others, and never does he play more openly into the hands of his enemies. What he has lived through in the previous Acts is now a part of him that he cannot slough off. Nor can the perspective of wisdom and insight, once gained, stop the various counter-movements he has set in motion in the costly process of gaining it.

He reaffirms his clear knowledge of his duty:

Does it not, thinks't thee, stand me now
He that hath kill'd my king and whor'd my
Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage—is't not perfect
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?
Hor: It must be shortly known to him from
What is the issue of the business there.
Ham: It will be short; the interim is mine,
And a man's life's no more than to say
                            (V, ii, 63-74)

And a few moments later he balances this with the moving fatalism of a speech in which he shows that he is now caught in a grand action which he may not be able to dominate—or even survive:

Not a whit; we defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.

(V, ii, 230-235)

From this level of humor, wisdom, and acceptance, Hamlet goes into the final catastrophic action where he acquits himself magnificently. Here, finally, the mocking, the feigning, and the uncontrolled fury are absent. He reaches the top of his princely greatness in matching the combined trickery of Claudius and Laertes—matching only, for mastering it would be too much to expect.

I have not discussed these latter scenes in great detail because in them the power and dominance of the plot is absolute, overpoweringly so in the final scene; and if the audience has been taken along with a consistent, growing Hamlet up to the middle of Act IV, there is little fear that the interpretation will go astray thereafter. Indeed, the character developed will cast a dazzling light on the closing action. Throughout this discussion, I have touched very lightly on the satiric humor, the good nature, and the verbal brilliance of Hamlet—not because these do not contribute enormously to his personality and to our pleasure in the play, but because I have tried to restrict myself to the particular problem of the relation of characterization to plot. The constant presence of these elements, which Aristotle called ethos and intellect, cannot be missed.


1 New York, 1949, p. 744.

2Ibid., p. 745.



5Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes.

6 Kittredge's Notes to his edition.

7The Heart of Hamlet, N. Y., 1960.

8Art and Artifice in Shakespeare, N. Y., 1951.

9What Happens in Hamlet, p. 108.

10The Question of Hamlet, New York, 1959, pp. 156ff.

11 Dover Wilson discusses this fact at length in What Happens in Hamlet.

Arthur Kirsch (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Hamlet's Grief," in ELH, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 17-36.

[In this essay. Kirsch examines the theme of grief in Hamlet, arguing that the betrayed character of Hamlet suffers throughout the play in a manner more consistent with a state of mourning than one of melancholy and mental derangement.]

Hamlet is a tragedy perhaps most often, and justly, admired for its intellectual energy. Hamlet's mind comprehends a universe of ideas, and he astonishes us with the copiousness and eloquence and luminousness of his thoughts. But I think we should remember, as Hamlet is compelled to remember, that behind these thoughts, and usually their occasion, is a continuous and tremendous experience of pain and suffering. We are accustomed to thinking of the other major tragedies, Lear and Othello especially, as plays whose greatest genius lies in the depiction of the deepest movements of human feeling. I think we should attend to such movements in Hamlet as well. As Hamlet himself tells us, it is his heart which he unpacks with words, it is against what he calls the "heart-ache" (III. 1.62)1 of human existence that he protests in his most famous soliloquy (and this is the first use of the term in that sense the OED records), and there are few plays in the canon in which the word "heart" itself is more prominent.

Hamlet is a revenge play, and judging by the prodigious number of performances, parodies, and editions of The Spanish Tragedy alone, the genre enjoyed an extraordinary popularity on the Elizabethan stage. Part of the reason for that popularity is the theatrical power of the revenge motif itself. The quest for vengeance satisfies an audience's most primitive wishes for intrigue and violence. "The Tragic Auditory," as Charles Lamb once remarked, "wants blood,"2 and the revenge motif provides it in abundance. Equally important, it gives significant shape to the plot and sustained energy to the action.3 But if vengeance composes the plot of the revenge play, grief composes its essential emotional content, its substance. There is a character in Marlowe's Jew of Malta who, finding the body of his son killed in a duel, cries out in his loss that he wishes his son had been murdered so that he could avenge his death.4 It is a casual line, but it suggests a deep connection between anger and sorrow in the revenge play genre itself which both Kyd and Shakespeare draw upon profoundly. At the end of The Spanish Tragedy the ghost of Andrea says, "Ay, now my hopes have end in their effects, / When blood and sorrow finish my desires,"5 and it was unquestionably Kyd's brilliance in representing the elemental power of sorrow, as well as of blood, that enabled the revenge genre to establish so large a claim on the Elizabethan theatrical imagination. The speeches in which Hieronimo gives voice to his grief, including the famous, "Oh eyes! no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears; / Oh life! no life, but lively form of death,"6 were parodied for decades after their first performance, so great was their impact, and the moving figure of an old man maddened with grief over the loss of his son was a major part of Shakespeare's theatrical inheritance.

In Shakespeare's play it is Hamlet himself who talks explicitly of sorrow and blood, relating them directly to the ghost as well as each other in the scene in his mother's bedchamber in which the ghost appears for the last time. "Look you," he tells his mother, who characteristically cannot see the ghost,

                     how pale he glares.
His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to
Would make them capable.—Do not look
  upon me
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects; then what I have to do
Will want true colour—tears perchance for

These lines suggest synapses between grief and vengeance which help make the whole relation between the plot and emotional content of Hamlet intelligible, but of more immediate importance to an understanding of the play is Hamlet's own emphasis in this speech, his focus on his grief and the profound impact which the ghost has upon it.

The note of grief is sounded by Hamlet in his first words in the play, before he ever sees the ghost, in his opening dialogue with the King and his mother. The Queen says to him:

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know'st 'tis common—all that lives
  must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Hamlet answers, "Ay, madam, it is common," "If it be, / Why seems it so particular with thee?" she says; and he responds,

Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems.
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of
That can denote me truly. These, indeed,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show—
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Though Hamlet's use of the conventional Elizabethan forms of mourning expresses his hostility to an unfeeling court, he is at the same time speaking deeply of an experience which everyone who has lost someone close to him must recognize. He is speaking of the early stages of grief, of its shock, of its inner and still hidden sense of loss, and trying to describe what is not fully describable—the literally inexpressible wound whose immediate consequence is the dislocation, if not transvaluation, of our customary perceptions and feelings and attachments to life. It is no accident that this speech sets in motion Hamlet's preoccupation with seeming and being, including the whole train of images of acting which is crystallized in the play within the play. The peculiar centripetal pull of anger and sorrow which the speech depicts remains as the central undercurrent of that preoccupation, most notably in Hamlet's later soliloquy about the player's imitation of Hecuba's grief:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd;
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function
With forms to his conceit? And all for
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have?

Hamlet then goes on to rebuke himself for his own inaction, but the player's imitation of grief nonetheless moves him internally, as nothing else can, in fact to take action, as he conceives of the idea of staging a play to test both the ghost and the conscience of the King.

After Hamlet finishes answering his mother in the earlier court scene, the King offers his own consolation for Hamlet's grief:

'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature,
To give these mourning duties to your father;
But you must know your father lost a father;
That father lost lost his; and the survivor
In filial obligation, for some term
To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd;

For what we know must be, and is as
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd; whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died today,
'This must be so'.

There is much in this consolation of philosophy which is spiritually and psychologically sound, and to which every human being must eventually accommodate himself, but it comes at the wrong time, from the wrong person, and in its essential belittlement of the heart-ache of grief, it comes with the wrong inflection. It is a dispiriting irony of scholarship on this play that so many psychoanalytic and theological critics should essentially take such words, from such a King, as a text for their own indictments of Hamlet's behavior. What a person who is grieving needs, of course, is not the consolation of words, even words which are true, but sympathy—and this Hamlet does not receive, not from the court, not from his uncle, and more important, not from his own mother, to whom his grief over his father's death is alien and unwelcome.

After the King and Queen leave the stage, it is to his mother's lack of sympathy not only for him but for her dead husband that Hamlet turns in particular pain:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! Ah, fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not
So excellent a king that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother,
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on't. Frailty, thy name is
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father's
Like Niobe, all tears—why she, even she—
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer—married with my
My father's brother; but no more like my
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break, my heart, for I must hold my

This is an exceptionally suggestive speech and the first of many which seem to invite Oedipal interpretations of the play. About these I do not propose to speak directly, except to remark that the source of Hamlet's so-called Oedipal anxiety is real and present, it is not an archaic and repressed fantasy. Hamlet does perhaps protest too much, in this soliloquy and elsewhere, about his father's superiority to his uncle (and to himself), and throughout the play he is clearly preoccupied with his mother's sexual appetite; but these ambivalences and preoccupations, whatever their unconscious roots, are elicited by a situation, palpable and external to him, in which they are acted out. The Oedipal configu-rations of Hamlet's predicament, in other words, inhabit the whole world of the play, they are not simply a function of his characterization, even though they resonate with it profoundly. There is every reason, in reality, for a son to be troubled and decomposed by the appetite of a mother who betrays his father's memory by her incestuous marriage,7 within a month, to his brother, and murderer, and there is surely more than reason for a son to be obsessed for a time with a father who literally returns from the grave to haunt him. But in any case, I think that at least early in the play, if not also later, such Oedipal echoes cannot be disentangled from Hamlet's grief, and Shakespeare's purpose in arousing them is not to call Hamlet's character to judgment, but to expand our understanding of the nature and intensity of his suffering. For all of these resonant events come upon Hamlet while he has still not even begun to assimilate the loss of a living father, while he is still freshly mourning, seemingly alone in Denmark, for the death of a King, and their major psychic impact and importance, I think, is that they protract and vastly dilate the process of his grief.

Freud called this process the work of mourning and described it in his essay, "Mourning and Melancholia," in a way which seems to me exceptionally germane to this play. Almost all of Freud's ideas can also be found in some form in the vast Renaissance literature on melancholy, but I think Freud's discussion best suggests the coherence they had in Shakespeare's imagination.8 The major preoccupation of the essay is, in fact, the pathology of melancholy, or what we would now more commonly call depression, but in the course of his discussion Freud finds unusually suggestive analogies and distinctions between mourning and melancholy. He points out, to begin with, that except in one respect, the characteristics of normal grief and of pathological depression are the same, and that the two states can easily be confused—as they are, I think, endemically, in interpretations of Hamlet's character. "The distinguishing mental features of melancholia," Freud writes,

are a profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. This picture becomes a little more intelligible when we consider that, with one exception, the same traits are met with in grief. The fall in self-esteem is absent in grief; but otherwise the features are the same. Profound mourning, the reaction to the loss of a loved person, contains the same feeling of pain, loss of interest in the outside world—in so far as it does not recall the dead one—loss of capacity to adopt any new object of love, which would mean a replacing of the one mourned, the same turning from every active effort that is not connected with thoughts of the dead. It is easy to see that this inhibition and circumscription in the ego is the expression of an exclusive devotion to its mourning, which leaves nothing over for other purposes or interests.

Freud remarks that "though grief involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a morbid condition and hand the mourner over to medical treatment. We rest assured that after a lapse of time it will be overcome, and we look upon any interference with it as inadvisable or even harmful."9

The process by which grief is overcome, the work of mourning, Freud describes as a struggle—the struggle between the instinctive human disposition to remain libidinally bound to the dead person and the necessity to acknowledge the clear reality of his loss. "The task," Freud writes,

is now carried through bit by bit, under great expense of time and cathectic energy, while all the time the existence of the lost object is continued in the mind. Each single one of the memories and hopes which bound the libido to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected, and the detachment of the libido from it accomplished. Why this process of carrying out the behest of reality bit by bit, which is in the nature of a compromise, should be so extraordinarily painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of mental economics. It is worth noting that this pain seems natural to us. The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.10

Freud's wonderment at the pain of grief must seem odd to most of us, and I think it may be a function of his general incapacity throughout his writing, including Beyond the Pleasure Principle, to deal adequately with death itself. The issue is important because it is related to an astonishing lapse in the argument of "Mourning and Melancholia," which is critical to an understanding of Hamlet, and which might have helped Freud himself account for the extraordinary pain of grief in terms of his own conception of mental economics. For what Freud leaves out in his consideration of mourning is its normal but enormously disturbing component of protest and anger—initially anger at being wounded and abandoned, but fundamentally a protest, both conscious and unconscious, against the inescapably mortal condition of human life.

Freud finds such anger in abundance in depression, and with his analysis of that state I would not presume to quarrel. The salient points of his argument are that in depression there is "an unconscious loss of a love-object, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss," and that there is a fall of self-esteem and a consistent cadence of self-reproach which is also not found in mourning. The key to an understanding of this condition, Freud continues, is the perception that the self-criticism of depression is really anger turned inwards, "that the self-reproaches are reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted on to the patient's own ego." The "complaints" of depressed people, he remarks, "are really 'plaints' in the legal sense of the word … everything derogatory that they say of themselves relates at bottom to someone else. …" All the actions of a depressed person, Freud concludes, "proceed from an attitude of revolt, a mental constellation which by a certain process has become transformed into melancholic contrition."11 Freud's explanation of the dynamics of this process is involved and technical, but there are two major points which emerge clearly and which are highly relevant to Hamlet. The first is that there is, in a depressed person, "an identification of the ego with the abandoned object." "The shadow of the object," he says, "falls upon the ego," so that the ego can "henceforth be criticized by a special mental faculty like an object, like the forsaken object. In this way the loss of the object becomes transformed into a loss in the ego. … "12 The second point which Freud stresses is that because there is an ambivalent relation to the lost object to begin with, the regressive movement towards identification is also accompanied by a regressive movement towards sadism, a movement whose logical culmination is suicide, the killing in the self of the lost object with whom the depressed person has so thoroughly identified. Freud adds that in only one other situation in human life is the ego so overwhelmed by the object, and that is in the state of intense love.

With these analogies and distinctions in mind, let us now return to the opening scene at court. As I have already suggested, in his first speech to his mother, "Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems," Hamlet speaks from the very heart of grief of the supervening reality of his loss and of its inward wound, and I think the accent of normal, if intense, grief remains dominant in his subsequent soliloquy as well. It is true that in that soliloquy his mind turns to thoughts of "self-slaughter," but those thoughts notwithstanding, the emphasis of the speech is not one of self-reproach. It is not himself, but the uses of the world which Hamlet finds "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable," and his mother's frailty suggests a rankness and grossness in nature itself. The "plaints" against his mother which occupy the majority of this speech are conscious and both his anger and ambivalence towards her fully justified. Even on the face of it, her hasty remarriage makes a mockery of his father's memory that intensifies the real pain and loneliness of his loss; and if he also feels his own ego threatened, and if there is a deeper cadence of grief in his words, it is because he is already beginning to sense that the shadow of a crime "with the primal eldest curse upon't" (III.3.37) has fallen upon him, a crime which is not delusional and not his, and which eventually inflicts a punishment upon him which tries his spirit and destroys his life. The last lines of Hamlet's soliloquy are:

It is noet, nor it cannot come to good.
But break, my heart, for I must hold my

These lines show Hamlet's prescience, not his disease, and the instant he completes them, Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo enter to tell him of the apparition of his dead father, the ghost which is haunting the kingdom and which has been a part of our own consciousness from the very outset of the play.

Hamlet's subsequent meeting with the ghost of his father is, it seems to me, both the structural and psychic nexus of the play. The scene is so familiar to us that the extraordinary nature of its impact on Hamlet can be overlooked, even in the theater. The whole scene deserves quotation, but I will concentrate upon only the last part of it. The scene begins with Hamlet expressing pity for the ghost and the ghost insisting that he attend to a more "serious" purpose:

Ghost.                     List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love—
Ham. O God!
Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural

The ghost then confirms to Hamlet's prophetic soul that "The serpent that did sting thy father's life / Now wears his crown," and he proceeds to describe both Gertrude's remarriage and his own murder in his orchard in terms that seem deliberately to evoke echoes of the serpent in the garden of Eden. The ghost ends his recital saying:

O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsomever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, not let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught; leave her to
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once.
The glowworm shows the matin to be near,
And gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me. [Exit.]

Hamlet's answering speech, as the ghost exits, is pro-found, and it predicates the state of his mind and feeling until the beginning of the last act of the play:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold,
  my heart;
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word:
It is 'Adieu, adieu! Remember me'.
I have sworn't.

This is a crucial and dreadful vow for many reasons, but the most important, as I think Freud places us in a position to understand, is that the ghost's injunction to remember him, an injunction which Shakespeare's commitment to the whole force of the revenge genre never really permits either us or Hamlet to question, brutally intensifies Hamlet's mourning and makes him incorporate in its work what we would normally regard as the pathology of depression. For as we have seen, the essence of the work of mourning is the internal process by which the ego heals its wound, differentiates itself from the object, and slowly, bit by bit, cuts its libidinal ties with the one who has died. Yet this is precisely what the ghost forbids, and forbids, moreover, with a lack of sympathy for Hamlet's grief which is even more pronounced than the Queen's. He instead tells Hamlet that if ever he loved his father, he should remember him; he tells Hamlet of Gertrude's incestuous remarriage in a way which makes her desire, if not the libido itself, seem inseparable from murder and death; and finally he tells Hamlet to kill. Drawing upon and crystallizing the deepest energies of the revenge play genre, the ghost thus enjoins Hamlet to identify with him in his sorrow and to give murderous purpose to his anger. He consciously compels in Hamlet, in other words, the regressive movement towards identification and sadism which together usually constitute the unconscious dynamics of depression. It is only after this scene that Hamlet feels punished with what he later calls "a sore distraction" (V.2.222) and that he begins to reproach himself for his own nature and to meditate on suicide. The ghost, moreover, not only compels this process in Hamlet, like much of the world of the play, he incarnates it. The effect of his appearance and behest to Hamlet is to literalize Hamlet's subsequent movement toward the realm of death which he inhabits, and away from all of the libidinal ties which nourish life and make it desirable, away from "all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past." As C. S. Lewis insisted long ago, the ghost leads Hamlet into a spiritual and psychic region which seems poised between the living and the dead.13 It is significant that Hamlet is subsequently described in images that suggest the ghost's countenance14 and significant too, as we shall see later, that Hamlet's own appearance and state of mind change, at the beginning of Act V, at the moment when it is possible to say that he has finally come to terms with the ghost and with his father's death and has completed the work of mourning.

I think Shakespeare intends us always to retain a sense of intensified mourning rather than of disease in Hamlet, partly because Hamlet is always conscious of the manic roles he plays and is always lucid with Horatio, but also because his thoughts and feelings turn outward as well as inward and his behavior is finally a symbiotic response to the actually diseased world of the play. And though that diseased world, poisoned at the root by a truly guilty King, eventually represents an overwhelming tangle of guilt, its main emphasis, both for Hamlet and for us, is the experience of grief. The essential focus of the action as well as the source of its consistent pulsations of feeling, the pulsations which continuously charge both Hamlet's sorrow and his anger (and in which the whole issue of delay is subsumed) is the actuality of conscious, not unconscious loss. For in addition to the death of his father in this play, Hamlet suffers the loss amounting to death of all those persons, except Horatio, whom he has most loved and who have most animated and given meaning to his life. He loses his mother, he loses Ophelia, and he loses his friends; and we can have no question that these losses are real and inescapable.

The loss of his mother is the most intense and the hardest to discuss. One should perhaps leave her to heaven as the ghost says, but even he cannot follow that advice. As I have already suggested, Hamlet is genuinely betrayed by her. She betrays him most directly, I think, by her lack of sympathy for him. She is clearly sexually drawn and loyal to her new husband, and she is said to live almost by Hamlet's looks, but she is essentially inert, oblivious to the whole realm of human experience through which her son travels. She seems not to care, and seems particularly not to care about his grief. Early in the play, when Claudius and others are in hectic search of the reason for Hamlet's melancholy, she says with bovine imperturb-ability, "I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage" (II.2.56). That o'erhasty and incestuous marriage, of course, creates a reservoir of literally grievous anger in Hamlet. It suggests to him the impermanence upon which the Player King later insists,15 the impermanence of human affection as well as of life, and it also, less obviously, compels him to think of the violation of the union which gave him his own life and being. It is very difficult, in any circumstance, to think precisely upon our parents and their relationship without causing deep tremors in our selves, and for Hamlet the circumstances are extraordinary. In addition marriage itself has a sacramental meaning to him which has been largely lost to modern sensibility. Like the ghost, Hamlet always speaks reverently of the sanctity of marital vows, and the one occasion on which he mocks marriage is in fact an attack upon Claudius's presumption to have replaced his father. As he is leaving for England, Hamlet addresses Claudius and says, "Farewell, dear Mother." Claudius says, "Thy loving father, Hamlet," and Hamlet answers, "My mother: father and mother is man and wife; man and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother" (IV.3.49). Behind the Scriptural image in this ferocious attack upon Claudius, it seems to me, is both Hamlet's memory of his father's true marriage with his mother, a memory which has an almost pre-lapsarian resonance, and a visualization of the concupiscence through which his mother has defiled that sacrament and made Claudius's guilt a part of her own being. This same adulterated image of matrimony, I think, lies behind his intense reproaches both against himself and Ophelia in the speech in which he urges Ophelia to go to a nunnery:

Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?


Some of Hamlet's anger against Ophelia spills over, as it does in this speech, from his rage against his mother, but Ophelia herself gives him cause. I don't think there is any reason to doubt her own word, at the beginning of the play, that Hamlet has importuned her "with love / In honourable fashion … And hath given countenance to his speech … With almost all the holy vows of heaven" (I.3.110); and there is certainly no reason to question his own passionate declaration at the end of the play, over her grave, that he loved her deeply.

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum.
                                   (V. 1.262)

Both Hamlet's grief and his task constrain him from realizing this love, but Ophelia's own behavior clearly intensifies his frustration and anguish. By keeping the worldly and disbelieving advice of her brother and father as "watchman" to her "heart" (I.3.46), she denies the heart's affection not only in Hamlet but in herself; and both denials add immeasurably to Hamlet's sense of loneliness and loss—and anger. Her rejection of him echoes his mother's inconstancy and denies him the possibility even of imagining the experience of loving and being loved by a woman at a time when he obviously needs such love most profoundly; and her rejection of her own heart reminds him of the evil court whose shadow, he accurately senses, has fallen upon her and directly threatens him. Most of Hamlet's speeches to Ophelia condense all of these feelings. They are spoken from a sense of suppressed as well as rejected love, for the ligaments between him and Ophelia are very deep in the play. It is she who first reports on his melancholy transformation, "with a look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors" (II. 1.82); it is she who remains most acutely conscious of the nobility of mind and form which has, she says, been "blasted with ecstasy" (III. 1.160); and it is she, after Hamlet has gone to England, who most painfully takes up his role and absorbs his grief to the point of real madness and suicide.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are less close to Hamlet's heart, and because they are such unequivocal sponges of the King, he can release his anger against them without any ambivalence, but at least initially they too amplify both his and our sense of the increasing emptiness of his world. We are so accustomed to treating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as vaguely comic twins that we can forget the great warmth with which Hamlet first welcomes them to Denmark and the urgency and openness of his plea for the continuation of their friendship. "I will not sort you with the rest of my servants," he tells them,

for, to speak to you like an honest man, I am most dreadfully attended. But, in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?

Ros. To visit you, my lord; no other occasion.

Ham. Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks; but I thank you; and sure, dear friends, my thanks are too dear a halfpenny. Were you not sent for? Is it you own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, come, deal justly with me. Come, come; nay, speak.

Guil. What should we say, my lord?

Ham. Why any thing. But to th' purpose: you were sent for; and there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to colour; I know the good King and Queen have sent for you.

Ros. To what end, my lord?

Ham. That you must teach me. But let me conjure you by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer can charge you withal, be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for or no?


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course, cannot be direct with him, and Hamlet cuts his losses with them quite quickly and eventually quite savagely. But it is perhaps no accident that immediately following this exchange, when he must be fully realizing the extent to which, except for Horatio, he is now utterly alone in Denmark with his grief and his task, he gives that grief a voice which includes in its deep sadness and its sympathetic imagination a conspectus of Renaissance thought about the human condition. "I have of late," he tells his former friends,

—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this magestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


"In grief," Freud remarks in "Mourning and Melancholia," "the world becomes poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself."16 1 think it should now be evident that during most of the action of Hamlet we cannot make this distinction. For the first four acts of the play, the world in which Hamlet must exist and act is characterized in all its parts not merely as diseased, but specifically for Hamlet, as one which actually is being emptied of all the human relationships which nourish the ego and give it purpose and vitality. It is a world which is essentially defined—generically, psychically, spiritually—by a ghost whose very countenance, "more in sorrow than in anger" (I.2.231), binds Hamlet to a course of grief which is deeper and wider than any in our literature. It is a world of mourning.

At the beginning of Act V, when Hamlet returns from England, that world seems to change, and Hamlet with it. Neither the countenance of the ghost nor his tormented and tormenting spirit seem any longer to be present in the play, and Hamlet begins to alter in state of mind as he already has in his dress. He stands in the graveyard which visually epitomizes the play's preoccupation with death, a scene which the clowns insistently associate with Adam's sin and Hamlet himself with Cain's, and he contemplates the "chap-fall'n" skull of the man who carried him on his back when he was a small child. His mood, like the scene, is essentially sombre, but though there is a suggestion by Horatio that he is still considering death "too curiously" (V. 1.200), there is no longer the sense that he and his world are conflated in the convulsive activity of grief. That activity seems to be drawing to a close, and his own sense of differentiation is decisively crystallized when, in a scene reminiscent of the one in which he reacts to the imitation of Hecuba's grief, he responds to Laertes's enactment of a grief which seems a parody of his own:

                     What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of
Conjures the wand'ring stars, and makes them
Like wonder-wounded hearers. This is I,
Hamlet the Dane.
                               (V. 1.248)

It is an especially painful but inescapable paradox of Hamlet's tragedy that the final ending of his grief and the liberation of his self would be co-extensive with the apprehension of his own death. After agreeing to the duel with Laertes that he is confident of winning, he nevertheless tells Horatio, "But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart; but it is no matter" (V.2.203); and when Horatio urges him to postpone the duel, he says, in the famous speech which signifies, if it does not explain, the decisive change of his spirit:

Not a whit, we defy augury: there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man owes of aught he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.


The theological import of these lines, with their luminous reference to Matthew, has long been recognized, but the particular emphasis upon death also suggests a psychological coordinate. For it seems to me that what makes Hamlet's acceptance of Providence finally intelligible and credible to us emotionally, what confirms the truth of it to our own experience, is our sense, as well as his, that the great anguish and struggle of his grief is over, and that he has completed the work of mourning. He speaks to Horatio quietly, almost serenely, with the unexultant calm which characterizes the end of the long, inner struggle of grief. He has looked at the face of death in his father's ghost, he has endured death and loss in all the human beings he has loved, and he now accepts those losses as an inevitable part of his own condition. He recognizes and accepts his own death. "The readiness is all" suggests the crystallization of his awareness of the larger dimension of time which has enveloped his tragedy from the start, including the revenge drama of Fortinbras's grievances on the outskirts of the action and that of the appalling griefs of Polonius's family deep inside it,17 but the line also most specifically states what is perhaps the last and most difficult task of mourning, his own readiness to die.

The ending of Hamlet's mourning is finally mysterious in the play, as the end of mourning usually is in actual life, but it is made at least partially explicable by the very transfusion of energy between him and the other characters that constitutes his grief to begin with. Early in the play he seems to absorb into himself the whole body of the world's sorrow and protest, as later in the play he seems to expel it. The ghost, I think, he partly exorcises and partly incorporates. He increasingly gives expression to much of its vengeful anger—most definitively, perhaps, when he uses his father's signet to hoist Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on their own petar—but at the same time he thereby eventually frees himself to internalize the "radiance" of his father's memory rather than the ghost's shadow of it.18 His mother herself cannot really be transformed, but he makes her feel the force of his grief even if she cannot understand it, and in the closet scene at least, he succeeds in transferring some of the pain in his own heart to hers. To Claudius he transfers a good deal more. By means of the play within the play, including his own interpolated lines on mutability, Hamlet at once acts out the deep anger and sorrow of his grief and transmits the fever of their energy to the guilty King in whose blood he thereafter rages "like the hectic" (IV.3.66).19 But perhaps most important, not so much in effecting Hamlet's recovery as in representing its inner dynamics and persuading us of its authenticity, are the transformations which Ophelia and Laertes undergo during the period Hamlet himself is offstage on his voyage to England. Ophelia, as we have seen, drains off Hamlet's incipient madness and suicidal imaginings into her own "weeping brook" (IV.7.176) of grief, and she begins to do so precisely at the moment Hamlet leaves the stage for England. She enters "distracted" (IV.5.21), singing songs which signify not only the consuming pain of the loss of her own father but also the self-destructive sexual repression which has afflicted Hamlet as well as her. At almost the same moment, Laertes enters the stage, and while Hamlet himself later explicitly sees in Laertes's predicament an analogue of his own, Laertes's sorrow and anger are quickly corrupted; and his poisonous allegiance with the King simultaneously dramatizes the most destructive vengeful energies of grief and seems to draw those energies away from Hamlet and into himself. This whole movement of energy between Hamlet and the other characters suggests the symbiotic relation between the protagonist and the secondary characters in the medieval morality drama as well as the unconscious processes of condensation and displacement which are represented in dreams, and its result is our profound sense at the end of the play that Hamlet's self has been reconstituted as well as recovered. That sense is especially perspicuous in Act V in Hamlet's own entirely conscious and generous relation to Laertes, the double who threatens his life but not his identity, who presents an "image" of his "cause" (V.2.77), but never of the untainted heroic integrity of his grief.

Hamlet's generosity to Laertes at the end of the play is especially significant, I think, because it brings to the surface the underlying inflection of charity which makes Hamlet's whole experience of grief so humane and so remote from the moral or psychological pathology for which many critics, including Freud himself, indict him. In the only mention he makes of Hamlet in "Mourning and Melancholia," Freud remarks that the melancholiac often has access to exceptionally deep insights and that his self-criticism can come

very near to self-knowledge; we only wonder why a man must become ill before he can discover truth of this kind. For there can be no doubt that whoever holds and expresses to others such an opinion of himself—one that Hamlet harboured of himself and all men—that man is ill, whether he speaks the truth or is more or less unfair to himself.20

In a footnote Freud cites as evidence of Hamlet's misanthropy and sickness his criticism of Polonius: "Use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" (II.2.524). What Freud misses, of course, and it is to miss much, is not only that Hamlet becomes all men in his grief, but that he does so in the image of charity which this very line evokes. For the premise of Hamlet's statement, like Portia's in The Merchant of Venice, is "That in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation," and that therefore "we do pray for mercy, / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy" (IV.1.194). Hamlet's line, to be sure, does not have this explicit emphasis, but in its context there is no question that the motive of his statement is to have Polonius use the players kindly and that the ultimate burden of his thought is, like Portia's, the verse, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." If the great anger and sorrow of Hamlet's grief make his own experience of these trespasses tragically acute and painful, the same combination of feelings eventually expands his capacity to understand, if not forgive, them.

I think this generosity and integrity of grief lie close to the heart both of Hamlet's mystery and the play's. Hamlet is an immensely complicated tragedy, and anything one says about it leaves one haunted by what has not been said. But precisely in a play whose sug gestiveness has no end, it seems to me especially important to remember what actually happens. Hamlet himself is sometimes most preoccupied with delay, and with the whole attendant metaphysical issue of the relation between thought and action, but as his own experience shows, there is finally no action that can be commensurate with his grief, not even the killing of a guilty King, and it is Hamlet's experience of grief, and his recovery from it, to which we ourselves respond most deeply. He is a young man who comes home from his university to find his father dead and his mother remarried to his father's murderer. Subsequently the woman he loves rejects him, he is betrayed by his friends, and finally and most painfully, he is betrayed by a mother whose mutability seems to strike at the heart of human affection. In the midst of these waves of losses, which seem themselves to correspond to the spasms of grief, he is visited by the ghost of his father, who places upon him a proof of love and a task of vengeance which he cannot refuse without denying his own being. The ghost draws upon the emotional taproot of the revenge play genre and dilates the natural sorrow and anger of Hamlet's multiple griefs until they include all human frailty in their protest and sympathy and touch upon the deepest synapses of grief in our own lives, not only for those who have died, but for those, like ourselves, who are still alive.


1 All references to Shakespeare's texts are to Peter Alexander's edition (London, 1951).

2 Cited in Alan S. Downer, The British Drama (New York, 1950), p. 78.

3 I assume throughout this argument that Shakespeare essentially accepts and draws nourishment from the conventions of the revenge drama and that the ghost represents Hamlet's tragic predicament rather than a moral issue. Shakespeare clearly sophisticates Kyd's conception by conflating the ghost of Andrea and the figure of Revenge and by bringing the ghost directly into the world of the play and into Hamlet's consciousness; but there is never any question, either by Hamlet or by us, that Hamlet must eventually obey the ghost's injunction to take revenge. In later dramas like The Atheist's Tragedy and The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, the ghosts themselves remind the heroes that revenge belongs to God, but it is hardly an accident that those plays are neither tragic nor particularly compelling. The whole issue of the ethos of revenge in Hamlet is discussed quite decisively, it seems to me, by Helen Gardner in The Business of Criticism (Oxford, 1959), pp. 35-51.

4 Ed. Van Fossen (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1964), III.2.13.

5 Ed. Cairncross (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967), IV.5.1.

6 Cairncross, III.2.1.

7 The definition of incest between a man and his brother's wife in the Elizabethan period was essentially a legal one—the relationship was prohibited by canon and civil law—but Claudius's actual murder of his brother suggests the deeper psychic implications of incest as well.

8For the most illuminating recent discussion of the literary treatment of melancholy in Renaissance England, see Bridget Gellert Lyons, Voices of Melancholy (New York, 1971). Lyons's analysis of Hamlet's melancholy (pp. 77-112) is especially rich, and I found it suggestive for my own argument, though my emphasis and method are different from hers. The relevance of modern psychoanalytic ideas of mourning to Hamlet is touched upon by Paul A. Jorgenson, "Hamlet's Therapy," HLQ, 27 (1964), 239-58, and is discussed in more depth, though in ways that quickly become remote from the play, by Jacques Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," Yale French Studies, 55/56 (1977), 11-52.

9 Translated by Joan Rivière, in Freud: General Psychological Theory, ed. Philip Reiff (New York, 1963), p. 165. Rivière's translation is more eloquent, I think, than that of the Standard Edition, trans. and ed. James Strachey, XIV (London, 1957), 243-58.

10 Rivière's translation, p. 166.

11 Rivière's translation, pp. 166, 169-70.

12 Rivière's translation, p. 170.

13 "Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem," Proceedings of the British Academy, 28 (1942), 138-54.

14 See Lyons, p. 81.

15 What to ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.
The violence of either grief or joy
Their own enactures with themselves destroy.
Where joy most revels grief doth most lament;
Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident.
This world is not for aye. …

16 Rivière's translation, p. 167.

17 See Northrop Frye, Fools of Time (Toronto, 1967), pp. 38-39.

18 borrow this formulation, which describes a reversal of the process of identification in depression, from Karl Abraham, who does not himself apply it to Hamlet. In common with many more recent psychoanalytic writers, Abraham argues that an essential part of the resolution of grief consists of an unambivalent and beneficent introjection of the loved person into the mourner's own psyche to compensate for the continuing, conscious sense of loss. See his Selected Papers, ed. Ernest Jones (London, 1949), pp. 442 and 438.

19 The therapeutic value of this kind of aggressive transference was accentuated and made quite explicit by Marston in The Malcontent; see Lyons, pp. 96-97.

20 Rivière's translation, pp. 167-68.

Anna K. Nardo (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Hamlet, 'A Man to Double Business Bound'," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 181-99.

[In the following essay, Nardo notes the pervasiveness in Hamlet of the double-bind, a paradoxical situation that forces its victim to choose between impossible alternatives, and identifies it as the organizing principle of the play.

Alone in his private chapel, Claudius feels impelled by his guilt to pray. But, he laments,

    Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect.1

Like so many passages in Shakespeare's most ambiguous play, Claudius' words apply less to himself than to Hamlet. In self-pity Claudius feels like a victim of a double bind. In reality he has a clear moral choice: to renounce "crown … ambition and … queen" and be freed to pray for forgiveness, or to keep "those effects for which [he] did the murder" and live with his guilt. He lacks the courage to choose and tries unsuccessfully to have it both ways, kneeling and hoping lamely that "All may be well." Hamlet, however, is a true victim of double binds. Thrust into a familial situation remarkably similar in its patterns of interaction to those of families which produce mad children, he is confronted with contradictory demands from which he cannot escape. Recent research by psychologists who have refined the double-bind theory since its first publication in 1956 makes it possible to define with some precision how both Hamlet and Ophelia are placed in double-bind situations and how their struggles to escape result in tragedy.2


Most previous psychological studies of Hamlet have been based on Freud's opinion that Hamlet represents a classic case of Oedipal conflict. Ernest Jones assumes that, like all male children, Hamlet must have experienced jealousy of his father's claim on his mother's love. As Jones reads the play, Hamlet's un-acceptable rage and his desire to murder his father were repressed until Claudius performed the very act he fantasized as a child: killing his father and marrying his mother. Claudius' deed reactivates Hamlet's repressed fantasies and renders him incapable of avenging his father's murder; to kill Claudius, Hamlet must kill himself, whose desires are no less vicious than Claudius' acts. Avi Erlich agrees that Hamlet suffers from the Oedipal dilemma, but he finds the source of Hamlet's tragedy not in his repressed desire to murder his father, but rather in his fruitless search throughout the play for a strong father figure. Hamlet needs a symbolic father powerful enough to stifle his son's Oedipal longings—one who could have prevented or who will now avenge the deceased king's victimization by a murderous brother and a castrating wife.3

Other psychoanalytic critics have contributed analyses of Hamlet's society. Theodore Lidz has focused on the interactions among members of the two central families in the play. Placing Hamlet at the center of inter-locking triangles of conflict, Lidz details Hamlet's predicament as the rival of two fathers for his mother's love, as an intruder into a stifling father-daughter bond, and as the opponent of his beloved's brother.4 Using Erik Erikson's theories about the stages of human development, Neil Friedman and Richard Jones have located Hamlet, despite his age, in late adolescence, the period in which one searches for a stable identity. In order to achieve fidelity to a central self, an adolescent needs people and ideas he can trust. But since Hamlet's world is a morass of infidelity and duplicity, he cannot attain a stable sense of self; instead he becomes a consummate actor, constantly shifting roles and never establishing a coherent identity capable of decision and action. David Leverenz has described the specific nature of Hamlet's duplicity, pointing out a number of "mixed signals" given to both Hamlet and Ophelia which result in "knots" (R. D. Laing's term) of contradiction that "separate role from self, reason from feeling, duty from love."5

All these revisions of the Freudian view have followed modern trends in psychoanalytic thought, emphasizing interpersonal and social interaction and de-emphasizing the intrapsychic focus. Freud's, Jones's and Erlich's Hamlet is a static portrait of a doomed man's anguish, whereas Erikson's, Lidz's, and Leverenz's Hamlet is a dynamic drama about a man's conflictual relationships within a broad social context.

One weakness of theories based on the Oedipal dilemma is that they must be based, in part, on speculations about matters the text does not mention, such as what Hamlet as a young child felt about his father. Such theories also lack precision in differentiating Hamlet's feigning from true madness. Nor do they account for his return from the sea voyage as a changed man.6 Finally, like many psychoanalytic studies of literature, such theories either ignore the language of the play or treat it as the manifest content of a dream to be decoded. Approaching Hamlet from the perspective of the double-bind theory avoids the pitfalls of reading beyond the text. And because the theory analyzes the nuances of social interaction in great detail, it necessitates close attention to the puns, paradoxes, and riddles in the witty verbal exchanges, and may even illuminate the perennial enigmas about how mad Hamlet is and what caused his sea change.


Psychologists who have tried to define the double bind have discovered the truth behind Polonius' verbiage: "for, to define true madness, / What is't but to be nothing else but mad?" (II.ii.93-94). Their efforts over the past twenty years have produced a term used to describe a pattern of communication often found in familes with a schizophrenic adolescent or young adult. The pattern occurs

  1. When the individual is involved in an intense relationship; that is, a relationship in which he feels it is vitally important that he discriminate accurately what sort of message is being communicated so that he may respond appropriately.
  2. And, the individual is caught in a situation in which the other person in the relationship is expressing two orders of message and one of these denies the other.
  3. 3. And, the individual is unable to comment on the messages being expressed to correct his discrimination of what order of message to respond to, i.e., he cannot make a metacommunicative statement.7

The double bind resembles the kind of paradox epitomized in the classic anecdote about Epimenides the Cretan, who claimed "All Cretans are liars." Because the verbal message ("All Cretans are liars") invalidates the broader message conveyed by the situational context (the fact that a Cretan says "All Cretans are liars"), the statement can only be true if it is false. The kind of endless vacillation generated by such a message resembles the plight of someone ensnared in a double bind.

Unfortunately, in human behavior double binds are seldom as clear or as identifiable as verbal paradoxes, because they arise out of a total context of communication in a relationship over a long period of time and cannot readily be understood outside the relationship. The following example is often given to illustrate the double bind:

A young man who had fairly well recovered from an acute schizophrenic episode was visited in the hospital by his mother. He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, "Don't you love me any more?" He then blushed, and she said, "Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings." The patient was able to stay with her only a few minutes more and following her departure he assaulted an aide and was put in the tubs.8

Here, while rejecting her son on the level of body communication, the mother demands affection on the level of verbal communication. Drawing tight the knot of the double bind, she makes it impossible for her son to perceive the contradiction; she blames him for being afraid and embarrassed at displays of feeling, but clearly she cannot accept such displays. The son is trapped: if he wants to keep his tie to his mother, he must not show her that he loves her, but if he does not show her that he loves her, then he will lose her.9 In families where double-bind patterns of communication predominate, escape from the field is blocked either by the individuals' mutual dependency or by a specific prohibition.10

Originally, the double-bind theory was formulated to explain the genesis of schizophrenia as a pattern of irrational perception and behavior learned by a child in his family. According to the theory, a family entangled in these paradoxical modes of communication may maintain a relative status quo until maturational and social pressures compel a vulnerable child to separate from the family. Typically, the attempted separation produces a schizophrenic episode in the child. There are only two ways for such a child to untie a double bind: (1) recognizing the incongruity of the two messages, or (2) giving a double message in reply. But not even these always forestall madness. Gregory Bateson, one of the originators of the double-bind theory, has noted that "The psychotic patient may make astute, pithy, often metaphorical remarks that reveal an insight into the forces binding him. Contrariwise, he may become rather expert in setting double bind situations himself."11 Hamlet does both.


Hamlet opens in darkness and confusion with "Who's there?" It employs question, doubt, and irony as its most common rhetorical modes. And it involves almost everyone in duplicity. One is thus not surprised to find its characters in double-bind situations. Although unaware of the double-bind theory, many previous literary critics have described Hamlet's paradoxes in ways that are consonant with it: Maynard Mack and Harry Levin see Hamlet's world as cast in an interrogative or ironic mood; John Lawlor, Norman Rabkin, Nicholas Brooke, Nigel Alexander, and Bernard McElroy articulate the irreconcilable oppositions in roles, choices, and even world views that structure the play at every level; and Paul Jorgensen, Maurice Charney, and Lawrence Danson analyze the verbal mystification that blankets Elsinore with such a fog of lies, flattery, preciosity, puns, and feigning that words become whores.12

From the moment when we first see Hamlet, his black clothes implicitly rebuking the mirthful court's disrespect for his dead father, he is evading traps set by Claudius. With hypocritical oxymorons ("mirth in funeral … dirge in marriage") and pointed reminders to the courtiers that they approved his hasty marriage to his brother's widow, the King delivers an unctuous speech commencing a public ritual in which all must legitimize his dubious act by their tacit assent. Because Hamlet nonverbally refuses to participate, Claudius tries to force either public sanction of the marriage and his kingship, regardless of Hamlet's personal feelings, or public opposition, in which case Claudius could remove him in the interest of national security. When Claudius asks metaphorically why his stepson is still in mourning, Hamlet correctly perceives the real message and translates "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" (I.ii.66) as "Sanction my marriage to your mother by dressing appropriately." He evades the trap by declining to respond to either the explicit or the implicit message. Instead, he pretends to take Claudius' cloud metaphor literally and answers with a punning riddle—"Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun" (I.ii.67)—that could mean any of several things: too much out of doors, too much in the sun of Claudius' favor, too much of a son to Claudius. This first exchange firmly establishes Hamlet's remarkable skill at recognizing and manipulating levels of communication. By shifting to the literal level, he does more than evade Claudius' trap; he delivers a multiple insult which epitomizes his anger and opposition to his stepfather, but which Claudius cannot answer. Like his mourning clothes, Hamlet's puns allow him tacitly to oppose Claudius' regime without fear of retribution and without betraying "that within which passeth show" to hypocritical "seems" (I.ii.76-86).


Ironically, not the crafty Claudius but the weak-willed and naive Gertrude succeeds in trapping Hamlet in a double bind. Neither the veiled threats in the insulting terms the King uses to describe Hamlet's grief ("obstinate condolement … impious stubborness … unmanly grief … "), nor the bribe of being "most immediate to [the] throne" impels Hamlet to stay in Elsinore, "in the cheer and comfort" of Claudius' watchful eye (I.ii.87-117). Hamlet assents only to his mother's modest plea, which, in the context of their whole relationship, is anything but simple.

When his father died—a father he idealized as "Hyperion"—his mother, instead of leaning on her son for comfort, rejected him by immediately remarrying. Making the rejection even more painful, she chose her husband's brother—a "satyr" by comparison to Hamlet's father. These actions have given her son an unequivocal message: "I am not an asexual madonna, but a carnal woman with desires you cannot fulfill. You must separate yourself from me emotionally and make your own life." If matters had rested here, Hamlet might have been disillusioned, but he would not necessarily have been trapped; he might have returned to Wittenberg and resumed his studies. But now Gertrude delivers a verbal message in contradiction to the message conveyed by her behavior: "Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet: / I pray thee; stay with us" (I.ii. 118-19). In the total context of the court scene, where her husband has staged a public ceremony of assent to his sinful marriage and his new regime, she asks for much more: "Love me, condone my incest and rejection of your father's memory, and treat this man, whom you seem to despise, as a loving father." Her plea that Hamlet stay in Elsinore, markedly contrasting with the leave granted Laertes, is the demand that closes the trap, because it blocks any escape from the contradiction in her messages.

Eluding Claudius' ploys only to fall into a double bind imposed by his mother, Hamlet reveals in his first soliloquy just how trapped he feels. His intense disillusionment with Gertrude breaks out in a tirade against her hypocritical tears, her sensuality, and the "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable … uses of this world" (I.ii. 133-34). But the son's love for his mother surfaces, albeit fleetingly, in the vignette he paints of the love between Gertrude and the father he emulates:

So excellent a king …
                   … so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly …
              … why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on.
                             (I.ii. 139-45)

Poignantly, his final words reveal both his love and his trap. He cries "But break, my heart" because, despite his disgust, his heart yields to his mother when he promises to obey her wishes. But he must contain his swelling anger and grief: "I must hold my tongue" (I.ii. 159). He cannot leave; he cannot love his mother and accept her husband; he cannot openly condemn her and Claudius; and he cannot, and be true to himself, lie. The only escape he sees is "self-slaughter," against which "the Everlasting … [has] fix'd / His canon" (I.ii. 131-32). He is bound.


To make matters worse, Hamlet is now confronted by a second and even more constricting double bind, this one imposed by the Ghost, who speaks in the name of the father Hamlet loves, not by the duplicitous stepfather who sets snares for him. The Ghost tells Hamlet a story that is even more shocking than the forbidden secrets of his prison house, a story to

  harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand an end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
                                   (I. v. 16-20)

By calling Claudius "that adulterate beast," the Ghost suggests that Gertrude herself is an adulteress, a woman who has forsaken the celestial bed of the elder Hamlet and now preys on garbage.13 By cursing Claudius' "traitorous gifts" to her, the Ghost implies that Gertrude is a whore. Without clarifying whether or not Gertrude was party to the murder, the Ghost describes the circumstances of the elder Hamlet's death in gruesome detail. Into his ear, Claudius poured a "leperous distilment," whose "sudden vigour … doth posset / And curd, like eager droppings into milk, / The thin and wholesome blood," covering his body "Most lazar like, with vile and loathsome crust" and sending his soul to torments so horrible that he must leave it to Hamlet's overwrought imagination to picture them (I.v.59-80). After this bloodcurdling tale, the Ghost delivers a multiple command to Hamlet:

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsomever thou pursues this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to

As critics have often noted, the Ghost demands the impossible.14 His complex injunction is actually two sets of contradictory demands: "Avenge my murder and your mother's incest," and "Neither allow your character to become depraved, nor punish your mother." If Hamlet believes the Ghost's horrific story and becomes a bloody avenger, he cannot avoid taint. The corruption in his own family that he has been forced to contemplate so graphically will have already tainted his mind; and his deed will entail defying the Christian prohibition against vengeance and embracing the pagan code of retribution.15 Furthermore, to avenge the crimes against his father, Hamlet must punish Gertude—if not directly, at least indirectly, by exposing to the nation the fact that she has married her husband's murderer, whether or not she was privy to the murder itself. If Gertrude remains unscathed, however, Hamlet will not have completely dealt with the one sin we know her to be guilty of, namely incest, which she has knowingly committed. Hamlet is again trapped in a double bind. His love and respect for his father, his awe before a ghost who has returned from the grave to reveal a buried truth, and the terror of the night make escape from the contradictory commands impossible. To the Ghost's surperfluous parting words, "remember me," Hamlet answers, "O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?" (I.v.91-92).


The only escape from a double bind is either to recognize and label the incongruity of the messages or to respond with a double message in turn. Lacking any emotional ties to Claudius that might blind him to the duplicity of his stepfather's words, Hamlet slips through the King's nets by answering in double and triple puns. But his love for his mother and his deceased father renders the usually quick-witted Prince unable to recognize their doubleness; and because he cannot articulate the contradiction, the strain of their demands almost breaks him.16 Before announcing his plan to assume an "antic disposition," he seems on the brink of madness: he makes tautological jokes ("There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark / But he's an arrant knave"), mouths chitchat which Horatio dismisses as "wild and whirling words," and turns the horror of following the Ghost's subterranean voice around the battlements into macabre comedy by calling his tormented father's spirit "truepenny," "this fellow in the cellarage," "old mole," and "worthy pioneer" (I.v.118-81). But Hamlet is not driven mad by the double binds he faces, because he plays mad instead.

By its very nature, play is double, and therefore a possible response to a double bind. When a monkey playfully bites another monkey, the bite conveys the message, "This bite does not signify what a bite normally signifies." The bite is obviously still a bite, but it is not really a bite, because play creates a context in which actions both are and are not real, both are and are not serious. Players of poker and chess, spectators of football and tragedy, prizefighters and stamp collectors are all intensely serious, but they can also dismiss their acts as "just play," as somehow set apart from everyday reality. According to the philosopher Eugen Fink, "We play in the so-called real world, but while playing there emerges an enigmatic realm that is not nothing, and yet is nothing real. … The play-world is not suspended in a purely ideal world. It always has a real setting, and yet it is never a real thing among other real things, although it has an absolute need of real things as a point of departure."17 This paradoxical quality is particularly evident in the higher forms of play, such as drama or ballet. As Johan Huizinga, Gregory Bateson, and other play theorists have marveled, Falstaff is "not nothing," but he is "nothing real," and the ballerina who dances in Swan Lake both is and is not a swan.18

Hamlet knows a great deal about play. He loves drama, heartily rejoices at the arrival of the players despite having "lost all [his] mirth" (II.ii.307), begs a speech on the spot (which he half recites), and instructs them wisely in their trade. In the tears of the actor who recounts the misery of Hecuba, he is struck by what every playgoer knows but often takes for granted: how

         this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function
With forms to his conceit? and all for
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

The paradox of play, its way of transcending the rigid distinction between reality and illusion, allows the player to be present at the fall of Troy while simultaneously displaying the skills of his trade thousands of years later in a land far to the north of the Mediterranean.

Because of the inherent doubleness of play, when Hamlet's sanity is threatened by maddening double binds he can play mad and therefore in some sense both be and not be mad.19 Playing the role of madman allows him, moreover, an even greater freedom to play: to play with words, to play with people's ignorance, to play the part of chorus in "The Murder of Gonzago," to play with others' feelings for him. Since not only Claudius but also his henchmen Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, with Ophelia and Gertrude as dupes, all bait traps for Hamlet everywhere, he desperately needs the freedom available in play. When his school-fellows chide him for offending Claudius with "The Murder of Gonzago" and reject his riddling response with "Good my lord, put your discourse into some frame" (III.ii.320), they suggest why Hamlet must play. If he provides stable contexts, reliable frames, for his words and actions, his pursuers may succeed in pinning him down. But because all his messages are within the paradoxical frame of play, and can, therefore, be taken as true and not true, serious and "just play" simultaneously, no one will be able to "pluck out the heart of [his] mystery"—a term that alludes both to Hamlet's enigmatic ways and to his trade as a player par excellence.


Playing is also how Hamlet attempts, albeit futilely, to escape from the Ghost's double bind, a trap so devastating that it precipitates the tragedy. When confronted with the impossible demand to avenge the murder and incest without tainting his mind or punishing his mother, Hamlet gives, by his actions, a double response: he plays at being an avenger. Under the cloak of madness, he requites his father's murder precisely—by pouring poison into the ears not only of the poisoner himself but of all who are guilty by association with his regime. With biting sarcasm, salacious puns, brutal satire, and diseased imagery, he assaults his enemies without actually performing the act of vengeance.20 Netted around with the intrigues of Claudius and company, and the double binds imposed by his parents, Hamlet plays for both his life and his sanity.21

Playing the madman for the benefit of the court, and playing the avenger out of his own need to obey his father, Hamlet gleefully takes every opportunity to attack Claudius by exposing his minion, Polonius, as an old fool with "eyes purging thick amber and plumtree gum" and "most weak hams" (Il.ii. 198-202). Hamlet says that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would "play upon me; you would seem to know my stops … you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass" (III.ii.380-83); but it is actually Hamlet who plays them, and as skillfully as a musician plays a recorder. After barely five minutes of greetings and conversation, he has them confessing themselves Claudius' spies. Still, these sallies of wit against un-worthy opponents are only practice thrusts to prepare him for the duel with Claudius himself—a duel which is, however, "just play."22

After being struck by the power of drama in the player's passion for Hecuba, Hamlet formulates his plan: "the play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" (II.ii.633-34). "The play's the thing" in at least two senses. First, Hamlet uses the play to play avenger by tormenting Claudius with the knowledge that Hamlet knows all the details of the crime. He even threatens Claudius with death: the King's own nephew boldly informs the audience that the murderer, Lucianus, is the player-king's nephew. Second, Hamlet uses the play to do what he believes the player, who was so moved by the illusory Hecuba, would do if he had Hamlet's real "cue for passion":

Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

He prepares to madden Claudius and shock the court by mixing art with life.


During the time intervening between the Ghost's appearance and the players' arrival, Hamlet has been coping with the double bind imposed by the Ghost. His efforts have been restricted to playing mad and playing avenger; he has now discovered another escape route as well. If the Ghost is not in fact his father's spirit, but a devil tempting Hamlet to perdition, as he fears, or to madness and suicide, as Horatio originally feared, then Hamlet is freed from its contradictory demands.23 To determine the truth, he stages an illusion to test Claudius and the Ghost. If the Ghost's tale, the matter of the play, proves true, then Hamlet will feel bound by the Ghost's impossible commands, which he will assume to be his father's. In the meantime, the play itself will become part of the vengeance the Ghost requires. Like the patient whose years of receiving incongruent messages have made him expert at setting double binds for others, Hamlet imposes on Claudius a double bind that will torment him for his sins. The son thus repays the uncle equal measure for confining the father "to fast in fires" for his "foul crimes" (I.v. 11-12).

When asked the play's title, Hamlet answers, "The Mouse-trap. Marry, how? Trapically," with a pun on "tropically" (III.ii.247).24 The humor of the pun conceals the truth that the play is both a trope, a figurative expression, and a trap. Indeed, Hamlet can turn the play into a trap precisely because it is a trope. Drama is a kind of figurative expression, a metaphorical rendering of life, in which the players, as Hamlet says, "hold … the mirror up to nature" (III.ii.26). And drama, like other tropes, is inherently double. Just as Falstaff both is and is not real, the poet's lady both is and is not a red, red rose. While watching a play, an audience can allow its deepest emotions to be aroused because they can be safely contained in the context, "This is only a play, a metaphor for life and not life itself." Paradoxically, viewers are moved to real emotions precisely because the play itself is not really real. Except for Don Quixote, driven mad by reading chivalric romances, the passions aroused by poetic or dramatic illusion do not ordinarily threaten the everyday world. If they do, the audience withdraws its un-defended emotional involvement, for life has usurped art.25

When Claudius comes to "The Murder of Gonzago," he expects to enjoy a trope, a kind of entertaining and innocent duplicity. Instead he finds a trap. By inviting Claudius to a play, Hamlet conveys the message, "This is fiction, a harmless diversion." He tries to sustain this message as long as possible by dismissing Claudius' suspicions after the opening scene with "No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest; no offense i' the world" (III.ii.244-45). That Claudius approaches the play in this context is clear from his pleasure and relief when he learns that Hamlet is amusing himself with the players. The King will attend the dramatic soiree, he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,

With all my heart; and it doth much content
To hear [Hamlet] so inclin'd.
Good gentlemen, give him a further edge,
And drive his purpose into these delights.

But when Claudius sees and hears the details of his own crime portrayed on stage and narrated by Hamlet's choral asides, he receives another order of message that violently contradicts the first: "This is the truth and a threat to your life." The incongruity of the two messages is so shocking that it cracks the deceitful mask Claudius has successfully worn since the murder.

Although no soliloquy reveals his thoughts at the moment he rises, calls for light, and summarily dismisses the festive gathering, surely we are led to infer that Claudius is perplexed in the extreme. How on earth could Hamlet be aware of the details of a murder known only to the murderer and the victim? And if Hamlet does not know these details, how could a fiction possibly portray the exact truth? Having no ties of emotional dependency to Hamlet, Claudius can and does physically escape from the field. But he is bound nevertheless, because his flight acknowledges that he has been, at least momentarily, maddened by the paradox of a true illusion. And his madness reveals his guilt. By recognizing and manipulating the doubleness of drama—so that "The Murder of Gonzago" is not, like most plays, both true and not true, but true and true—Hamlet has cunningly prepared a double bind to "Make mad the guilty."


Unfortunately, he helps make mad the innocent as well. In his callous treatment of Ophelia, Hamlet adds to the double binds that drive her not momentarily mad, like Claudius, nor playfully mad, like himself, but mad indeed. If the view of Polonius' family presented in Acts I and II is representative, Ophelia has been reared in a very confusing atmosphere. Her father always "With windlasses and with assays of bias, / By indirections find[s] directions out" (II.i.65-66). Nor does he see any contradiction in outlining the tactical deceptions that produce worldly success (such as "Give thy thoughts no tongue" and "the apparel oft proclaims the man") in the same breath with the counsel,

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

With his spying, his love of policy, and his propensity, he admits, "To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions" (II.i. 115), Polonius ensnares his own daughter in double binds.

While warning her to beware of Hamlet's "tenders / Of … affection," he chides,

          think yourself a baby;
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more
Or … you'll tender me a fool.
                                          (I.iii. 105-9)

Here and throughout this scene, he delivers contradictory messages to Ophelia: (1) you are a baby, an innocent, whose virginity must remain undefiled, and therefore you must reject Hamlet's attentions; (2) you are capable of having a baby ("you'll tender me a fool"), of attracting a 30-year-old heir apparent, and perhaps of winning a queenship if you "Tender yourself more dearly" and "Set your entreatments at a higher rate I Than a command to parley" (I.iii.107, 122-23). In his repeated imagery of buying and selling, and in his later willingness to use his daughter as bait to catch Hamlet, Polonius becomes in truth what Hamlet calls him in jest—"a fishmonger," a bawd. His language and actions implicitly convey to Ophelia the message that she should be a whore, while at the same time he explicitly warns her to remain pure. She cannot comment ment on the incongruity of her father's messages because, despite the glimmer of perceptiveness she shows in teasing Laertes about following his own advice, her father and brother have usurped her right to think. When Polonius scornfully asks if she believes Hamlet's professions of love, she meekly murmurs, "I do not know, my lord, what I should think" (I.iii.104). So Polonius immediately tells her what to think. Finally, unlike her brother, who leaves for France, Ophelia cannot escape from the field. In her world daughters must obey fathers, even if—like Jephthah, to whom Hamlet compares Polonius—the fathers choose to sacrifice the daughters.

Under different circumstances, a marriage to Hamlet might have freed Ophelia from the prison of being her father's puppet.26 But like a dutiful daughter, she rejects her potential rescuer and allows herself to be used by his enemies. Consequently, she confirms Hamlet's harsh judgment: "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (I.ii.146). After concluding that Ophelia has betrayed him to the spies behind the arras, Hamlet deliberately sets psychological traps for her. Arousing her tender feelings by confessing "I did love you once" (III.i.115), he then scorns her bitterly as false and lewd. Because, like all women, she will deceive men with her "paintings" and will surely cuckold her future husband, he banishes her to a "nunnery"—whether he means a convent where she will not "be a breeder of sinners" (III.i.123) or a whorehouse where she can continue the trade taught her by her father. In this pun he telescopes the double messages which assault her: she must be both a virgin and a whore.

Later at "The Murder of Gonzago," Hamlet's traps for Ophelia become more vicious. In the following exchange, he flirts with her in bawdy language, then condemns her for having salacious thoughts:

Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
                [Lying down at Ophelia's feet.]
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Hamlet: That's a fair thought to lie between
  maids' legs.
Ophelia: What is, my lord?
Hamlet: Nothing.
                                   (III.ii. 118-28)

After she chastely rejects his initial lewd request, Hamlet ridicules her for mistaking his supposedly innocent question for ribaldry. If she had not understood his remark and had answered "Yes," he could have embarrassed her by treating her reply as a sexual proposition. She will be punished regardless of her answer, and she is punished for understanding his meaning. When she tries to escape from the dilemma by refusing to understand ("I think nothing, my lord"), he makes even her retreat an insulting sexual innuendo: "thing" and "nothing" often refer to the genitalia that "lie between maids' legs." Throughout "The Murder of Gonzago," Hamlet both acts madly to divert the court spies from his real endeavor and vents his anxiety over the plan to test Claudius and the Ghost by using Ophelia, whom he now considers a traitoress, as the unwilling straight man in his comedy routine. Although the game he pursues is Claudius, the results for Ophelia are jarring double messages, in which his bawdry simultaneously arouses and damns her nascent sexuality. Her pitiful attempts to laugh away his cruel jests reveal her confusion. Both her father and her former lover have prepared her for madness by demanding that she be virginal while treating her like a whore, and by discouraging her from thinking for herself, in which case she might perceive the incongruity of their demands.


The vehemence of Hamlet's assault on Ophelia indicates that his interim solutions to the double bind he faces have failed. Playing mad to preserve his sanity, playing avenger to satisfy his obligation to avenge his father's murder, and directing a play to test the Ghost and punish Claudius have not fulfilled his father's three impossible demands. Despite his exultation over the success of "The Mousetrap," which, he brags, will "get me a fellowship in a cry of players" (III.ii.288-89)—when he comes upon his enemy alone and defenseless in the chapel, he shirks the command to avenge (in earnest, not play)—the murder and incest. In the next scene, he kills the wrong man instead. In his longing for death, in his insulting treatment of Ophelia, and in the foul imagery he uses to condemn his mother's lust, Hamlet reveals that his thoughts have become as "rank and gross" as the "unweeded garden" of the world around him, despite the Ghost's injunction to taint not his mind.27 Furthermore, he does punish Gertrude. Answering the summons to her closet, he physically restrains her; he makes her call out in fear lest he become a matricide like Nero, whose soul he must consciously expel from his bosom; he forces her to compare her two husbands; and he appalls her with the filthiness of her sin:

          Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making
Over the nasty sty.

Instead of leaving her to heaven, he pours these poisonous words that feel like daggers into her ears until she begs, "No more, sweet Hamlet!" Emphasizing what this and the two previous scenes have clearly shown—Hamlet's failure to obey any of his father's commands—the Ghost reappears at this moment and reiterates their contradictory nature: do not forget your "almost blunted purpose" of revenge, and have pity on your mother's weakness (III.iv. 110-16).

In the midst of playing avenger, however, Hamlet has finally glimpsed the truth. An aficionado of the drama, he knows that he has been merely acting the part of the stock Elizabethan/Jacobean stage avenger. After seeing the passion of the player for Hecuba, he whips himself into a frenzied speech that might have won applause for Kyd's Hieronimo or Marston's Malevole or Tourneur's Vindice:28

I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless
O, vengeance!

But immediately he steps down from the stage to become the audience and critic of his own performance: "This is most brave, / That I … Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words" (II.ii.611-12, 614). Instead of doing the deed, which he cannot perform because of the Ghost's contradictory commands, he continues, despite his self-realization, to play the role of the doer, an expedient that provides only fleeting moments of relief. Perhaps his excuse for not killing Claudius in the chapel can best be described in terms of his posturing as a ruthless avenger. Right after staging an abortive revenge tragedy and just before finding Claudius alone, Hamlet mediates,

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself
  breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink
  hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.

Here he seems more like a stage character—Lucianus or the brutal Pyrrhus on his way to slaughter Priam—than the intelligent but deeply disillusioned Prince who speaks Hamlet's other soliloquies. Elation over his successful revenge play has encouraged him to bring to life the attitudes of art. When confronted with Claudius' real throat to cut, of course, he balks. But he turns even his hesitation into a sentiment worthy of the most sinister stage avenger:

Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is … about some act
That has no relish of salvation in 't;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at
And that his soul may be as damn'd and
As hell, whereto it goes.

Hamlet both surpasses his father's command and avoids obeying it by planning to kill Claudius' soul with his body—at some unspecified future date. Once again, then, playing the remorseless avenger has freed him from the double bind—but only momentarily.

Soon all his evasions fail, and when he is arrested in Act IV, his behavior becomes careless and chaotic. The double binds in which their families have ensnared them have finally pushed Hamlet and Ophelia to the breaking point. After failing to discharge his duty, Hamlet is cornered by the Ghost; after inadvertently killing Polonius, he is cornered by Claudius. Unable to play his way out of these corners, he drops all disguises, threatening Claudius with the story of "how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar" (IV.iii.32-33) and telling him cleverly, but clearly, to go to hell. Hamlet's grisly jokes about the odor of decay and the "politic worms" which will fatten themselves on Claudius' minister of policy are no longer merely feigned madness; they resemble the astute perceptions often associated, by Shakespeare's contemporaries as well as by modern psychologists, with the truly mad.

In fact, Hamlet is not finally maddened by the double bind, because he is forced into the escape he could not choose for himself. Claudius, fearing for his own life, banishes Hamlet from his "prison," as the Prince once called Denmark.


Ophelia, meanwhile, can only retreat into madness. But why now? Everyone who had assaulted her with contradictory messages is gone: her father is dead, her brother has not yet returned from France, and her erst-while lover is banished. Why is she not now freed to grow into a sexual woman who is neither a child nor a whore? The answer is that she has already been stunted and is now too weak to cope with this forced separation from her family. Surely, Polonius being who he is, the audience can assume that the double binds imposed on Ophelia by her father are of long standing. After years of experiencing the confusing patterns of communication characteristic of this reverend counselor, she has learned not to think, and has settled into a family homeostasis which, although irrational, is stable. Separation from a family in which double-bind patterns prevail often introduces instability and thus produces madness in young adults. This is, in part, Ophelia's plight. The double binds that threaten Hamlet's sanity may be more terrifying, but they are extraordinary and have occurred only recently; those that destroy Ophelia's prove more devastating because they have been insidious and constant for most of her life.

The overtly sexual references in Ophelia's mad ramblings strike every amateur Freudian as indications of the repressions imposed by her father and her society. Less obvious, but no less significant, the nowin position of the heroine depicted in her valentine song epitomizes the double-bind situation fostered by Ophelia's almost exclusively male world. The naive lass in the song (IV.v.47-66) wants to assure herself of being her lad's valentine. So, counting on the belief that he must choose the first girl he sees on Valentine's Day morning, she innocently goes to his window. With a proposal of marriage, he seduces her, then rejects her as unfit to be his wife because she is no longer a virgin. If she refuses his sexual offer, she will jeopardize her marriage proposal; but because she accepts the offer, he withdraws the proposal. Like Ophelia, the lass is simultaneously treated like a whore and told to be a virgin; she is tempted and then damned as lewd. Ironically, the narrator in the song, like the audience to Ophelia's plight, perceives the incongruity in the demands of such young men: "By cock, they are to blame." But even though her song recalls and clarifies her own situation, Ophelia has lost all clarity of vision herself, and her mad actions dramatize her paralysis between child-like innocence and adult sexual knowledge. Gently singing and smilingly passing out flowers, "She turns," says her brother, "Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself … to favour and to prettiness" (IV.v. 188-89). But each flower accurately characterizes the vice of its recipient, and the garland she chooses for herself is made of

          long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call
                               (IV. vii. 170-72)

Instead of being "tumbled" in her lad's bed like the lass in her song, Ophelia, along with her coronet of penile flowers, tumbles into a brook to become a cold maid indeed. The gravedigger may have been correct in labeling her death self-defense: it defends her from the intolerable contradictions of her life.


Hamlet's defense is, for a time, more fortunate. With the onset of true madness forestalled by his banishment, he is forcibly removed from the scene of his contradictory obligations long enough to achieve a new perspective on them. Although the audience does not see the events that precipitate this change, it does see a different man as Hamlet approaches the graveyard in Act V. For the first time in the play, Hamlet, once the master of repartee, is bested in a game of wits, and that by a "clown," a worldly-wise grave-digger. Once the mordant court jester to Claudius, Hamlet now sees in the skull of an earlier jester the truth that not even the "gibes," "gambols," and "infinite jest" of such madcap rogues as Yorick can elude death. Once the actors' actor, Hamlet so disdains Laertes' histrionic rendition of the grief-stricken brother that he cannot forbear parodying the latter's extravagant mourning. In the face of death, Hamlet has discovered the futility of his past playing—playing with words, playing the fool, and playing the avenger.

Later, when Hamlet tells Horatio of his adventures, the audience learns what has jolted him into this new perspective. By the guiding hand of Providence, he believes, he could not sleep at sea, so he rashly stole his captors' letters and thereby discovered Claudius' plot against his life.

Being thus be-netted round with villanies,—
Ere I could make a prologue to my brains,
They had begun the play.

Hamlet no longer upbraids himself as an actor who avoids real action by unpacking his heart with words; yet he remains a player. Before "some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th' event" (IV.iv.40-41) can intervene, his brain begins to enact a drama not of his own devising. After experiencing what seem to him to be Providential coincidences—having with him his father's signet ring to seal the execution order for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and escaping on a pirate ship whose brigands willingly serve him instead of slitting his throat—Hamlet comes to believe in "a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will" (V.ii.10-11). He will be a player who waits in the wings for Providence to give him his cue: "The readiness is all" (V.ii.233). This shift in perspective releases him from both the fear of Claudius' traps and the double bind of the Ghost's contradictory commands—because a higher power than either an earthly king or an apparition from beyond the grave has written the play and determined who will be punished and who will be spared, who will play the role of avenger and when the catastrophe will come.

No longer needing to play either the madman or the avenger to defend his life and sanity, Hamlet goes calmly to the duel, telling Laertes that he "will this brother's wager frankly play" (V.ii.264). But Hamlet is unaware that the fencing match and its accompanying wager are a deadly game he cannot win. Because of Laertes' unbated, poisoned sword and Claudius' poisoned congratulatory cup, he will die either way—by the sword if he loses the match, and by the cup if he wins. The duel recalls the double-bind patterns that have snared Hamlet and Ophelia throughout the drama. To ensure justice, however, Providence reverses the bind. As Hamlet and Laertes "play" (a word the stage directions use four times), Claudius unwittingly prepares the perfect setting for the damnation of his soul with his body. Hamlet finally encounters Claudius amid a carousal with drink, drums, trumpets, and cannons like the one Hamlet had earlier blamed for soiling Denmark's reputation, and "At game … about some act / That has no relish of salvation in't" (III.iii.91-92). Claudius' clever game has become the means of a fitting vengeance, and he enacts his own punishment in the last scene of Providence's larger play. In his hesitation to murder the King in his chapel, Hamlet has been an unknowing player in a revenge drama superseding the one he had planned. By sparing Claudius' body, Hamlet has allowed the King to damn his own soul.

Laertes and Claudius arrange a game that Hamlet cannot win. But Providence stages a larger play that binds Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude to their sins. As Hamlet realizes before he agrees "to play" the fatal wager, death will eventually net one and all: "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come" (V.ii.231-33). In the end, everyone is trapped by death. But, in death, what is the state of those souls less guilty than Claudius'?


The play repeatedly raises the question: what are the results in the next world of actions performed in this one? But the play gives no answers, portraying the realm beyond the grave as unknowable. The Ghost is "forbid / To tell the secrets of [his] prison-house" (I.v.13-14). Indeed, this very initiator of the play's action is itself a "questionable shape"—either "spirit of health or goblin damn'd" (I.iv.43, 40). The play never confirms which. Not even the Mousetrap resolves the issue. It confirms that the Ghost has told the truth about Claudius' treachery; but as we know from Macbeth, devis may tells truths do damn souls.29 Hamlet's meditation on the results of human action, "To be, or not to be," confronts the blank wall of "something after death, / The undiscover'd country" (III.i.78-79). The state of Ophelia's soul is as "doubtful" as her death. Is she a damned suicide, as the skeptical gravediggers and the legalistic priest imply, or a "minist'ring angel" (V.i.250, 264), as her loving brother prophesies? Even the eternal fate of Rosen-crantz and Guildenstern is ambiguous. Although Hamlet sends them to their deaths, "Not shriving-time allow'd" (V.ii.47), for their part in Claudius' murder plot, do they die in mortal sin? Did they knowingly conspire with Claudius or have they been dupes to the end?

These questions about the results in the other world of actions in this world climax at Hamlet's death. In accomplishing the providential revenge, is he God's approved "minister" or His "scourge," an already damned soul used to accomplish divine retribution?30 When he doubts the Ghost, Hamlet fears damnation if he does kill Claudius (II.ii.627-32); but when he returns from his voyage, he fears damnation if he does not (V.ii.67-70). Will his slayings of Polonius and Laertes, his role in the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his indirect part in Ophelia's death, and his revenge against Claudius send him to hell? Although critics answer this question in various ways, the play itself is significantly silent.31 And Hamlet knows the eternal unknowableness of what lies beyond the grave: "since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes" (V.ii.233-35).

This final perspective releases Hamlet from the Ghost's crippling double bind, because it reveals that for Christians life itself imposes what appears to be a double bind. God's commandments require man, in a world of deceptive appearances, to take moral responsibility for his actions, the results of which he cannot know; but God's omnipotence shapes these actions to His own inscrutable ends no matter what choices a person makes; and no one can escape from the field, even through "self-slaughter." In Act I, Horatio and Marcellus unknowingly articulate the poles of this paradox. The scholar counsels patient non-action in response to the Ghost's revelation of rottenness in Denmark: "Heaven will direct it." The soldier urges immediate, responsible action: "Nay, let's follow" the desperate Hamlet and the silent Ghost (I.iv.91). For three intervening acts, maddening confusion plagues Hamlet, and only when he returns in Act V does he transcend the original double binds by recognizing—philosophically, if not familially—the basic incongruity at the heart of human life.

As psychologists, literary critics, and theologians all observe in their different disciplines, paradoxes and double binds precipitate creative leaps to higher levels of insight as often as they bring about psychotic episodes.32 Hamlet takes one of these creative leaps beyond the double bind when he decides that he must act in "perfect conscience" and quickly—"the interim is mine" (V.ii.67, 73)—allowing Providence to shape his rough hewing and recognizing that he cannot know what judgment his actions will receive beyond the grave. His last earthly acts are to ensure that the truth be told and that Elsinore have a ruler—acts that secure the future of his "name" and his country in this world. Unlike Horatio, he has nothing to say about "flights of angels" singing him to a heavenly reward in the next world. All he knows is that "The rest is silence" (V.ii.371, 369).


1Hamlet, in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, rev. ed. by Hardin Craig and Craig and David Bevington (Glenview, I11.; Scott, Foresman and Company, 1973), III.iii.38-43. All quotations from Hamlet follow this edition. The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Louisiana State University Research Council in completing this project.

2 Tony Manocchio and William Petitt, in Families Under Stress: A Psychological Interpretation (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 56-101, have noted that Hamlet and Ophelia are trapped in double binds, but the authors use the play to illustrate the theory more than they use the theory to illuminate the complexities of the play.

3 Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (1949; rpt. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954), p. 78. Avi Erlich, Hamlet's Absent Father (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 260-62.

4 Theodore Lidz, Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in Hamlet (New York: Basic Books, 1975).

5 Erik Erikson, "Youth: Fidelity and Diversity," Daedalus, 91 (1962), 5-27; Neil Friedman and Richard M. Jones, "On the Mutuality of the Oedipus Conflict: Notes on the Hamlet Case," in The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, ed. Melvin D. Faber (New York: Science House, 1970), pp. 121-46. See also

6 Paul A. Jorgensen uses Freud's theories of mourning and melancholia to account for Hamlet's calm in Act V. Because he vents his anger on its proper object, his mother, when he visits her after the Mousetrap, Hamlet in Act V is no longer plagued with the melancholy which his repressed rage had caused. See "Hamlet's Therapy," Huntington Library Quarterly, 27 (1964), 239-58.

7 John H. Weakland, "The 'Double Bind' Hypothesis of Schizophrenia and Three-Party Interaction (1960)," in Double Bind: The Foundation of the Communicational Approach to the Family, eds. Carlos E. Sluki and Donald C. Ransom (New York: Grune and Straiten, 1976), p. 24. See also

8 Bateson, et al., "Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia," in Double Bind, pp. 14-15.

9 Ibid., p. 17.

10 Many revisions of the original double-bind theory emphasize that an observer ought not to isolate a "binder" and a "victim" in families where double-bind patterns of communication predominate. Generally, the binds are mutually imposed, and assigning blame to one family member for beginning the pattern has little relevance to the present situation. Although living beings in human families are too complex for such labels, families portrayed in art may more clearly reveal the source of the double bind.

11 Bateson, "Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia," in Double Bind, p. 18.

12 For the interrogative mode of the play, see C. S. Lewis, "Hamlet: the Prince or the Poem?" in Modern Shakespearean Criticism: Essays on Style, Dramaturgy, and the Major Plays, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970), pp. 301-11, and Maynard Mack, "The World of Hamlet," Yale Review, 41 (1952), 502-23. For irony see Harry Levin, The Question of Hamlet (New York: Viking, 1964), and Thomas F. Van Laan, "Ironic Reversal in Hamlet," Studies in English Literature, 6 (1966), 247-62. For irreconcilable oppositions, see John Lawlor, The Tragic Sense in Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960), pp. 9-16, 45-73; Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967), pp. 1-13; Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London: Methuen, 1968), pp. 163-206; Nigel Alexander, Poison, Play, and Duel: A Study in Hamlet (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1971), pp. 8-9, 14; Bernard McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 29-88. For verbal mystification, see Paul A. Jorgensen, Redeeming Shakespeare's Words (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1962), pp. 100-120; Maurice Charney, Style in Hamlet (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969); Lawrence Danson, Tragic Alphabet: Shake-speare's Drama of Language (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 22-49.

13 Although some critics have argued that "adulterate" did not have such a specific meaning, the Ghost's word at least implies that Gertrude may have been an adulteress—an implication sufficient to taint Hamlet's mind. For opposing views, see John Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet (London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1935), pp. 292-94, and McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies, p. 53.

14 See Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet, pp. 44-50; M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957), pp. 117-18; Irving Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1960), pp. 72-73; and Alexander, Poison, Play, and Duel, pp. 45-46.

15 See Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 2nd ed. rev. (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 5-10, 135-37.

16 Although he attributes Hamlet's confusion to unstated scruples about taking revenge, John Lawlor (The Tragic Sense, pp. 45, 66, 72) agrees that Hamlet does not understand himself, and that his lack of self-knowledge is what makes his soliloquies pose unanswerable questions.

17 Eugen Fink, "The Oasis of Happiness: Toward an Ontology of Play," from Oase des Glücks, trs. Ute and Thomas Saine, in Game, Play, Literature: Yale French Studies, 41 (1968), 23-24.

18 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949), p. 25. Gregory Bateson, "A Theory of Play and Fantasy," Psychological Research Reports, 2 (1955), 39-51; "The Message 'This is Play,'" in Transactions of the Second Conference on Group Processes, ed. B. Schaffner (New York: Macy Foundation, 1956), pp. 145-242; "Metalogue: Why a Swan?" in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972), pp. 33-37.

19 For similar views, see Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy: The Interplay of Theme and Character (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1956), pp. 86-110; and McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies, p. 61.

20 See Roy W. Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969) p. 236; and McElroy, Shake-speare's Mature Tragedies, pp. 63-64. For the traditional Freudian interpretations of the poisoning and Hamlet's "oral aggression," see Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, pp. 193-94, and Melvin D. Faber, "Hamlet, Sarcasm and Psychoanalysis," Psychoanalytic Review, 55 (1968), 79-90.

21 For less positive approaches to the motivations for Hamlet's playing, see Richard A. Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 129-43; and Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 255-58.

22 Nigel Alexander analyzes duel as one of the three crucial symbolic actions in the play (Poison, Play, and Duel).

23 Similarly, a schizophrenic will often try to escape from double-bind interactions by insisting that either he or the other person is really someone else or is not really present. See Bateson, et al., "Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia," in Double Bind, p. 9. Eleanor Prosser argues that the Ghost is, in fact, a "goblin damned" who urges Hamlet to commit the mortal sin of murder (Hamlet and Revenge, pp. 108-22).

24 Although the Craig-Bevington edition prefers the reading "Tropically," the Ql reading is "Trapically."

25 See Simon O. Lesser, Fiction and the Unconscious (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 135, 262, and Jay Haley, "Paradoxes in Play, Fantasy, and Psychotherapy," Psychiatric Research Reports, 2 (1955), 52-58.

26 Nigel Alexander discusses Hamlet's failure to love Ophelia (Poison, Play, and Duel, pp. 119-52). Hamlet calls her a puppet in III.ii.257. In Grigori Kozintsev's Russian film of Hamlet (1966), Ophelia is being given dancing lessons when the audience first sees her, and her puppet-like movements are repeated in her mad scene. Before "The Murder of Gonzago," she is laced into an inhumanly restrictive bodice of a black dress with a prominent wire collar.

27 Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, p. 213.

28 For discussions of Hamlet's playing avenger, see Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, p. 192; Charney, Style in Hamlet, p. 318; Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 255-56; Danson, Tragic Alphabet, pp. 44-45; Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence, pp. 134-36. Hieronimo, Malevole, and Vindice are the avengers in three popular revenge tragedies of the period: Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (ca. 1587), John Marston's The Malcontent (1604), and Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (pub. 1607).

29 Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, pp. 111-12.

30 See III.iv.175. Fredson Bowers argues that the two terms, scourge and minister, had these distinct meanings in sixteenth-century England; "Hamlet as Minister and Scourge," PMLA, 70 (1955), 740-49. R. W. Dent, however, cites contemporary evidence of scourge bearing no implication of taint or need for eventual punishment: "Hamlet: Scourge and Minister," Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (1978), 82-84.

31 Critics have gathered into opposing camps on the issue of Hamlet's regeneration or degradation. S. F. Johnson, of the former camp, rehearses the debate up to 1952, in "The Regeneration of Hamlet," SQ, 3 (1952), 187-207. Since then, the most prominent sup-porters of the view that Hamlet becomes God's redeemed agent of revenge are Maynard Mack, "The World of Hamlet," pp. 520-23; Bowers, "Hamlet as Minister and Scourge," pp. 748-49, and "The Death of Hamlet: A Study in Plot and Character," in Studies in the English Renaissance Drama, eds., Josephine W. Bennett, Oscar Cargill, Vernon Hall (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 28-43; Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 80-83; Sr. Miriam Joseph, C.S.C., "Hamlet, a Christian Tragedy," Studies in Philology, 59 (1962), 119-40; B. L. Reid, "The Last Act and the Action of Hamlet," Yale Review, 54 (1964), 59-80; Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, pp. 219-40; and David Bevington, Introduction to Hamlet, in The Complete Works, pp. 899-903. Of those who maintain that Hamlet is tainted in his revenge, the most prominent are Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 152-55, 250-65; Alan C. Dessen, "Hamlet's Poisoned Sword: A Study in Dramatic Imagery," Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1969), 53-69; and John F. Andrews, '"Dearly Bought Revenge': Samson Agonistes, Hamlet, and Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy," Milton Studies, 13 (1979), 81-107.

32 See Gregory Bateson, "Double Bind (1969)"; Lyman C. Wynne, "On the Anguish, and Creative Passions, of Not Escaping Double Binds"; and Richard Rabkin. "Critique of the Clinical Use of the Double Bind Hypothesis"; in Double Bind, pp. 237-50, 287-306. Bateson (pp. 241-42) describes an experiment with a porpoise that, as odd as it seems, may illuminate Hamlet's transformation in Act V. The female porpoise had been trained to expect a whistle followed by food when she raised her head above the water. She had learned a context for behavior. But her trainer wanted her to present a new piece of behavior each time she entered the tank. Thus she must learn the context of the first context. Naturally on her second entrance into the tank, she futilely raised her head above the water. Only by accident did she produce a new piece of behavior, a tail flap, and receive a reward. For fourteen sessions the confused porpoise continued to perform the most recently rewarded behavior, producing new behaviors only by accident. Before the fifteenth session, however, she was visibly excited, and when let into the tank "she put on an elaborate performance including eight conspicuous pieces of behavior of which four were entirely new—never before observed in this species of animal." Like the porpoise who had learned how to learn, Hamlet has transcended double binds by leaping to a higher level of insight.


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Paul A. Jorgensen (essay date 1963-64)

SOURCE: "Hamlet's Therapy," in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, 1963-64, pp. 239-58.

[Below, Jorgensen undertakes a psychological study of Hamlet's malady in terms of Renaissance and Freudian interpretations of melancholy as repressed anger, misdirected toward one's self rather than expressed outwardly.]

It is the purpose of this essay to call attention to an important, though doubtless secondary, objective of Hamlet's pilgrimage (like a Spenserian knight he can have more than one). This is the regaining of the sanity which he had formerly displayed as an ideal prince. Hamlet does recover; and his recovery is a part of the drama which grips us. Only thus can we fully account for the much-discussed "regeneration" of the hero in a play whose primary image is disease. And only thus can we realize the fullest meaning of his most impassioned speeches. We must view them as Hamlet's groping his way from an initial torpor and grief, through conscious anger, to a clear-sighted though troubled sanity. This groping serves as a prelude to his tragic wisdom and to his restoration as one who would have proved most royally had he been put on.

Unlike other psychological students of the play, I am not primarily concerned with the almost hopeless task of precisely diagnosing Hamlet's malady, and I am glad to agree with most critics1 that it is mainly patho-logical grief and its consequent disturbance, melancholia. My concern is a happier one, to show how he achieves what we would today call psychotherapy. My major evidence outside the play is from Renaissance treatises. Those dealing with remedies for grief and melancholia are usually, to Shakespeare's enormous credit, only partly relevant to Hamlet. The best of them, however, achieve an insight that is borne out by Freud and later students. I shall not hesitate, from too great allegiance to historical scholarship, to avail myself of a doctrine merely because it has not become outmoded. Freud's Oedipal view of Hamlet is unacceptable to most literary students; but one cannot so easily dispose of Freudian theories that are supported by the text of the play and by Renaissance psychology. What is certain is that Shakespeare achieved insights into psycho-therapy which, though deriving from sixteenth-century theory, go centuries beyond the crude formulations of this theory. This he did as a dramatist and not as a philosopher-psychologist, in which prosaic capacity he is firmly rooted in his own age.

Today we are decreasingly interested in what was formerly the big question of the play: Was Hamlet mad? The opinion of most literary scholars and psychoanalysts is that Hamlet, as he tells us, is afflicted by "sore distraction," that he occasionally suffers hysteria and mania, but that as a tragic hero he becomes sane enough to be responsible for his actions. This does not, however, rule out the temporary presence of disabling grief and melancholia, the most poignant qualities in his early soliloquies. Concerning Hamlet's mental disturbance, A. C. Bradley writes:

And if the pathologist calls his state melancholia, and even proceeds to determine its species, I see nothing to object to in that; I am grateful to him for emphasizing the fact that Hamlet's melancholy was no more common depression of spirits; and I have no doubt that many readers of the play would understand it better if they read an account of melancholia in a work on mental diseases.2

Bradley is right. If we turn to Freud's essay "Mourning and Melancholia" we find the following:

The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. This picture becomes a little more intelligible when we consider that … the same traits are met with in mourning.3

This is the Hamlet that we see at the beginning of the play and generally throughout the first three acts. But a change surely occurs, and many critics have noticed it. Bradley (p. 120) observes in the fifth act "a slight thinning of the dark cloud of melancholy." This, he thinks, may be part of a new sense of power after his dispatching of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but mainly it is a "kind of religious resignation." According to O. J. Campbell, Shakespeare "does not leave his audience with the view of Hamlet as a slave to a kind of mental malady. The fatal wound in the Prince's breast restores his equilibrium and produces a brief interval of serenity."4 Robert Ornstein also attributes the improvement mainly to a last-minute confrontation of death, though he does see an improvement after the sea voyage.5 J. Q. Adams, who has made the only extensive psychological study of Hamlet's recovery, places the change in III.iv, with the appearance of the Ghost. According to Adams, the whole play breaks here:

From this time on Hamlet is increasingly better. He begins to display more interest in life, he takes on a more hopeful attitude towards the world, his thinking loses much of its morbid quality, and his confidence in human nature is in part restored. … In the final scenes of the play—as in the jesting with Osric, or in the friendly fencing contest with Laertes—his melancholia has almost disappeared.6

Adams' estimate of the time of Hamlet's change is convincing, for the last scenes must show Hamlet acting rationally; insight delayed to the moment of death does not occur for even so slow a thinker as Othello. But Adams has no better reason for Hamlet's recovery than that melancholia passes normally through several stages, and recovery is, in time, inevitable. Time was indeed a Renaissance explanation for some cures,7 but it was hardly a dramatic or significant one. Shakespeare worked his hero's cure into the dramatic texture of the play.

Because Renaissance psychotherapy has been inadequately studied, it may be useful to survey briefly some of the approaches. Perhaps the most favored for melancholia was a religious one. But Hamlet does not, because he is not really a guilty soul, fit the category written about by so many Elizabethan divines. Paul H. Kocher has ably differentiated between the psychologically (or physiologically) and the religiously caused melancholia.8 Hamlet, unlike Lady Macbeth or Claudius with his "sick soul," would not have been classified as suffering from an afflicted conscience, which often had symptoms similar to psychological melancholia.9

When divines did offer guidance for psychological melancholia, they were not particularly helpful. When it is not manifestly derivative from psychological works, their advice (as exemplified by Thomas Adams, William Perkins, and Bishop Abernethy) is to mortify the passions. If the suffering is incurable, according to Perkins, "wee must humble our selves for our unquietnesse of minde. … It is Gods will that we should suffer affliction, and withall humble our selves under his mightie hand."10 There may be a hint of this attitude in the "religious resignation" which Hamlet has been presumed to suffer (or achieve) at the end of the play, partially in his acceptance of Heaven's will in the punishment which will follow his slaying of Polonius and more clearly in his "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow."11 But Hamlet's psychological recovery, while perhaps related to this, is something achieved through the mind and emotions rather than through the will. I shall, however, refer to the religious theme later in the essay.

Moral philosophers were as busy as divines in offering advice and consolation. What is more, there is abundant evidence of their prescriptions in Hamlet; so much, in fact, that one might assume that they are held up as the ideal therapists. In a valuable article, "Hamlet's Book,"12 Hardin Craig proposes that the volume which Hamlet enters reading (II.ii.168), and which he presumably reads during his solitude, is a familiar book of consolation, a work by Girolamo Cardano translated as Cardanus Comforte (1576). Professor Craig is undoubtedly correct in writing that "belief in the therapeutic power of books was characteristic of Renaissance students. If a hero found himself stricken with grief, as Hamlet did, it was natural that he should re-sort to a work on consolation. Cardano wrote De consolatione to comfort himself and all those stricken with grief (p. 18). Craig stresses the resultant universalizing of Hamlet's plight if we view him as benefiting from this moving book, for Cardano makes it clear that most of humanity is involved in the struggle against grief, fear, and weakness. Like other moral philosophers, Cardano stresses reasonableness and, above all, fortitude, which is principally what the grieving Hamlet has to learn.

Cardano is in the tradition of Plutarch, Cicero, Seneca, Boethius, and Thomas More. These writers have perhaps too little sympathy with human weakness or with strong, uncontrolled passions. Cardano is typical of them in writing, in a passage that seems to bear suggestively on Hamlet:

As therefore to cowards and men of no virtue, the timely death of the father hath ever brought hinderaunce: So to noble mindes: it be occasion whereby to shew themselves as they be. Thys must also be set before our eyes, that both lyfe and death be the gyftes of God, and do evermore depende upon his providence. Therefore whosoever reproveth lyfe or Death, doeth in sylence disalowe & complayne of the devine Judgement, because both the one and the other is meete and profitable. (fol. 45v)

A similarly stern note is heard in: "A follye I do think to comforte those that through debility of mynde do cast themselves into misery: as foule delight, and desperate revenges" (fol. 10r). Nevertheless even Cardano recognizes the occasional inadequacy of stern reason in dealing with grief: "for oftentimes, thoughe reason comforte us, and teache us that neither mourninge, is mete, neither that there is any cause of mourning, yet the sadde mynde of it selfe can not bee merye" (fol. 15v). He must have known this from personal experience—a circumstance which lifts the Comforte above most books of consolation. Philippe de Mornay, another very wise and sensitive commentator on human misery, states what perhaps Hamlet and other students felt about the utility of the moral philosophers in dealing with mental suffering: "They pacify not the debates a man feeles in himselfe, they cure not the diseases of his minde."13

Hamlet may envy Horatio his Stoic self-sufficiency, his moderation, his ability to suffer all yet suffer nothing. He may read endlessly in the books (or book) of the philosophers. But so doing does not greatly help him. Much of the advice of Cardano and the other moral therapists is reproduced in the play, but it is not given the best of spokesmen. It is put into the mouths of Claudius and Gertrude. In the second scene, Hamlet is told that the death of fathers is common and natural, that to mourn excessively shows a will most incorrect to Heaven, a mind impatient. His attitude toward such reasoning is that "'tis common," probably implying that it is too much a matter of commonplace books and not enough a matter of dearly purchased experience. It is Claudius who triumphantly lays claim to successful conquest of grief, and through the very precepts of the "common" moral treatises:

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.

Hamlet cannot so easily dispel grief and melancholia. Nor do I think Shakespeare felt it a culpable flaw in him to fail in so doing. With Brabantio in Othello, Hamlet might say: "But words are words; I never yet did hear / That the bruis'd heart was pierced through the ear" (I.iii.218-219); or with the grieving Leonato in Much Ado about Nothing:

                     I will be flesh and blood;
For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently.

Perhaps what is fundamentally wrong with the comfort books and the books of stern exhortation is that they talk at the patient. Shakespeare seems to have felt the hollowness of their encouragement and the futility of their comfort. We know from later experiences in treating melancholia that more dynamic methods, deriving from the patient's experiencing of emotion, are needed. These, moreover, would be ideally suited to drama.

Besides divines and moral philosophers, the Renaissance had many psychological writers, some of whom were also divines and some strictly physicians. But men like Timothy Bright, André du Laurens, Thomas Wright, Nicolas Coeffeteau, and Robert Burton, regardless of their area of learning, usually divide their therapy between the body and the mind. Therapy through the body was surely the least brilliant achievement of Renaissance psychology. Shakespeare ignores it in Hamlet (though he does not do so in King Lear). If Hamlet's disease had been humoral, then bloodletting, baths, and a very complicated diet would have been indicated.14 Significantly, none of those trying to cure Hamlet once suggest such procedures. Hence, most of the predominantly medical treatises are of no relevance.

Hamlet's relatives and supposed friends attempt to cure him by other strategies, most of them endorsed by the psychologists; and Shakespeare provides for his hero, in Horatio, one of the most commonly approved remedies for melancholia: a faithful friend.15 The friend should serve as someone to whom the sufferer can express his griefs and confide his secrets and in whom he can see the wholesomeness of sanity; a melancholy friend is dangerous. In all respects Horatio is exemplary. Hamlet sees in him a model of sanity, and Horatio is also an extraordinarily good listener. His "Ay, my lord" is his most characteristic utterance. But we do not very often witness Hamlet confiding any important emotions to Horatio. His most heartfelt unhappinesses are expressed in soliloquy. However, we should notice the degree to which Hamlet brightens up when he first sees Horatio, and even his exhilaration when he meets the two false friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The latter two, incidentally, seem to be provided by the King not only as a means of sounding out Hamlet but as a possible way to cure the youth whose antics cause him and the court so much annoyance. They come to Hamlet as therapeutic friends. Rosencrantz explains to the Prince the psychological usefulness which doubtless Claudius sees in Hamlet's two schoolfellows: "You do surely bar the door of your own liberty if you deny your griefs to your friend" (III.ii.351-353). Guildenstern, upon receiving his charge from the King, exclaims: "Heavens make our presence and our practices / Pleasant and helpful to him!" (II.ii.38-39). And Claudius himself clarifies (at least ostensibly) his motives to both schoolmates:

                     so by your companies
To draw him on to pleasure, and to gather
So much as from occasions you may glean,
Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him
That, open'd, lies within our remedy.

For Claudius is one of the principal characters in the play trying to cure Hamlet. One of his most eager remarks occurs when Polonius makes his promising, but mistaken, diagnosis: love melancholy. Claudius, hearing of a likely solution, exclaims, "O, speak of that; that do I long to hear" (II.ii.50). Hamlet's therapy, not his death, has been Claudius' attempt from the beginning, and remains so probably until Claudius becomes aware of Hamlet's murderous intent. We have seen that the King's first words to Hamlet are aimed at correcting the Prince's stubborn grief. Claudius, in fact, follows in this scene the traditional prescription for a therapist given by Robert Burton:

By all means, therefore, fair promises, good words, gentle persuasions are to be used, not to be too rigorous at first, or to insult over them, not to deride, neglect, or contemn, but rather, as Lemnius exhorteth, to pity, and by all plausible means to seek to reduce them: but if satisfaction may not be had, mild courses, promises, comfortable speeches, and good counsel, will not take place; then, as Christopherus àVega determines, to handle them more roughly, to threaten and chide. … 16

Thus Claudius turns from "comfortable speeches" to a rougher handling during this scene. He is at first the kindly, fatherly counselor; then the severe uncle-father. Whether or not Claudius is sincerely seeking Hamlet's recovery, others would have viewed his solicitous and expert ministrations in this light.

The "precept" technique having failed, Claudius listens eagerly, but skeptically, to Polonius' diagnosis, and then endorses another psychological remedy for melancholia: diversion, particularly in the form of a play.17 This proves to be an even more disastrous failure. After the murder of Polonius, Claudius proposes on his own another of the perennial remedies, this one being sea travel:

Haply the seas and countries different
With variable objects shall expel
This something-settled matter in his heart,
Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus
From fashion of himself.

Psychologists were divided about the efficacy of this therapy, since it did not really alter the patient's view of himself or others.18 It is very unlikely that the sea voyage makes Hamlet psychologically well. The improvement is noticeable before he leaves Denmark. But the voyage promised to be useful to Claudius, while still preserving his reputation as a kindly therapist.

The Queen is to prove, in a way she does not guess, to be instrumental in Hamlet's recovery. But in her own shallow way, she too has been trying from the outset to cure her son. Her first diagnosis is a simple and fairly sound one: "I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage" (II.ii.56-57). But upon hearing Polonius' diagnosis, she changes, perhaps without much conviction, to a new hope:

And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet's wildness. So shall I hope your
Will bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honours.

It was believed, by du Laurens among others, that a victim of love melancholy could be improved by the possession of the love object.19 But Hamlet promptly relieves both Claudius and Gertrude of any hope on this score.

The play becomes more considerably a study in psychotherapy if we recognize that most of the principal characters—Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—are engaged in the frustrating business of trying to diagnose and cure Hamlet's malady. But he is not a pipe for all fingers to play upon. The source of his grief, like the grief itself, passes show. Above all, he illustrates what seems to have been Shakespeare's attitude to psychotherapy from without. One of the most poignant and lasting questions in Shakespeare is Macbeth's "Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd … ?" (V.iv.40). And the doctor's answer points the way toward what truly occurs in Hamlet: "Therein the patient / Must minister to himself." Hamlet recovers as a tragic hero and not merely as a mental patient. He achieves a new wisdom and self-knowledge; and this, I believe, is through the very modern, but also Renaissance, process of bringing to awareness his deepest feelings.

What is it in Hamlet's extremely complex nature that must come to the surface of consciousness? Many readers have noticed with dismay a ferocious quality in the gentle, meditative Prince. His treatment of Ophelia, if we are inclined to an ideal picture, approaches motiveless cruelty.20 Bradley came close to the truth when he observed Hamlet's "almost savage irritability" (pp. 105-106). This anger is not, obviously, the fact about him-self that Hamlet most clearly recognizes in the first part of the play. It is, however, not unnoticed by Hamlet's keenest and most interested observer, Claudius. Near the midpoint of the play, the King perceives what I think the Renaissance would have recognized as the underlying source of 'Hamlet's melancholia. He calls it a "danger," but he is referring to the latent, grimly angry quality in Hamlet:

              There's something in his soul
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger. …

It is "the hatch and the disclose" of Hamlet's anger which gives mounting drama to the play even as it gives the sick Prince health. It is fully recognized by Hamlet himself late in the play when he warns Laertes:

Sir, though I am not splenitive and rash,
Yet have I something in me dangerous,
Which let thy wiseness fear.

Melancholia is today recognized as often due to repressed rage. The anger, instead of being turned outward, is turned upon oneself, with resultant dejection, apathy, and self-reviling. This is the message of Dr. Karl Menninger's Man against Himself (1938). It was also so interpreted by Freud: "The self-tormenting in melancholia … signifies, just like the corresponding phenomenon in the obsessional neurosis, a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject's own self" (p. 251).

Objections to a Freudian interpretation of Shakespeare are often made on the grounds that it is anachronistic. We have here, however, a Freudian interpretation that was almost a Renaissance commonplace, with the one exception that Renaissance psychology did not construct a systematic theory based upon the unconscious. The system came much later, but the theory itself was both expounded by psychologists and depended upon for the correct interpretation of literary character.

The Renaissance recognized the inevitable relationship of passions, as it did of complexions. Joy may, as Miss Campbell has pointed out (p. 115), be the emotion commonly linked with grief. Such a connection was, however, one of the most obvious and least sophisticated observations made by Renaissance psychology. It was a far more brilliant observation to see that grief (with its resultant sorrow or melancholia) was inseparably linked with anger. Writing of pathological sorrow, Jean François Senault states:

Choler is of the same condition; though she make so much noise, she draws all her force from the Passions which compose her; and she appears not to be couragious, save only that she is well accompanied; she is never raised in our souls uncalled by Sorrow; she endeavors not satisfaction for injuries done unto her, unless sollicited by Desire, provoked by Hope, and encouraged by Audacity; for he that is irritated, promiseth himself revenge of his enemy; but when he is so weak, as he cannot hope for it, his Choler turns to Sadnesse. … 2l

The theory of the unconscious is here, but imperfect; for the false assumption is made that only fear of reprisal keeps one from venting anger and thus avoiding sorrow. A similar linking of choler and grief occurs in an earlier work, Coeffeteau's A Table of Humane Passions: "we must remember that Choler is also full of griefe and bitternesse, for that it propounds the injury received, the which shee cannot easily disgest …" (p. 559). And it occurs in Burton: "Anger, a perturbation, which carries the spirits outwards, preparing the body to melancholy, and madness itself (p. 233). The connection between the two emotions goes back, however, not only to Shakespeare's time (e.g., Timothy Bright) but even to the classical period. In fact, one of the sources in which Shakespeare was most likely to have read of suppressed anger turning into sorrow or grief is Plutarch's life of Coriolanus. Martius alone, Plutarch writes, showed no outward anger at his banishment.

Not that he did patiently bear and temper his good hap, in respect of any reason he had, or by his quiet condition: but because he was so carried away with the vehemency of anger, and desire of revenge, that he had no sense nor feeling of the hard estate he was in, which the common people judge not to be sorrow, although it is the very same. For when sorrow (as you would say) is set afire, then it is converted into spite or malice. … 22

The important adjunct of suppressed anger turning into grief is that, as Freud has noticed, the individual punishes himself. This tendency of grief to be self-punishing was noticed by Coeffeteau in 1621, though with inadequate emphasis upon the role of anger: "the soule helpes to afflict herselfe, whether that melancholy workes this effect, or that the continuali afflictions oppresse her in such sort, as she doth nothing but sigh under the burthen of sorrow …" (p. 327). Shakespeare seems to have recognized more clearly than did psychologists the necessity for a choice between punishing oneself and punishing the real (external) source of grief. Hamlet affords the most sustained dramatic evidence of his awareness, but in other works the message is made more explicitly.

In Much Ado about Nothing Antonio tries to comfort his brother, Leonato, not only by hortatory words … but by more dynamic psychological advice. He warns him of the danger and foolishness of self-recrimination:

If you go on thus, you will kill yourself;
And 'tis not wisdom thus to second grief
Against yourself.

And he offers the sensible therapeutic advice: "Yet bend not all the harm upon yourself; / Make those that do offend you suffer too" (V.i.39-40).

A more sustained example of Shakespeare's depiction of paralytic grief slowly exposing the anger beneath occurs in The Rape of Lucrece. When Collatinus learns of the rape of his wife, he first exemplifies, as though in a speaking picture, the spectacle of one's grief raging, mutely, against oneself. Collatinus struggles, with at first only partial success, "to blow / The grief away that stops his answer so":

Lo, here, the hopeless merchant of this loss,
With head declin'd, and voice damm'd up
  with woe,
With sad set eyes, and wretched arms across,
From lips new waxen pale begins to blow
The grief away that stops his answer so:
    But, wretched as he is, he strives in vain;
    What he breathes out his breath drinks up

As through an arch the violent roaring tide
Outruns the eye that doth behold his haste,
Yet in the eddy boundeth in his pride
Back to the strait that forc'd him on so fast;
In rage sent out, recall'd in rage, being past:
Even so his sighs, his sorrows, make a saw,
To push grief on and back the same grief
                            (11. 1660-73)

This is a fairly close approximation to the grief-stricken Hamlet of the first soliloquy, turning most of his anger upon himself. These two stanzas reveal that catatonic grief is far from a passionless state. Then, in Lucrece, Brutus makes perfectly explicit, in advising his friend, that the anger should be turned outward:

Why, Collatine, is woe the cure for woe?
Do wounds help wounds, or grief help
  grievous deeds?
Is it revenge to give thyself a blow
For his foul act by whom thy fair wife
Such childish humour from weak minds
    Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so,
    To slay herself, that should have slain her
                            (11. 1821-27)

Shakespeare was not alone among creative writers in recognizing this harsh truth. A comparable episode occurs in Sidney's Arcadia. Amphialus, reacting to grief first with "a deepe sigh … seemed even to condemn him selfe, as though indeed his reproches were true. But howsoever the dulnes of Melancholy would have languishingly yeelded thereunto, his Courage (unused to such injuries) desired help of Anger. … "23

The obvious therapy for melancholia, then, is to convert grief to its real, but disguised, source: anger.24 The psychologist Timothy Bright cautiously prescribes this remedy, though only after first recommending that the patient try reason, divinity, and avoidance of disturbances (Bright became a divine after a career in medicine):

And if no other perswasion will serve a vehement passion, of another sort is to be kindled, that may withdrawe that vain and foolish sorowe into some other extremity, as of anger. … For although they both breed a dislike, yet that proceedeth of other cause, rebateth the force of it which first gave occasion, and as one pinne is driven out with another, so the later may expell the former… ,25

This is, except for the caution, the advice of Malcolm to the stunned Macduff. Like Hamlet, Macduff is first stricken by his own unworthiness rather than anger toward Macbeth. He refers to himself as "sinful Macduff (IV.iii.224). Malcolm tries to persuade the thane to break out of his torpor and express his real grievance—first of all merely to "give sorrow words." Then Malcolm speaks the lines that represent the outstanding insight of Renaissance psychotherapy: "Be this the whetstone of your sword; let grief / Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it" (IV.iii.228-229). Changing from the blunted to the enraged heart, and converting grief to anger—these represent the progress of Hamlet from self-reviling muteness to the consciously and accurately enraged Hamlet of the last scenes. To recount this progress would be to tell the play; I can here point only to a few crucial speeches and episodes.

When we first see Hamlet, he is almost catatonic in his melancholia. We learn from him that he sighs and weeps (recommended, yet superficial, ways of relieving grief), but he speaks almost not at all to other people. His hostility to his parents is expressed only obliquely, sometimes in asides and in ironic and punning comments.26 Irony is of course a disciplined, intellectual rather than emotional, form of expressing anger. It does not ease the heart; and Hamlet later in the second scene, at the end of his first soliloquy, seems to apprehend an important fact about his grief: "It is not, nor it cannot come to good.—/ But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue" (I.ii.158-159). The body of the soliloquy does outwardly direct some anger—toward his mother's behavior—but it is spoken only to himself. In speaking to his mother, he is coldly courteous. The tone of the soliloquy and its principal direction point to self-punishment. It is not his mother whom he wishes to destroy but himself:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!

In Hamlet's second soliloquy (II.ii.575-634) the anger is much more evident. In fact, the soliloquy is his most ranting one. He is beginning to feel, though not to express to others, the fullness of his anger: "Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!" Significantly, however, almost all of the abusive language of the speech is still directed against himself. He is "a rogue and peasant slave," "a dull and muddy-mettled rascal," "an ass." But he is much more alive than he was in the dull grief of the first soliloquy. He may be angry mainly with himself, but he is at least consciously trying to whip himself into a perception of the emotion that underlies his melancholia. Anger, though misdirected, has come very much to the surface.

In Hamlet's progress from grief to anger, the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy (III.i.56-88) is crucial. After it is spoken, Hamlet seems capable of venting his anger upon Ophelia, though only indirectly upon Claudius (who overhears the veiled threats but is not, strictly speaking, addressed as an enemy). The soliloquy is usually interpreted as a contemplation of suicide. It is certainly, but not totally, that. Hamlet is still more grieved than angered, more intent upon punishing himself than upon punishing others. But we should observe that the second line of the speech turns to a subject somewhat different from the more famous first line:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

"Suffer," or "bear," as opposed to "take arms," becomes the key word of the rest of the soliloquy. Indeed, the speech is thoroughly meaningful only if we take it to express Hamlet's growing awareness that his one hope (Heaven is not yet seen as "ordinant") is to change from passiveness to angry activity. It is a debate, not simply whether to be or not to be, but whether to "bear" or to do. "For who would bear the whips and scorns of time … ?" "Who would fardels bear … ?" Only fear of the future "makes us rather bear those ills we have." Significantly, much of the grievance is directed outward: against the oppressor, the proud man, unrequited love, the law, the insolence of office, and the suffering of the patient man. From this point onward Hamlet is much less patient. His "danger" is becoming overt. Within a few lines he is lashing against Ophelia and women, and we thereby are becoming aware, as is Hamlet himself, of where his true hostility lies.

The anger is against his mother, though it is first mis-directed against Ophelia and all women. By the end of III.ii, Hamlet is no longer a victim of melancholia, precisely because he has turned the frightening force of his hatred upon the one person who has most cruelly betrayed him and his father. Here, incidentally, one must radically depart from the Oedipal theory. To assume that the Prince resents his father, one must disregard not only Renaissance psychology but the most emotional passages of the play. Perhaps for this reason the psychoanalytical critics, including Ernest Jones (the best of them), are indifferent to Hamlet's recovery from mental distress. One can account for this recovery only through the content of the emotional speeches and their change of hostile direction from Hamlet to his mother. The elder Hamlet never, even after Hamlet's hostility has come to full consciousness, is spoken of unlovingly.

"Now could I drink hot blood" (III.ii.408). In this passionate declaration Hamlet is still speaking only to himself, but there is no doubt of the completeness with which he has transferred his loathing from himself to his mother. He could now, if it were not for being unnatural, become like Nero. When we next see him with his mother, in the great closet scene (III.iv), he speaks no longer to himself but to her. The scene is dramatically, perhaps, the most successful in the play. Except for the soliloquies, it contains Hamlet's most heartfelt lines. In fact, it is the only scene in the play in which Hamlet talking to others is as impressive as Hamlet talking to himself. It is this, I believe, because it is essentially dealing with the same theme as the soliloquies: Hamlet's anger. But it is less subtle and interesting than the soliloquies because the anger is not so painfully disguised.

Even here, however, Hamlet must—for the last time—struggle against his impulse to suppress his true feelings. The struggle is now a brief one and occurs only because the Ghost appears and warns him to comfort his mother. The Ghost, who (very much like the early Hamlet) has "a countenance more in sorrow than in anger," does not share Hamlet's murderous hatred of his mother; indeed, it is partially the Ghost's command that has kept Hamlet from more promptly converting his grief to anger. The Ghost now looks at Hamlet in a way almost to redirect his emotion to tears rather than anger:

                     Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects; then what I have to do
Will want true colour, tears perchance for

The hesitancy, however, does not last. Hamlet does not kill his mother, but he speaks to her with "words like daggers" and with brutal, sexually specific candor. By the end of IV.iv, there is no question as to his commitment: "O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth" (IV.iv.65-66).

The importance to Hamlet of the closet scene has been recognized by John E. Hankins, who calls the scourging of Gertrude almost a "conversion" for the Prince:

Nowhere after this scene does Hamlet show the same bitterness that he had earlier expressed. Even in his subsequent resolve to kill the King, he seems animated by a desire for justice rather than by vengeful hatred. … The emotional catharsis of his experience has given him a certain serenity of spirit which he has not felt at any earlier time in the play.27

But Hamlet does not (occasion does not permit it) entirely lose his anger; and one may well ask what effect such an emotion would have upon a final Renaissance estimate of the hero. Although anger was a dangerous passion, it had its defenders, particularly those who recognized that there was no such state as a lack of passion, and that if a cause for anger existed, it was hazardous and foolish to suppress the emotion. Pierre Charron writes, typically, of the danger of "smothering" choler:

There are some that smother their choler within, to the end it breake not forth, and that they may seeme wise and moderate; but they fret themselves inwardly, and offer themselves a greater violence than the matter is worth. It is better to chide a little, and to vent the fire, to the end it be not everardent and painfull within. … All diseases that appeare openly are the lighter, and then are most dangerous when they rest hidden with a counterfet health.28

The quotation is an apposite one, for the central image in the play is the opening of a hidden disease. Montaigne speaks to much the same effect, and with his refreshing and prophetic good sense:

I would rather perswade a man, though somewhat out of season, to give his boy a wherret on the eare, then to dissemble this wise, sterne or severe countenance, to vex and fret his minde. And I would rather make show of my passions, then smother them to my cost: which being vented and exprest, become more languishing and weake: Better it is to let its pointe worke outwardly, then bend it against our selves.29

There may also be present in Hamlet an endorsement of what Hiram Haydn has called the "ireful virtues" as opposed to the Stoic virtues in the movement which he proposes under the name of the Counter-Renaissance.30 Certainly in all of Shakespeare's four major tragedies there are extended, and usually persuasive, passages defending an aggressive rather than passive confronting of grief. In King Lear, which alone we have not considered, the King spends much effort in deciding between patience (involving grief and tears) and wrathful revenge. It does not matter to the Tightness of his conclusion that he is actually unable to take revenge:

You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stirs these daughters' hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women's weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man's cheeks!

Shakespeare, unlike the moral Spenser of Book II of The Faerie Queene, did not decisively condemn noble anger.31

Are we, after all, to assume that the intolerable suffering of a tragic hero is better than the display of anger? Is anger against oneself really better than anger against others? If we so conclude, we must condemn Hamlet and his final, healthy self in a world worthy of anger. Hamlet in the last scene is angry, furiously angry. The good nature and fairness he has shown to Laertes and the King is mightily abused, and he reacts with anger no longer toward himself but toward the aggressors.

He does, however, show intermittently what Hankins rightly calls "a certain serenity of spirit." And because the religious motif is so strong in the final scene, one hesitates to ascribe his serenity primarily to psychological recovery. Critics have written at length about the "regeneration" of Hamlet, and by this they mean his spiritual, not his psychological, well-being.32 Perhaps the two are not so disparate as we make them today, notably in literary criticism. Perhaps the only kind of religious acceptance that counts dramatically is that achieved with a clear mind. A Hamlet destroyed during the depths of his melancholia would scarcely be a tragic hero. We should also not forget that only the last scene shows a religiously serene Hamlet. His psychological recovery has occurred safely before this time.

But I do not wish to arouse the anger of the religious critics (many of whom would do well to sample the efforts of Elizabethan divines to treat melancholia). All that I seek to achieve in this essay is a renewed respect for the psychological view of Hamlet, without in any way minimizing the importance of a religious view, here and in much great tragedy.33 The psychological view, particularly if the sufferer achieves new insight, can lead to emotions comparable to those claimed by the religious view. Man can, after all, win his tragic way to wisdom not merely through resignation to God's will, but also through self-knowledge, through understanding his own hidden thoughts and feelings. Hamlet, at once the most religious and most intelligent of Shakespeare's heroes, does both.


1 A good Renaissance diagnosis is made by Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (New York, 1952), Ch. xii. More modern diagnoses will be cited later.

2Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1960), p. 103. This, in general, is the opinion of scholars like J. Q. Adams, T. M. Parrott, and J. Dover Wilson.

3 In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans, and ed. James Strachey (London, 1957), XIV, 244.

4Hamlet, ed. O. J. Campbell et al. (New York, 1961), p. 7.

5The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison, 1960), pp. 237-238.

6Hamlet, ed. Joseph Quincy Adams (Boston, 1929), p. 288.

7 E.g., Nicolas Coeffeteau, A Table of Humane Passions, trans. E. Grimestone (London, 1621), p. 335.

8Science and Religion in Elizabethan England (San Marino, 1953). See particularly pp. 302-303; also his excellent article "Lady Macbeth and the Doctor," Shakespeare Quarterly, V (1954), 341-349.

9 For the difference between the two afflictions see William Perkins, The Estate of a Christian in This Life, in Works (Cambridge, 1605), p. 435.

10An Exposition upon the Lords Prayer, in Works, p. 406. See also

11 III.iv.173-175; V.ii.230. All Shakespeare references are to The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. W.A. Neilson and C. J. Hill (Boston, 1942).

12Huntington Library Bulletin, No. 6 (1934), pp. 17-37.

13A Discourse of Life and Death, trans. Mary, countess of Pembroke (London, 1592), sig. [C4]v .

14 For the strictly physical remedies for melancholia, see Philip Barrough, The Method of Phisick (London, 1596), pp. 47-48.

15 E.g., Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Minde (London, 1604), p. 78.

16The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith (New York, 1941), pp. 476-477.

17 Recommended by Burton, p. 482; Coeffeteau, pp. 343-345.

18 Justus Lipsius speaks against travel on the grounds that it is superficial. See Two Bookes of Constancie, trans. Sir John Stradling, ed. Rudolf Kirk (New Brunswick, 1939), p. 75.

19 André du Laurens, A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight (London, 1599), p. 121. Burton, p. 798, calls this the "last refuge and surest remedy."

20 Dover Wilson remarks: "The attitude of Hamlet to-wards Ophelia is without doubt the greatest of all the puzzles in the play. …" What Happens in Hamlet (New York, 1935), p. 101.

21The Use of Passions, trans. Henry, earl of Monmouth (London, 1671), pp. 404-405. An earlier edition of this translation appeared in 1649.

22Shakespeare's Plutarch, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke (London, 1909), II, 174.

23The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge, Eng., 1939), p. 454.

24 This is suggested, but without application to Hamlet, by Ruth Leila Anderson in her pioneering study, Elizabethan Psychology and Shakespeare's Plays (Iowa City, 1927), p. 91. Laertes is effectively cited by Miss Campbell (p. 115) as a youth who successfully converts his grief to anger.

25A Treatise of Melancholy (London, 1586), pp. 255-256.

26 Later he is to resort to the "antic disposition," which permits him freedom to insult others. I suspect that the need for expressing anger, and not hysteria or caginess, is the real reason for the antic disposition.

27 The Character of Hamlet and Other Essays (Chapel Hill, 1941), pp. 51-52.

28Of Wisdome, trans. S. Lennard (London, 1625), p. 564. Moreover, the irascible power was generally considered to be more desirable than the concupiscible (including grief). See Coeffeteau, pp. 28-29.

29 "Of Anger and Choler," The Essayes of Montaigne, trans. John Florio (New York, [1933]), p. 645.

30The Counter-Renaissance (New York, 1950). For Hamlet see pp. 619-636.

31 Anger is of course not the solution to Lear's mental suffering. He is not a melancholiac. The Alcibiades episode in Timon of Athens (III.v) also vindicates anger as opposed to "bearing."

32 The strongest interpretation is that of J. A. Bryant, Jr., Hippolyta's View. Some Christian Aspects of Shakespeare's Plays (Lexington, 1960), Ch. viii. See also

33 I try to bring the two together in my article "Hamlet and the Restless Renaissance," Shakespearean Essays (Knoxville, Tenn., 1964). Therein, in fact, I argue that a goodly part of Hamlet's self-deprecation has a religious (as well as psychological) basis.

Carroll Camden (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "On Ophelia's Madness," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring, 1964, pp. 247-55.

[In the following essay, Camden argues that Ophelia's madness is largely precipitated by her unrequited love for Hamlet, rather than her father's death.]

The character of Ophelia seems to have been puzzling to many critics who have written about the play. As a minor personage of the tragedy, she has not received the careful analysis accorded Hamlet, Gertrude, or Claudius, or even Laertes, Horatio, or Polonius. Her role in the play is not clear to critical writers who have attempted to answer the many questions which arise about Ophelia's relations with her father and with Hamlet—questions which must be answered if her madness is to be explained. Is her madness occasioned by her father's death? by her rejected love for Hamlet? or by both, in varying degrees?

The romantic critics apparently felt that the less said about Ophelia the better. "What shall be said of her? for eloquence is mute before her!" asks Mrs. Jameson. Hazlitt considers that she "is a character almost too exquisitely touching to be dwelt upon", and calls her a "flower too soon faded". Strachey writes, "There is more to be felt than to be said in the study of Ophelia's character just because she is a creation of such perfectly feminine proportions and beauty". And Bradley believes that in her fate we have "an element, not of deep tragedy, but of pathetic beauty, which makes the analysis of her character seem almost a desecration".1

Ophelia has received better treatment than this, of course, and she deserves better. She is not just the "poor wispy Ophelia" which Katherine Mansfield would make her, but a tenderhearted, delicate-minded young girl, well reared in proper obedience to her father, and experiencing what is apparently her first introduction to the bittersweet delights of love. And yet her tragedy seems to me to have been misinterpreted by a long array of critics, who have emphasized that her madness is due chiefly to the death of her father. According to John Draper, Ophelia's madness "comes about … because that father, whom she loved so dearly, came to a sudden and shocking end". L. L. Schücking, after remarking that "Grief at her father's sudden and unexplained death has unbalanced her mind", argues that any modern spectator who thinks that her madness is due to the broken relations with Hamlet is confuted by Shakespeare's making Claudius "expressly state that her madness is due to Polonius' death". Rebecca West goes so far as to say, "No line in the play suggests that she felt either passion or affection for Hamlet". In the last century, Roderick Benedix writes of Polonius' death as serving a dramatic purpose, "inasmuch as it is the cause of Ophelia's madness", but at the same time he perceives that "No girl becomes insane because her father dies, least of all Ophelia. …" Even Laurence Babb, although he notes the resemblance between the madness of Ophelia and that of the Jailer's daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and though he believes that the "lovesick maidens of the early Stuart drama" were influenced by Ophelia, can write that it is not unrequited love which is chiefly responsible for Ophelia's condition but rather "grief for her father's death". Despite these pronouncements, as well as that of G. L. Kittredge that "it is the mysterious tragedy of her father's death that has driven her mad", I believe it can be shown that the overriding cause of Ophelia's madness is clearly spelled out in the play; it is more "the pangs of despiz'd love" which cause her tragic fate than the death of Polonius.2

The first we see of Ophelia is when she receives some parting advice from her brother, as Laertes prepares to go abroad. He thinks of himself as a worldly-wise young man explaining the chief pitfall which a green girl is likely to encounter in the life at court. He warns her that Hamlet is merely playing with her affections and that she must not consider his attentions as more than "a violet in the youth of primy nature … the perfume and suppliance of a minute". And he continues by saying that as the body becomes of age, the mind and soul which service the temple of the body also grow and cause youth to be attracted toward the opposite sex. Laertes cautions her to realize that her own feelings are somewhat in this category, since "the chariest maid is prodigal enough" when opportunity is afforded her, and "youth to itself rebels". Of course Laertes' advice is shallow; he seemingly judges Hamlet to be a man like himself. And Ophelia is perceptively aware of his shallowness as she reminds him in sisterly fashion to heed his own warnings; then Laertes suddenly remembers that he is in a hurry to depart. But through this speech Laertes may well have aroused what he sought to allay, by focusing Ophelia's thoughts on the subject of love, already kindled by her own inchoate desires.

Polonius contributes to Ophelia's absorption in matters of love as he indicates how the senses of youth are easily inflamed. She must not take the heat of Hamlet's desire as true love. Polonius then delivers the blow which has blighted the lives of many girls as he tells his daughter that she must break off with Hamlet and never again talk with him.

A further shock to Ophelia, one full of dramatic irony, occurs offstage when Hamlet bursts into her boudoir. Having been warned by her brother and her father of the sexual frailties of youth, she finds some support for their remarks in the actions of Hamlet in her closet. She fears that Hamlet is mad for love, and if so he is mad for the love that she has been forbidden to give him—she is the cause of Hamlet's madness. We need not pause to consider the real significance of Hamlet's actions here. It suffices that Hamlet's behavior gives her every reason to believe her father right in his diagnosis of the cause of Hamlet's madness. It is a species of irony that the proscription given by Polonius seems to bring about Hamlet's pretended madness but actually contributes to Ophelia's real madness. When Ophelia reports Hamlet's conduct, Polonius sees that Hamlet suffers from "the very ecstasy of love", but never suspects that in following his orders Ophelia is about to succumb to the same ecstasy, "whose violent property fordoes itself and leads the will to desperate undertakings". Polonius is quick to tell his daughter that when she "did repel his letters and denied his access" to her she caused Hamlet to run mad; but since he is a self-absorbed busybody who regards his daughter as a tool, he gives no thought to the effect that all this will have on Ophelia. Indeed, a further irony lies in the actual words of Polonius as he gives to the King and Queen his prognosis of the disease in Hamlet:

                 I prescripts gave her
That she should lock herself from his resort,
Admit no messengers, receive no tokens.
Which done, she took the fruits of my advice;
And he, repulsed—a short tale to make—

Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
And we all mourn for.
                            (II. ii. 142-151)

The defective effect of Ophelia's madness to come has the same cause; Polonius' prescripts have their effect on Ophelia too. Throughout the play, indeed, the appearance of Hamlet's pretended madness is contrasted with the reality of Ophelia's madness.

The next shock to the tender sensibilities of Ophelia is the get-thee-to-a-nunnery scene. She now believes that she herself is the immediate source of Hamlet's madness. She believes, too, that Hamlet loves her; and her actions, if not her words, indicate that she has more than warm feelings for him, as witness the patience with which she listens to Hamlet during his mad speech. Yet when she meets him to return his tokens of love, he tells her, "I did love you once. … You should not have believed me. … I loved you not." She must wonder whether her father and brother were not right after all. To complete the disillusionment, Hamlet uses offensive language to her, language that no sensitive girl could endure with equanimity. He asks her if she is chaste, and insults her further with comment on her affected walk and speech, her use of cosmetics, her "wantonness". Though the language is general enough in its reflections on womankind, and though it is used for the benefit of the hidden Claudius and Polonius, yet the tone is ill-mannered and is an affront which Ophelia would feel deeply.

Commentators also wonder whether or not Hamlet really loved Ophelia. But the point here is that whether he did or not, Ophelia thought he did. In his letter to her he wrote: "That I love thee best, O most best, believe it. … Thine evermore". When in the scene just examined Hamlet says, "I did love you once", Ophelia replies, "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so". And when Hamlet retires from the scene, Ophelia speaks of herself as being "of ladies most deject and wretched". That she returned the love is clearly indicated as she lets the audience know in a soliloquy what is running through her mind, characterizing herself as one "that sucked the honey of his music vows". Vows and words of love are music only in the ears of those who return the feelings of love.

In the play scene, the relations between Hamlet and Ophelia remain much the same as in the scene just discussed. Hamlet continues to use bawdy language; Ophelia modestly declines the obscene implications of his question, "Shall I lie in your lap?" and seems not to understand some of the conversation. But when the Prologue enters and Hamlet puns on the word "show", she tells him he is naughty. Several lines further, Ophelia comments on the sharpness of his repartee, only to receive the reply, "It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge". Although Hamlet's language may have been calculated to convince Claudius that he is mad for love, it certainly was the sort to disturb even more the delicate balance of the susceptible girl who saw herself to blame.

Ophelia's mind is further agitated in the same scene. When Hamlet asks whether the actor is speaking a true prologue or giving a "posy" for a ring, she agreeably replies that it certainly is brief, only to hear Hamlet's "As woman's love". His remark is usually glossed as being his comment on the conduct of his mother, and this interpretation may well be correct. But Ophelia must think that Hamlet is speaking of her own conduct toward him.

When we next hear of Ophelia, it is to learn of her madness. The Gentleman prepares us for her entrance by describing her actions for the Queen. According to him Ophelia talks much of her father and says there are deceptions in the world. She should know, since she has practised some herself in lying to Hamlet concerning her father's whereabouts, and she has had others practised on her by Hamlet. Her first words upon entering are, "Where is the beauteous majesty of Den-mark?" Surely she is not talking of her father here, since the words fit neither what we know of Polonius nor what a girl would say of a father who fails to understand her. Nor is there any reason why Gertrude should be the subject of her question. Rather it is to Hamlet that her words apply, whom she has already characterized as

The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck'd the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and
That unmatch'd form and feature of blown
Blasted with ecstasy.
                               (III. i. 161-168)

Hamlet, then, is the "beauteous majesty"; it is upon Hamlet that her mind in its madness dwells. And the first of the song-snatches she sings is about "true love".

How should I your true love know
  From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
  And his sandal shoon.

Surely no one contends that Polonius is her true love. And when the Queen inquires the import of the song, Ophelia asks her to listen to the next lines:

He is dead and gone, lady,
  He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
  At his heels a stone.

The Queen starts to say something, but again Ophelia asks her to listen:

White was his shroud as the mountain
 Larded with sweet flowers;
Which to the grave did go
 With true-love showers.
                            (IV. v. 23-39)

The first four lines are apparently part of a traditional verse. The other lines have no connection with this Walsingham poem as printed in the Garland of Good Will or the version in the Bodleian manuscript. It is possible, however, that the three quatrains were part of a single poem. Whether they were or not is unimportant; what is important is that both the first and third quatrains tell of true love and would naturally be linked in Ophelia's mind with Hamlet. Perhaps, then, in her mind it is Hamlet who is "dead and gone" since he is dead and gone for her. The point is that Polonius makes an unlikely candidate to appear among verses on true love.

The King has already made his entrance; he now greets Ophelia: "How do you, pretty lady?" She responds to the greeting in the conventional fashion, scarcely noticing him. Then she speaks a line referring to a moral tale designed to teach children to be kind and generous to the poor, and follows it with the words: "Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. God be at your table." The King thinks her ramblings to be "conceit upon her father". That can hardly be. The moral tale has no apparent application; and knowing what we are but not what we may become wonderfully expresses both Ophelia's former concern over Hamlet's condition and her own distressing state.

Of course we should probably make little or nothing of Ophelia's non sequiturs in this scene. To derive intelligent meaning from them would be to group ourselves with others who remark her ramblings and "botch the words up to fit their own thoughts". Yet in apparent reply to the King's words Ophelia rejects his interpretation and recites sixteen lines of immodest verse on sexual love, the effect of which underlines strongly the chief cause of her madness: "Pray you, let's have no words of this; but when they ask you what it means, say you this":

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
 All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
 To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes,
 And dupp'd the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
 Never departed more. …
By Gis and by Saint Charity,
 Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do't, if they come to't;
 By cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
 You promised me to wed.
So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
 An thou hadst not come to my bed.
                           (IV. v. 48-66)

These coarse and uninhibited lines are the sort which might unconsciously and naturally float to the top of Ophelia's muddled mind if her thoughts had been dwelling on Hamlet's love and on possible marriage to him. As by certain dreams "may we conjecture of the sinnes of the heart: because what we conceiue or practice in the day will be corruptly dreamed of in the night",3 so when one mentally disturbed speaks "things in doubt, that carry but half sense", we may rightly judge the sources of her perturbations to lie in her secret desires.

Ophelia now indeed speaks of her father, saying that she cannot help weeping "to think they should lay him i' the cold ground". After she makes her exit, the King repeats his first diagnosis, saying, "this is the poison of deep grief; it springs all from her father's death". But of course Claudius has his own axe to grind since he wishes to stir Laertes up to ridding him of Hamlet. We can allow the statement that Ophelia's words and actions spring from deep grief, but not all from the death of Polonius.

When Ophelia reenters later in the scene, her brother is on stage; as he sees her madness he speaks of her in extravagant terms of sorrow, concluding somewhat enigmatically that human nature is delicate in matters of love, and when it is so "it sends some previous instance of itself after the thing it loves". Immediately following the words of Laertes, Ophelia sings more snatches of songs. The first indeed sounds as though her father is in her mind. Yet if so, the last line of the quatrain as it is printed in Fl is curious: "Fare you well, my dove!" Are these not rather the words Ophelia might use to Hamlet? Her next little song ("You must sing a-down a-down, An you call him a-down-a") might suit anyone: Laertes or Claudius, as well as Polonius or Hamlet. Ophelia comments: "O, how the wheel becomes it! It is the false steward, that stole his master's daughter." We can only conjecture the antecedent of it; but the story of the false steward does have something to do with love, and nothing to do with a dead father. The language of flowers follows, though there are no violets since "they withered all when my father died". But the next snatch ("For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy") again is from a song of love. The last song must refer to Polonius, since in it occur the lines, "No, no, he is dead" and "His beard was as white as snow".

The remaining act of Ophelia's pitiful tragedy takes place off stage, and we learn of it from the beautifully poetic account of the Queen. According to Gertrude, to put it prosaically, Ophelia crowned herself with a garland of oddly assorted flowers and weeds, climbed a willow tree, and fell into a stream when the branch on which she sat broke. She floated for a while, continuing to sing "snatches of old tunes", then sank to "muddy death". Note that even at her watery end, the "envious sliver" which let her fall is that of a willow, a tree linked in Shakespeare and elsewhere in Elizabethan literature with unrequited love.

Of course it seems quite reasonable that Ophelia would have some degree of affection for her father. And obviously, too, his death was a traumatic experience for her. Yet I believe that Katherine Mansfield is quite perceptive in her brief analysis of the relationship between father and daughter. Concerning Polonius she says, "Who can believe that a solitary violet withered when that silly old Pomposity died? And who can believe that Ophelia really loved him, and wasn't thankful to think how peaceful breakfast would be without his preaching."4 The death of Polonius, then, may well have been only the last in a series of shocks to her basically weak personality. First the love that Hamlet had declared for her, then the warning of her brother and her father, her father's orders not to receive Hamlet or talk with him or accept messages or gifts from him, Hamlet's visiting her closet and indicating that she herself is responsible for his madness, the return of Hamlet's tokens and his unseemly language to her in the nunnery scene, his refusal of her, his gross proposal to her (though perhaps spoken facetiously or to confuse Claudius) and his indecent speech at the play scene, together with the constant references made in her presence throughout the tragedy to such matters as "a fashion and a toy in blood", "blazes", "mad for love", "desperate undertakings", "are you honest?" "I loved you not", "believe none of us", "make your wantonness your ignorance", "country matters", "lie between a maid's legs", "be not you ashamed to show", "brief… as woman's love"—these are the overt causes of Ophelia's madness. Though every kind of suggestion has been made to interpret practically every line in the play, we can be thankful that no one has suggested an Electra complex in Ophelia; she was not in love with Polonius. Thomas Hanmer, early in the eighteenth century, clearly stated the principle: "It is not often that young women run mad for the loss of their fathers".5 Young people can usually regard the death of a parent with some degree of equanimity, but the death of their own prospects is quite another matter.

The parallel of Ophelia's madness and that of the Jailer's daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen is very apt; and it strengthens the belief that Ophelia is "distract" from unrequited love. Early in the play the Jailer's daughter, feeling her madness coming on, says: "Let not my sense unsettle, Lest I should drown or stab or hang myself. Later in the play she rushes into the water ("sought the flood") but is saved by her Wooer. Further, she sings snatches of many songs, as does Ophelia. One of the songs has the refrain "Hey, nonny, nonny, nonny". She forgets one song but remembers that its refrain is "Down a, down a". She says she knows the song "Bonny Robin", and sings "Willow, willow, willow", the song of unrequited love also sung by Desdemona.6 Like Ophelia, too, she frequently talks in a bawdy fashion and asks the Wooer, thinking him to be Palamon, to go to bed with her.7 Interestingly also, although it is specifically stated that she is mad for love, she too talks of her father's death and says that when he dies she will gather flowers for his burial; but "then she sang nothing but 'Willow, willow'", and instead of a coronet of weeds she makes rings of the rushes and speaks to them such pretty posies of love as "Thus our true love's tied" and "This you may lose, not me". Later she remarks, "We maids that have our livers perish'd, crack'd to pieces with love, we shall come there and do nothing all day long but pick flowers with Proserpine. Then will I make Palamon a Nosegay." She speaks of hell and says that "if one be mad, or hang or drown themselves, thither they go. …" When the Doctor is asked to diagnose her sickness, he states that she is suffering from love melancholy, which he believes can be cured only if the Wooer, as Palamon, makes love with her.

The Elizabethans, further, would have been prepared to accept Ophelia as a girl suffering from the effects of love, erotic melancholy (erotomania), or a fit of the mother. They knew that "the passive condition of woman kind is subject vnto more diseases and of other sortes and natures then men are".8 They recognized that "the diverse and violent perturbations which afflict the mind of the Passionate Lover, are the causes of greater mischiefes, then any other passion of the mind whatsoever". "Love is the ground and Principali cause of all our Affections, and the Abstract of all the Passions and perturbations of the minde. …" Furthermore, Doctor James Ferrand continues, erotic melancholy is particularly common in women; they are "farre more subject to this passion, and more cruelly tormented with it, then men are". And he notes that "daily experience affords us Examples great store of Women, that are ready to run Mad for Love. … "9 André du Laurens and John Bishop continue in the same vein, the latter emphasizing the suicidal tendencies of those suffering from erotic melancholy; he states that he believes this disease "to be of all other most painful: seeing that so many [women] do willingly ninne into euerlasting paines of hell fire, by cruelly murthering them selues, that they may thereby escape and rid them from the broyling brendes of Cupide. … "10

Ophelia exhibits many of the classical symptoms of passio hysterica brought on by erotomania. 11 She is mad, cries "hem" to clear her throat because of a feeling of choking or suffocation, beats her heart to relieve the sensation of oppression around it, weeps, prattles constantly, sings snatches of old songs, is distracted and has a depraved imagination, and ends her life by drowning. It is possible that the drowning may not have been deliberate, but at least Ophelia made no attempt to save herself. Though the priest says she is allowed her virgin rites, yet the rites are "maimed" because "her death was doubtful". Dr. Jorden warns that many good physicians are deceived by the symptoms of the disease (such as "suffocation in the throate, … convulsions, hickcockes, laughing, singing, weeping, crying, &c") believing them "to proceede from some metaphysicall power, when in deede … they are meerely naturali."12

Similarly, Dr. Ferrand speaks of the person suffering from erotomania: "For you shall see him now very jocund and laughing and presently within a moment he falls a weeping, and is extreame sad: then by againe he entertaines himselfe with some pleasant merry conceipts or other. … These Perturbations proceed from the Diversity of those objects they fancy to themselves. … To this we may adde their excessive talking. …" Finally, in treating the subject of young girls ready for marriage, Dr. Ferrand gives this warning: "For the cure of which Disease [Hippocrates] prescribes speedy Marriages otherwise it is to be feared, that through Madnesse and Impatience, they will make away themselves, either by drowning or hanging; falsely perswading themselves, that by these Remedies, … being very sure ones, and as they conceive, the best they can finde; they shall set a period to their miseries."13 Whatever the exact bature of Ophelia's malady of love, whether it is pure erotomania or passio hysterica brought on by lovesickness, the symptoms which she exhibits are so clearly portrayed and most of them so easily recognized that the Elizabethan audience, we have reason to suppose, would at least see Ophelia as a girl suffering physically and mentally the pangs of rejected love.14


1 Anna Brownell Jameson, Shakespeare's Heroines (London, 1858), p. 257; William Hazlitt, The Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1817), p. 11l; Edward Strachey, Shakespeare's Hamlet (London, 1848), p. 84; A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1951), p. 160.

2 Katherine Mansfield: Hamlet, ed. John Hampden (London, 1937), p. 182; John Draper, The Hamlet of Shakespeare's Audience (Durham, 1938), p. 61; L. L. Schiicking, The Meaning of Hamlet (Oxford, 1937), p. 153; Rebecca West, The Nature of Will (New Haven, 1957), pp. 21-22; Roderick Benedix, Die Shake spearomanie (Stuttgart, 1873; in New Variorum Hamlet, II, appendix); Laurence Babb, "Love Melancholy in the Elizabethan and Early Stuart Drama", Bulletin of the History of Medicine, XIII (1943), p. 129; G. L. Kittredge, Sixteen Plays of Shakespeare (Boston, 1946), p. 1086.

3 Thomas Casper, The Mystery of Witch-craft (London, 1617), p.146.

4 Mansfield, p. 182.

5 Thomas Hanmer, Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet (London, 1736), p. 46.

6Othello IV.iii. 26-57. See Much Ado II. i. 124-126, "I offered him my company to a willow-tree, either to make him a Garland, as being forsaken, or to bind him up a rod. … "; Merchant of Venice V. i. 9-10; Twelfth Night I. v. 287-288.

7 It is interesting that this occurrence is duplicated in Der Bestrafte Brudermord—a play in which all agree that Ophelia is mad for love—where Ophelia mistakes Phantasmo for her sweetheart and suggests that they go to bed together.

8 In discussing the medical aspects of Ophelia's malady, the books I have used are: Edward Jorden, A Briefe Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the Mother (London, 1603); James Ferrand, Erotomania, or A Treatise Discoursing of the Essence, Cause, Symptomes, Prognosticks, and Cure of Love. Or Erotique Melancholy (Oxford, 1640; 1st French ed., Paris, 1623); Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York, 1941); André du Laurens, Of the Preservation of the Sight (London, 1599); Tomaso Garzoni, The Hospital of Incurable Fooles (London, 1600); Pierre Boaistuau, Theatrum Mundi (London, 1581); John Bishop, Beautiful Blossomes (London, 1577); Nicolas Coeffeteau, A Table of Humane Passions (London, 1621). These first references are to Jorden (sig. B 1) and Ferrand (p. 9).

9 Ferrand, pp. 7, 9-10, 214-215; see Coeffeteau, pp. 170-171; Jorden, sig. G2V ; and Garzoni, p. 151.

10 Du Laurens, pp. 117-118; Bishop, fol. 52v .

11 Ferrand, pp. 11, 94-96.

12 Jorden, sig. B2, El . See Ferrand, pp. 94-97.

13 Ferrand, pp. 97, 107-110.

14 It is rather interesting to note, though perhaps of no significance, that in the discussion of the remedies of love Burton quotes the line, "Young men will do it when they come to it", but without reference to Ham let (p. 736).

Theodore Lidz (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Hamlet's Precarious Emotional Balance," in Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in Hamlet, 1975, pp. 60-7.

[In the essay that follows Lidz analyzes Hamlet's madness, including his real and feigned insanities and the conclusions he reaches while in these states.]

The members of the parental generation, having given their advice and orders to Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia, and Fortinbras, start spying on them in the second act. Two months have elapsed since Hamlet swore to avenge his father; but he has not yet moved "with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love" (I, v, 29-30). Claudius is still alive, and Hamlet's emotional balance has become precarious during the interlude. We may or may not be aware of his instability, depending on how the role is acted.1 Indeed, we must rely upon reports from those who are closest to him to learn of the worsening of his condition. In the very first scene of the second act, Ophelia rushes to tell her father that she has just been frightened while sewing in her closet by the

Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,
                              (II, i, 78-83)

and she goes on to describe behavior strange enough to lead Polonius to believe:

This is the very ecstasy of love;
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings,
As oft as any passion under heaven
That does afflict our natures.
                              (II, i, 102-106)

Even though we know that Hamlet has planned to feign insanity, it seems strange that he does so by entering Ophelia's rooms in so disheveled a condition, or that he would befoul his stockings to carry out the pretense. Perhaps he seeks to hide the meaning of his embittered and melancholic behavior under the guise of being depressed over Ophelia's withdrawal of her affection, but it seems a cruel and deceitful way to treat his beloved. The obedient Ophelia has followed her father's injunctions and repelled Hamlet's letters and denied him access to her. Just at this critical juncture in Hamlet's life, she has let her father come between Hamlet and herself. Polonius is certain that these rebuffs have driven Hamlet mad, and he now hopes that a reconciliation between his daughter and the heir apparent may reclaim Hamlet's wits. His hopes are fortified when he reads the note that Hamlet has sent Ophelia, a confused expression of Hamlet's suffering and his undying love:

O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not art to reckon my groans; but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.

Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him, HAMLET

(II, ii, 119-123)

The message can be taken either as part of an exaggerated subterfuge or as a threat to commit suicide unless Ophelia relents.

Meanwhile, Gertrude and Claudius have become sufficiently concerned about Hamlet's condition to summon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to court to distract their son and to find out what is troubling him. The king does not ask them to spy on their friend; rather, he requests them to "glean" whether anything "unknown afflicts him thus, / That, open'd, lies within our remedy" (II, ii, 17-18). Claudius, in greeting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, tells them of Hamlet's melancholic state, terming it a "transformation," "Sith nor the exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was" (II, ii, 6-7).

When Polonius informs the king and queen that he has found the cause of Hamlet's indisposition, it is clear that all three are fully convinced that he is mad. Neither Claudius nor Gertrude takes exception to Polonius' direct statement, "Your noble son is mad" (II, ii, 92), though they are skeptical that it is because Ophelia has refused to see him that he fell into a sadness and finally into "the madness wherein now he raves" (II, ii, 149). Then, when Hamlet appears, Polonius "boards" him, and Hamlet seems neither mad nor even seriously melancholic. He uses the license afforded by his supposed madness to bait Polonius, to display his wit in playing with words and phrases. We have a brief "comic relief—a relief, literally, because our hero's mind seems very sharp indeed.

Shakespeare has here turned the more customary situation around: the audience is not laughing at the madman; instead, the madman is making his sane interrogator laughable. The trend is feebly apparent in the Saxo and Belleforest versions of the saga in which Amleth, the butt of the courtiers' tricks repeatedly turns the tables on them. Hamlet, however, is more clearly related to the "trickster" of various myths and to the jester, the fool who makes others look foolish.

Hamlet seems to realize that Polonius has prevented Ophelia from seeing him. He advises Polonius that "if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog" (II; ii, 180), he should keep his daughter out of the sun lest she conceive. Polonius thinks Hamlet is "far gone" but considers "How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of (II, ii, 206-209). The audience now knows that Hamlet's intellect is as keen as ever; but then comes the parting exchange in which Shakespeare lets us know that despite his wit and his intact wits, Hamlet is in a precarious state. When Polonius bids him farewell, "My honourable lord, I will most humbly take leave of you" (II, ii, 210-211), Hamlet replies, "You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my life" (II, ii, 212-214).

When Hamlet first meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he confirms his unwholesome state of mind. They admit that they are in the court because the king and queen have sent for them, and Hamlet does not need to ask why. He relieves them from betraying a secret by telling them it is because he has of late:

… but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, … appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me;

(II, ii, 288-300)

A little later, however, he confides to them that his uncle-father and his aunt-mother are deceived, for "I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw" (II, ii, 360-361). He is aware that he is being affected by the deceit and hostility of those around him. Shakespeare properly has Hamlet's mood and behavior fluctuate with the feelings aroused in him by those persons who are most significant to him.

The Incitement to Action

Hamlet, then, has been suffering. He has become a tormented soul struggling to survive in a world that has lost its meaning for him, and he scarcely cares if he survives or not. After two months, he has still to carry out his father's bidding. He has difficulty in keeping his mind from being tainted and contriving against his mother; killing his stepfather seems a secondary matter to him. Then, the traveling players—old friends of Hamlet's—arrive at Elsinore. Hamlet bids the First Player give them a foretaste of his artistry with a speech from a play Hamlet admired for its honesty and modesty, even though it "pleased not the million; 'twas caviare to the general" (II, ii, 416). In the speech, Aeneas tells Dido of Priam's slaughter: of how Pyrrhus avenged his father, Achilles; and of how a faithful queen, Hecuba, mourned her husband.2 While listening to the Player agonize about Priam and Hecuba, Hamlet is stimulated to move out of the inertia of his melancholy, his indecision, and his feelings that nothing matters to him. His misanthropic mood is apparent. When Polonius tells him that he will use the players "according to their desert," Hamlet chides him, "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" (II, ii, 505-506). This remark led Freud in "Mourning and Melancholia" to write, "For there can be no doubt that if anyone holds and expresses to others an opinion of himself such as this (an opinion which Hamlet held both of himself and everyone else) he is ill, whether he is speaking the truth or whether he is being more or less unfair to himself."3 Thus, we have Freud's opinion of Hamlet's mental state at the close of Act II.

As soon as Hamlet is alone, he tells himself:

Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd;
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function
With forms to his conceit? And all for
For Hecuba?
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have?
                            (II, ii, 523-535)

He berates himself for being a "dull and muddy-mettled rascal," who is a "John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause" (II, ii, 541-542) and who, though

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with
And fall acursing, like a very drab.
                            (II, ii, 560-562)

While the First Player speaks, however, Hamlet conceives a way out of his uncertainty, a way to make certain that he has not, because of his melancholy, simply hallucinated the ghost's revelations or been tricked by an evil spirit. He has formulated his stratagem for gaining proof of Claudius' guilt: "The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" (II, ii, 580-581).

Although Hamlet is now ready to test Claudius and take measures to clear the corruption from the court, he remains uncertain whether it is worth taking "arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?" (IH, i, 59-60). One alternative is to retain his philosophic perspective and "suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (III, i, 57-58). Another is suicide.

                     To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural
That flesh is heir to,—'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd.
                              (III, i, 60-64)

He ponders that uniquely human problem, the existential dilemma of "to be, or not to be." He is not so obsessed with his father's murder that he must hasten to revenge. He would prefer to turn his back on the whole sorry mess. What does life hold for him? He can kill his uncle. If fortunate, he will assume the throne. But his mother's obliquity will remain with him. Why should he not be much possessed by death? Hamlet, as others who choose the negative answer when they weigh the worth of life and death, finds the balance weighted by his disillusionment with the person whose love was central to his well-being.

Hamlet is aware that he must leave off considering all sides of a question if he is to act heroically. He is considering more than his reasons for not ending his life when he tells himself:

Thus conscience4 does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
                            (III, i, 83-88)

He is not the type of Renaissance hero whose life can readily be guided by the need for vengeance or power.

He has been schooled in contemplation. If he is to act, as he has sworn to the ghost he will, he must become impetuous. Later he will even praise rashness: "Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well / When our deep plots do fail" (V, ii, 8-9).


1 In his Heart of Hamlet, Bernard Grebanier is somehow able to assert that Hamlet neither is insane nor feigns insanity at any time during the play.

2 Hamlet's praise of this speech may seem misplaced, and many readers would tend to agree with Polonius, who is bored by it. However, Shakespeare was consistent in having a university student, Hamlet, admire a classic play. Shakespeare took as a model and improved a passage from Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, that may well have been written by Nash after Marlowe's death. It is far from a "modest" speech. However, the questionable artistic merit of the speech should not let us neglect its importance both in furthering the movement of Hamlet, and also in setting a mood by inveighing against that strumpet, Fortune.

3 S. Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey, vol. 14, pp. 246-247.

4 Consciousness or inmost thought.

P. J. Aldus (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Madness," in Mousetrap: Structure and Meaning in Hamlet, 1977, pp. 209-19.

[In the following excerpt, Aldus investigates the madness of Hamlet on a mythical level, exploring his "poetic " madness as a projection of Shakespeare himself and the prince as a paranoid schizophrenic]

POLONIUS Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

… a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of.

Hamlet embodies an involved combination of many identities, but the awkward, sometimes cumbersome terminologies used here for them (e.g., King/Polonius/ Hamlet) scarcely help gain response to mythic character and action. The reductio ad absurdum, however accurate the term might be, would be a composite name stretching its length a third of a page.

The usual alternative, each figure accepted by name as literal character in a literal story, is even worse. But it will have been noticed that there has been here a compromise, awkward terminologies giving way from time to time to the simple 'literal' names. Readers probably share the feeling that this aspect of the study is unsatisfactory, for indeed any such use of the names per se is invitation to a literal perspective, the same problem that disturbed the responses of Greg, Wilson, Granville-Barker, Eliot, and others. Even with this limitation, which may have been Shakespeare's problem too, it may be that the inventive structure of the play makes acceptance of the complex character of Hamlet inescapable.

The difficulty was not enough to discourage Greg from the belief that Hamlet may be so powerful a poem as to be beyond the art of the stage, but possibly apprehensible through reading. Yet Shakespeare relied on a stage a large part of which was the full imaginative participation of much of an audience more sensitive than we to metaphoric implications in language, character, and patterns of action.

If so, our final problem is to attempt to set forth some approximating equivalent pattern which will allow fuller response to the shifting, blending identity that is the unrelenting unity of Hamlet's agony. Perhaps a brief review of 'madnesses' in Plato's sense of the term, lying at the heart of human experience, may be helpful towards a final understanding of Hamlet, of Hamlet, and of a major element in Shakespeare's invention.

By Plato's standard that the use of myths is part of invention Hamlet has not been found wanting. But, although marked by large interwoven patterns of extant myths and enriched by allusions to particular myths within these traditions, the play yet must provide another mode of invention if Shakespeare is to satisfy Plato's concept of the true poet: he must be able to make a myth within which all poetic powers show themselves, including the significant incorporation of the mythic past. He must be able to construct, as the whole, a metaphor that is total, a language for truth (as far as man may experience it) of a different kind than the rational.

So extraordinary is this kind of imitation that it can be apprehended only imperfectly and vaguely by the literal power of reason. It is beyond paraphrase, beyond rational equivalent; its quality can be approximated only by example, by a corresponding metaphoric statement, another myth; but this will yet be something different, for the only correlative to a myth is itself in the understanding of him who reads, and in dramatic myth who sees and hears it. Another way of trying to put this is to say that the Hamlet myth provides fullness of meaning to the extent that the private myth brought to the play corresponds to it, a private myth which at the same time must be a universal myth.

Such myth-making, says Plato, comes about in the poet who is 'possessed,' who is in a state of holy or divine madness. Such madness is not, or need not be, although it always seems metaphorically akin to, madness in the ordinary sense. An exploration of this element in Hamlet may help resolve the awkwardnesses in attempts here to convey the multiple-single character of Hamlet. Such inquiry will be clearer if it is approached by a brief reconsideration of Plato's definitions of several kinds of divine madness.

At this point it should be quite obvious that what we are about to consider has nothing to do with the quite irrelevant inquiry as to whether Hamlet is mad or feigns madness—a question that could become relevant if the point were raised whether Shakespeare wished to create a dramatic character representing one or the other state (or both, for that matter). As usually put, the question postulates a sane man (not a dramatic character) pretending to be mad, or a man once sane now mad; the assumption is extra-metaphoric, extrapoetic; it is predicated on the play as a literal action measurable by a mankind which is sane or 'normal.' Mythic man is, of course, if most uncomfortable company, quite normal in nature, however mad in conventional society.

Here madness will be approached in Plato's terms as a condition required for myth, or in Aristotle's terms as character good for the action of a drama. If the action requires madness, the poet supplies madness in whatever degree or form, when, and where it may be needed, just as he gives extra-mortal or extra-historical creatures a 'local habitation and a name.'

All four of Plato's divine madnesses are extreme; they are ideal forms of human power represented by gods or agents of gods. Hamlet gives evidence in what he says and in action of being possessed by each of these forces. There is prophetic madness, lying finally, for example, in the Oedipus in Apollo, and directly evident in Teiresias, the blind seer, who too could have exclaimed, 'O, my prophetic soul!' There is the madness of divine healing: 'Again, where plagues and mightiest woes have bred in certain families, owing to some ancient blood-guiltiness, there madness has entered with holy prayers and rites, and by inspired utterances found a way of deliverance for those who are in need …' Hamlet is less cheerful; he curses the spite that he has been born to set evils right.

Of lust Plato intimates that, if one believes it to be a simple madness (i.e., an indivisible state of evil), one might accept it. But he says there is 'also a madness which is a divine gift … [this] madness of love is the greatest of heaven's blessings …' Hamlet is on a line between these compulsive twin states. He has lost the second (although he yearns for it), is slave to the first.

The fourth, poetic madness, is the most interesting in Hamlet, for it suggests, through Hamlet's character as poet/dramatist/actor (with all its associated powers) a special application of precisely these powers in Shakespeare as he invents the profoundly searching myth that enters us as audience at the same time that it is an endlessly receding vision. While there is no reason whatever to conjecture about Shakespeare's attitude towards himself, and even less what he may have been in terms of the madnesses of prophecy, healing, or love-lust (although he presumably expressed himself as to the last in the sonnets), there is no way of escaping his use of himself, just as he uses the Globe theatre, as a richly provocative element in Hamlet.

The possibilities for ambiguities, reflections, images, shadows, enigma pressing from all sides, the curious, dreadful sense of unreality, of phantasmagoria, a universe of dream-desolation, are infinitely enhanced by sophisticated use of the art of illusion. Add to it an inventive extension of the ordinary concept of madness into an extraordinary mythic madness in Hamlet and the combinations and permutations become well-nigh endless. That Hamlet is a courtier, young lover, prince, scholar, soldier, hunter, spy, challenger, challenged, prophet, man of desire, corrupt man, diseased man, scourge, self-scourge—that he is all these at once and at the same time is poet-dramatist—carries complexities beyond any full assessment; add Hamlet's definition of his Ghost/Father/Self as Apollo, Jove, Mars, Mercury—indeed every god—and we do have essential man, primal man, somehow contained in the all-embracing memory of the most sophisticated of Renaissance figures.

There remains then one matter: how Shakespeare uses madness, in its ordinary sense as he may have under-stood it, by extending its implications, its power in represented extremes, as dramatic means.

That Shakespeare knew a good deal about madness in the usual sense of insanity can be believed from both external fact and internal evidence from the plays. Elizabethan England was notably lax in its attitudes towards the insane. Some were locked in Bethlehem, and perhaps other such places; far more walked the roads of England and the streets of London freely. The plays show that Shakespeare was very aware of their vivid excesses in speech and action. Beyond a fairly extensive roster of eccentrics of many kinds, there is an inarticulate Othello mouthing his passionate distraction; a 'Tom o' Bedlam' echoing the cosmic madness of Lear, after the madman's lesser echo, the Fool, has beat his anguished heart out for his possessed 'nuncle.' These of course are no more examples of literal madness than is Hamlet.

Mental distractions did not then have the terminologies now attached to them, but they were there; we have no new madnesses. There is little point in trying to categorize an Othello, a Lear, or a Hamlet in such terms. There is much point in recognizing one or an-other insanity to see how Shakespeare, having observed it and absorbed its phenomena and its artistic potential, used it, as all else, for the ends of dramatic myths, especially in one about a cosmic madhouse-prison. Thus the terms schizophrenia and paranoia are most useful in attempting some assessment of poetic madness that shapes the colossally obsessed and disturbed Hamlet.

Other literary myths lend their support. Through a rather simple, mechanical device (yet with power) Robert Louis Stevenson has given us the frightening evil of Hyde destroying his twin self and thus himself. In a novel reflecting Melville's deep absorption in Shakespeare the story of Ahab, twin of an evil Moby Dick, is told by Ishmael through the overwhelming three days of final destruction, only to have the telling begin again by an Ishmael who survives in a coffin. There are more; indeed all tragic heroes are tragic heroes by virtue of deep ambivalence, enigmatic paradox within, although they are not always invented in terms of obvious parallel to madness.

Hamlet is not represented as alternating between two characters, unless we choose to stop with Horatio/ Hamlet. His character is shown in perpetual sea-change, a Protean image unequalled anywhere in mythic-poetic art. Yet it seems reasonable to postulate the fact of schizophrenia as preliminary to attempts to formulate metaphoric parallels to Hamlet in the prison of his mind. We may best begin by remembering, as Edith Hamilton points out, 'the uncertainty between good and evil … in every one of the deities,' and by noting the classic pattern of what is termed schizophrenia.

In general terms the schizophrenic is caught up in a pattern like that of the primal myth-maker. It seems likely that the latter, from a state of direct response to intimations and forms of meanings in surrounding phenomena that appeared to correspond to his emotional, physical, and psychological forces, became gradually a qualifier of his self-understanding through conscious consideration of formal realities in such phenomena. The schizophrenic, on the other hand, is compelled in the dominating 'mad' half of his identity to an inflexible vision which absorbs all that he sees, hears, touches, smells, tastes into his world of private reality. Even here there appears to be a likeness. Many invented gods are counterparts, and the story, no matter in what myth it may appear, varies only in accidentals; its basic pattern remains constant. The myth-maker varies the particulars and eventually, in literary myth, controls an elaborate combination of past myths, whereas the schizophrenic has no such control; he has no choice; his compulsion forces any and all particulars into whatever idée fixe it is that shackles him. Again even this has its relevance to the true mythmaker, who is, or cannot help but be, totally faithful to the compelling, controlling unity of the vision he expresses in art.

There are other general considerations. The schizophrenic's other 'sane' self is often indistinguishable from 'normal' man, just as poetvafes need not be extreme in conduct, except as he may have been (or is) involved in actual ritual. Too, both have exactly the same phenomena to respond to; only their essential selves may have differences. Shakespeare had his profession, the Globe, the Renaissance world, a great deal of the past in memory, and his own experience and inner states to qualify his myth-making. So too the schizophrenic may have varying internal and external conditions and influences to identify him. But in basic elements all myth-makers and all schizophrenics are, respectively, the same: each has a universal form. What makes the whole consideration here extraordinary is that Shakespeare is a poet 'possessed' in Plato's sense, inventing a figure who is not only like an unendingly multiple schizophrenic, but also a possessed poet/dramatist/actor within the fiction.

From these general elements we may now briefly note what appear to be relevant particulars in schizophrenia.

The schizophrenic, when he talks (and typically talks beyond restraint except for periods of mute depression), tells his story to its end only to begin again, and yet again. He is caught in an interminable revelation of self through any and all phenomena of the reality he feels and sees. He is most often in a state of suspicion; he is surrounded by spies who intend him harm, even to kill him, and therefore he must spy on everyone and seek to kill. As spies, others are hunting him; in de-fence, he must hunt them. The ambivalence makes defence offence; he is always, when in the paranoid state, an imminently potential killer. Given his double, opposed character, he becomes the spy/hunter turned on himself, the potential self-killer. He battles his own vision.

He is given to arrogance (or an arrogant humility) which often expresses itself in identity with Christ as sacrificial victim (or self-offered sacrifice). This arrogant identity may equally be with a god or gods or any other figure of great power, and especially of sacrifice. The paranoid quality is locked to the arrogance, which is often violent, always potentially so. He is also often obsessed by the compulsive power of sex.

King/Hamlet speaks of Hamlet's

                     … confusion,
Grating so harshly all his days of quiet
With turbulent and dangerous lunacy.

The Queen says,

And thus a while the fit will work on him.
Anon …

His silence will sit drooping.

This is precisely descriptive of the manic-depressive form of schizophrenia.

Too, the intelligent schizophrenic is extraordinarily skilled in the cunning guile of guileless imitation of sanity. He can be so persuasive in this as to be most dangerous. He is often extremely articulate, fluency and wit combining in an air of artful innocence. He can set forth his assumed character with as much modesty as cunning.

One is led to believe or entertain the belief that, insofar as all of the schizophrenic's enemies—the spies, the hunters, the ever-present threatening killers—are extensions of his own distorted dream, he may in some strange subconscious way be aware of this duality, aware that all is a twin-imaged projection of self-compulsion. But whether this be true in fact or not, it can be made a movingly true fiction by a myth-maker inventing some ultimate form of schizophrenia to 'catch the conscience of the king.' If so, we may expect him to invent many 'twins,' even multiple sets of identical twins. One thinks of Horatio/Hamlet, of King/Polonius; back of these the indistinguishable Rosencrantz/ Guildenstera, and back of these their lesser shadows, Cornelius/Voltemand; one thinks of Pyrrhus/Fortinbras; of Bernardo/Osric as challengers; and several more; all finally surrounding in near and receding images the centre—the anguished soul of Hamlet. There is further the twin form of Ophelia/Queen.

These identities are not individual, either in the structure of the play or in the character of Hamlet. There are mergings, overlappings, modulations; indistinguishable shiftings: two become one, three become one or two, and so on variously; all, although they seem to move outwardly, move to a concentric Hamlet. The 'schizophrenic' repetitions of the story, single, interwoven, divided but combined, narrated, intimated, mimed, acted out, presented in symbol and ritual, do not at all interrupt the literal dramatic narrative which has so long beguiled those caught in the Hamlet web.

There is no satisfactory way of attempting to say how Shakespeare managed to create such a figure. But, beginning with Hamlet's own metaphors (invented by Shakespeare), through metaphoric use of those we see literally as 'madmen,' 'schizophrenics,' caught in the wards of the prisons of their 'Elsinores,' we may hazard some sense of the power of Hamlet, and from this, perhaps, respond more fully to Shakespeare's myth.

Our introduction to this other world comes from Hamlet. He has been in a happy, beautiful world, only to find that

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth … it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

This desolate subjective state he has indicated in significant terms just before:

HAM     What have you, my good friends,
  deserved at the hands of Fortune that she
  sends you to prison hither?
GUIL Prison, my lord?
HAM Denmark's a prison.
ROS Then is the world one.
HAM A goodly one; in which there are many
  confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark
  being one o' th' worst.
ROS We think not so, my lord.
HAM Why, then 'tis none to you; for there is
  nothing either good or bad but thinking
  makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Or again, in his Ghost identity, he speaks of the 'secrets of my prison house' which are so dreadful that they may not be revealed. Or again, 'perchance to dream: … aye, there's the rub! / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come I … Must give us pause.' But this, the prison of death, filled with mad and frightening dreams, with fearful threatening shadows moving about and towards him endlessly in a walpurgis night, is not an imagined thing for Hamlet: although he debates in his ambiguity whether he should risk going there, he is already, without choice, in this purgatory, this dreadful and bitter prison house. He has died out of it only to be reborn into it in the brief breath of 'Long live the King,' endlessly accompanied by a troop of spirits who, emanating from himself, hedge him about with revulsion and terror.

In this invented madhouse prison wanders the invented madman Man; we are irresistibly drawn to imprisonment with him in the Globe, whether we read, or see and hear, mutes and audience to the act. Whatever compassionate, fearful empathy we may ever have felt, or feel, for the paranoic-schizophrenic and his troop of accompanying spirits, whether it were or be in our own sad, doomed family, or in the family that surrounds us to the furthest reaches of our known world—always beyond it the reaches of silence—this response can be only most imperfectly approximated by literal-metaphoric equivalents. But they may help in an assessment of the art of Hamlet. As metaphors schizophrenic-paranoids imprisoned in their frightful worlds are paradigm for lost man; in the Hamlet vision universal man.

Here is confined a distracted young lover, fearful and resentful of interference by a father. This may be the father of the woman whose affection he shares, or, in his compulsive confusions, her brother; or the husband of a woman beyond the strictures of convention if not nature, a mother, wanting whom is a terrifying violation. This feeling is confined in a nutshell; it presses severely on the mind, the cumulative force of all of woman, all of man in conflict over woman who will take any man to satisfy nature's need for procreation. In these 'foul imaginings' all men are dangerous, all women are a desolating temptation to the gross, violating act, the urgencies towards which lie no less within himself.

In another cell paces a young man who has been a soldier, in reality or in imagination, in Hal / Henry's words one who will 'imitate the action of the tiger; / Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, / Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage; / Then lend the eye a terrible aspect … The gates of mercy shall be all shut up, / And the flesh'd soldier rough and hard of heart, … shall range / With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass / Your fresh fair virgins … / What is't to me … / If your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation?' (Henry V III.i.6-9; iii. 10-21 passim). He is, in short, a Pyrrhus, a Mars, who is a terrifying violator.

Or here is a hunter, a skilled falconer, an expert in pursuing the stag and deer with hounds, exercising his cunning to overtake or drive out of hiding his prey. His hunting image may give way spontaneously to that of horsemanship: not only 'let the strucken deer go weep,' but also 'let the gall'd jade winch,' an identity that may go through sea-change to become Death, the centaur, if he is at all a scholar.

Or he may be any or all of these yet have been scholar first—a university student, contemplator of self, of man and eternity, in chaotic-ordered estimates of the bitter complexities and limitations of man against imponderable forces. These he expresses in frantic repetition to himself (within the hearing of other madmen) in a series of choruses to his forever excoriatingly futile act to solve his private dilemma. Or again he may be a politically important figure, one on whose choice—a madman without choice—'depends / The safety and health of this whole state …' His state can be his family, an Elsinore, a Denmark, a world.

These several figures, and more, drooping in their cells, or walking, watched, in their wards, are in an identical outward world: the same doors, and stairs, and lobbies; the same walls and battlements; the same institutional head, the same orderlies and guards. The same visitors: fathers, mothers, old companions. Outside can be seen the same casual figures, man and woman, of any street: a company on military drill, two lovers under a tree, two guards; farther away, two soldiers walking towards him. Dawn; a dazzlingly beautiful spring day; a breathless star-filled snow-cold night. Fireflies; gray-clad storms; roosters crowing; wisps and clouds of fog. A painting of a great castellated fort where cliffs beetle over a raging sea. On some wall, or hung around the neck, family pictures or miniatures. In the near distance the sound of cannon for military observance, accompanying the laughter of a group of visitors. A cross in a chapel. Screaming violence, bloody oaths, an attempted killing, a killing, a rape, a priest, a black confining cell from which waking is to the same doors, and stairs, and lobbies, and walls, and a troop of threatening faces all his own, and all again and again and again. And again.

But none of these things need be actually around him, except perhaps the people, and finally not even these. He brings all with him from his past. Mnemosyne is his familiar. And when he lives and dies and lives at the centre of the round-walled Elsinore of the Globe, he has another familiar, the myth-maker of whom Plato has said, 'the vulgar deem him mad,' who can trans-literate him into total myth.

This image both divides Hamlet and is most incomplete. But we may from this limited division possibly sense something of the synthesis which is one of the great inventive powers in the play. What action these separately identified schizophrenics might see is not indifferent. Each need not be postulated; whatever one sees is seen by any other in his own defined character and context: the particulars vary, the essence is constant. It may be better not to take the simplest form; certainly we cannot take the most inclusive.

He sits in a ward generally occupied. He sees and hears the director of the institution, distinctively dressed, issuing orders to two orderlies, identically dressed, to go to another ward where a young patient is overtly threatening to kill the director and seize his wife, or his chief nurse. Strangely, director, orderlies, other attendants, various vague figures, all remind him of someone he knows—his own face in a mirror. Moments later two orderlies enter his cell; they are apparently different, but his cunning mind seizes the deception: they are the same two sent to spy on, to punish sorely, to kill the threatening young man—who is himself. Suddenly it is apparent that they too are identical in appearance, twins—and identical with himself. But the director has somehow been murdered by the dangerous madman spied on and has been succeeded by his brother. There are visitors, or inmates—a young woman, an older woman; they are at once his mother and a girl he has seduced or who has seduced him. They are joined by the girl's father and brother, but the first is the same as the director's brother, and the latter again the mirror image of himself; the father no less image of the murdered director and the succeeding brother. Now suddenly seduced girl and mother come into his view: they are identical. He attacks both as each, for in some confused way he would not be locked in this desolate nightmare had they not tempted him to the violent compulsive act that incarcerates him in his purgatorial prison. In this kaleidoscopic dream he fights a twin, is killed by the other, kills the other, kills a mother and father, then wakes to the agony of the whole tormented nightmare again.

What we have thus far sought to imagine becomes far more complicated by all the confusing yet relevant cross-complexities and particulars that are interfused through the characters of hunter, spy, soldier, scholar, courtier, prince, and all the others, each of whom sees phenomena in his own way. But in Shakespeare's poetic invention all are seen at once, all act and speak at once, in one figure; there is no rational division possible. The whole figure is, beyond ordinary conception, one figure whose 'hallucinations,' never cancelling each other, create the obsessed, mad Hamlet who bears all of the desolations that destroy man.

The invention in Hamlet seems to be something like this, infinitely magnified to create the play's power. But Shakespeare's art does not end here. In a sense it begins here, for the ultimate power in Hamlet is that of poetry and the theatre, of the total illusion which challenges what may be dreamed of as ultimate truth. The Hamlet figure is illusionary placed within illusion, inventor of illusion within illusion, chief illusory actor within the illusion, surrogate for the master of illusion who created him—the possessed poet working in the illusory world of the Globe, circled by England and 'this side of our known world,' by Christ and Satan, by the desolated Garden, by God and his angels, by Apollo and Diana, Jove and Hera, and, in some strange silent terminus, by Gaea-Ouranos, Earth and Sky.

Duncan Salkeld (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Dangerous conjectures: Madness in Shakespearean Tragedy," in Madness and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, 1993, pp. 80-115.

[In the excerpt below, Salkeld describes the political dimension of madness in Hamlet, as indicative of the power of subversion.]

Madness seems to belong in English Renaissance tragedy. It lends a distinctive pathos of inexorable self-destruction to plays which might otherwise be merely violent. But madness in the age of Shakespeare was not merely a playwright's Senecan device. It was put to more sophisticated uses. In the first place, its personal and moral implications were enormous. Madness signified a terrible loss since it rendered the body useless. The punishment of the soul in hell would be more comprehensible since it would reflect the unerring judgement of God. Men and women must accept their fate. Madness, however, belongs to the present world where its suffering takes place among unspeakable cruelties. It is more agonising than hell because the loss attaches itself to the living. Madness is not a con-sequence of sin, like judgement, but contemporaneous with it, deferring judgement even for the most determined villain. But the insane in Renaissance tragedy were not merely victims of a brutal society; they were also violent, murderous and politically dangerous. Blood may have blood, as the revenge maxim went, but madness will have blood too. Recognition of this fact seems to have made the control of mad people by the authorities both in and outside the dramas an increasingly urgent consideration… .

In Hamlet (1601),7 madness takes the form of paranoia, breeding in palace rooms in an atmosphere of whispers, suspicion, secrecy and confinement. Concealment has always a subversive potential, and it is out of the obscurity of Hamlet's resentment that the threat of revenge is pressed against Claudius. Denmark is from the start in a state of shock and confusion. The whole place seems mad. To the melancholy Prince, the world is a prison, 'a goodly one in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst' (II.ii.245-6). Its inmates, says Claudius, are 'the distracted multitude, who like not in their judgement but in their eyes' (IV.iii.4-5). According to Horatio, 'The very place puts toys of desperation … into every brain' (I.iv.75-6). Chateaubriand called the play 'that tragedy of maniacs, that Royal Bedlam, in which every character is either crazed or criminal, in which feigned madness is added to real madness, and in which the grave itself furnishes the stage with the skull of a fool'.8 The question of madness preoccupies the drama as one of its central themes. Hamlet hints that he has 'that within which passes show' but never unambiguously reveals what he holds within the hollow prison of his flesh. The madness remains a question, defined by Polonius as a question: 'Your noble son is mad. / Mad call I it, for to define true madness, / What is't but to be nothing else but mad?' (II.ii.92-4). Above all, it remains a political question. It is important to remember that Hamlet's madness is not a problem of what is going on inside the character's 'mind'. As Francis Barker suggests, the play anticipates the Cartesian moment when the soul or mind would be decisively separated from the body but lacks the discourse to articulate that knowledge. The Prince will not be put on the couch and made to tell all: talk of Hamlet's mind must be historically specific, and anyway, he goes to some lengths to obscure his rationality. Similarly, the cause of Hamlet's delay is not something for criticism to explain since most of the soliloquies are taken up with asking precisely that question. As Harry Levin and Maynard Mack remind us, the questions are more important than the answers.9 Madness explains nothing about the Prince's psychology but forms part of the wider political conflict which is the play's main concern.

The play's crisis of sovereignty is marked by a power vacuum created by the death of Old Hamlet. Denmark has two kings, one dead and one fake, neither of whom can rule effectively. One warns and forebodes; the other plots and schemes. But no one rules. Claudius tries to do so but by murdering his King and brother he has violated the very legitimacy and sanction of sovereignty itself. Killing the King has wider effects, as Macbeth also discovers, than a mere change of monarch. Murder does violence to the State, and not even the ghosts of the dead, with all their remembered virtue, can restore the golden age that has been lost. The ghost in Hamlet 'com'st in such a questionable shape' (IV.iv.43) that it throws all into doubt: the murder, the marriage, the madness and the revenge. The crisis of sovereignty of which it tells is compounded further by Hamlet's thought that the ghost may be an evil genius: 'the devil hath power / T'assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps I … abuses me to damn me' (Il.ii.595-6). Kings may indeed turn out to be devils. Throughout the play, Hamlet struggles to address two areas of doubt: first, regarding the veracity of the ghost and, second, the guilt of Claudius. The fear and uncertainty with which the play begins stems from the crisis of sovereignty figured in the regicide. The tense responses to the question 'Who's there?' nervously called out in the dark, betray the insecurity of Hamlet's world. The appearance of the ghost dwells on the sentries' minds more than the prospect of war: 'Is not this something more than fantasy? What think you on 't?' (I.i.57-8). Horatio shares their unease if not their superstition: 'This bodes some strange eruption to our state' (I.i.67-72).

The two kings in the first two scenes of Act One give iconic representation to a contradiction of sovereignty. From the outset, the drama is in crisis. The deep uncertainty of the guards has its roots in the death of Old Hamlet. Effectively, what Claudius put to death in the poisoning of his brother amounted to more than the King's two bodies. It gave the fatal wound to the legitimacy of the myth of absolute sovereignty: 'The cess of majesty / Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw / What's near it with it' (III.iii. 15-17). So the play begins in a political vacuum, a 'gulf, filled only by the vaporous memory of a golden past, and a toy monarch who as early as the second act realises that the game might well be up. The change from order to disorder is not dramatised in the play because the myth of order was in fact never a reality. The act of rupture or contradiction, the killing of the old King, is dispersed throughout the text, in ghost's testimony, in the dumb show and Claudius's prayer, to form the truth which on which the revenge narrative depends. The original moment of disorder is thus occluded, projected behind the horizon of the ghost's emergence. What matters, as the sentries remind each other (I.i.83ff), is that the old myth of sovereignty has died with the King. And yet that ancient rule retains a haunting presence, a ghostly semi-existence in the sham of monarchy which Claudius attempts to enforce but cannot sustain.

Claudius as King embodies the contradiction of sovereignty since it is that royalist ideology he has denied. The division is most keenly felt in the prayer scene where he strives, 'like a man to double business bound', with ambition and remorse. But it is felt, also, within the social body as Claudius cynically admits: 'our whole kingdom … contracted in one brow of woe' (I.ii.3-4). Ironically, the trope of the 'body politic' is here invoked by Claudius as a means of shoring up his power. James used it for virtually the same reason. Claudius handles it superbly with Laertes: 'The head is not more native to the heart, the hand more instrumental to the mouth, than is the throne of Denmark to thy father. What wouldst thou have Laertes?' (I.ii.47-9). In the same scene, Laertes lectures his sister on the doubtfulness of Hamlet's affection: 'for on his choice depends the sanity and health of this whole state' (I.iii.20-1). But the body metaphor serves equally to subvert the dominant power. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern let the truth out in a particularly telling Freudian slip: 'Never alone did the King sigh, but with a general groan' (III.iii.22-3). The sighing and groaning recall for Claudius the expirations of the dying King, and the emptying of power from Denmark which that death incurred. It is little wonder that Claudius's reponse is curtly dismissive: 'Arm you, I pray you, to this speedy voyage, / For we will fetters put about this fear, / Which now goes too free-footed' (11. 24-5).

Metaphors of sickness and disease in the play convey the danger of subversion. When Claudius ironically grieves that the State is 'out of joint and out of frame', or stresses the urgency of meeting Hamlet's threat in the words 'He's lov'd of the distracted multitude … Diseases desperate grown by desperate appliance are relieved', the body trope serves as the concept by which the contest for power may be obliquely acknowledged. Hamlet himself uses the trope as a means of attack and evasion when Rosencrantz asks what he has done with Polonius's body. He replies, 'The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing—.' 'A thing, my Lord?' asks Guildenstern. 'Of nothing', Hamlet responds (IV.ii.26-9). The head has been severed from the nation. And sovereignty is dead; a thing of nothing. A King without a body, as James well understood and as his son, Charles, would discover to his cost, is indeed nothing. But Hamlet's words cut deeper in subverting the empty politics of the moment with the body metaphor. He explains in true malcontent fashion 'how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar' (IV.iii.30-1). The comment turns inside out a political hierarchy that has already lost its validity and power. The idea of a real and almost total collapse of power relations envisioned in such remarks must have been almost unthinkable for the Elizabethan and Jacobean audience. Though not completely so perhaps, for James went to considerable lengths to put the idea out of parliamentary minds.

The play refers to a variety of kinds of madness. Horatio dismisses talk of the ghost as the guard's 'fantasy' (Li.26) and fears that Hamlet 'waxes desperate with imagination' (I.i.87). The Prince himself confesses to 'bad dreams', a 'sore distraction' and 'madness' (V.ii.225). His 'antic disposition' (I.v.180) is variously interpreted by Claudius as 'Hamlet's transformation' (II.ii.5), 'Hamlet's lunacy' or 'distemper' (II.ii.49, 55), 'this confusion' and 'turbulent and dangerous lunacy' (III.i.2,4). Claudius and the court remain in some doubt as to Hamlet's real state of mind. Polonius regards Hamlet as the stock mad lover of Elizabethan literature ('this is the very ecstasy of love', II.i.102, cf.III.i.162). Gertrude is convinced of her son's madness despite his disclaimer, 'That I essentially am not in madness, but mad in craft' (III.iv. 189-90). Ophelia becomes 'importunate, indeed distract'. Claudius, with remarkable foresight, regards her as a perfect example of the Lacanian split subject, 'Divided from herself and her fair judgement' (IV.v.85). Through the diversity of these terms, the meaning of madness is displaced in the text, scattered across the strategies of resistance and revenge. The madness is part of the complex game Hamlet plays: as prince and fool, he uses it both to resist Claudius's sovereignty, and to evade the revenge encounter at the same time. Hamlet's madness, like any other, resists interpretation. The play itself, apart from the critics, fosters controversy over the issue. Is he mad? How much does he feign? The questions remain undecidable, as Maynard Mack has concluded: 'Even the madness itself is riddling: How much is real? How much is feigned? What does it mean? Sane or mad, Hamlet's mind plays restlessly about his world, turning up one riddle upon another'.10 Like his father, Hamlet appears 'in questionable shape' (I.iv.43). He appears first quite mad, with his 'wild and whirling words' issuing from a 'distracted globe', and then, penetratingly sane. Even Polonius is puzzled by his 'pregnant' replies, the method in the madness. He toys with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern like the fool setting verbal traps to outwit his fellows. He changes between the types of a 'Tom o' Bedlam' and a 'John-a-dreams'. As Hamlet struggles to comprehend his situation, the occasions when he is merely joking and when deadly serious become increasingly difficult to distinguish. In the confusion, even the tragic form of the play can be lost. In her report of Hamlet's raid on her closet (II.i.73-80), Ophelia describes the ridiculous appearance of the Prince, his 'stocking's foul'd', his legs 'ungarter'd and down-gyved', his 'knees knocking each other', and 'a look so piteous in purport as if he had been loosed out of hell to speak of horrors'. The description echoes Malvolio's 'midsummer madness', and serves only to confirm Polonius in his suspicions. Hamlet at Ophelia's door, down-gyved and madly staring, presents a figure of comedy, a Pyramus who kills himself most gallant for love, a 'contemplative idiot'. But there is real violence in the appearance, for it terrifies the 'affrighted' Ophelia (II.i.103).

The madness of the Prince, real or feigned, is produced out of contradictory forces in the play. As Hamlet struggles with the 'mighty opposites' of conflicting loyalties, he becomes a site of contradiction, entrapped within what Foucault terms a 'space of indecision'.11 Claudius, in the prayer scene, feels himself caught in a similar dilemma but ultimately knows the path he will take:

Pray I cannot,
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect.

Struggling to choose, he is all 'the more engaged'. Eventually the decision is made for him, since 'words without thoughts never to heaven go' (III.iii.98). Hamlet's dilemma is not so easily resolved. He is addressed by two worlds, the 'sterile promontory' and the 'undiscover'd country', two kings and two fathers. In his indecision, trapped between the 'incensed points' of being and not-being, Prince Hamlet becomes a 'dull and muddy-mettled rascal', the 'paragon of animals' and yet 'the quintessence of dust'. Gertrude describes him as a site of conflict: 'Mad as the sea and wind when both contend which is mightier' (IV.i.7-8). As Prince and 'peasant slave', Hamlet embodies a contra-diction that divests him of the power to act or decide. It is within this space between mighty opposites that the madness of Hamlet is played out: 'What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all, believe none of us' (III.i. 128-9). It is only in the final act, on return from England, that he appears to have made his choice: 'The interim is mine' (V.ii.73). For on it depends the sanity and health of all Denmark.

The contradiction Hamlet embodies is not simply a dramatic aporia, a kind of textual apoplexy. As Mad Prince, Hamlet enacts the incoherences of the Renaissance ideology of sovereignty. For Hamlet, the entire question of life hangs on what is 'nobler in the mind'. Horatio's warning about the ghost ('What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, / … And there assume some other horrible form / Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason / And draw you into madness', I.iv.73-4) shows keen foresight. When Hamlet dismisses Ophelia to a nunnery or brothel, Ophelia cries, 'O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown … that noble and most sovereign reason, like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh' (III.i. 150-61). Madness does not function in the play as a theoretical abstraction. It is neither passive nor silent. Madness strays at the brink, confronts the monstrous, and resounds in the ears of its witnesses.

The subversive power of madness is made clear by Ophelia's 'dangerous conjectures'. It is through madness that Ophelia eventually 'comes out' and insanity makes of her an 'importunate', assertive and dangerous figure. A gentleman warns that though 'Her speech is nothing, / yet the unshaped use of it doth move / the hearers to collection. They aim at it, / And botch the words up to fit their own thoughts' (IV.v.7-10). Ophelia's 'distraction' (the word suggests being drawn in different directions), signalled visually in winks, nods, gestures and her hair down, is produced by the dangerous vicissitudes of revenge and presents a further threat to Claudius's already failing rule. Horatio cautions Gertrude, 'Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds' (IV.v.14-15). Suddenly, the dutiful daughter has become a witch, a speaker of mysteries. Claudius has some experience of mad persons and shares Horatio's concern, though for different reasons. He promptly orders her surveillance: 'Follow her close; give her good watch, I pray you' (IV.v.74). The change in Ophelia is marked. In the early scenes of the play, she promises to turn out as the kind of victim of Elsinore that Gertrude has become: a woman whose presence is little more than a convenience for men. Her sanity keeps her on the periphery of the play's action; moderately useful to Polonius and the King, but otherwise, a 'green girl'. In a scene of 136 lines, in which her relationship with Hamlet is the principal theme, Ophelia speaks a mere twenty lines (I.iii). She is passive, obedient, ordered about and kept in ignorance of the reasons why. Laertes advises her to consider Hamlet's station: 'Fear it, Ophelia, fear it my dear sister and keep you in the rear of your affections … ' (I.iii.33-4). Polonius bullies her: 'Do not believe his vows … Look to't I charge you, come your ways' (I.iii. 135). Hamlet dismisses her probably to a nunnery and possibly to a brothel. Ophelia thus has to cope with the task of resolving the contradictions that such conflicting loyalties produce. In these circumstances, madness become her asylum, her space between the 'incensed points of mighty opposites' (V.ii.61).

Even in madness, Ophelia is patronised as the 'pretty lady' and 'poor Ophelia', 'divided from herself and her fair judgement, without which we are pictures or mere beasts' (IV.v.85-6). But Ophelia's 'self and 'fair judgement' were never more than a construction of femininity, qua submissive daughter and chaste lover, imposed upon her by the men in the play, Polonius, Laertes, Hamlet and now Claudius. In contrast, madness brings Ophelia briefly but spectacularly to life as a lover and folk-tale heroine. She has started to sing. Insane, Ophelia breaks from the subjection of a vehemently patriarchal society and makes public display, in her verses, of the body she has been taught to suppress. Her speech, once brief and submissive, is now dangerously lyrical, figurai and promiscuous. No longer closeted and sewing, passively obedient to the men who owned and subjected her, she roams the palace grounds. Ophelia is followed because no one dare touch her. She will not be taken by the hand. But this vision of a femininity other than that constructed by men for women could not, in the early seventeenth century, last for long. Ophelia's madness already announces her death: 'O heavens, is't possible a young maid's wits should be as mortal as an old man's life?' (IV.v. 159-60). Dressed in all the colour of flowers, Ophelia's body reads as 'a document in madness', inscribed with an insanity soon to be erased altogether. The dominant symbol of the closing scenes is now the Fool's skull, the tragic equivalent of the ass's head in the comedies, an emblem of madness and change, and shortly after she has bid the Court goodnight, Ophelia is tempted towards the flood (to use Horatio's words), slips under 'so many fathoms … and hears it roar beneath'.

The cause of Ophelia's madness is only ambiguously answered by the play. Polonius, no doubt, would have a theory about it (cf. II.ii. 145-9), but Claudius holds the more pragmatic view. It stems, as he sees it, from 'The poison of deep grief: it springs all from her father's death' (IV.v.75-6). Thus he makes Hamlet responsible. But if Claudius is evasive about his own culpability, so equally is Hamlet:

What I have done …
… I here proclaim was madness.
Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If't be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.

The division of subjectivity that both Hamlet and Ophelia experience ('If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away' / 'Poor Ophelia, divided from herself and her fair judgement') is an effect of the political and social failure that extends throughout the play. Hamlet declares himself to be of the faction that is wronged. As he sees it, he is more acted upon than acting. So it is hardly surprising that not even he can make sense of his actions, his 'madness'. Unable to contain all the conflicting duties of sonship, revenge, and prospective sovereignty, Hamlet registers his confusion by making madness, and no longer Claudius, his enemy. The question of individual (as opposed to corporate or social) culpability is raised and dropped in the same moment. The play at once glimpses the Cartesian moment of essential identity and loses sight of it. The responsibility for Ophelia's madness is shifted back on to the madness of political turmoil and social unrest. At the same time, every subject, action and resistance is implicated in the failure of reason and social order dramatised in the play as an inexorable movement towards death and a certainty at last. …


7 All references are to William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1982).

8 Cited in Shakespeare in Europe, ed. O. Le Winter (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 76.

9 Harry Levin, The Question of Hamlet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959). Maynard Mack, 'The World of Hamlet' in Leonard F. Dean ed., Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, rvd. edn. 1967), pp. 242-62.

10 Maynard Mack in Dean, op. cit., p. 245.

11 Foucault, op. cit., p. 287.

Alison Findlay (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Hamlet: A Document in Madness," in New Essays on Hamlet, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning, 1994, pp. 189-203.

[In the following essay, Findlay focuses on the "relationship between words, madness and the desire for order" in Hamlet, especially in terms of the discourses of gender and language.]

Some four hundred pages into The Anatomy of Melancholy Robert Burton comes close to admitting that his task is impossible:

Who can sufficiently speak of these symptoms, or prescribe rules to comprehend them? … if you will describe melancholy, describe a phantastical conceit, a corrupt imagination, vain thoughts and different, which who can do? The four-and-twenty letters make no more variety of words in divers languages than melancholy conceits produce diversity of symptoms in several persons. They are irregular, obscure, various, so infinite, Proteus himself is not so diverse … 1

This passage reveals the tensions that exist between language and mental disorder, between documents and madness. Words are inadequate to anatomize Burton's subject but remain the means of control and communication. One must 'speak of these symptoms' in order to 'prescribe rules to comprehend them', difficult though the task may be. Burton's own description of madness significantly uses the metaphor of language and problematizes the relationship between the two even further. He compares 'melancholy conceits' to 'the fourand-twenty letters', says the symptoms of mental illness are a 'variety of words' and describes the people who exhibit them as 'divers languages'. The extended metaphor suggests that identity and madness are verbally constructed. In reverse, it also implies that letters, words and languages are themselves mad. Like the symptoms of melancholy, they carry a plurality of meanings, an excess of interpretations. Although Burton begins the extract by stressing the importance of speech as a means of rational control, he ends it by implicitly eliminating the difference between language and the insanity it seems to subjugate.

The relationship between words, madness and the desire for order is the subject of my investigation into Hamlet. My aim is not to provide an analysis of the causes and symptoms of Hamlet's or Ophelia's madness per se. By comparing their roles, my essay will examine how gender dictates access to a language with which to cope with mental breakdown. It will consider how madness produces and is produced by a fragmentation of discourse.

Before proceeding to these detailed examinations, it is important to look at the court, the social context in which Hamlet and Ophelia speak. The world of Elsinore is particularly vulnerable to madness. Renaissance physicians, preachers and astrologers commonly cited fear and grief as the principle causes of mental disorder.2 These emotions abound in Denmark, imperilling the sanity of society at large. Excessive mourning was regarded as particularly dangerous, so the moderate show of grief evident in I. ii. is a safeguard against madness as well as a disguise for crime. Gertrude's composure in response to her husband's death is not a type of insanity, a loss of the 'discourse of reason' (I. ii. 150), but a protection of it. For Claudius to consider his crime too deeply would also be dangerous. He ironically speaks the truth when he claims 'That we with wisest sorrow think on him / Together with remembrance of ourselves' (I. ii. 6). Hints in the text suggest that a preoccupation with the murder, combined with an increasing fear of Hamlet, threatens Claudius's sanity as the play continues (III. ii. 295-9 and IV. iii. 69-70).

Outside the immediate Hamlet family circle, the prison of Denmark is the asylum for a 'distracted multitude' of inhabitants (IV. iii. 4). At the opening of the play Francisco admits he is 'sick at heart' (I. i. 9), and the sighting of the ghost by Bernardo and Marcellus is regarded by Horatio as a symptom of mental instability (I. i. 26-8). The audience, who also see the ghost each time it appears, are included in the community of disordered consciousnesses. This is made explicit in V. i. when the Grave-digger refers to Hamlet's exile:

HAMLET:     Why was he sent into England?
GRAVE-DIGGER: Why, because a was mad. A
  shall recover his wits there. Or if a do not,
  'tis no great matter there.
GRAVE-DIGGER: 'Twill not be seen in him there.
  There the men are as mad as he.
                            (V. i. 145-50)

The 'distracted globe' (I. v. 97) extends beyond Denmark to embrace the spectators.3 Amongst the English audience, Hamlet's lunacy will not be noticed; he speaks the same language.

The death of King Hamlet puts the language of Elsinore out of joint as well as disrupting its emotional order. The characters struggle to rationalize their experiences in a court where discourse has broken down into a 'rhapsody of words' (III. iv. 48). At the top of the power structure a fissure is created: 'The King is a thing … Of nothing' (IV. ii. 27-9). King Hamlet is a spirit without a form, a figment of madness or 'fantasy', whereas King Claudius is an empty letter of majesty. Neither has full presence in the play. As a result, the action can no longer be suited to the word nor the word to the action. With the death of King Hamlet, the network of close knit meanings and signs unravels so that all the characters become prisoners of an unstable and plural language. Claudius comments on the gap between 'my deed' and 'my most painted word' (III. i. 53). Words are no longer fixed by any palpable intention; the 'very soul' has been plucked out of the 'body of contraction' (III. iv. 46-7), and it is impossible to identify that which 'passes show' (I. ii. 85). In Madness and Civilization Foucault explains how these circumstances where 'Meaning is no longer read in an immediate perception' make a signifying system (like that of language) very accommodating to madness. Once the sign is detached from any authentic intention, it becomes 'burdened with supplementary meanings, and forced to express them. And dreams, madness, the unreasonable can also slip into this excess of meaning.'4

Elsinore constructs a courtly discourse characterized by verbosity and an anxiety to fix meaning by definition. In II. ii., Polonius's speeches provide an example. He introduces the subject of Hamlet's madness with the words:

My liege and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and

I will be brief. Your noble son is mad.
Mad call I it, for to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
                                    (II. ii. 86-94)

Polonius's oratory does, as Dr Johnson claimed, make mockery 'of prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained',5 but it also displays an infinite 'deferral' of meaning. The opening lines are not about the nature of majesty, duty, day, night or time, but the failure of language as representation. Polonius may be tedious, but he is not stupid. He shows an awareness of his own mode of expression as a system of self-referring 'limbs and outward flourishes' (II. ii. 91). Like Burton, he recognizes a close relationship between language and madness in spite of their apparent opposition as embodiments of reason and non-reason. To define madness is to 'be nothing else but mad'. His insight into the nature of words makes him appear as foolish as Hamlet. It displays 'an absurd agitation in society, the mobility of reason'.6

It is in this disturbed environment that Hamlet and Ophelia are threatened with mental breakdowns, rendering their need to define their experiences and redefine themselves particularly acute. The extent to which they are able to 'put [their] discourse into some frame' (III. ii. 300) is an essential element in the contrasting representations of madness that Shakespeare offers in these two characters.

In the preface to The Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton explains that he wrote the book not simply for the elucidation of others but as a cure for his own mental illness:

I might be of Thucydides' opinion, "To know a thing and not to express it, is all one as if he knew it not." When I first took this task in hand, et quod ait ille, impellente genio negotium suscepi [and, as he saith I undertook the work from some inner impulse], this I aimed at, vel ut lenirem animum scribendo, [or] to ease my mind by writing; for I had gravidum cor, foedum caput, a kind of imposthume in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of, and could imagine no fitter evacuation than this … I was not a little offended with this malady … I would … make an antidote out of that which was the prime cause of my disease.7

Burton equates expression and knowledge, suggesting that the traumatized individual can only become self-aware through the external articulation of a malady.

Working with language allows him to step outside his condition: 'to ease my mind by writing'. He uses his complaint as the raw material for his book, and recording ideas about melancholy becomes a treatment and cure.

After what must be Hamlet's most disturbing experience to date—the ghost's revelation of the murder—the prince resorts to the same selfcure in order to control his 'distracted globe'. The discourse of his mind has been interrupted by a voice which speaks only to him and which introduces a range of experience that could easily put him from 'th' understanding of himself (II. ii. 9), but writing and speech provide the means to couple 'all you host of heaven', earth and hell (I. v. 92-3). To avoid a diagnosis of schizophrenia (where the subject experiences voices not his own inserted into the mind from outside), Hamlet responds to the ghost's news with a determination to document his experience and the ghost's voice:

                 from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain …
                            (I. v. 98-103)

This mental record does not prove sufficient; thoughts of Gertrude and Claudius disorder the regular rhythm of Hamlet's speech and distract his mind again (I. v. 105-6). To control this outburst of emotion, Hamlet turns to external documentation—writing in his tables. Once Claudius has been 'writ down' a villain after the ghost's report, Hamlet can return to his own 'word' (I. v. 110). Further details in the play show how Hamlet uses his control over the written word to empower himself in emotionally disturbing situations. He writes to Ophelia, to Horatio and to Claudius, and rewrites his destiny by substituting his own letter to the English monarch. He adapts The Murder of Gonzago as The Mousetrap in order to 'catch the conscience of the King' (II. ii. 601), and even when he is reading a book he imposes his own meaning or 'matter' onto the words to mock Polonius (II. ii. 191-204).

The importance of rewording to restore mental equilibrium is clear after Hamlet's second encounter with the ghost in III. iv. His initial responses to it convince Gertrude of his madness since his eyes look wild, his hair stands on end and his speech of spontaneous expression seems to be a discourse with the 'incoporal air' (III. iv. 118). As on the previous occasion, once the ghost has departed, Hamlet is ready to reencode his experience in a language which will make it appear reasonable. He tells Gertrude

                     It is not madness
That I have utter'd. Bring me to the test,
And I the matter will reword, which madness
Would gambol from.
                            (III. iv. 143-6)

Hamlet's ability to transpose experience from one language to another is shown at several points. Rosencrantz and Guildenstera say he is at once 'distracted' but using a 'crafty madness' to remain impenetrable (III. i. 5, 8). He tells them himself that he is 'but mad north-northwest' and that he can distinguish his sane speech from that of lunacy, knowing the difference between a hawk and a handsaw (II. ii. 374-5). Polonius and Claudius also recognize method in Hamlet's madness which, to Claudius, indicates a degree of self-awareness on Hamlet's part (III. i. 165-7). Hamlet's double voice bears similarities to contemporary cases of mental illness like that of Richard Napier's patient who would use 'idle talk' and cry out on devils in his distraction but could talk 'wisely until the fit cometh on him'. Popular accounts of melancholy pointed out that patients were frequently able to scrutinize their own abnormal behaviour from outside, whereas true lunatics could not.8 Hamlet follows this pattern, describing himself as analyst and patient when he apologizes to Laertes at the end of the play:

                     What I have done
That might your nature, honour, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.
                                   (V. ii. 226-35)

Hamlet refers to his madness as a 'sore distraction' with which he is currently afflicted (V. ii. 225), so his self-analysis is not a retrospective one except in the narrowest sense. He speaks both inside and outside his malady, as he had done earlier, making use of syntactic modification to explain and control his mental state.

As the play shows, Hamlet does not always talk so wisely. In comparison to the measured blank verse of the lines above, much of his speech is in a style which makes little immediate sense to the characters around him. Although Hamlet depends on 'Words, words, words' (II. ii. 192) to stay sane, the disturbing encounter with the ghost has made him inescapably aware of their plurality and artifice. This forces Hamlet to fall into a speech which will expose différance. He tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he cannot make 'a wholesome answer'; his wit is diseased (III. ii. 313).

His 'distracted' speeches suggest that it is language as much as female sexuality, neglected love, or grief that has made him mad. His conversation with Ophelia about beauty, honesty and discourse (III. i. 103-15) links his emotional concerns and his awareness that speech is common to a multitude of meanings rather than honest to one. Hamlet demonstrates this blatantly in his use of puns. His 'antic disposition' (I. v. 180) uses a style which Irigaray would term 'feminine' since it is a direct contradiction of the authoritative power of language used to maintain patriarchy. His 'mad' speeches exploit a lack of unity in the subject and 'undo the unique meaning, the proper meaning of words'.9

Hamlet's distrust of language is dangerous since it threatens to invalidate the very means which he uses to avoid breakdown. It is like the patient realizing that his cure is a poison to drive him further into madness. Discussing Plato's use of the ambiguous word pharmakon to describe writing, Derrida points out that pharmakon means both 'poison' and 'remedy'.10 Hamlet is in the position of seeing both sides of this paradox at once. He recognizes the need for language to construct sanity but cannot escape his awareness of its essential folly. What allows him to reconcile the two and avoid complete mental collapse is his use of theatre. It is not surprising that he welcomes the players so warmly. By virtue of their status as performers they are able to provide a register of speech which allows Hamlet to tell the truth of his father's murder while demonstrating the artificial nature of all utterances. The players are able to 'Suit the action to the word, the word to the action' (III. ii. 17-18) within a signifying system, a play whose social construction is obvious. J. L. Austin's theory of speech acts would discredit their performative utterances as 'parasitical' by pointing out that their fictional nature would abro-gate the speaker's responsibility and deny them the required 'serious' intention.11 But behind this bait of falsehood lurks a series of truths. Firstly, the 'parasitic' declarations present truths in that their false nature merely reflects the lies which dominate the court world and thus shows, as Hamlet wished, 'the very age and body of the time his form and pressure' (III. ii. 23-4). In addition, their self-conscious artifice exposes all utterances as repetitions of an already-written script, however truthful they may be. By demonstrating the dramatic truth of each particular fictional moment, the actors anticipate Derrida's response to Austin, showing that all speech acts are performative (dependent on the context in which they are produced and received) and that all are performances, even though they may be authentic.12

Theatre therefore provides Hamlet with the ideal metaphor to expose the rhetoric of power which operates in Elsinore. He questions Polonius about his role as an actor (III. ii. 97-105) and welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, using imagery of performance (II. ii. 366- 71). By contrasting the hypocritical welcome he gives them with that he will give the players, he suggests the equally rhetorical nature of all such 'fashion and ceremony' (II. ii. 368), whether it be genuine or not. His quaint revenge on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is to create new roles for them in England in a play of his own devising (V. ii. 30-2).13

The combination of truth and illusion in theatre is what Foucault identifies as a 'tamed' madness: 'theatre develops its truth, which is illusion. Which is, in the strict sense, madness.' Since this madness carries its illusion to the point of truth, it provides the ideal expression of Hamlet's dilemma. After the success of his own performances, he asks 'Would not this … get me a fellowship in a cry of players?' (III. ii. 269-72). The scene highlights important ideas about Hamlet's role as a madman. He adopts his 'antic disposition' quite openly, telling Horatio, 'I must be idle' (III. ii. 90). Whether Hamlet is clinically mad or mad in craft is finally irrelevant since there is no difference between illusion and truth once the play of language is exposed as a 'crafty madness' (III. i. 8). For this reason, Hamlet contradicts Foucault's view of madness in Shakespeare's work as 'beyond appeal', where 'Nothing ever restores it either to truth or to reason'. In the case of Hamlet, it occupies a median rather than an extreme place, displaying both the breakdown of reason and the control of insanity in language. Hamlet's 'tamed' madness is not considered as a 'tragic reality' but only in 'the irony of its illusions'. It already exhibits elements of self-reflection which provide a prototype for classical madness:

Tamed, madness preserves all the appearances of its reign. It now takes part in the measures of reason and in the labour of truth. It plays on the surface of things and in the glitter of daylight, over all the workings of appearances, over the ambiguity of reality and illusion, over all that indeterminate web, ever rewoven and broken, which both unites and separates truth and appearance.

The balancing act which Hamlet is able to maintain throughout the play is dependent on his ability to use a verbal and theatrical metalanguage with which to construct and contain the experience of insanity. This is a language which Ophelia does not have. Her experience seems much closer to Foucault's definition of madness in Shakespeare's work. He cites her as one example of insanity which 'leads only to laceration and thence to death'.14 It is not that Ophelia's grief for her lost love or her father's death is more intense than Hamlet's. She suffers differently because of her gender. To examine this further, I want to use Irigaray's thesis that in madness 'there are specific linguistic disturbances according to sexual differences'. Irigaray argues that, in cases of schizophrenia, gender appears to dictate a patient's access to a language with which to articulate trauma, that a woman in a state of madness does not have the same means for elaborating a delirium as a man. Since female patients cannot transpose their suffering into language, they suffer schizophrenia as corporeal pain: 'instead of language being the medium of expression of the delirium the latter remains in the body itself'.15 This theory is echoed very closely in Burton's discussion of 'Women's Melancholy' (indeed, the book itself shows a marked contrast in the documentation of male and female experience, since 'Women's Melancholy' occupies only five out of a total of over a thousand pages of analysis). Burton remarks:

Many of them cannot tell how to express themselves in words, or how it holds them, what ails them; you cannot understand them, or well tell what to make of their sayings; so far gone sometimes, so stupefied and distracted, they think themselves bewitched, they are in despair, aptœad fletum, desperationem [prone to weeping, despondency]; dolores mammis et hypochondriis, Mercatus therefore adds, now their breasts, now their hypochondries, belly and sides, then their heart and head aches; now heat, then wind, now this, now that offends, they are weary of all; and yet will not, cannot again tell how, where, or what offends them, though they be in great pain … 16

The play shows clearly that Ophelia does not have the speech and writing which Hamlet uses to cope with mental crisis. While Hamlet is 'as good as a chorus' (III. ii. 240), Ophelia has only a tenth of the number of lines he speaks. She does not appear able to discuss her distraction in a rational way and turns her suffering inwards on her body. The gentleman who reports her madness to Gertrude says that Ophelia 'hems, and beats her heart' (IV. v. 5) and implies that she communicates through physical gestures (IV. v. 11). He tells Gertrude, 'Her speech is nothing' (IV. v. 7). Such details appear to endorse the links between silence and hysteria proposed by Cixous, who writes:

Silence: silence is the mark of hysteria. The great hysterics have lost speech … their tongues are cut off and what talks instead isn't heard because it's the body that talks and man doesn't hear the body.17

Using this idea to read the play produces a depressing picture of Ophelia as 'Deprived of thought, sexuality, language'; and concludes that her role becomes 'the Story of O—the zero, the empty circle or mystery of feminine difference', as Showalter remarks.18 Attempts such as Ranjini Philip's to read Ophelia's suicide in positive terms as 'an existential act of partial selfawareness' in order to tell her story as 'something' seem pessimistic.19 In the hope of finding a more positive image, I want to turn to the work of one of Shakespeare's female contemporaries. Far from remaining silent, this woman produced a written account to explain her mental breakdown to physicians, fellow sufferers and, more importantly, to herself. A brief examination of Dionys Fitzherbert's manuscript, written in 1608, provides the opportunity to see Ophelia's ravings in a new light.2

Dionys's text, An Anatomie for the Poore in Spirrit contradicts those who would link female hysteria and silence. Her aim is to differentiate her breakdown from other types of madness by analyzing it as a spiritual test, a trial by God. In a preface, she openly challenges those who would label her case as madness and outlines in detail the differences between melancholy, as defined by contemporary medical theory, and her own symptoms. She points out that 'the like passages doth more then distinguish their case from all others in the judgement of any well seeing eyes'.

Dionys frequently makes reference to reading, writing and speech, suggesting their importance as means of rationalizing her experience. She points out that at the height of her fits and torments she was 'for the most part speechles if not altogether' and suggests the physical dangers caused by this loss:

they thought yt almost impossible many tymes for me to live an hower, but that my hart must needs splitt and rent in peeces with the unutterable groanes and sighes that were continually powred forth, being neither able by teares nor speech to expresse the unspeakeable dolour and torment of my sowle.

When she first recovers speech, her voice is split between declarations of atheism and expressions of religious faith, a confusion which she calls 'the discourse of the mynd'.21 She is later able to converse more lucidly and uses reading and writing to recover and prove her sanity. She stresses the importance of allowing a patient access to literature and the means to write and tells how upsetting it was to have her books removed so that she could no longer continue her study of Scripture. When she was recuperating in Oxford, her greatest affliction was occasioned by visiting the libraries:

the multitude of books which I saw in which I had taken such singuler delight, now strooke me to the hart to thinke I could have noe comfort of them.

Her recovery is helped by the gift of a book, The Comforter, and by the writing of a religious mediation. Her restoration to complete mental health is seen in the account itself. An Anatomie for the Poore in Spirrit is the means by which Dionys is able to explain what has happened to her and it stands as testimony to her sanity. In describing her case, she often confuses the identities of patient and analyst, the afflicted Dionys of the past and the recovered and diagnostic Dionys who writes, but for the most part the text reads lucidly. The preface in which she challenges those who would label her as mad is logically organized and forcefully argued. She points out how strong opposition can sometimes allow patients to 'find out the truth even in themselves, as my example … doth evidently shew'.

In Hamlet we cannot read Ophelia's Anatomie of her condition, nor does the text indicate that she ever has the opportunity to write one. Without the language with which to discuss her case, she remains largely incoherent. This is not due to a failure in language itself or to an essential silence on the part of women hysterics. Whatever the limitations of words in expressing female experience, Dionys's case proves that they remain a valuable tool for the transposition of internal distress. More important than an inadequacy of language is Ophelia's very limited access to any verbal communication with which to unpack her heart. Polonius's advice to Laertes, 'Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice' (I. iii. 68), is taken to an extreme with Ophelia who is forbidden to 'give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet' (I. iii. 134) or with anyone else except under supervision. She becomes a private document where her father and brother imprint their words and control the articulation of ideas by means of lock and key. In the sense that Ophelia's mind is forced to accommodate voices inserted from outside, she is a schizophrenic from the beginning of the play. These imposed voices conflict with a repository of emotional and critical perceptions which she is rarely able to express. Only occasionally does Shakespeare give hints about the contents of Ophelia's thought book, as in her response to Laertes's advice which implicitly mocks the double standard (I. iii. 46-51). When she tells Hamlet, 'I think nothing, my lord' (III. ii. 116), she refers not to a lack of thought but to the censure placed on the expression of her own emotions and opinions. This lady cannot 'say her mind freely' (II. ii. 323-4) at moments of crisis. In her interview with Hamlet in III. i., she speaks what she ought to say rather than what she feels. Having suffered a torrent of abuse, she describes herself as the viewer/analyst of his mental collapse rather than giving full voice to her own feelings (III. i. 152-63). Since Polonius silences her completely with the words, 'You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said, / We heard it all' (III. i. 181-2), she has no opportunity to communicate her distress.

The death of Polonius confronts Ophelia with an unprecedented access to language which is both liberating and frightening. It unlocks her tongue from the repetition of patriarchal meanings and allows her to speak as author of herself, a situation for which she and the court are totally unprepared. Even though Polonius's censure is removed, other characters try to silence or ignore her. Gertrude says, 'I will not speak with her' (IV. v. 1), and she and Claudius constantly interrupt Ophelia. Laertes attempts to impose meaning on her language, reducing her from an active speaker to an object of interpretation, a document in madness.

She is first of all a text of filial love, whose wits are bound to her beloved father in the grave (IV. v. 159-63). She then becomes a petition for revenge (IV. v. 167), and finally, an aesthetically pleasing translation (IV. v. 185-6). Unlike Dionys Fitzherbert, Ophelia is only able to express the confused 'discourse of the mynd' which is then documented by others with explanatory footnotes. The gentleman who reports her madness to Gertrude points out that Ophelia's 'unshaped' speech

                      doth move
The hearers to collection. They aim at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own
Which, as her winks and nods and gestures
 yield them,
Indeed would make one think there might be
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.
                            (IV. v. 8-13)

Even in this role as a 'document in madness', Ophelia finds a way of speaking. The gentleman may say 'Her speech is nothing' (IV. v. 7), but David Leverenz is wrong to conclude that 'even in her madness she has no voice of her own'.22 Ophelia's songs and quotations give her a very definite register, one which demonstrates the 'citationality' of all speech. Her lines are confused but they have 'matter' (IV. v. 172). As Bridget Gellert Lyons points out, 'While her language is more oblique, pictorial, and symbolic, she expresses the discords that Hamlet registers more consciously and with greater control in his language and behaviour.'23 Although Ophelia cannot analyze her trauma, her language of madness is appropriate to the expression of such ideas.

By distributing flowers in IV. v., Ophelia draws attention to the breakdown of unique meaning in Elsinore, revealing the ambiguous signification of Flora and flowers as symbols of both innocence and sexual prostitution.24 She parodies Elsinore's attempts to structure its environment verbally in her own definitions of the flowers and their meanings. These are undercut when she points out the ambiguity of rue: 'You must wear your rue with a difference' (IV. v. 180-1). The plant may signify repentance, but the word 'grace' means nothing if applied to Claudius. Ophelia's songs, which give clues to the causes of her distraction, are in the same mode as Hamlet's adaptation, The Mousetrap, and his use of ballad (III. ii. 265-78); but, unlike Hamlet, she will not act as a chorus. She tells her listeners, 'pray you mark' (IV. v. 28 and 35), obliging them to make a variety of subjective interpretations. Claudius's attempt to impose a single masculine meaning by saying the song is a 'Conceit upon her father' (IV. v. 45) is rejected out of hand by Ophelia. She tells him, 'Pray let's have no words of this, but when they ask you what it means, say you this' (IV. v. 46-7), and then sings another ballad which, rather than explaining the song, illustrates the 'deferral' of meaning. One ballad can only be interpreted in terms of its difference from another, and all are blatant repetitions of the 'already written'. It is therefore impossible to 'make an end' (IV. v. 57) in terms of meaning. Ophelia's determination to finish her song reveals a preoccupation with the performative nature of speech. She has just as much cause as Hamlet to mistrust vows, and the last verse about oaths (IV. v. 58-66) deconstructs the seriousness of all such declarations by demonstrating the equally rhetorical nature of false and true vows.

While Ophelia's thoughts lack the self-control and clear articulation found in many of Hamlet's speeches, the scenes do show that she is struggling to convey important ideas. Because of the rigid prohibition on her speech earlier in the play, it is not surprising that she 'speaks things in doubt / That carry but half sense' (IV. v. 6-7). In this she is surely typical of her period. Dionys Fitzherbert's text gives inspiring evidence of a woman's success in challenging the conventional view of the silent hysteric; the case of Margaret Muschamp, some forty years later, gives a more accurate impression of the difficulties encountered by such women. Margaret fell into fits and heard 'voices' between the years 1645-7. Believing she was bewitched, she tried to communicate the names of her tormenters by writing, after she had come out of the extremity of her fit. The account shows the degree of corporeal pain suffered by the female schizophrenic:

After a while she would make her hand goe on her brest, as if she would write, with her eyes fixt on her object; they layd paper on her brest, and put a pen with inke in her hand, and she not moving her eyes, writ, Jo. Hu. Do. Swo. have beene the death of one deare friend, consume another, and torment mee; whilst she was writing these words, she was blowne up ready to burst, shrinking with her head, as if she feared blowes; then would she be drawne, as in convulsion fits, till she got that writing from them that had it, and either burne it in the fire, or chew it in her mouth, till it could not be discerned … 25

Like Ophelia's lines, Margaret's accusations against John Hutton and Dorothy Swinnow are a spontaneous outpouring, an incompletely articulated discourse of madness. The impulse to write is combined with an equally strong negative response to the document she produces. Unlike Burton or Hamlet whose transcriptions ease the mind, Margaret's experience of writing provokes fear which is expressed in bodily terms as painful convulsions and swellings. Far from helping her condition, the literal expression of her ideas causes guilt and stress. The only way of relieving her physical torment is to destroy the illegitimate product of her labours: to burn it or to eat it, thus reincorporating her words. Even if the paper was taken from her and hidden, Margaret Muschamp would continue to suffer, until she had sought out the document and destroyed it. When 'none could discerne one word she had wrote, then immediately she would have ease'.26

The discussion of writing here has important implications outside the immediate context of the extract, since the account was written by Margaret's mother, Mary Moore. Does Margaret's experience provide Mary with a meta-narrative to discuss her own problems in producing the text in a period where female chastity was equated with silence? To transgress and articulate,—let alone write, was to be regarded as deviant, abnormal. To write a document on madness was to become a document in madness to a certain extent. The experience of Ophelia, trying to find a voice in the play, can therefore be read as a model for the difficulties facing Renaissance women writers; not only those like Dionys Fitzherbert and Mary Moore who were documenting madness, but also those who were endeavouring to express their ideas in poetry, prose and plays. Like Ophelia, they may 'speak things in doubt' but they do not remain silent.

Finally, it is sobering to note that the experiences of these women find a further reflection in the work of female scholars trying to write themselves into the bibliographical history of the play. Hamlet has never been edited by a woman.27 The text is notoriously challenging since the contradictions between the 'Good Quarto', the 'Bad Quarto' and the Folio make Hamlet itself a 'document in madness'. At I. iii. 21, the creation of 'sanity' has been, to date, the privilege of Theobald and subsequent male editors, from the starting points of 'safty' in the 'Good Quarto', the third Quarto's 'safety', and the Folio's 'sanctity'. The opportunity to rationalize the different voices of this schizophrenic text has been limited to men, the Hamlets rather than the Ophelias of the academic world, thus reproducing the gender imbalance in the play.


1 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson, 3 vols (London: Everyman, 1968), I, 408.

2 Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 72-3.

3 Andrew Gurr investigates in detail the double metaphor of Hamlet's 'distracted globe' in Hamlet and the Distracted Globe (Edinburgh: Sussex University Press, 1978).

4 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, tr. Richard Howard (London: Tavistock Publications, 1967), p. 19.

5 Cited in Jenkins's edition of Hamlet, p. 241.

6 Foucault, Madness and Civilization, p. 37.

7 Burton, Anatomy, I, 21.

8 MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam, pp. 146-7.

9 Luce Irigaray, 'Women's Exile' in Deborah Cameron, ed., The Feminist Critique of Language (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 83-4.

10 Discussed by Barbara Johnson, 'Writing' in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, eds, Critical Terms for Literary Study (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 46.

11How To Do Things With Words (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1962), pp. 21-2.

12 In How To Do Things With Words, Austin asserts a difference between utterances of a constative nature (answerable to a requirement of truth in their relation to the world) and those of a performative nature (dependent on the context in which they are produced and received). He further distinguishes between 'serious' and 'non-serious' performative utterances: for the utterance to be 'serious', its speaker must take responsibility for what s/he says to guarantee the meaning of the performative in its context. In 'Signature, Event, Context' in Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), Derrida expands Austin's idea that actually all constative utterances are context-dependent and therefore performative; he further demonstrates that all speech acts are social constructions with an indirect rather than a direct relationship to the actions or objects they describe. This ultimately dissolves the boundaries between 'serious' and 'non-serious' utterances, revealing all speech acts to be produced in a more or less 'staged' setting.

13 For discussion of the complex nature of theatre as a form of metalanguage in the play, see Phyllis Gorfain, 'Towards a Theory of Play and the Carnivalesque in Hamlet', Hamlet Studies, 13 (1991), 25-49, and Robert Weimann, 'Mimesis in Hamlet' in Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds, Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 275-91.

14 Foucault, Madness and Civilization, pp. 35, 31, 32, 36, 31.

15 Irigaray, 'Women's Exile' in Cameron, ed., Feminist, p. 94.

16 Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, I, 416.

17 Cited in Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1930 (London: Virago, 1987), pp. 160-1.

18 Elaine Showalter, 'Representing Ophelia: women, madness and the responsibilities of feminist criticism' in Parker and Hartman, eds, Shakespeare, p. 79.

19 Ranjini Philip, 'The Shattered Glass: The Story of (O)phelia', Hamlet Studies, 13 (1991), 75.

20 am grateful to Kate Hodgkin for drawing my attention to Dionys Fitzherbert's writings. An Anatomie for the Poore in Spirrit exists in two versions; an original manuscript in Dionys's own hand (e Museo 169) and a fair copy in another hand with additional prefaces and letters attached (Bodley 154). Both are in the Bodleian library. Quotations are from the fair copy. My discussion of the texts is indebted to Kate Hodgkin's unpublished paper, 'Religion and madness in the writing of Dionys Fitzherbert', given at the conference, Voicing Women: Gender / Sexuality / Writing 1500-1700, at the University of Liverpool, 15 April 1992.

21 This phrase is taken from a letter by Dionys to M.H.

22 David Leverenz, 'The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View', Signs, 4 (1978), 301.

23 Bridget Gellert Lyons, 'The Iconography of Ophelia', English Literary History, 44 (1977), 73.

24 Lyons, 'Iconography', 63-4.

25 Mary Moore, Wonderfull news from the North (London, 1650; Wing M2581), p. 5. In assigning the text to Mary Moore, I follow Maureen Bell, George Parfitt and Simon Shepherd, eds, A Biographical Dictionary of English Women Writers 1580-1720 (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990).

26 Moore, Wonderfull news, p. 5.

27 In the New Penguin Shakespeare (1980), Anne Barton wrote the introduction, but the text was edited by T.J.B. Spencer.


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Eleanor Prosser (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Spirit of Health or Goblin Damned?", in Hamlet and Revenge, 1967, pp. 132-42.

[In the following excerpt, Prosser asserts that Shakespeare's Ghost is not Hamlet's father but an incarnation of the Devil, and details the manner in which this demon exhorts Hamlet to revenge.]

Act I, Scene v

Now, at last, the Ghost speaks. And now we face the first serious possibility that it may indeed be the departed soul of Hamlet's father, returned from Purgatory, where he is "doomed for a certain term" to "fast" in "sulphurous and tormenting flames" until his "foul crimes … are burnt and purged away."32 Very well, let us shift our perspective, as many in Shakespeare's audience may have done, and test it on its chosen grounds—test it, that is, by Catholic doctrine.

What is the mission of the Ghost? Even before it announces its identity, we are warned: it comes to command revenge. Its first long speech is skillfully adapted to its mission. It appeals to Hamlet's love and grief, relentlessly aggravating the son's anguish by describing the pains of Purgatory. Note that it does not state one specific fact, though literature abounded with useful details. It announces that it is forbidden to tell such secrets to mortal men, and then proceeds to create an even more horrifying impression than any description would. Of course Purgatory ghosts were under no such proscription. One of their purposes in returning was to make man understand the specific pains they were suffering, and thus their mission required them to give as much graphic detail as possible.33 Why does this Ghost rely on the ghastly inference, the harrowing hint? It is skillfully arousing Hamlet's imagination, working entirely on his emotions. The speech builds to a compelling climax in "If thou didst ever thy dear father love—" What loving son could possibly remain calm? As Lady Macbeth knows, the most irresistible of human arguments is the question "Don't you love me?" With this preparation, it is no wonder that Hamlet leaps at the first word of murder:

Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.

And the Ghost comments, "I find thee apt." That laconic observation is the first of several grim ironies in the Ghost's exhortation. Can Shakespeare have overlooked the clash of Hamlet's gentle metaphor with his violent meaning?34 His mind is "out of joint," as he strains with passionate eagerness for confirmation of what he has already half suspected. He is, indeed, "apt," and at this moment, while Hamlet is taut, every sense alert, the Ghost plants an idea that later gives rise to the tragic dilemma:

And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf
Wouldst thou not stir in this.

Its hearer is now ready, and now the Ghost reveals the identity of the murdering "serpent." Hamlet leaps: "O my prophetic soul! / My uncle!" It is clear that, like Macbeth, he had but awaited confirmation of an idea dictated by his own desires.

If we read the Ghost's long speech without preconceptions, we should be struck by its almost exclusive reliance on sensual imagery. Like Iago, it paints a series of obscene pictures and then insistently highlights the very images that Hamlet had tried to blot out in his early soliloquy: "that incestuous, that adulterate beast … shameful lust … lewdness … sate itself in a celestial bed … prey on garbage." Hamlet had known that for his own sanity he must not visualize that bed, but the Ghost rivets his eyes upon it. The culminating exhortation is not to purge the "royal throne of Denmark." It forces Hamlet again to peer into the horror that sickens him:

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.

Can this be a divine agent on a mission of health and consolation?

Moreover, if a pious son should immediately recognize that swift revenge was a "sacred duty," why does the Ghost find it necessary to present an extended, revolting description of the poisoning? Again its appeal is entirely to the senses. This Ghost is not appealing to Hamlet's love of virtue; it is not arousing his determination to serve the justice of God. It is doing everything possible to arouse nausea and loathing.

This Ghost cannot be a penitent soul from Purgatory. It says it is, but are we intended to believe it? It does, to be sure, speak of its agony at dying without the sacraments, but the reference serves as one more detail to intensify Hamlet's pain. Moreover, a subtle hint has been planted that is to bear terrible fruit in the Prayer Scene. The Ghost's attitude toward its suffering is also telling. Does it humbly confess its sins, acknowledging the justice of its punishment? On the contrary, it "groans" and "complains" of the agony resulting from its being unfairly deprived of final sacraments. For centuries editors have tried to give "O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!" to Hamlet on the grounds that the reaction ill befits a spirit of grace. So it does. A Purgatorial penitent would be a loving figure of consolation, but the Ghost that Shakespeare created dwells on the horror of its pains. The exclamation is a logical climax to the extended assault on Hamlet's emotions.

At that cry of horror, when Hamlet's agony is at a peak, the Ghost gives him the tragic burden: "If thou hast nature in thee. … Revenge. … " Nothing in the scene suggests that a divine minister is appealing to Hamlet's "nature" as a creature made in God's image whose role is to fulfill His commandments.35 Nor does the usual explanation suffice—that the Ghost is appealing to Hamlet's "nature" as an obedient and loving son. Throughout the speech it has been appealing to Hamlet's "nature" as an instinctive creature of passions and appetites—"fallen nature," the theologian would say. Thus its challenge to Hamlet to prove his "nature" by committing murder is the same type of challenge heard in Lady Macbeth's "Are you a man?" That this is the issue as Hamlet himself is later to understand it will become clear in "To be or not to be." The Ghost, then, fails the test that every member of Shakespeare's audience undoubtedly would have recognized as the crucial one, a failure that scholars have been trying to rationalize for two centuries: its command violates Christian teaching.

Does the Ghost, in fact, pass any of the religious tests? Well, it appears as a man, not a hop-toad, and no one mentions that it smells of sulphur. On every other test, it fails. Is it humble? How is it conceivable, it asks, that Gertrude could "decline / Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor / To those of mine." (Characteristically, it draws our attention to the physical.) Is it in a charitable state? It is thoroughly vindictive, seething in its own hatred and aggravating Hamlet's loathing. Is its voice sweet, soft, musical, and soothing, or "terrible and full of reproach"? The actor who intones these lines with melodious grace is deaf to the meanings of words. Does it carefully refrain from charging others with sin? Its mission is to condemn Claudius. Does it beg Hamlet's prayers? It says "remember me."

Some critics have tried to explain these unsettling facts as further proof that the Ghost is from Purgatory on the grounds that his anger, vindictiveness, and sensuality merely indicate that he has not yet been sufficiently purged. This argument will not do. The purpose of Purgatory is not to reform a sinner but to erase the debt of punishment incurred by past sins that were repented before death. As Thomas More emphasizes, in Purgatory no soul can be angry, for all are in a state of grace.

But, it will be objected, the Ghost urges Christian forbearance for Gertrude. Admitted. But that is what we are warned the Devil will do: in order to disguise himself as an angel of light, he will, like Richard III, "clothe [his] naked villany" "with a piece of scripture" (I.iii.334-38). Catholics and Protestants both agreed that the mere repetition of Christian doctrine proved nothing. Both warned that we must be alert to the speaker's ultimate purpose. Let us note the context:

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to
 heaven. …

The lines are brutally ironic. "Taint not thy mind"? For over fifty lines, the Ghost has done everything possible to taint Hamlet's mind with lacerating grief, sexual nausea, hatred, and fury. It has just focused its appeal on the lewd picture that Hamlet knows can most corrupt him—and at this, it says, "Taint not thy mind"! One is reminded of Iago's consummate trickery: working Othello up to a screaming pitch and then remonstrating, "Tush, forget it. It probably means nothing."

And then: "leave her to heaven." The irony is surely the clue. Why Gertrude but not Claudius? The implication may not be immediately obvious when we see the play; we have been trapped along with Hamlet by our emotions. But if Shakespeare did not intend the irony, why did he so closely echo the familiar language of Christian exhortation—"leave them to heaven"?

Even though we have been caught up in the emotions of the scene, Hamlet's reaction when the Ghost vanishes should jolt us:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell?

He is not merely adding a third power to his invocation of Heaven and earth. The sexual image, reflecting the success of the Ghost's insidious method, is plain: shall Hamlet join himself to Hell? Even in his distraction, he again raises the dreadful possibility. But the moment of perspective is fleeting as the rush of emotion leads him to embrace the image of his father:

           Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain.

"Taint not thy mind"? He will wipe away all precepts, all codes, all that he has learned from books and experience. He does not say that he will erase all petty ideas in order to concentrate on his duty to his father. "Thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain." And that commandment is to exact revenge. So committed, he fixes his mind on his victim, furiously focusing on the image of the "smiling, damned villain."36 When Horatio and Marcellus enter, he is hysterical with excitement. The Devil—for such I conceive the Ghost to be—has done his job well.37

It may not be amiss to touch briefly on two countertheories that have gained growing support during the last few years. Several critics have recognized that Shakespeare could not have intended a spirit of health, released from Purgatory by divine will, to corrupt his son by commanding blood revenge. Thus one theory has evolved that the Ghost commands Hamlet to bring Claudius to public justice, not to murder him. A related theory reads "Taint not thy mind" to mean that Hamlet, though he is to kill Claudius, is to do so in the spirit befitting a minister of God. Most of the critics holding these views believe that Hamlet fulfills the Ghost's demand, but several see Hamlet's tragedy as arising from the fact that he either misunderstands or disobeys the Ghost.38 I can find no warrant in the play for believing that the Ghost is on a divine mission. Not once does the Ghost suggest that its command to revenge is the will of God. Not once does it suggest that its command—"Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder"—means anything other than what Hamlet takes it to mean: brutal, unqualified murder in direct retaliation. Any doubt is eliminated when Hamlet is told to pursue revenge in any way he chooses so long as he leaves Gertrude to Heaven. By implication, Claudius is not to be punished by Heaven. The Ghost treats Hamlet as if he were a private agent who is to act out of purely personal motives. "Remember me," says the Ghost, not "Cleanse Denmark in the name of God." Of course Hamlet may, in later scenes, qualify the command in his own mind. But in the first act, the Ghost is presented as malign.

The curious cellarage scene enforces this impression. We can probably never know exactly how Shakespeare's audience responded to the scene, much less exactly what Shakespeare intended. The repeated shifting of ground in order to swear suggests a specific convention, but a study of stage tradition helps little. The only direct echo occurs in a late comedy, which provides no guide to its meaning.39 As Nevill Coghill has noted, however, three of Hamlet's lines, together with his actions and those of the Ghost, provide several clues.40 The significant sequence is as follows:

    (The Ghost cries from under the stage.)
Ah, ha, boy! say'st thou so? art thou there,
   (Hamlet shifts ground; the Ghost shifts
           and cries again.)
Hic et ubique? then we'll shift our ground.
    (Hamlet shifts; the Ghost shifts and cries
Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth
 so fast?
A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good
     (Hamlet shifts.)

The clearest clue lies in the third line. We have noted that demons were believed to frequent mines, and Hamlet echoes this belief when he hails the "old mole" as a "worthy pioner" that works in the earth. That Hamlet is mockingly addressing an assumed demon seems likely when we find Toby Belch referring to the Devil as a "foul collier" (Twelfth Night, III. iv. 130), and Jack Juggler, a Vice, boasting that he can "conjure" both "the mole and God."41

This clue illuminates the other two lines. When the voice first sounds below the stage, Hamlet is startled. Two readings of his question are possible. "Art thou there, truepenny?" would imply "So it's you who are down there." "Art thou there?" would imply "So that's where you are." Viewed in context, the line thus suggests, "So you are the Devil!" The Ghost is, of course, speaking from beneath the stage, the familiar abode in Elizabethan drama of demons, furies, and damned souls. Only a "goblin damn'd" speaks from the abyss of Hell. In The Malcontent, Malevole greets Mendoza with "Illo, ho ho ho, arte thou there old true penny?" (III. iii). It is significant that the line is a deliberate echo: Malevole is addressing a devilish villain. Although the OED defines "truepenny" as a trusty person, the word also seems to have been used as a term of scorn.42 Hamlet's mocking tone, his almost taunting familiarity, could not be directed toward a spirit of health from Purgatory. Moreover, "hic et ubique" cannot refer to an "honest ghost," for only God and the Devil can be both here and everywhere at the same time. "Then," Hamlet says, "we'll shift our ground." For obvious reasons, he must try to get away from the voice.

Whether or not this interpretation is accurate in all details, of one thing we can be sure: throughout the cellarage scene, the Ghost is acting like a devil. Scholars have been driven to fantastic lengths to explain this unavoidable fact. We read that Shakespeare is tricking his audience by stopping for a playful parody; the printer is tricking the reader by including a scene from the old "Ur-Hamlet"; the Ghost is tricking Hamlet; Hamlet is tricking the Ghost; Hamlet and the Ghost together are tricking the two amazed observers. The most popular explanation is the last: that Hamlet and the Ghost both pretend the voice is a devil to mislead Horatio and Marcellus. How could the audience be expected to know this? It is just as misled. And what motive could both Hamlet and a good Purgatorial spirit have for making Horatio and Marcellus think their Prince is in league with the Devil? "To terrify them into silence" is an inadequate answer. There is one logical explanation. Shakespeare made the Ghost act like a devil because he wanted his audience to notice that it acts like a devil.

It is true that Hamlet refers to St. Patrick, the "keeper of Purgatory," and that he tells Horatio "It is an honest ghost"; but can these two facts cancel all our other impressions? The oath by St. Patrick may suggest Hamlet's belief in the Ghost as a spirit from Purgatory, but it may just as well suggest that the Ghost has come to rid Denmark of a "serpent," even as St. Patrick had banished snakes from Ireland. And even though Hamlet does for the moment accept the Ghost as "honest," when he calms down he will be less sure.

Many readers, I would expect, have long been objecting, "But how is such an interpretation possible when it conflicts with our instinctive impression of the Ghost?" I believe that this interpretation is the only one that corresponds to our instinctive impressions—or would be, if we were free to react naturally, without the misleading preconceptions fostered by critical and theatrical tradition. We have already dealt with the faulty assumptions of scholarship, but let us now consider the Ghost as it usually appears on the stage. Of course, it may not appear at all. We may see nothing but a green light that fades in and out on cue. If it does appear, typically it is, in Robert Speaight's delightful phrase, "got up like the arch-Druid of Stonehenge."43 Because of atmospheric lighting, costume, and makeup, we rarely detect any recognizable human features. Rarely do we see a vigorous, warlike figure of martial stalk and frowning aspect, much less a terrifying "thing" which reacts suddenly and suspiciously to Horatio's invocation of Heaven. When "offended," it usually turns sedately and moves with funereal dignity to the nearest exit. Rarely do we see a noticeable reaction to the crow of the cock, much less the threatening start of a guilty thing upon a fearful summons. In fact, Marcellus's speech on the significance of the Ghost's sudden exit is usually cut.

The 1964 Gielgud-Burton production in New York was typical. The Ghost did not appear. It was a mere shadow on the backdrop, a disembodied voice filtered through an echo chamber. All the lines were exquisitely sung in the quavering tones of a dying saint. All of them, that is, except those that were too flagrantly sickening or obscene. These—the description of the poisoning and the picture of lust preying on garbage—were cut. In modern productions, are we ever really terrified or shocked by what the Ghost says and the way he says it? The actor is usually cast for his resonant voice and he knows it. Traditionally he chants the lines in mellifluous tones of melancholy tenderness—all the lines, including those of agony, pride, disgust, hatred, and urgency. Of course the actor is but following critical tradition, which emphasizes the Ghost's deep "glowing" love for Hamlet and his heartfelt compassion for Gertrude. But what is there in the play to justify this interpretation? One of the most striking facts about this supposed spirit of Hamlet's father is that he utters not one word of love for his son. The Ghost's appeal is directed to Hamlet's love for his father. Moreover, the command to leave Gertrude to Heaven is not framed in words of compassion, as it could have been. She is to be left to the thorns that will prick and sting her. The picture of Gertrude that we see through the Ghost's eyes is that of a hypocrite who has been led by lust to prey on garbage. Rarely, however, does a modern audience even hear the crucial lines, for the descriptions of the poisoning and the bed of filth are usually cut.

In my judgment, a production following Shakespeare's every clue would create the same response in us today as I have suggested it did in the original audience. If we heard the terrible human passions in the Ghost's voice and saw them in its face, if we were startled by its sudden recoil at Horatio's invocation of Heaven, if we were made aware of the significance of the cock—if, in short, we could once see the Ghost that Shakespeare created, would we not be instinctively aware that we are in the presence of evil?


32 Battenhouse suggests that the Ghost's description of its abode is not intended to suggest Purgatory. Citing Dante, he argues that Purgatory was envisioned as a place of angels and music and beauty, and thus that the Ghost's description of fire and horror is to be recognized as a picture of pagan hell ("The Ghost in Hamlet," pp. 185-89). I sympathize with Professor Battenhouse's awareness that the Ghost cannot possibly be a Christian spirit of grace, but the fact seems unavoidable that the Ghost uses details that would suggest Purgatory to the Elizabethan, even as they do to the modern. Sir Thomas More's description of Purgatory in the Supplication of Souls (p. 177) includes no songs of angels. It is a place of "sights unpleasant and loathsome," a place of tormenting flames surpassing in heat any fires known on earth. The Ghost's reference to "fasting" in fires until his "foul crimes" are "purged away," his reference to the final sacraments, and the familiar details of fire and pain make it certain that both Catholics and Protestants would have recognized that he was at least claiming to be a Purgatory soul.

33 More, The Supplication of Souls, pp. 171, 178-80. It is for this reason, More explains, that he speaks of the "head" and "hands" of disembodied souls. In order to make mortals realize the pains of suffering souls, he must explain in humanly understandable terms. One also wonders about the odd statement that the Ghost can walk only at night. True Purgatory spirits can appear at any time.

34 "As so often in Shakespeare, the metaphors undo the logic and tell the truth over its head." Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, p. 349.

35 John F. Danby's discussion of the two meanings of "nature" is illuminating. On the one hand, "to follow nature" might mean to conform to one's role in the divine pattern ordained by God; on the other hand, it might mean to follow one's instincts. Danby clarifies the distinction by referring to the former as Hooker's sense of the word and to the latter as Hobbes's. (Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature, London, 1949, pp. 15-53.) The Ghost's appeal has usually been interpreted in Hooker's sense: "If you have any filial feelings, obey your duty as a son." Since, however, "to follow nature" in this sense means to act by the dictates of disciplined reason, "to have nature" suggests that the word is used in Hobbes's sense. The Ghost seems to be appealing to something innate, something instinctive.

36 The stage tradition that has Hamlet yank out his tables and frantically write down Claudius's villainy lest he forget it has always seemed unwise to me. The action strongly suggests that he has gone mad. The most effective interpretation I have seen was by a Hamlet who jabbed the picture into his brain with a rigid finger. This seems to me Shakespeare's intention. Hamlet has said he will clear the "table of [his] memory" and put the Ghost's command in "the book and volume of [his] brain." The imagery indicates that the "tables" are not in his pocket but in his mind.

37 The preceding analysis has been anticipated in certain respects by Murray, Knight, Siegel, and Goddard. It is most closely paralleled by L. C. Knights, An Approach to "Hamlet" (Stanford, Calif., 1961), pp. 45-46 and passim, and H. S. Wilson, On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy, pp. 41-45.

38 These views have been fully developed by Bowers, Elliott, and Ribner.

39 The echo occurs in Fletcher's The Woman's Prize, V. iii. In Antonio's Revenge, III. ii, the voices of the dead Andrugio and Feliche as well as that of the living Pandulpho echo Antonio's words "from above and beneath." The scene is a clear parallel but it does not include the device of shifting ground. Joseph Quincy Adams suggests that a clue may be found in the Chester Processus Prophetarum. Balaam, prevented by God from cursing the children of Israel, three times shifts his ground at the suggestion of Balak in an attempt to defy God's commandment. "Some Notes on Hamlet," Modern Language Notes, XXVIII (1913), 40.

40Shakespeare's Professional Skills (Cambridge, Eng., 1964), pp. 9-16. Throughout, Professor Coghill provides many insights arising from his intimate knowledge of the theater.

41Jack Juggler, 3d ed., edited for the Malone Society by Ifor B. Evans and W. W. Greg (1936), 1. 110.

42 See II Return from Parnassus (London, 1606), fol. C3v (II.iv).

43 "The Old Vic and Stratford-upon-Avon, 1960-61," Shakespeare Quarterly, XII (1961), 439.

Harold Skulsky (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Revenge, Honor, and Conscience in Hamlet" in PMLA, Vol. 85, No. 1, January, 1970, pp. 78-87.

[In this essay, Skulsky examines the myriad motivations operating in Hamlet's character, including feelings of honor and nobility, thoughts of cowardice and suicide, and the desire for revenge.]

It has always struck me as rather curious that the ghost should begin its final instructions to the Prince of Denmark with the words: "But howsomever thou pursues this act" (I.v.84).1 This evasive "howsomever" serves to point up the fact that the ghost has been disobliging enough to leave the task of defining revenge squarely up to Hamlet. The play, however, taken as a whole, is rather more obliging; for it illustrates two popular alternatives—the law of the talon and the code of honor, we may call them—either of which Hamlet might well choose. It will repay us to consider the light in which these are exhibited to Hamlet, and to us, before looking at the terms in which Hamlet eventually defines his mission, thereby resolving the ambiguity to his own satisfaction.


Strictly considered, the principle of the talon is not very aptly described as a law at all, for its essential motive is not obligation but will, and the satisfaction it seeks is limited neither by reciprocity nor, for that matter, by any other standard. What the talon lusts after is nothing less than the total destruction of the hated object and of all that can be identified with it. This "all," of course, will normally have its posthumous element. In a culture without a clear concept of damnation or of an immortal soul substantial enough to be worth the damning, the self may still be thought of as surviving, and vulnerable, in its lineal posterity. Aristotle's argument for a degree of misfortune after death is a celebrated case in point;2 and the archetypal avenger in this sense will be a figure like the Virgilian Pyrrhus of the Player's Speech, for whom all Troy—"fathers, mothers, daughters, sons" (II.ii.462)—is a single hated extension of his own father's murderer. The indiscriminate bloody-mindedness of Pyrrhus' kind of revenge is faithfully reproduced in another Renaissance imitation, the brutal Rodomonte's atrocities at the siege of Paris:

But Rodomont whose men consum'd with fire,
Do fill their masters mind with double rage,
Yet to avenge their deaths doth so desire,
As nought but blood his thirst of blood can
 swage: …
He kils alike the sinner and the good,
The reverend father and the harmlesse child,
He spils alike the yong and aged blood,
With widowes, wives, and virgins undefil'd.3

Even in a pagan, Rodomonte's homage to grief was barely explicable to Ariosto, much less excusable. For Shakespeare's audience, one strongly suspects, a Christian Prince of Denmark could embrace the law of the talon only by forfeiting all claim to sympathy. It is instructively ironic, in this connection, that the passage in which Hamlet castigates his failure to speak out should be so closely parallel in cadence to the passage in which the Player describes the only failure to act of which a votary of the talon is capable:

                        Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing.

So as a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood,
And like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing.
                            (II. 484-486)

But for the example of Pyrrhus, it would have been far easier to agree with Hamlet's estimate of John-a-dreams. In the Greek warrior even hesitation is no sign of con-science, only of surprise at the shuddering of Troy, which

with a hideous crash
Takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear.

          after Pyrrhus' pause,
A roused vengeance sets him new awork.
                     (11. 480-481, 491-492)

Better to "peak" like a John-a-dreams who retains some moral awareness than be "roused" to the insensibility of a Pyrrhus.

But the deeper irony of the passage exemplifies, as often in the play, the difficulty of penetrating the mind at the back of an utterance: where Hamlet, for reasons of dramaturgical symmetry cogently argued by Harry Levin,4 may well be moved to tears because he sees in Priam "a dear father murder'd" (1. 587) and in Pyrrhus, consequently, the uncle who did the deed, the spectator with even a smattering of Virgil could probably be relied on to recognize Pyrrhus as the son of Achilles, "of a dear father murder'd," quite specifically bent on the "vengeance" (1. 492) for which Hamlet cries out (1. 585) at the turning point of his meditation on the Player's Speech. And Hamlet himself reinforces the latter identification. For it is to this vengeance without bounds, vengeance by total destruction, that the Prince at a crucial point commits himself. The only difference is that the totality has been reinterpreted in a new and terrible Christian sense:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed,
At game, a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't
Then trip him that his heels may kick at
And that his soul may be as damned and
As hell whereto it goes; my mother stays,
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Hamlet is devoted, at this point at least, to the death of his uncle's soul; and the devotion is not ennobling. His idea of mercy as a physic to prolong disease is a grotesque parody of the medicinal function traditionally ascribed to equitable punishment, a function performed by Hamlet himself in rebuking his mother. And it need hardly be added that Pyrrhus' rage bears no resemblance to any rule of conduct that would make it even tolerable to the audience. For if vengeance beyond the grave has nothing in common with classic penal justice, it is equally irreconcilable with the straightforward evening of scores prescribed by the Old Testament: "The reuenger of the blood himselfe shall slay the murtherer: when hee meeteth him, he shall slay him" (Num. XXXV. 19).6 No lying in wait, here, for the murderer's soul. Indeed, from the Christian point of view, even Laertes' promise "to cut his throat i'th' church" (IV.vii.125), however sacrilegious, is less of a sin against the Holy Ghost than Hamlet's object in not cutting Claudius' throat at his prie-dieu. And there could be little doubt in the pious mind where such desires originate. As the good Sir Thomas Browne observes: "Our bad wishes and uncharitable desires proceed no further than this Life; it is the Devil, and the uncharitable votes of Hell, that desire our misery in the world to come."7 And the affinity between Hamlet's aims and Pyrrhus' is not only disagreeable but a little out of character. For the Prince, in his directions to Polonius on the treatment of the players, has revealed that he is no stranger to the precept of charity, and his rejoinder to Laertes—

Laert. The devil take thy soul.
Haml.                      Thou pray'st not well.

—shows him quite capable of deploring a malign purpose like his own. More than this, on reflection he comes near to seeing the similarity: "For by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his" (V.ii.77-78).

In view of the "portraiture" Hamlet himself claims to have recognized, there is something rather ominous about the result of Laertes' single effort at penetrating another mind. For Laertes is forced by Ophelia's madness to botch her words up to fit his own thoughts (IV.v.l0), as Hamlet is, to a degree, by the ghost's ambiguities; and his conclusion is the same: "Hadst thou thy wits, and didst persuade revenge, / It could not move thus" (II. 168-169). A little later Ophelia presents her brother with a symbolic appeal equivalent to the ghost's "adieu, adieu, adieu, remember me"; Laertes is given "rosemary, that's for remembrance—pray you, love, remember" (II. 174-175). But what is to be understood by remembrance, in both cases, is an open question, and Ophelia's speech, at least, leads one of the two aspirant revengers to an unwarranted conclusion; for in the excitement of "botching up" what he wants to hear, Laertes contrives to ignore the only words his sister utters that have any clear bearing on the issue he ought to be facing: "God ha' mercy on his soul—/ And of all Christian souls I pray God" (II. 199-200). An odd way to "persuade revenge," or even to suggest it. Especially the insatiable revenge of which Pyrrhus is a type, the revenge that, in Claudius' ironic endorsement, "should have no bounds" (IV.vii.127).


But one need not, perhaps, go quite so far as Pyrrhus. There is always the possibility of being prompted to revenge, not by anarchic hatred, but by fidelity to a code of honor coolly indifferent to the emotional excesses of the aggrieved party. Such indifference would be distinctly more rational than the talon—if it did not extend to the nature of the grievance itself. Laertes, for example, finds no embarrassment at all in claiming to be undecided whether Hamlet's plea of innocence, though valid in nature, may still be unacceptable to honor:

              I am satisfied in nature,
Whose motive in this case should stir me
To my revenge, but in my terms of honour
I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement,
Till by some elder masters of known honour
I have a voice and precedent of peace,
To keep my name ungored.

Such an anomaly, oddly enough, is in perfect accord with the definition of honor laid down by such courtly "masters" as Laertes might be expected to consult. By this definition honor does not inhere in the intrinsic merit either of action or of agent; instead it is a quasilegal fiction regulated by analogy with the law of property and, to a degree, of commercial credit. "There is no difference," Possevino tells us in his eclectic Dialogue on Honor, "between someone who presses for his honor and someone who presses for his goods, or for anything else he owns."

This fiction is reflected in the debt of duello to the terminology of Roman law; thus the challenger in a cause of honor is the actor, the plaintiff in a suit for the restitution of alienated property, and the person challenged is the reus, the defendant in such a suit. Since the commodity under litigation is fictitious and possession is nine points of the law, the author of the graver insult both dispossesses his rival and imposes on him the burden of proving his right of ownership. Normally, reciprocity will be sufficient "proof," but the sole exception is revealing: when a man has been given the lie, he has effectively been debarred from answering in kind; he has lost his credit, and his assertions will not pass current. "The dishonored are powerless to dishonor." In this case the actor has no recourse but to shift the balance of injury in his own favor by outdoing his enemy: "Verbal insult is removed, and one's opponent burdened, by giving the lie; the lie is removed by the slap; the slap by the blow; and the blow by death." But even with injuries that lend themselves more readily to a clarification of the truth—"che hanno pruova sufficiente"—outdoing will obviously be the more effective remedy; so much so that in Possevino's account the inadequacy of turnabout is virtually taken for granted. The victim of a blow will remain in the unenviable position of a plaintiff or would-be creditor "until he has taken away the injury received and inflicted another more serious." Thus the logic of the gentleman's code leads to the same kind of infinite regress as the lust of the talon. In both cases the successive actions at "law," the oscillations of the burden of "proof," continue until the winner secures his honor by inflicting on the loser an injury that cannot be overgone. Our grievance, in Laertes' words, "shall be paid with weight, / till our scale turn the beam" (IV.v.156-157). Striking a balance will not serve, or not so well. Laertes, it would seem, is amply justified in drawing a sharp distinction in "terms" between the law of honor and that of nature.8

If honor has its jurisprudence, it has its economics as well, and for the same reason: what is being contested is an alienable commodity. This view, it should be understood, cannot be written off as mere cynicism, like Falstaff's "I would to God thou and I knew where a commodity of good names were to be bought."9 On the contrary, it is, as we have seen, the basis of the code, unmistakably if tacitly acknowledged in the imagery of Hal's pledge to his father:

Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf,
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea even the slightest worship of his time—
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.10"

Hotspur's accumulated honor is the "commodity of good names" that Hal will proceed to "engross," and when the time comes the loser will fully agree with his rival that "budding honors" are the kind of things one can "crop": "I better brook the loss of brittle life / than those proud titles thou hast won of me." The same sort of Renaissance assumption underlies the messenger's announcement to the discomfited Sacripante in Orlando Furioso (I.70): "fu Bradamante quella che t'ha tolto / quanto onor mai tu guadagnasti al mondo." In the words of Sonnet 25:

The painful warrior, famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foil'd,
Is from the book of honor razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toil'd.

Thus honor, in the chivalric sense, is far from a contemptible prize; but it is equally far from recommending itself as a criterion of moral choice.11 And Laertes' endorsement, clearly, does little to recommend it. On the other hand, Laertes is merely pretending to confine his vindictiveness within the limits of the gentleman's code. Young Fortinbras lives by the code, and his career is consequently a fairer guage of the standing in the play of honor as a standard for conduct.

In Shakespeare's Denmark, honor is for better or worse a young man's game—and one suspects for worse, if what the characters have to say about youth is any indication. "Youth to itself rebels, though none else near," says Laertes (I.iii.44). In youth, Hamlet agrees, "compulsive ardour gives the charge" (HI.iv.86). Polonius warns us, with some reason as it turns out, of Laertes' "savageness in unreclaiméd blood" (II.i.34). And our first news of Fortinbras—"of unimproved mettle hot and full" (I.i.96)—is scarcely more reassuring. Like Pyrrhus, Laertes, and Hamlet, Fortinbras too has a father to avenge. His "enterprise," we are clearly informed (1. 99), has no legal or moral basis; it is purely an affair of honor. And when he is thwarted in it, he simply chooses another path to his goal: "to employ those soliders, / So levied, as before, against the Polack" (II.ii.74-75). It is this expedition that inspires Hamlet's remark on the discrepancy between the intrinsic unimportance of an "argument"—a patch of ground or even an eggshell will do—and the importance one can confer on it by engaging one's honor in its defense. "Rightly to be great," he contends,

Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake.

That is, to stir without great argument is admittedly not to be rightly great, but on occasion to find quarrel in a straw is to be so; because whenever honor's at the stake a straw becomes a great argument. Far from condemning the greatness thus conferred as frankly arbitrary and factitious, Hamlet holds up the "delicate and tender prince" (1. 48) as a model of decisiveness, not least because his "divine ambition" (1. 49) has made him impervious to scruple; his spirit "makes mouths at the invisible event" (1. 50)—including "the imminent death of twenty thousand men" (1. 60).

In this lack of scruple, and in the relativity of the value to which he has dedicated himself, Fortinbras anticipates the disastrous position taken by Troilus, another of Shakespeare's "delicate and tender princes," in the debate of the Trojan council (Troilus and Cressida II.ii). Troilus, too, speaks for "manhood and honor" (1. 47) against "reason and respect" (1. 49); he, too, thinks of value as a fiat of the "particular will" (1. 53). What is especially instructive about the later play, however, is that it troubles to specify the crucial objection to the young man's code, namely that will as such cannot make "a free determination / Twixt right and wrong" (11. 170-171) because decisions are free only as they are "true" to objective grounds of preference, grounds that cannot be willed into and out of existence; "pleasure and revenge," Hector warns, "have ears more deaf than adders to the voice / Of any true decision" (11. 171-173). Hector's orthodox humanism, of course, is as potent a norm of Shakespeare's Denmark as of his Troy. Even Hamlet, who is positive that honor can of itself exalt an argument and impart a rightful greatness to the arguer, pointedly declines to build his whole case on it. A source of greatness it may be; but it is also, paradoxically, "a fantasy and trick of fame" (IV.iv.61). Unlike Fortinbras, Hamlet has "excitements of my reason" as well as of "my blood" (1. 58).


But the whole point of the speech in which these phrases occur is that reason is susceptible to diseases, notably "bestial oblivion" and "craven scruple," of which scruple is at present much the more dangerous to Hamlet; for in his view any further exercise of reason on his part will inevitably consist in the morbidity and cowardice of "thinking too precisely on th'event." So far, at least, Hamlet might well say (with Troilus) that "reason and respect / Make livers pale and lustihood deject." Indeed, in an earlier speech he does say some-thing very like this, and without any ambiguous deference to the "excitements of reason." Moreover, the context of this earlier remark-puts honor, as an antidote to cowardice and "craven scruple," in a very odd light.

The premise of Hamlet's best-known soliloquy is that the very process of living entails what is degrading to a "noble mind" (III.i.57), a servitude of whips and scorns, of grunting, sweating, and bearing fardels, from which such a mind will naturally choose the only possible deliverance—to die. The distinction between choosing death and suffering it, or choosing to risk it, would seem to be clear enough, but in the course of his meditation Hamlet finds an opportunity to be quite specific:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of
  time …
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?
                            (11. 70, 75-76)

There is, however, a difficulty that ought to be faced; for in his initial formulation Hamlet puts these alternatives somewhat more darkly: "to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them." The alternative to generic suffering, one might argue, is generic acting; so that the taking of arms in the third line can hardly suggest a specific action, let alone one so far from constructive as suicide. The weakness of this argument is that Hamlet does not in fact speak of suffering in general, but suffering fortune; and in the Elizabethan view the only alternative to suffering fortune is ending life. Indeed, active men suffer fortune with an even more conspicuous inevitability than passive, for though fortune's purview is the whole sublunary sphere, her name denotes par excellence the mutable condition of all human undertakings; to resist her is to suffer her obstreperously. "Ending one's troubles," if it is to mean a valid alternative to "suffering fortune," must be equivalent to "ending one's life." To be sure, it does not necessarily follow that "opposing one's troubles," likewise, is equivalent to "opposing one's life"; one may happen to die by unsuccessfully opposing one's troubles in the hope of surviving. But, by the same token, one may happen to realize this hope and survive. Hamlet, however, speaks of ending one's troubles, not of happening to end them; he is, after all, assessing the comparative nobility of effectual choices, not of contingent events that are beyond choice and hence cannot ennoble; this would be especially true of the series "opposing and ending," which, besides being a candidate for the title of superior nobility, can hardly exemplify the "suffering of fortune" to which it is the presumed alternative. "Ending one's troubles," in short, is not the inadvertent result but the purpose of "opposing" them. "Troubles," therefore, must be literal and not a metonymy for "things that trouble"; what is being opposed is, not the occasions of "heartache" and the weariness of life, but the weary life itself. As has till very lately been taken for granted, the alternative to suffering fortune is dying by choice, the sole human act (according to its traditional advocates) whose consequences to the agent are beyond the control of fortune.

The recommended course, clearly, is suicide, and the terms of Hamlet's introductory "question"—whether suicide or its contrary is "nobler in the mind"—are the familiar terms of the venerable debate between pagans and Christians over the honestas or magnitudo animi of that act. Hamlet is simply taking the pagan view that suicide is, to use Augustine's report of the opposition, honestas turpia praecavens, the turpia being summed up in the Prince's metaphors from the abasements of slavery.12 It is the same view that Horatio, whose Stoicism Hamlet so much admires, will try in vain to live up to at the end of the play: "I am more an antique Roman than a Dane." At that point the Prince will assume that the reward of suicide is "felicity" (V.ii.346), but in the present soliloquy he is not certain, and his uncertainty enables him to argue, not only that suicide is "nobler in the mind" than the baseness of continuing to live, but that those who are ignoble in this sense are acting out of simple cowardice. It is this argument for the honorableness of suicide, especially in the dramatic context Shakespeare provides for it, that adds yet another obstacle to his audience's imaginative acceptance, not only of honor, but of revenge as well.

Hamlet argues that, all other things being equal, suicide would be the choice not merely of the "noble mind," but of any mind that appreciated the full misery of the human condition. But all things are not equal. Suicide is possible only to those who are not cowards, the others being put off by "the dread of something after death" (III.i.78). Of this "something" Hamlet has just lately received some privileged information; "after death," of course, comes punishment for ill deeds done in our "days of nature" (I.v.12)—in Claudius' case, Hamlet hopes, eternal punishment. And punishment is a thing one would not dread but for a faculty that Hamlet here calls "conscience" and elsewhere dismisses as "scruple": the practical reason or moral sense one of whose functions is consciousness of ill doing. Suicide, indeed, is only one, though a notable one, of many cases in which conscience plays a contemptible role. It simply illustrates the principle Hamlet has in mind:

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.

Suicide is, to be sure, an enterprise of great pitch and moment from the pagan viewpoint Hamlet is adopting, and he may well see it for the moment as very near the top of his agenda. But he must of course absent himself from felicity awhile. The "enterprise" that has highest priority is revenge; it is on behalf of his vow to the ghost that Hamlet fears the conscience that "makes cowards of us all"—the "craven scruple" of which his encounter with Fortinbras' army will once again seem to accuse him. But by inviting the audience to see an analogy between suicide and revenge, in the joint opposition of these two enterprises to cowardice and conscience, Hamlet is ironically subverting his case. For he has put his mission in what the play consistently shows to be very bad company indeed.

The fitful inquiry into the circumstances of Ophelia's death that occupies much of the fifth act of the play would be strangely otiose if it did not serve to drive home one point of crucial relevance: that even if a prospective suicide had no other trespasses to plague him with "the dread of something after death," the act of suicide itself would be trespass enough. Laertes' remark that his sister has been "driven into desperate terms" (IV.vii.26) anticipates the central issue, for the mortal sin of which suicide is an irrevocable expression is the sin of despair. "There is nothing worse, then when one envieth himself';13 that is why the Everlasting, as Hamlet himself admits, has "fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter" (I.ii.131-132).14 And Horatio had been speaking more as a Dane than an antique Roman when he warned Hamlet that the ghost might tempt him to suicide, and that the cliff itself might overcome him with "toys of desperation" (I.iv.75). It is precisely this theme of damnation through despair that the question of Ophelia's death refuses to let out of our sight, and the theme strikes us with all the greater clarity for the unresolved ambiguity of Ophelia's guilt or innocence. To this ambiguity the gravedigger's malaprop interrogatory, breaking the silence at the beginning of the fifth act, is a fitting prelude: "Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she wilfully seeks her own salvation?" (V.i.1-2). The second clown offers one possible answer: "If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out a Christian burial" (11. 23-25). Gertrude has already suggested another: Ophelia made no attempt to save herself because she was "incapable of her own distress" (IV.vii. 177). The priest is uncertain, but inclines to the grimmer view:

                     Her death was doubtful,
And but that great command o'ersways the
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet.

Laertes, perhaps too stridently, decides for salvation:

                     I tell thee, churlish priest,
A minist'ring angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling.
                                   (11. 234-236)

And Ophelia's "maiméd rites" (1. 213) are equally ambiguous: to Hamlet they

The corse they follow did with desp'rate hand
Fcrdo its own life.
                                   (11. 213-215)

And indeed we learn from the priest that they are not the same as are accorded to "peace-parted souls" (1. 232). Yet she has been buried in hallowed ground, and, as the second clown informs us, "the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial" (11. 4-5). All this is scarcely designed to invite us to decide for ourselves; the evidence is far too inconclusive. But it does serve to prevent the audience from consigning to limbo even for a moment the doctrinal inhibitions they will have to suspend in order to make the most of a purely sensational play of revenge. And the elaborate comparison Hamlet has already made between suicide and revenge makes it doubly difficult to avoid following Hamlet's destiny with the same order of anxiety as we guess at Ophelia's. If Hamlet does not hesitate, his audience has the better reason to hesitate for him.


For, despite his reticence on the point, the ghost has solemnly intimated that Hamlet's mission threatens in some sense or other to taint his mind (I.v.85); and now if ever Hamlet's danger is upon him: when he ventures to equate conscience with cowardice he virtually puts his audience on notice that his encomium of suicide and kindred enterprises is a convention not of plot but of characterization—a plague sign of taint in its ultimate phase. The espousal of libertinism, as dramatic shorthand for villainy, can be illustrated in a grosser form from a much earlier stage in Shakespeare's career. Here, from Richard III, is Clarence's murderer-to-be on conscience: "I'll not meddle with it. It is a dangerous thing. It makes a man a coward" (I.iv.137-138). His infamous employer carries less conviction in maintaining the same opinion: "O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me" (V.iii.179). But he maintains it all the same: "Conscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe" (11. 309-310). As part of a "mirror" for magistrates, the import of this detail is that the tenacity of Crookback's creed is itself a part of his doom. But the status of conscience in the present play is, if anything, far more sacrosanct. For Hamlet has arrayed against it suicide and revenge, that is, breaches of the revealed will of God; and as a partner with Scripture in that revelation, conscience is virtually an operation of grace. Laertes' consecration to revenge, which is perhaps noisier than Hamlet's if not more complete, makes this point very clear:

To hell allegiance, vows to the blackest devil,
Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes, only I'll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.
King.                     Who shall stay you?
Laer. My will, not all the world's.

In exalting will above conscience Laertes merely echoes without euphemism Hamlet's preference of "the native hue of resolution" to "the pale cast of thought."

But, as it turns out, conscience of some sort or other cannot be dispensed with, for an "honor" that erects will into law is no more amenable to persuasion than the lawless will of the talon. If we exorcise conscience we shall sooner or later be forced to assume something else of the kind. This is the irony of Claudius' appeal to Laertes in a later scene: "Now must your conscience my acquittance seal" (IV.vii.l). It is also the irony of the new, robust "thoughts" that Hamlet has substituted for "godlike reason," and for the thought whose pale cast seemed to him so sickly in his earlier soliloquy: "O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth" (IV.iv.65-66). If Hamlet is urged on by "excitements of my reason and my blood" (1. 58), it is at the same time oddly difficult to tell the two sources of excitement apart. On the other hand, if reason and conscience can decay, honor and the gentleman's code can be redeemed, as Hamlet redeems them in the pauses of his vengefulness. The model of the "gentleman" to which he appeals in asking pardon of Laertes (V.ii.225) is not the model Claudius praises in Laertes (IV.v. 148) in preparing to seduce him to an act of treachery. And the "honor" Hamlet commends to Polonius is so far from the ordinary code of gentlemen as to be indistinguishable from Christian charity: "Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty" (II.ii.535-536).


By the Prince's own standards, it would seem, revenge is an indulgence of the fallen will, and the honor that claims to control it, for all its legalism, is will all over again. Hamlet embraces revenge in its extreme, but with honor, as we have observed, he is not wholly satisfied; it is "a fantasy and trick of fame." An alternative sanction, however, is not easy to find; against revenge as against self-slaughter the Everlasting has fixed his canon. And the ambiguity of the ghost's origin, even more than that of its words, compounds the difficulty: if revenge is a counsel of the devil, as the faith testifies, and the ghost is a spirit of health, as the Prince eventually concludes, the anomaly of Hamlet's position achieves cosmic proportions. In this respect his invocation is prophetic indeed: "O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? / And shall I couple hell?" (I.v.92-93). Later he will not find it necessary to ask whether he is "prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell" (II.ii.588); and this last is the "coupling" on which Hamlet's final interpretation of his role seems to depend.

To be prompted by heaven and hell undoubtedly verges on a contradiction in terms. But in fact it is not unorthodox to allow that heaven may on occasion issue the same command as hell; and in accepting responsibility for the death of Polonius Hamlet remembers what such a supernatural entente usually means:

                     For this same lord,
I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.

A scourge of God, according to a familiar tradition of Christian historiography, is a man divinely ordained to make an example of his fellow sinners by means proper enough to God, to Whom vengeance belongs, but ordinarily fatal to the soul of the agent:

Villains! These terrors and these tyrannies
(If tyrannies war's justice ye repute)
I execute, enjoin'd me from above
To scourge the pride of such as heaven
Nor am I made arch-monarch of the world
For deeds of bounty or nobility.
But since I exercise a greater name,
The scourge of God and terror of the world,
I must apply myself to fit those terms,
In war, in blood, in death, in cruelty,
And plague such peasants as resist in me
The power of Heaven's eternal majesty.15

The tragedy of such a decree is that there is little in an instrument of torture for even its Master to love; Tamburlaine himself is the "hate" as well as the "scourge" of God.16 To be elected a scourge, in the end, is to be bound to the violation of one's own moral being, and it is no wonder that Hamlet thinks of this role as a punishment.

But by assuming that the punishment emanates from God Hamlet is virtually acknowledging that he deserves it, and this acknowledgment has persuaded some critics that he must be thinking back to a particular offense.17 No history of actual guilt need be postulated, however, to justify God in electing a scourge. The language in which the theory of the scourge was couched is often ambiguous, but it is a serious perversion to construe it as flouting the common doctrine by limiting God's choice to those who are "already so steeped in crime as to be past salvation."18 No guilt is so great as to overcome divine mercy, which, like all divine attributes, is infinite; indeed, it is precisely for blaspheming against this truth that despair is tradition-ally branded, in the words of Chaucer's Parson, as a "synnyng in the Hooly Ghoost," a disease to which even Claudius knows the antidote:

               What if this curséd hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? whereto serves
But to confront the visage of offence?

And if there is no such thing as sinning too much to be saved, there is, correspondingly, no such thing as sinning too little to be damned; "man," as Article IX has it, "is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation." Hamlet is plainly aware of this fact: "Use every man after his desert and who shall 'scape whipping?" And Hamlet's views, we must bear in mind, are solely in question here. Heaven, in short, is in no man's debt either for reward or for punishment. In both justice and mercy God's will is unconfined. The ultimate reason why a particular sinner is chosen a scourge is quite simply, in Hamlet's words, that "heaven hath pleas'd it so."

As conceived by the Prince, the divine pleasure currently in prospect—atrocity and perdition—is not merely arbitrary but intolerably bleak. Does Hamlet allow himself no small ration of hope? It has been suggested that when Hamlet says he is "scourge and minister" the latter term somehow denotes an alternative to the former.19 But this proposal has more good-will in it than grammar; a conjunction is a very strange way to add an alternative. What we have here is ordinary hendiadys; Hamlet will be the kind of minister who scourges. A more substantial consolation is held out by the Prince himself on his return from the sea, when he expresses a new reverence for the "divinity that shapes our ends" and, by implication, a serene confidence that a providential opportunity will, in the "interim," make "deep plots" unnecessary (V.ii.6-11, 73-74, 218-220). The resolve to play a waiting game, to be sure, dates from his sparing of Claudius (III.iii.89-95); but the serenity and the theological inflection are new, and they do not sound like a man expecting to be damned. Moreover, on reconsidering Claudius' offenses, Hamlet no longer doubts that it is "perfect conscience / To quit him with this arm" (V.ii.67-68). And far from being damned for usurping divine vengeance, Hamlet now thinks it

       to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
       In further evil.
                                   (11. 68-70)

The rehabilitation of Conscience, the statesmanlike appeal to the public welfare, and the clear implication that Hamlet no longer thinks himself damned would appear to suggest that he has repudiated the role of scourge. At closer quarters, unfortunately, two of these indices cancel each other out and the third can be otherwise accounted for.

The same conscience that refuses to let Claudius "come in further evil" raises no objection, a few lines earlier, to its owner's gratuitous murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: "They are not near my conscience, their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow" (11. 58-59). But, as Hamlet seems to concede, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were clearly unaware of their complicity in his attempted murder, and insinuation is not a capital crime.20 Hamlet showed himself well aware of this last when he repented of killing Polonius, another "intruding fool" who "made love to his employment"; indeed that inadvertent crime was what persuaded him of his election to the unenviable office of scourge. This falling off in the tenderness of Hamlet's conscience, taken together with the double standard conveniently applied by that faculty, should perhaps remind us that a Shakespearean character who invokes conscience in a doubtful cause is at least as likely to be perplexed in the extreme as to have regained his moral bearings. Othello, too, at the lowest ebb of his moral awareness, argues that he must kill to prevent his victim from "coming in further evil": "Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men" (V.ii.6). But the difference between the two cases of rationalization is as instructive as the parallel; Othello's disavowal of vindictive impulse may be suspect, but he does offer Desdemona the respite that is indispensable to Christian execution:

If you bethink yourself of any crime
Unreconcil'd as yet to heaven and grace,
Solicit for it straight.

I would not kill thy unprepared spirit.
No, heaven forfend! I would not kill thy soul.
                            (11. 27-30, 31-32)

It is crucial to recognize that Hamlet, despite his new serenity, the fresh endorsement of his conscience, and his princely if intermittent concern for innocent bystanders, has not disavowed his intention to kill the soul of his enemy. Indeed, the health of his victims' souls has come to worry him so little that he sends even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "to sudden death, / Not shriving time allowed" (V.ii.46-47). It is a commentary on his argument from statesmanship that he should fail so spectacularly in the end to avoid "coming in further evil" to the amount of three additional deaths, and that the assassination of Claudius should be so far removed in spirit from solemn execution.

By sinning against the Holy Ghost, Hamlet continues to play the part of a scourge. To see why he no longer expects to be damned for it we shall have to refer again to that view of God's absolute sovereignty which, as we saw earlier, underlies the very notion of a human scourge. In such a view the moral law is simply a creature of divine will subject to revocation by that will at any time. Sometimes even a Patriarch, as Augustine explains, might abrogate the ordinary law of God by God's extraordinary command—ad personam pro tempore expressa iussione. In performing such a command the Patriarch is like a sword that owes its assistance to him who wields it—adminiculum gladius utenti.21 And the only difference between the deed of the sword and the deed of the scourge is that the latter ends in damnation. In the Middle Ages the theory "that the heroes of the old covenant had a special command, or revelation from God," when their conduct "ran counter to the prevailing Christian ethics" was elaborated by Scotus, and passed on in substance to the theologians of the Reformation; though, like Scotus, Luther and Calvin denied that such dispensations can recur in the latter days.22 Hamlet is not so cautious. Not conscience ultimately but the "divinity that shapes our ends" (V.ii.10) condemns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to a death by treachery in whose smallest detail, Hamlet is quite sure, "heaven" was "ordinant" (1. 48). Like Tamburlaine—or Abraham, for that matter—Hamlet is performing what is "enjoin'd me from above." But like Abraham he will not be damned. It would seem that the quest for a satisfactory way of defining his mission has inspired the Prince to a new flight of clairvoyance: what the mind of the ghost has withheld Hamlet reads in the mind of God. And what he reads—in dread at first, and later in tranquillity—is naked will beyond good and evil.


In pursuance of his vow Horatio eventually offers his hearers an index to his projected relation of Hamlet's career in revenge:

                     so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fain on the inventors' heads.

"Plots and errors," as he sums things up, lie behind the present "mischance" (11. 392-393). We have seen Hamlet elbow-deep in the plots, and he has not been notably innocent of the errors. Claudius, to be sure, has been guilty "of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts," and both he and Laertes of "purposes mistook / Fain on the inventors' heads." But this does not absolve their opponent "of accidental judgements, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause." Horatio will no doubt proceed to excuse the latter; that is why he has deferred his felicity. But if he intends to go further, and justify them, his list is perversely calculated to obscure the fact.

What Shakespeare's audience paid for, undoubtedly, was a hectic afternoon of sensation, and this, at the outset, is what they got. The necessary thrill was provided by the morally neutral question of modus operandi: what grizzly end will Hamlet think up for the villain? And it was clearly necessary that the question remain morally neutral if the thrill was not to be spoiled. But it is not long before Shakespeare spoils it, or rather replaces it with a new question and a new order of suspense. For when the Prince asks himself which of two alternative courses more befits a great soul—which is "nobler in the mind"—he compels us to recognize him as a serious moral agent and (if we have not al-ready begun to do so) to worry about him in a new way. The new worry, indeed, is nearly the opposite of the old; we worry lest Hamlet betray his commitment to the faculty of "noble mind" to which he pays such high tribute: the "apprehension" as of a god (II.ii.310), the "large discourse" (IV.iv.36), the "fair judgement, / Without the which," as Claudius agrees, "we are pictures, or mere beasts" (IV.v.84-85). "Discourse of reason," as Hamlet's training prepares him to understand its practical function, is not merely a prudential, but a moral faculty as well—though he assumes that a degree of morality may be expected even of "a beast that wants discourse of reason" (I.ii.150). There is thus a disturbing irony in the spectacle of an "antic disposition" that moves Ophelia to recall "what a noble mind is here o'erthrown" (III.i.153). For the "noble and most sovereign reason" (1. 160) whose decline we are to be shown is not the prudential acuteness in which Hamlet increasingly takes pride, but the "nobility," the "conscience," the right reason that this very pride will slowly submerge. The Hamlet whose fall from grace we may well regret is not the tactical improviser who cries out: "O, 'tis most sweet / When in one line two crafts directly meet" (III. iv.209-210), but the man even his enemy thinks of as "most generous, and free from all contriving" (IV.vii.134), the humane Prince whose gorge rises at the cynicism of the grave-digger tossing about the remains of the dead: "Did these bones cost no more the breeding, but to play at loggats with them? mine ache to think on't" (V.i.89-90). It is difficult to recognize in this man the very different figure that is discovered preparing to "lug the guts into the neighbour room" (III.iv.212), or, for tactical purposes, playing hide-and-seek with them later on (IV.ii.29-30). And it is difficult to reconcile the Hamlet who protests in one scene that he is "not splenitive and rash" (V.i.255) with the advocate of "rashness" in the next (V.ii.7). Last and most important, it is difficult to reconcile the Christian and the man of charity with the avenger. Or rather, it is disturbing to have to reconcile these things. For the worser part is always threatening to prevail.

"Yet have I in me something dangerous, / Which let thy wiseness fear" (V.i.256-257). The irony of this advice is that its author never takes it himself. In the pride of his intellect, he hopes to find his unknown duty by seeking what is immeasurably less known: "For what man knoweth the things of a man, saue the spirit of man, which is in him? euen so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God" (I Cor. ii.ll). The vision of deity that results from this quest, as we have seen, is blasphemously partial; it sacrifices infinite goodness on the altar of infinite might. And the vision of duty that results from this warped vision of God is equally troubling to the onlooker. The tragedy of Hamlet, in short, is a tragedy of spiritual decline arrested only by the brief madness of the Prince's last anger. We are relieved by the reflex violence of an act that would be abhorrent to us if it were deliberate—if it were, that is, the sterile act of hatred we have been waiting for.

Shakespeare has left the identity of the ghost a matter of conjecture, however straightforward, and this should warn us that the importance of that figure is not its identity but its effect on Hamlet, which is to test the Prince more cannily than the Prince ever contrives to test anyone else. It is by his interpretation of the ghost that Hamlet is tried and found wanting. If the lure of idle speculation persists, it may be diverting to imagine a Prologue in Heaven, in which God grants Mephistopheles dominion over Hamlet in terms like those of the corresponding scene in Goethe's Faust: "Draw this mind from its fountainhead, and lead it off, if you can get hold of it, your own way. And stand ashamed when you are brought to acknowledge that a good man in his dark striving remembers the right way."23 In Hamlet's case, I would suggest, the devil would have feared no such humiliation, nor would God have added the wager; for the darkly striving Prince, though he is saved, is no better than the rest of us.


1 The text of Hamlet from which I quote is the Cambridge edition, ed. John Dover Wilson (Cambridge, Eng., 1936). The present essay was written before the appearance of Eleanor Presser's study Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford, 1967), to which some of my observations and working assumptions are parallel in tendency, though the frame of reference and the conclusions differ radically.

2Ethica Nicomachea, 1100a 18-21, 1101a 22sq., 1101b 5-9. Cf. Pindar, 01. VIII. 77-80.

3Sir John Harington 's translation of Orlando Furioso, ed. Graham Hough (Carbondale, I11., 1962), p. 178.

4The Question of Hamlet (New York, 1959), pp. 141-164.

5 For a different view see Levin, p. 147.

6 All Biblical quotations are taken from the Geneva Bible.

7The Works of the Learned Sir Thomas Brown, Kt. (London, 1686), II (1685), 38. (See Kenelm Digby's "observation," p. 78.)

8 Giovanni Battista Possevino, Dialogo dell'honore (Venice, 1565), pp. 500, 503, sg., 515, 521.

9I H. IV I.ii.92-93.

10I H. IV III.ii.147-152.

11 John Donne, who does not scorn it, reminds us in two separate places that "all honors from inferiors flow," and that God Himself, Who is the fountain of intrinsic value, has only such honor as His creatures grant Him. See Poems, ed. Grierson (Oxford, 1912), I, 218, 263.

12 See S. Aureli Augustini, De Civitate Dei, ed. J. E. C. Welldon (London, 1924), I, 37, 39.

13 Ecclus. xiv.6. Cf. Lactantius, Patrologia Latina VI. 407: "Nam si homicida nefarius est, quia hominis exstinctor est, eidem sceleri obstrictus est, qui se necat, quia hominem necat. Imo vero maius esse id facinus existimandum est, cuius ultio Deo soli subiacet."

14 Cf. Cym. III.iv.78 ff.

15Tamburlaine the Great, ed. U. M. Ellis-Fermor (New York, 1930), p. 248.

16Tamburlaine, p. 146. See Roy W. Battenhouse, Marlowe's Tamburlaine (Nashville, Tenn., 1941), pp. 108-113, 129-133, and Ariosto, Orlando Furioso XVII. It is interesting that one of the texts adduced by Erasmus to illustrate the concept fits Claudius far better than Hamlet: "Fortassis illud est quod ait Job cap. xxxiv. Qui regnare facit hypocritam, propter peccata populi." See Colloquia, ed. Schrevelius (Amsterdam, 1693), p. 133. The scourgeship of Claudius, in view of Hamlet's mission, would add a particularly mordant irony to the play; vengeance on the Scourge, all the authorities agree, is reserved to God alone.

17 See G. R. Elliott, Scourge and Minister: A Study of Hamlet (Durham, N. C., 1951), p. 122, and Fredson Bowers, "Hamlet as Minister and Scourge," PMLA, LXX (1955), 740-749.

18 Bowers, p. 743.

19 Bowers, p. 745: "we may see … the anomalous position Hamlet conceives for himself: is he to be the private-revenger scourge or the public-revenger minister?"

20 Claudius reveals his plan in soliloquy rather than dialogue after dismissing R. and G. (IV.iii.57 ff.); moreover, once they lose Hamlet to the pirates R. and G. would hardly bother to deliver Claudius' letter if they knew what was in it.

21De Civitate Dei, p. 36 sq., p. 42.

22 Roland H. Bainton, "The Immoralities of the Patriarchs According to the Exegesis of the Late Middle Ages and of the Reformation," Harvard Theological Review, XXIII (1930), 39-49.

23Faust, 11. 324-329.

Michael Cameron Andrews (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Hamlet: Revenge and the Critical Mirror," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 9-23.

[Here, Andrews argues that in Hamlet Shakespeare was not necessarily leveling a moral judgment on revenge, and likely intended to arouse tragic emotions in his audience and their approval of his hero.]

Hamlet is a highly personal play. We bring to it all that we are. As L. C. Knights has observed, "more than with any other play, critics are in danger of finding reflected what they bring with them."1 The gratifications of interpretation may turn out to be gratifications of another sort; instead of serving the play, we are likely to make it serve us. Kenneth Muir, commenting on C. S. Lewis' view of Hamlet, emphasizes this danger: "It was inevitable, Lewis thinks, that Coleridge should ascribe to Hamlet his own weaknesses; it was equally inevitable that the pacifists should regard Hamlet as a pacifist, and that the Freudians should diagnose their favourite complex. To Lewis, the explanation is that Hamlet is not an individual at all, but Everyman, haunted by the fear of being dead, and burdened by original sin. But Lewis's theory, ingenious as it is, invites the retort that he too, the amateur theologian, has saddled Hamlet with his own pre-possessions."2 Both protagonist and play, one may add, have appealed to one of our current prepossessions. Valuing multiplicity of meaning as we do, we hold Hamlet in our heart of hearts. It is a play in which many meanings dance. And, of course, since Hamlet has so much in it, critics are encouraged to find more—something overlooked, misconstrued, or imperfectly sensed by previous writers.

Contemplating the vast outpouring of heterogeneous commentary, Elder Olson began a discussion of Hamlet with the melancholy observation: "In the present condition of Hamlet studies, it is almost useless to offer one more interpretation of the play."3 Yet the play persists; like its portentous Ghost, it would be spoke to. And much of what has been written in the years since Olson's essay confirms the soundness of his diagnosis of the state of Hamlet criticism: " … problems, methods, and solutions of the most fantastic order seem often to be given an authority equal to or even greater than that of the most solid scholarship, as if the criteria on which authority depended were novelty and ingenuity rather than cogency of proof (p. 225).

Inevitably, of course, all readers and critics of Hamlet must form some opinion concerning what may be called the play's attitude toward Hamlet and his revenge. And it is here, I think, that the temptation to read our pre-possessions into the play is particularly strong. Since many critics regard blood revenge as a great evil, they contend—to state the matter most simply—that Hamlet should either abstain from vengeance altogether, or undertake it in the proper spirit. For some only the former would suffice;4 for others, Hamlet may emerge from the play a noble and sweet prince if he can achieve vengeance without tainting his mind with hatred—if, in short, he learns to act as God's minister rather than out of personal vindictiveness.5 There are two schools of thought as to whether Hamlet passes this test, though most critics join Fredson Bowers in answering in the affirmative.

The most influential recent discussion of this subject is Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge. Because of my profound disagreement with the critical approach her book represents, I should like to indicate some of the fundamental differences in our premises.

I agree with Prosser that "our truest guide to understanding Hamlet is our intuitive response" (p. xiii). But I disagree as to the nature of this response. Like some others before her,6 she argues for a dual response: emotional approval followed by moral judgment. "Is it not at least possible," she inquires, "that the Elizabethan audience could instinctively identify with the revenger and yet—either at the same time or later, when released from emotional involvement—judge him, too?" (p. 34). This sounds plausible enough—until one realizes that Presser means post-theatrical judgment as well as responses experienced during a performance.7 To speak of judgment during a play is one thing: it is true, for example, that our attitude toward Richard III and Macbeth changes; in a sense, we kill with them, but are dissociated from them before the end of the play, so that each dies alone. For both of them, there is judgment within the play. The idea that a moral judgment arrived at after a play has equal authority is, I feel sure, a dangerous one—dangerous because we are only too eager to substitute our own moral notions for the dramatic experience created by the playwright and actors.

Even in the case of judgment within the context of the play, the degree of distancing required entails a marked loss in tragic effect. Judgment and the tragic emotions, as A. C. Bradley long ago pointed out, have little to do with each other: "When we are immersed in a tragedy, we feel toward dispositions, actions, and persons such emotions as attraction and repulsion, pity, wonder, fear, horror, perhaps hatred; but we do not judge."8 What has happened, I believe, in much recent criticism of Hamlet is a rebellion against the immersion of which Bradley is speaking. We are not likely, nowadays, to hear that Hamlet moves us because we feel ourselves in him, or him in us. Reacting against our natural tendency to identify with Hamlet, critics strive to maintain a judicial attitude. Hamlet has been moved from the heart's core to the realm of the other.9

Even so, Shakespeare makes it difficult to bring Hamlet to the bar. For the main objection to sitting in judgment on Hamlet is Hamlet. The judicial critic is in the awkward position of warning us not to be taken in by effects the playwright evidently sought to achieve. Even John Vyvyan, for example, who argues that Hamlet disowns his higher nature in seeking vengeance, candidly remarks: "Hamlet is so fully successful in hypnotizing himself that he partially hypnotizes the audience as well. We have to pinch ourselves awake in order not to accept his valuation of the other characters."10 Whether or not we are desirous to be pinched, the judicial critic strives to pinch us to our senses. But the playwright, not the critic, must release us from tragic involvement—if he desires—and free us for judgment. When he does so he is about other business than tragedy. In Hamlet, the evidence suggests that Shakespeare was about tragedy.

Judgment within a play is something over which the dramatist exercises control. This is not the case with our reflections after—or outside—the play. Thus, if Tamburlaine is made magnificent in the theater, how relevant is the post-theatrical judgment that we really should not admire that sort of man?11 When we talk of withdrawing moral approval from what we were seduced into accepting during the play, we are probably saying that we don't like the dramatist's ideas, not that we were insufficiently alert to the nuances of his play. The double response theory, with its hot baths of emotionalism followed by cold showers of judgment,12 has little to recommend it when the cold shower is not turned on by the dramatist. In the case of revenge tragedy, as I shall explain, the danger of distorting our actual experience of the play is particularly acute.

Roughly one-third of Hamlet and Revenge, for example, deals with "Elizabethan Attitudes towards Revenge." The purpose of this investigation, as stated in the preface, is to counteract the erroneous impressions fostered by previous scholarship: "The dominant critical tradition has explicitly told us: 'Forget your own ethical code. The study of certain facts indicates that it is irrelevant in Hamlet.' The facts, I submit, tell us exactly the opposite" (p. xiv). What the "facts" reveal, in short, is that we should set aside the red spectacles prescribed for us by revenge-ethic critics. By using our own unaided vision we will see better. For the Elizabethans responded to Hamlet in the same way that we will—once we learn to trust our instinctive response.

But what, according to Presser, did the Elizabethans believe? These are her findings for the society in which Hamlet was written: " … on the subject of revenge, [Shakespeare's] plays reflect agreement with sermons, moralist tracts, poetry, and other plays of his day. No matter how base the injury, no matter how evil your enemy, no matter how dim all hope of legal redress, leave the issue to Heaven; God's is the quarrel" (p. 94).

It is somewhat disconcerting to discover that the chase had this beast in view. The Elizabethans saw their plays through moral spectacles (at least in retrospect)13 ; we share their opposition to revenge as something barbaric and unchristian. In both cases, aversion to revenge is considered instinctive.

So described, man is a creature who has taken his civilization straight; savagery and violence have lost their primordial appeal, in thought as well as in deed. The most that such a man can do at a revenge play is to grant temporary sympathy to what he cannot ultimately condone.

But is this man? Eric Bentley, commenting on the revenge theme in Hamlet, has noted the fundamental ambiguity of our response: "There is an unresolved ambiguity here which is not that of the play alone, or even of its author: it is the ambiguity of a whole civilization—a civilization that has never made up its mind but has a double, nay, a triple, standard: preaching forgiveness, while believing in justice, while practicing revenge."14 The Christian tradition, it is true, attempts to replace hatred with love, revenge with forgiveness; vengeance itself should be left to God. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord." Yet, as Freud has observed, "What no human soul desires there is no need to prohibit; it is automatically excluded. The very emphasis of the commandment Thou shah not kill makes it certain that we spring from an endless ancestry of murderers, with whom the lust for killing was in the blood, as possibly it is to this day with ourselves."15 The problem, according to Freud, is our unwillingness to admit what we are: "Our unconscious is just as inaccessible to the idea of our own death, as murderously minded towards the stranger, as divided or ambivalent towards the loved, as was man in earliest antiquity. But how far we have moved from this primitive state in our conventionally civilized attitude towards death! … Is it not for us to confess that in our civilized attitude towards death we are once again living psychologically beyond our means, and must reform and give truth its due?" (p. 234). Presser, who would grant our "conventionally civilized attitude" toward revenge the status of an instinct,16 seems unaware of any conflict between profession and reality; her theory of audience response thus requires precisely the self-deception Freud considered "psychologically beyond our means."

It seems to me, on the contrary, that audiences are fully capable of responding to revenge tragedy for reasons that have nothing to do with conventional morality or religious ethics. Quite simply, audiences find the drama of "one [character] who has done something and one who is going to get him because he has done it"17 deeply satisfying. Many Elizabethan revenge plays are entirely consonant with the moral and religious precepts of the age; they are, in a sense, cautionary works. But my concern here is to emphasize the existence of another kind of revenge play, more savage than didactic, appealing to the instinctual side of man. This form of revenge tragedy encourages the audience to indulge the instinctive desire to requite violence with violence. Setting aside its panoply of precepts, the audience could feel what it must, not what it ought to feel.

In the Elizabethan period, to be sure, the truer form is the rarer form. It would be most surprising if the religious and moral thought of the period had not impressed itself on the drama, leading to many plays in which revenge was presented as evil.18 But this is only to say that dramatists showed themselves ready to give audiences what they were supposed to want (and quite possibly thought they wanted) instead of meeting a deeper, more inarticulate need. Indeed, it could be argued that the religious temper of the age heightened the need for some means of indulging the very instincts that were, by general agreement, immoral. Thus an Elizabethan audience might enter the theater believing that revenge should be left to God but, caught in the dark music of the play, become vicarious participants in violence. This is the reason for the enormous emotional appeal of the revenge play in its pure and savage form, before didacticism sets in. The implacable emotional logic of blood for blood is at the heart of revenge tragedy. What is denied in civilized life is furnished in the theater. Revenge tragedy speaks to unaccommodated man, and what our response reveals about us is not pleasant to contemplate. The revenger raises his sword. The audience leans forward for the kill. It is not a time for compunction. We are given what we desire. In that sense, at least, vengeance is ours.

I have said that the double response theory, suspect in general terms, is particularly misleading when applied to Elizabethan revenge tragedy. It should now be evident why this is so. A man may respond, while in the theater, to ideas with which he would not normally be in sympathy. If his response does not imply ambivalence in an area where ambivalence is forbidden, he may be willing to admit that he was so caught up in the play that he temporarily accepted its standards; in the real world, he feels sure, he would react differently. But suppose the play appeals to what a man actually feels, but cannot admit feeling, even to himself?19 When the spectator, his dream of passion ended, re-enters the world of the preacher and the moralist, what might he be likely to do? In such a case, surely, the tendency would be to attempt to rationalize the nature of the experience. But, for all that, the experience would still be there. It happened; it was true. And, at another performance, it would happen again—unless he refused to yield himself to the play.

To this point I have mainly been speaking theoretically. But there is evidence that the Elizabethans found, in the theater, the kind of freedom I have been describing.20 At a comedy, for example, there would be no reason to suppose that audiences responded in a manner consonant with moral and religious precepts. Something of a moral holiday is surely suggested by Stephen Gosson's complaint: " … in the theaters they generally take up a wonderful laughter, and shout all together with one voice, when they see some notable cosenage practised, or some sly conveyance of bawdry brought out of Italy. Whereby they show themselves rather to like it than to rebuke it."21 Gosson is admittedly no impartial witness, but he would hardly risk destroying his credibility by misrepresenting audience response. On the basis of their experience in the theater, many of his readers would be able to judge for themselves.

But to delight in gullery or bawdry is relatively harmless; few would be as strict as Gosson. To delight in blood revenge is a more serious matter. Yet some plays show themselves rather to like it than rebuke it—and audiences responded to these plays with considerable enthusiasm.22

Irving Ribner, like Prosser, has emphasized that the Elizabethan revenge play is usually moral as well as bloody: "While audiences may have delighted above all in the sensationalism and spectacle of horror, the heroes of such plays … tended to vitiate themselves by the very act of vengeance-seeking and to die as fully tainted by evil as the villains who had injured them."23 Revenge was, after all, the prerogative of God. Yet, in a passage anticipated by Freud's remarks on the implications of Thou shalt not kill, Ribner goes on to note the possible significance of the age's tendency to protest too much: "The vengeance of God inevitably will be executed, even by the sinner upon himself should there be no other means. We need not assume that this was a doctrine to which all Elizabethans assented; the very need of Tudor moralists constantly to assert it may suggest that many theatre-goers could sympathize with the blood revenger" (p. liii). "Traffic lights," as a social anthropologist has remarked, "are not found where there are no automobiles."24 What is implicit in the repeated admonitions of the moralists is sometimes explicit in the plays. If "the sweet violence of a tragedy" (in Sidney's phrase) was unleavened by the addition of moral judgment, audiences could indulge this sympathy and share the revenger's bloody triumph without any necessity of judging him or themselves.

The Spanish Tragedy, which with Titus Andronicus established revenge tragedy on the Elizabethan stage, reveals at least as much about underlying attitudes toward blood revenge as many volumes of sermons. Kyd's drama affords ample proof that audiences did not require their violence seasoned with moral judgment when the cause was great and the revenger a man with whom they could identify. Philip Edwards, who has gone even so far as to say "The only essential reading for Hamlet is (besides Hamlet) The Spanish Tragedy,"25 elsewhere writes of the play's "power … to lull an Elizabethan conscience while it was being performed": "It could well be said … that it is a poor play which depends on the audience suspending its belief in law and mercy. And yet a swingeing revenge-play has its own emotional satisfaction for the audience. Vengeance is exacted from evil-doers by a man whose wrongs invoke pity; in enabling an audience to forget their daily docility and to share in Hieronimo's violent triumph, it may be that Kyd has justified him-self as an artist more than he would have done in providing a sermon on how irreligious it is to be vindictive."26 That would seem a just assessment of what the play does for its audience. It is pointless to insist that Hieronimo is guilty of criminal violence. Of course he is—but not in the world of the play. Instead of presenting him as he would appear in conventional moral terms, the play portrays his vengeance, terrible though it is, with approbation rather than censure. Hieronimo has done what he had to do, and he was right to do it. His death is not the seal of his guilt but a rite of passage, for we are told that in Elysium his anguish will be metamorphosed to eternal bliss: "Andrea.. … I'll lead Hieronimo where Orpheus plays, / Adding sweet pleasure to eternal days" (IV.v.23-24).27 The enemies of Andrea, and of Hieronimo, on the other hand, will be tormented in "deepest hell." Thus is the audience encouraged to share, as in a dream, the passion and triumph of Hieronimo, who slays his enemies in this life and sends them to punishment in the next.

Shakespeare is often considered too enlightened, too humane, to write approvingly of revenge. L. C. Knights, for example, declares himself unable to believe that Shakespeare "could temporarily waive his deepest ethical convictions for the sake of an exciting dramatic effect." That Shakespeare was in the business of providing exciting dramatic effects does not deter Knights: "It is almost like believing that Dante, for a canto or two, could change his ground and write approvingly, say, of the enemies of the Empire."28

Without claiming any special insights into Shakespeare's "deepest ethical convictions," Prosser turns directly to his plays; she concludes that, as Shakespeare cannot be said to approve of blood revenge in any of his other plays, such approval should not be taken for granted in Hamlet: "In all this evidence … we find no suggestion that Shakespeare expected his audience to accept without question the validity of private blood revenge. The evidence suggests, rather, that his plays rely on the orthodox ethical and religious injunctions against it. Despite a maturing of both dramatic skill and thought between Titus Andronicus and The Tempest, the portrayal of the revenger seems to remain constant. Titus and Prospero are two sides of the same coin" (p. 93).

The problem is not simply failure to distinguish between revenge tragedy as a form and plays which merely employ revenge motifs. Though little can be learned about Shakespeare's dramatic attitude toward revenge by comparing works as unlike in intention as Titus and The Tempest, no harm would be done if the revenge play received its due. It should not be treated as an adumbration of what is in reality quite another play; that "the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" is true enough of The Tempest—but that is in another dramatic country.29 Furthermore, Prosser's description of Shakespeare's "portrayal of the revenger" is of doubtful validity. At least two plays—Titus and Macbeth—take a far more favorable view of revenge than she is willing to allow.

Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's only real revenge tragedy besides Hamlet, carries blood revenge as far as it can go: blood is poured not by the cup, but by the bellyful. Like The Spanish Tragedy, Titus is used by Prosser as an example of how the revenger becomes corrupted and loses the audience's approval. The killing of Demetrius and Chiron is the turning point: "From this point on [Titus] is, if not a 'villain-revenger,' at least a tainted revenger who has forfeited our sympathy" (p. 88). Yet, in this instance, Prosser has been induced to relax some measure of her usual moral rigor: apparently she would approve of Titus' vengeance if he were not quite so cruel: "The murder of Tamora's two vicious cubs would, in itself, undoubtedly call for our instinctive applause. But when Titus … stops their mouths to prevent any pleas (a typical villain's device in Renaissance drama) and then taunts them with his ghastly plans to make mush of their bones and blood, mold it around their severed heads, and serve the tempting 'pasties' to their mother—the stomach of the most hardened spectator would surely rise." Before the play is over, she asserts, "Titus has lost all claim to virtue" (p. 88).

I do not deny that strong stomachs are in order. Yet it seems very likely that many in the audience cheered Titus' stratagem for its grisly propriety rather than responding with horrified revulsion. For Titus Andronicus, like The Spanish Tragedy, presents personal vengeance in a manner that accentuates the revenger's bloody triumph rather than his moral guilt. When Titus finally acts, he does not forfeit his moral position in the play: he is a good man, his enemies embodiments of evil (something of this is surely conceded by Prosser in her reference to "vicious cubs"). By the time suffering changes to action, the previous events of the play have created in the audience an emotional need for a vengeance which will provide adequate restitution; we have been given, so to speak, the formula for Titus' vengeance. Titus in his cook's attire may be grotesque enough, but he is serving what we want.

Neither Titus nor Hieronimo survives his revenge. Un-like Hieronimo, who takes his own life, Titus is slain after revealing what Tamora has fed on and stabbing her to death. Saturninus kills Titus, and is in turn slain by Lucius, who avenges his father: "Can the son's eye behold his father bleed? / There's meed for meed, death for a deadly deed" (V.iii.55-56).30 Set in such a context, it is difficult to see Titus' death as evidence of his moral guilt. The revenger dies, and is revenged; instead of being punished, Lucius becomes the next emperor of Rome.

From a dramatic point of view, Shakespeare may be said to hurry past the death of Titus; it is perfunctory, undeveloped. Yet it is clearly necessary to remove Titus from the play. In securing vengeance, he has ended his reason for living: death comes as no catastrophe, but as a triumphant departure at the full flood-tide of emotional vindication. He can hardly be imagined living on. In his vengeance is his end.31 His death, in this sense, is like Hieronimo's.

There is another reason why Titus must die. Though in the theater, where spectators are confronted with dramatic impressions rather than legal evidence, for Titus to be struck down at this moment is no punishment for criminal misdeeds; in life such a man would stand condemned by law. Titus' death, while not imposed by us, neatly solves the problem of what to do with him at the end of the play. For him to face formal judgment would oblige the spectator to judge: the world of the play would be set against the world of Elizabethan justice.32 According to the latter, Titus should be condemned to death; for the play to spare him would seem unjust, if not morally outrageous. But by making Titus fall by Saturninus' hand, Shakespeare prevents the question of Titus' guilt from becoming an issue: it is not an issue because it is never really raised. Hence Titus remains a good man even as he betters the instructions of his sadistic tormenters. As Marcus, "the reverent man of Rome," says of his brother's vengeance:

Now judge what cause had Titus to revenge
These wrongs unspeakable, past patience,
Or more than any living man could bear. …
Have we done aught amiss, show us
  wherein. …
                            (V.iii. 125-29)

It is Titus' unspeakable wrongs, the justice of his cause, that we remember. We judge the cause, not the legality of vengeance. Titus never loses his "claim to virtue."

For Prosser, as we have seen, a character who sheds blood for blood forfeits this claim: Shakespeare would not have us approve of him. Hence when she comes to discuss the revenge motif in Macbeth there is an obvious problem: how does Macduff, who might seem an exception to her rule, escape condemnation? The answer must be dealt with at some length, for Prosser is aware that the play is a crucial one, a "test case," for her theory. Although Macbeth is often "cited as evidence that Shakespeare unquestioningly accepted the morality of revenge,"33 she argues that the play contains "only one passage [which] can be offered in support of a revenge ethic. In his soliloquy on the battlefield, Macduff roars for Macbeth to show himself, swearing that if someone else has stolen from him the right to kill the tyrant, 'my wife and children's ghosts will haunt me still'" (pp. 90-91). Prosser is quite frankly unable to account for this: "In the light of the rest of the play, I find the speech a contradiction. Else-where, the denial of personal revenge motives to Macduff is explicit" (p. 91).

But if the speech is out of character it is an odd place for Shakespeare to be careless. Is the evidence as explicit as Prosser believes? Here is her view of Macduff's motives: "Even when Macduff learns of the slaughter of his wife and children, his major reaction is stunned grief. He is angry at himself for exposing them to danger, not at the man who murdered them" (p. 91). Such a Macduff would indeed want the natural touch. But let us consider Macduff's actual response to the revelation that his family has been slaughtered:

Macd. My children too?
Rosse.                     Wife, servants, all
That could be found.
Macd              And I must be from thence!
My wife kill'd too?
Rosse.                I have said.
Mal.                            Be comforted:
Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge,
To cure this deadly grief.
Macd. He has no children.—All my pretty
Did you say all?—O Hell-kite!—All? …

It seems to me that "And I must be from thence!" is rather an outcry of baffled pain (Why couldn't I have been there!) than of anger. But what is of crucial importance is Macduff's enigmatic response to Malcolm's suggestion that he cure his grief by taking revenge. Professor Muir, who gives three possible readings, prefers the one a blood-revenger would intend: Macbeth, that is, has no children to be slain in requital.35 However this may be, the speech is followed by an unequivocal burst of anger, for one presumes that "Hell-kite" is not a term of self-reproach.

Not that Macduff does not blame himself. It seems to him that such innocents would never have been allowed to perish if Heaven were not using their deaths to punish him for his own sins:

                     Did Heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful
They were all struck for thee. Naught that I
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls. …

But when Malcolm redirects his attention to Macbeth—"Be this the whetstone of your sword: let grief / Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it" (11. 228-29)—Macduff again turns his thoughts to vengeance:

                     … gentle Heavens,
Cut short all intermission; front to front,
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland, and myself;
Within my sword's length set him. …
                                   (11. 231-34)

This, Prosser remarks, is as close as Macduff comes to "a vow of personal revenge" (p. 91). But while there is piety in it—as she notes, it is a prayer—there is also something else. Of course Macbeth is the country's enemy, but Macduff also clearly hates him for imperative personal reasons. The ending of his speech, not quoted by Prosser, emphasizes this aspect of his motivation: " … if he 'scape, / Heaven forgive him too!" (11. 234-35). These lines, surely, suggest implacable hatred.

Nor does the end of the play show Macduff in a more charitable spirit. When finally given the chance to confront Macbeth with self-comparisons, he charges the "Hell-hound" to battle. They fight on even terms until Macduff's revelation of the manner of his birth. Now Macbeth refuses to fight. But Macduff, refusing to let his vengeance slip from him, taunts Macbeth into continuing. If justice were all he sought, Macduff might ask his enemy to yield in other words than these:

Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o' th' time:
We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole, and underwrit,
"Here may you see the tyrant."

Goaded beyond endurance, Macbeth is induced to "try the last"; Macduff re-enters with the head of his enemy. The time is free, but so is Macduff. He has had his revenge.

We may now return to Prosser's view of the play. Macbeth, she asserts, does not contradict her theory that Shakespeare never approves of personal revenge. It is true that Macduff emerges untainted, but only because he is no blood revenger: " … all is surrendered to the will of Heaven. The … campaign is to be seen as a divine mission, not as a campaign of personal vengeance."36

The play suggests it is both. Instead of supporting Prosser's argument, Macduff remains a step on which she must fall down, or else o'erleap, for in her way he lies. To anticipate Hamlet: Macduff is prompted to his revenge by excitements of his reason and his blood. He is no impersonal minister, but what he is doing is just.

The plum survives its poems, Hamlet its critics. Yet if we accept invitations to approach this highly personal play by way of its background, wariness is appropriate. When this background includes other plays, we should remember that these plays are things in themselves:37 breadth of scholarship, though giving an imposing sense of solidity, cannot provide assurance that a writer is examining the evidence with impartial eyes. For as we have seen, special pleading may assume the pleasing shape of scholarly objectivity; the "background" may be construed according to one's prepossessions. Here too we may find, in Olson's phrase, "novelty and ingenuity rather than cogency of proof."38

William Troy once observed that the critic's "problem is always to discover the approach that will do least violence to the object before us, that will reconcile the greatest number of the innumerable aspects that every object presents to the understanding."39 If we wish to "do least violence" to Hamlet, we must examine in some detail how it shapes our responses—how it creates itself in our minds. This is not my purpose in the present essay. I have sought only to demonstrate that an Elizabethan audience did not necessarily respond to revenge in moral terms; that Shakespeare does not impose moral judgment on all his revengers; and that Hamlet would not be a startling play if it presented blood revenge in a way that aroused approval as well as sympathy. My point is not that Hamlet must be such a play, but that it could be. What shocks the virtuous philosopher may delight not only the chameleon poet, but the theatrical audience.


1 L. C. Knights, An Approach to "Hamlet" (Stanford, Calif., 1961), p. 11.

2 Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare: Hamlet, Studies in English Literature, 13 (London, 1963), 13.

3 Elder Olson, "Hamlet and the Hermeneutics of Drama," Modern Philology, 61 (1963-64), 225.

4 Most notably Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 2nd ed. (Stanford, Calif., 1971). One might mention, among others, John Vyvyan, The Shakespearean Ethic (London, 1959); Herbert Randolph Coursen Jr., "The Rarer Action: Hamlet's Mousetrap," Literary Monographs, ed. Eric Rothstein and Richard N. Ringler, 2 (Madison, Wise, 1969), 59-97 (text), 213-17 (notes); Harold Skulsky, "Revenge, Honor, and Conscience in Hamlet," PMLA, 85 (1970), 78-87.

5 See especially Fredson Bowers, "Hamlet as Minister and Scourge," PMLA, 70 (1955), 740-49.

6 Prosser cites three "parallel discussions" (p. 34, n. 71). One could add others—e.g., John Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, Eng., 1951), pp. 270-71.

7 For example, she speaks of the way an audience "may have sympathized strongly with the very actions that later, in ensuing scenes or after the play, they strongly, if sadly condemned" (p. 73). (Italics added.)

8 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1955), p. 36.

9 See T. J. B. Spencer, "The Decline of Hamlet," Hamlet, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 5 (1963), 185-99.

10 Vyvyan, p. 45.

11 Prosser grants this possibility: "A skillful playwright can make even heresy attractive. Tamburlaine may be a case in point. An even better example … is Bussy D'Ambois" (p. 35).

12 I adapt Jean Paul Richter's "hot baths of emotion followed by cold showers of irony," a "formula" for romantic irony quoted by Harry Levin, James Joyce: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. (London, 1960), p. 41. (I am indebted to Professor Levin for this reference.)

13 See above, n. 7.

14 Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (New York, 1964), p. 331. In 1966, Richard Speck was convicted of murdering eight Chicago nurses. Cf. the Associated Press account of the reaction of the father of one of Speck's victims to the news that Speck's death sentence had been commuted: "John Matusek of Chicago, father of Patricia Matusek, said, 'I'd just as soon see him go free right now. God-fearing people would take care of him'" (The Virginian-Pilot, Nov. 22, 1972, p. 1).

15On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York, 1958), p. 230.

16 Cf. D. J. Palmer, Renaissance Quarterly, 21 (1968), 228: "There is an irony, perhaps unintentional, in Miss Prosser's use of the word 'instinct' to describe both Hamlet's desire for revenge and our own reactions to the play. … "

17 Gareth Lloyd Evans, "Shakespeare, Seneca, and the Kingdom of Violence," in Roman Drama, e d. T. A. Dorey and Donald R. Dudley (New York, 1963), p. 128.

18 As Fredson Bowers remarks, "The public utterances of moralists and preachers insisted that revenge was evil, and the dramatists soon bowed to the doctrine." Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (Princeton, N.J., 1940), p. 279.

19 Cf. Bertrand Russell, "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish," in Unpopular Essays (New York, 1950), p. 108: "The doctrine, professed by many modern Christians, that everybody will go to heaven, ought to do away with the fear of death, but in fact this fear is too instinctive to be easily vanquished. F. W. H. Myers … questioned a woman who had lately lost her daughter as to what she supposed had become of her soul. The mother replied: 'Oh well, I suppose she is enjoying eternal bliss, but I wish you would not talk about such unpleasant subjects.'"

20 I have already mentioned Tamburlaine; see also

21 Stephen Gosson, Plays Confuted in Five Actions (ca. 1582), quoted by Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art (Madison, Wisc, 1954), p. 94.

22 Cf. P. J. Ayres' illuminating discussion of prose fiction, "Degrees of Heresy: Justified Revenge and Elizabethan Narrative," Studies in Philology, 69 (1972), 461-74.

23 "Introduction," The Atheist's Tragedy, Revels Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), p. li.

24 Julian Pitt-Rivers, "Honour and Social Status," in Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, ed. J. G. Peristiany (Chicago, 1966; rpt. 1974), p. 67.

25 Philip Edwards, Shakespeare and the Confines of Art (London, 1968), p. 84.

26 "Introduction," The Spanish Tragedy, Revels Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), p. lx.

27 quote from the edition of Philip Edwards. Prosser's view of the play may be noted: "On the surface, the play seems an emphatic portrayal of the ravages of revenge, arousing increasing apprehension and horror in the audience as Hieronimo moves from excessive grief to rage to madness to crafty intrigue to demonic barbarism. Unfortunately, there are several contradictions" (pp. 51-52). This speech is one of them. Though she doubts that Hieronimo appeared "wholly justified" to Kyd's audience, she admits to uncertainty: "we can never be sure exactly how the Elizabethans judged Hieronimo" (p. 52).

28 L. C. Knights, An Approach to "Hamlet," p. 46. Knights goes on to assert: "If this ghost turns out to be one who clamours for revenge, then we have every reason to suppose that Shakespeare entertained some grave doubts about him." See also

29 Cf. Coursen (n. 4 above).

30Titus Andronicus, ed. J. C. Maxwell, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd ed. (London, 1961).

31 Cf. Prosser's account of the end of the play: "Mercifully, Titus immediately stabs [Tamora] … and, again mercifully, Titus is immediately killed. The audience could stand no more" (p. 89). See, however, E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford, 1923), II, 458; and H. S. Bennett, "Shakespeare's Audience," in Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Peter Alexander (London, 1964), p. 63.

32 In The Spanish Tragedy, Kyd's use of a pagan frame helps to separate the play from life. As Philip Edwards notes in the introduction to his edition, "Kyd creates, and successfully sustains, his own world of revenge, and attitudes are sanctioned which might well be deplored in real life. The moral world of the play is a make-believe world; the gods are make-believe gods" (p. lix).

33 Prosser's other test case is King Lear; there, as she demonstrates, Edgar fulfills her requirements.

34 Ed. Kenneth Muir, Arden Shakespeare, 9th ed. (London, 1962).

35 See Muir's note at IV.iii.216.

36 P. 91. Prosser concedes, however (p. 91n), that we are later told that "revenges burn" in both Macduff and Malcolm; but she dismisses this as "an offstage action."

37 See Rosalie L. Colie, "Preface" to Some Facets of "King Lear": Essays in Prismatic Criticism, ed. Colie and F. T. Flahiff (Toronto, 1974), p. viii.

38 Especially regrettable, therefore, is Prosser's advice to the reader who is not "particularly interested in historical backgrounds" (pp. xiv-xv). She would have this reader—and one fears he is legion—refer to her summaries rather than the evidence on which they are based: "If … he feels comfortable with the perspective established in each summary, I urge that he skip all the background material and move immediately to Part II and the discussion of Hamlet" (p. xv).

39Selected Essays, ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman (New Brunswick, N. J., 1967), p. 121.

Harry Keyishian (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Problematic Revenge in Hamlet and King Lear," in The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare, 1995, pp. 53-67.

[In the following excerpt, Keyishian observes that Hamlet is a "good revenger" who succeeds in avenging his father's death while maintaining his moral integrity.]


One of the most striking aspects of revenge tragedy is its evocation of the protagonist's struggle to marshall his or her moral, psychological, material, and tactical resources—"cause, and will, and strength, and means" (Hamlet, 4.4.45)—to avenge a horrible wrong. Required to fulfill perilous duties they cannot avoid, working as they must outside the law, revengers confront extraordinary challenges that imperil their safety, integrity, and mental stability. They are wrenched from their normal ways of life and thrust by circumstance into new and unstable roles that overlie, without effacing, their earlier, "normal" selves. Audiences easily identify with characters facing such challenges, to the degree that the pursuit of revenge is task-specific and not grounded in chronic resentment or vindictiveness. "Good" revengers display a psychological capacity to live for affirmative, constructive goals from which the pursuit of revenge has only temporarily distracted them, and to which they could revert, if they survive, after completing their tasks. Titus, Lucrece, and Junius Brutus are that sort of avenger.

So is Hamlet. But because his circumstances are more complex and his psychology more deeply explored, his revenge is necessarily more problematical. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare followed Kyd in making his protagonist an elderly man who, initially at least, is socially established and personally secure. In Hamlet, by contrast, Shakespeare, like other turn-of-the-century writers of revenge plays, focuses on a young avenger who, though in the fullness of his physical and mental vigor, has fewer resources of personal experience and social standing to call upon and is assailed by self-doubt and self-blame. Commanded to action by the Ghost, at times intimidated by his task, Hamlet also struggles with discrepancies between his priorities and those of the Ghost. Differently situated in existence, differently victimized, and differently related to the objects of revenge, the two have somewhat different stakes in the revenge action. These problems fatally complicate Hamlet's efforts to fulfill a duty he cannot, on personal, familial, social, and moral grounds, evade.

Hamlet does regain his footing in time to satisfy both the Ghost's interests and his own, but the playwright's method of rescuing Hamlet from his dilemma is to shift from one mode of fiction to another: to let Hamlet move, in act 5, from a Machiavellian world order to a providential one.


Maurice Charney's comment that "the secret murder of Hamlet's father is represented as a dermatological event" is more than a witticism about the images of skin disease that permeate Hamlet; it also suggests the personal impact on the Ghost of his revolting disfigurement.1 He is offended by the manner of the murder, not only because of its treachery, but also and concretely because the poison Claudius used to kill him caused his body to be covered "Most lazar-like with vile and loathsome crust" (1.5.72). While it is very true that this is one of many such references in Hamlet that, according to Charney, "create a feeling of ulceration, leprosy, and cancer, all of which must be artfully concealed beneath smiling public appearances" (124), it seems clear that the violation of his "smooth body" in this repulsive way particularly oppresses and humiliates the murdered king and stands symbolically in his mind for the moral horror of the crime.

I take the Ghost to be the authentic spirit of Hamlet's late father, the national hero described by the reliable Horatio as a justifiably proud figure of great physical strength and courage. I accept Hamlet's view of him as well, as an "excellent" king and an ideal husband and father, "a man, take him for all in all" (1.2.139, 187). I take it, too, that within the world of Hamlet the Ghost expresses the moral order, that he has some sort of providential permission for what he is doing. What a humiliating fate for such a person to be disfigured so horribly, to have his life ended and his wife seduced by a betraying coward who would stoop to the use of poison, the most despised form of murder among Elizabethans.

The Ghost has, in addition, political motives for desiring revenge. He is outraged by the contamination of the state by an unworthy and unsuspected usurper: "the whole ear of Denmark / Is by a forged process of my death / Rankly abus'd" (1.5.36-38); the "royal bed of Denmark … [has become] a couch for luxury and damned incest" (82-83), not to mention drunkenness and general licentiousness. The Ghost also feels he has suffered a profound injustice: he endures torments in the afterlife (by his own account) not because he was worse than other men but because his sudden death prevented him from preparing spiritually for his end. It is to his credit that when making this complaint he acknowledges that he has committed unspecified "foul crimes" deserving of such punishment, thereby exonerating heaven from blame so that Hamlet will not be tempted to question its justice.

It is significant that the Ghost, simultaneously a suffering victim and a punishing authority, does not feel personally demoralized or diminished by the crime against him. Rather, he heaps indignant abuse upon the guilty from a position of moral and psychological security. His power to awe Horatio and the guards at Elsinore and, more crucially, to compel Hamlet's assent are evidences of his continued potency. Clearly, however, he would be diminished were his call to revenge ignored and Claudius left triumphant: he must succeed at initiating his killer's downfall. His self-confidence is founded on his justified faith that his noble son will take up his cause.

In his approach to revenge the Ghost displays a fundamental moral soundness, for though he resents the betrayals by his wife and his brother with equal passion, he meticulously differentiates between them when evaluating their offenses. He desires to reform the confused sensualist Gertrude, whom he characterizes as weak rather than sinful, but he demands death for the regicide/fratricide Claudius: a life for a life for one who murdered to satisfy his ambition and lust. The Ghost's sense of perspective and his moral balance are impressive, and his continued affection for Gertrude is very touching; these qualities raise him above the criminal Claudius and at times above his son. Most significant, of course, is the Ghost's insistence that Hamlet not "taint" his mind in the course of taking revenge—a tall order, but absolutely necessary to achieve a moral resolution to the problem of Claudius' crimes and fully vindicate the honor of both father and son.

It is also significant that the Ghost appears right after Hamlet's bitter, heartfelt denunciation of the King's boisterous carousing late into the night, an activity that, Hamlet complains, reinforces the stereotyping of Danes as drunkards. Hamlet is saddened that "the stamp of one defect" (1.4.31), no matter how minor or accidental, may disgrace a nation or an individual in the eyes of the world. We are meant to assume, I think, that the Ghost's moment of entrance is not arbitrary, but that he has overheard and approves this speech, in which young Hamlet shows he has given intelligent thought to the question of honor, both national and individual, and understands that it may be affected by many events beyond human control: accidents of birth, chance, humors, compulsions. Hamlet's knowledge of these facts is very encouraging to the Ghost, who has had to learn them the hard way.

To enlist his son in his cause and set the conditions for revenge, the Ghost alludes to the "sulph'rous and tormenting flames" in which he is "confin'd to fast" (1.5.3, 11) and conveys the horror of his condition by suggesting how Hamlet would respond if he were actually to describe it: the "lightest word" of his suffering "Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood" (15-16). Hamlet's "Alas, poor ghost!" (4) is a fitting but not fully satisfactory reaction to the Ghost's revelations and demands. Hamlet, if he loves his father, must "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther"; his promise to sweep into action is "apt," the Ghost remarks, but not worthy of special notice:

    duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this.

The crucial thing is that Hamlet remember, that he honor his father's cause by keeping it alive. If he does, all else will follow: the state will be cleansed, the Queen redeemed, and the Ghost appropriately avenged. Having delivered his message, the Ghost remains on hand long enough to be sure that Hamlet has the self-discipline to conceal what he has been told. When he and his friends have sworn to secrecy, the "perturbed spirit" (183) can rest, satisfied, apparently, by Hamlet's responsiveness and plan of attack.

When the Ghost does return (in the "closet" scene) it is because Hamlet's treatment of Gertrude suggests he has become too obsessed with his own concerns—specifically, with his anger at his mother and his unfounded suspicions about her role in his father's death. "Do not forget!" the Ghost says, reminding his son of his promise:

                     This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.

The fallen Polonius is not mentioned, except by implication as (from the Ghost's viewpoint) a trivial irrelevancy, a digression from the task at hand. The rest of the speech—

But look, amazement on thy mother sits,
O, step between her and her fighting soul.
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works,
Speak to her, Hamlet.

—reiterates the Ghost's original concern for Gertrude's spiritual health and shows his compassion for her after the bitter, grueling excoriation that she, struggling with her awakening conscience, has just endured from Hamlet.

Having intervened to point Hamlet in the direction appropriate to his purposes, and having seen some evidence of repentance in Gertrude (more extensive in Ql than in Q2 and F), the Ghost vanishes from the play. His disappearance (and replacement by dry bones in a dusty graveyard) suggests to me that, his good work of redemption now accomplished and the necessary task of revenge again under way, he has been relieved of his purgatorial suffering. A good deal remains thereafter for Hamlet to do, but responsibility for defining what that is, carrying it out, and dealing with the consequences has fallen upon Hamlet alone.


Hamlet is in many ways his father's son: he, too, holds himself to high standards and strongly values physical courage, moral integrity, self-restraint, patriotism, loyalty, and respect for women (until they betray him). But Hamlet and his father are also crucially different in character and personality. For one thing, Hamlet is psychologically incapable of sharing his father's magna-nimity toward Gertrude: her adultery seems to Hamlet as morally offensive as Claudius' fratricide. For another, while the Ghost's outrage is a product of his satisfaction with the probity of his life, his domestic virtues, the morality of his rule, and his glorious military achievements, Hamlet has no such confidence. At various points he characterizes himself as weak, morally flawed, and infirm of purpose; his mind is contaminated by feelings of impotence, self-doubt, and self-hatred; he is disillusioned, suspicious, and bitter in his dealings with others; and he is consumed by concerns we have no reason to suspect he has until he unexpectedly articulates them at some moment of tension.

There is, as well, the problem presented by Hamlet's age. The young man the Ghost is asking to take vengeance upon a reigning monarch is still at university, needs parental permission to travel abroad, and can be subjected to a public and humiliating scolding before the assembled court. These differences underlie many of the psychological tensions Hamlet experiences and explain his restless oscillations from one stance to another: embittered observer and malcontent, Machiavellian strategist, man of passion, stoic, bloody homicide, moral guide, rationalist, and, finally, fatalist.

The Hamlet we first encounter suffers the Ophelia-problem: he is a demoralized figure, alienated spiritually from the court of which he should be a central figure. When he reveals in soliloquy the deeper cause of his obvious sadness—his disappointment in his mother—his full position becomes clear: he is a victim without recourse to justice, powerless even to express his griefs:

It is not, nor it cannot come to good,
But break my heart, for I must hold my

Add to this his tendency to perceive his personal situation as a metaphysical condition, and we see that, bereft of hope for a better future, he is able to preserve his personal integrity only by centering himself in a reserved oppositional stance and expressing his indignation through bitterly equivocal banter with his mother and uncle.

The Ghost's revelations relieve Hamlet's despair by supplying him with a specific, energizing project on which to focus. They turn him into a new person: a young man with a sacred mission, for whom all things unrelated to revenge are "baser matter" (1.4.104). But even then Hamlet, for reasons he unfairly imputes to his weakness of character, cannot immediately act. While clear enough on his general aims, the Ghost gives his son no concrete advice about how to proceed, aside from leaving his mother to heaven and not tainting his mind in the course of taking revenge. Hamlet must deal with his difficult situation by making the most of whatever assets he has. No wonder so much of his energy goes into simply maintaining his psychic equilibrium.

Hamlet functions very much like his counterparts in the play's sources and analogues. The Amleth legend concerns a certain kind of avenger, a cunning riddler who uses the pretense of madness to distract his enemies. Maintaining an "antic disposition" (1.5.172), Hamlet keeps up his morale and at the same time con-ducts successful psychological warfare against the court: he causes the Queen to feel guilty about her "o'erhasty" marriage; he gets Polonius to blame himself for being overly suspicious of his intentions regarding Ophelia; he frustrates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by exposing and mocking their efforts to deceive him; he causes Claudius to lose his composure in public. While all these are only partial revenges and fall short of the Ghost's call for decisive action, they manifest a capacity to unsettle his enemies that alleviates Hamlet's sense of impotence. Of course, in Shakespeare's treatment of the Amleth story the protagonist, afficted by doubts, anxieties, and contradictory purposes, lives a tumultuous inner life. He is, notoriously, a searching analyst of his psychic condition and a severe critic of his performance; he is concerned with such broad questions as the relative culpability of all human agents, including himself.

Earlier I compared Hamlet's predicament to Ophelia's, noting that they are both afflicted by feelings of personal impotence. We may also contrast it to Laertes' moral impotence. Polonius' parting advice to his son is not merely a set of observations about youth in general, but a pointed and well-considered analysis of his character. As the play will reveal them in his manner of pursuing vengeance, Laertes' faults include talking too much and acting out "unproportioned" thoughts (1.3.60); being unselective in choosing friends and mentors; being quarrelsome, but not handling himself well when in a quarrel; making premature judgments; acting without personal integrity and, as a consequence, being false to others. In addition, the man he is avenging is, in our experience, less the "noble father" (4.7.25) he fondly recalls than the "intruding fool" (3.4.31) Hamlet calls him. (While that does not justify killing him, of course, it does suggest that blame for his death is not all Hamlet's.) As Hamlet's foil, Laertes helps point up the power of his intellect and the moral integrity, in the midst of his psychological turmoil, of his engagement with his task.

Unlike Laertes, as we see in his response to the Pyrrhus speech, Hamlet is concerned about his emotional adequacy for the job at hand. Since he has asked to hear a vivid description of the actions of a revenger who is "total gules," "roasted in wrath and fire," "o'er-sized with coagulate gore" (2.2.457, 461, 462), it seems at first that he is vicariously living out a bloody revenge. But in the end what most strikes him about the Pyrrhus speech is not, as we might expect, the revenger's behavior—he does not say, "I think I'll become, like Pyrrhus, a raging homicide"—but the actor's disproportionate portionate response to Hecuba's fictional grief. While it seems to Hamlet "monstrous" (551) that an actor could be physically transformed by the mere idea of grief, it seems even worse that someone with a cause as compelling as his could be as undemonstrative as he has been. Deciding (for the moment) that a lack of sufficient passion is at the heart of his problem, he picks at himself, applying standards that necessarily make him feel like a failure.

In the earlier revenge tradition, represented by The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus, the protagonists' worst moments of distress and misery occur while they wander in ignorance of their true situation. Once they identify their enemies, they get on with the job of revenge vigorously, efficiently, and wittily. Impotence drives them mad; revenge makes them sane. In the revenge revival, as represented by Hamlet and Antonio's Revenge, knowing the facts is not enough; the protagonists suffer internal conflicts that prolong their misery. Marston's Antonio is torn by the command of his father's ghost that he slaughter the innocent Julio; he is devastated by the death of Mellida; Hamlet turns his anger against himself for being slow to take revenge.

But after an explosion of passion and self-denunciation, he comes to see that mere rant is equally unworthy of him. He understands that though he may not have acknowledged them, there were good reasons not , to rush to take revenge. He asks the actors to perform The Murder of Gonzago not only to resolve his doubts about the Ghost's veracity and the reliability of his own responses—doubts logical enough, in retrospect, but somewhat startling when they appear—but to establish motives he can call his own: "I'll have grounds"—grounds "more relative" (603, 604), more closely related to ascertainable facts and (even more to the point, I think) to Hamlet's own concerns.

Hamlet's sudden expression of uncertainty about the Ghost's veracity is sometimes characterized as irresolution, an excuse to delay doing his duty. I take it, rather, as an effort to keep himself on track and strengthen his footing. To the self-accusatory question Why have I not acted before this?, Hamlet replies with a serious variation of a Falstaffian idea: that he might have been a coward on instinct. As the lion will not harm a true prince, so a true prince would hesitate to follow the directions of a false ghost. In addition, putting on The Murder of Gonzago forwards his efforts to disconcert the court and gives him the chance to alleviate his isolation by sharing his problems and perceptions with Horatio.

The "To be or not to be" soliloquy advances the revenge theme by relating Hamlet's immediate situation to the general question of how to deal with sufferings and wrongs that cannot be ascribed to some particular, malicious enemy, but are caused by the general and intractable conditions of existence—outrageous fortune, seas of troubles, the passage of time, nameless oppressors, the prideful, false lovers, unresponsive officials of state, and unworthy persons in general. Should one face such evils stoically, or adopt a stance of active, if unfocused, heroism? Or is it better to escape into death, on the assumption that death is oblivion? Or, since it is impossible to know what follows death (never mind, for the moment, the Ghost), do you let your apprehensions paralyze you and merely endure life as best you can? Taking the soliloquy as a more or less free-floating general statement about the fundamental insolubility of the human dilemma—as it seems, by its Q2 and Fl placement, the author meant it to be—it appears that Hamlet is afflicted by endless and inconclusive speculations that consume themselves and bring him to a stalemate.

But his confrontation with Ophelia thrusts him back into the action. Hamlet is furious to discover he is being spied upon and, apparently, betrayed by one he trusted: like his father, he has been caught with his guard down, when alertness has been his main and most reliable defense. His list of enemies seems to have multiplied to include those he thought his friends, and his humiliation of Ophelia during the play scene is his petty revenge upon her for seeming too like his mother. Hamlet the avenger has tried to retreat—or advance?—to a consideration of general issues, but events have overtaken him. He has begun to accumulate his own list of grievances, in addition to the Ghost's.

That The Murder of Gonzago is designed more to confront Hamlet's concerns than his father's is clear from its contents (regardless of which lines Hamlet himself wrote). First, it does not stress the motives of the murderer, who appears only briefly, but the shallowness of the Player Queen, whom the Player King responsibly and sensitively prepares for his impending death by anticipating with approval that she, who will "live in this fair world behind, / Honor'd, belov'd," might go on to remarry "one as kind" as himself (3.2.175-77). It is the Player Queen who characterizes remarriage as "treason," declaring,

In second husband let me be accurs'd!
None wed the second but who kill'd the first.

Through these lines, Hamlet avenges himself on the Queen for the hasty remarriage that mocked her florid displays of grief over King Hamlet's death.

Earlier in the play, the audience was reminded of the extent to which humans are subject to chance: Hamlet, in act 1, scene 3, remarked on the ways our reputations may be completely corrupted by the possession of a single flaw, for which we might not even be responsible. Similarly, in act 3, scene 2, the Player King speaks of the unreliability of human purpose, which is subject to memory and passion, and of the fickleness of worldly opinion, which follows only the fortunate. He concludes with a lesson many people in the play, Hamlet included, will come to learn:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown,
Our thoughts are ours, their none of our own.

To the insight that human activities are subject to external chance, the Player King adds the observation that we are also subject to the instability of our mental processes: we are weak or forgetful. "What we do determine, oft we break," for the reason that "purpose is but the slave to memory, / Of violent birth, but poor validity" (187-89). These are the tragic conditions under which Hamlet must pursue his revenge, subject to vagaries of existence that thwart his plans and momentarily undercut his faith in the fundamental justice of the universe.

Though earlier distressed at his own lack of emotion, Hamlet, in the moments before the playing of The Murder of Gonzago, becomes more concerned about the danger of excess passion. He recommends that the actors perform with a "temperance" (7) that will forward the purposes of their art. More particularly, Hamlet praises Horatio for his equanimity, for being one of those

Whose blood and judgment are so well co-
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please.

Especially at this moment, Hamlet requires the example of a man who is not "passion's slave" (72): in keeping with the Ghost's injunction that he not "taint" his mind while taking revenge, he is, wisely, concerned about his mental state, especially since he feels capable of performing prodigies of violence—"such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on" (391-92). Hamlet's main goal at the end of this scene is to convert his mother by forceful, even "cruel" rebukes; his main fear is that his passion will spill over into violence, that "the soul of Nero" will enter his "firm bosom," that he will become "unnatural" (395-96).

In act 3, scene 2, Hamlet has an unexpected opportunity to kill the King, but on terms he finds unacceptable. He is offended at the thought that Claudius' soul might be saved while his father still suffers for his sins. This moment had been foreshadowed earlier in the play by the revelation in Hamlet of a sometimes exquisite sensitivity to questions of fairness. To Horatio, he had spoken of meeting his "dearest foe in heaven" (1.2.182) as the circumstance he would find most un-bearable. Because he would not subject his father to that indignity—of seeing his dearest foe in heaven, before him—Hamlet passes up his first clear chance to kill Claudius. His feelings in this regard are psychologically understandable, but succeeding events suggest that Shakespeare wants to convey a sense that they are morally tainted. If heaven is "ordinant" in this, Hamlet's precipitous, impulsive, and ultimately self-destructive killing of Polonius—the discharge of the pent-up feelings he left unacted—may be punishment for his nasty wish.

In the closet scene, Hamlet brings up the issues that have most troubled him. Some of these are the same ones mentioned by his father: Gertrude appears to have no standards; her judgment is corrupt; she does not act her age; she is shameless. But coming from Hamlet, these accusations seem wild and unbecoming. In addition, and quite unexpected—one of those concerns we were unaware he had—is Hamlet's suspicion that Gertrude had been Claudius' accomplice in murder. The accusation amazes Gertrude and adds so much to the heat of Hamlet's assault that the Ghost intervenes to protect her. But, as Peter Mercer points out, Hamlet's very excesses seem to act as an emotional purge:

Whatever our discomfort with the ferocity of Hamlet's attack on his mother … that encounter seems actually to have liberated him from the burden of disgust and outrage that has weighed him down since the beginning of the play.2

Having gotten this accusation out of his system—and then having it convincingly refuted not only by Gertrude's amazed denial but by the Ghost's implicit repudiation of the charge—he feels freer to concentrate on the "sport" of his coming confrontation with Claudius.

Hamlet's state of mind is relatively clear at this point. He understands that the death of Polonius will have dire consequences, but he is not oppressed or diverted from his goals on that account. In no doubt of Claudius' guilt, he insults him fairly freely. Their war is still somewhat covert—each for his own reason retains the fiction of Hamlet's madness—but each is aware of the other's motives and feelings.

In the Q2 soliloquy "How all occasions," Hamlet again assesses himself and again comes to fresh conclusions about himself. The Ghost had cited memory as a sacred function, capable of motivating noble actions; in "O what a rogue," Hamlet had thought of the ability to feel passion as a great test of character; to Horatio, he had praised the virtue of self-control. In this soliloquy, he elevates reason to the head of the list of noble motives. It is because our Creator has given us "god-like reason" that we must be revengers; that is what separates us from the beasts who only "sleep and feed" (4.4.35), who live in "oblivion" (38). To do otherwise is a perversion of reason, which can too easily be the disguise of that "craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th' event" that contains "but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward" (40-43).

And yet within a few lines he concludes, against reason, that one should above all be ruled by considerations of honor, that the proper stance for one with a cause like himself—one who has had "a father kill'd, a mother stain'd, / Excitements of my reason and my blood" (57-58)—is to have nothing but "bloody" (66) thoughts. And this at the very moment that he is leaving Denmark, under guard and at the King's bidding, for an indeterminate amount of time. At moments like this, Hamlet's restless mind provides him no stable point from which to act or even to evaluate his actions; it leaves him more than ever prey to impulse and chance. For all his brave words and noble intentions, he has, on a human level, made a botch of things: the King lives, Polonius is dead, Ophelia will go mad, and Laertes will become his deadly enemy. We may not hold him guilty, and we may feel that he was never given a satisfactory chance to discharge the full range of his responsibilities; however, it remains true that no position he has adopted, in his unaided quest for revenge, has yielded the desired result. What happens thereafter, I would like to argue, reflects a sort of Euripidean manipulation.


I have rather lightly exonerated Hamlet from deeds for which others have severely taken him to task. Account me one of the "general gender,"

Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Work like the spring that turneth wood to
Convert his gyves to graces.

Those "gyves"—for which read, in the context of the play, his trials and constraints, his dilemmas and errors—are the means by which Shakespeare invites his audience to identify with his articulate and attractive protagonist. It is Claudius, after all, who sneers at the inconvenient love the populace has for the only man capable of unasking his crimes.

Shakespeare is not alone in adopting such an attitude toward a compromised tragic hero. J. W. Lever has pointed out that rather than follow the Aristotelian model, in which characters with fatal flaws are brought down "by the decree of just if inscrutable powers," some Jacobean playwrights, reflecting the philosophic turmoil of a time in which the consolidation of state power was being challenged by subversions old and new, adopted the view that whatever faults of deficiency or excess their heroes exhibited, "the fundamental flaw is not in them but in the world they inhabit." Therefore, Lever argues, "in Jacobean tragedy it is not primarily the conduct of the individual, but of the society which assails him, that stands condemned."3 As I noted earlier, I believe this view of things (chronology aside) largely exonerates Titus for his excesses; it also reaches to Hamlet, who fits Lever's decription of a hero "faced with iniquity on high, with crimes committed by a tyranny immune to criticism or protest," who is confronted "with the imperative necessity to act, even at the price of his own moral contamination" (12-13).

To constitute the audience as a forgiving community willing to identify with the cause of a protagonist who has not only risked but also suffered contamination in the pursuit of righteous goals, the playwright lifts from him the burden of initiating action on behalf of justice. A centered Hamlet, satisfied that though he has not always done the right thing he has always pursued a just cause, is allowed to transcend contamination by resigning himself to death and waiting for evil to undo itself.

On his return from his aborted trip to England, it is clear that Hamlet is seeking the long view with regard to all questions, including revenge. More particularly, we see that his rage is now focused on Claudius, and that he has acquired new and strong reasons of his own for wanting revenge on the King. Hamlet brings to his final encounters a balance of engagement and detachment that issues from his at last coming to feel himself properly grounded with respect to providence, his relations to others, and himself. To be sure, he can still be surprised, enraged, saddened—as his struggle with Laertes at Ophelia's gravesite demonstrates—but he is secure in the thought that he is on the right track at last. Great spiritual changes seem to have taken place in Hamlet, as though he had literally been away for the several years Amleth spent in England. Indeed, the Gravedigger speaks of both Hamlet and his father in the past tense, as figures of history. In the interim, Hamlet has come to see most human activity—the quibbling of lawyers, the trading of land, the climbing of social ladders—as petty and mean, ending in the dust of the graveyard. It is hard to maintain much overt passion for revenge when viewing life from such a philosophic distance.

But again Hamlet is not permitted to stay disengaged for long. Ophelia's "maimed" (5.1.219) funeral rites and Laertes' flamboyant mourning gestures elicit a passionate response from him and lead to a conflict between the two young men that plays directly into Claudius' hands. Hamlet's assault on Laertes is based on a mental lapse, as he admits later: he should have appreciated the similarities in their situations. He cannot, however, because he is offended by what he had earlier admired: the capacity to express passion, which, coming from Laertes, seems now melodramatic rant and emotionalism. But Hamlet's parting words, after the scuffle in the grave, exhibit his continuing, if grim, obsession with justice. Whatever happens, people will eventually express their true natures and be rewarded appropriately: "The cat will mew, and dog will have his day" (292).

This expression of faith in some sort of providence or moral inevitability is not new to Hamlet's consciousness: he has asserted the belief that

                     Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to
  men's eyes.

He has acknowledged the limitations placed upon us by divine law, the "canon 'gainst self-slaughter" (132). But he has more often spoken of existence as chaotic, subject not only to human will but also to mere chance. He knows that men may suffer unjustly because of their birth, "wherein they are not guilty / (Since nature cannot choose his origin)" (1.4.25-26); he speaks of the meaningless depredations humans suffer at the hands of "outrageous fortune" (3.1.58); he praised Horatio's indifference to "Fortune's buffets and rewards" (3.1.58), which are unrelated to merit.

Therefore, Hamlet's expression of wholehearted faith in providence does strike a fresh note, as he excitedly tells Horatio the details of his adventures at sea:

Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should
  learn us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

His impulsive decision to pick the pockets of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern uncovers the King's plot against him; his youthful training in writing "fair" (34), which he had resented and "labor'd much / How to forget" (34-35), provides the skill to forge a letter to the English king; his possession of his father's seal helps make the forgery seem authentic. These events heighten Hamlet's sense of himself as a man on a special and sacred mission who need not be conscience-stricken by the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and, by implication, Polonius). He dismisses them all with the thought that

                     Their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.
'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.

They are not on his conscience because they involved themselves in matters beyond their comprehension—a harsh doctrine, but no harsher than the Calvinist determinism so powerfully shaping Protestant thought at the time, and consistent with Hamlet's now secure sense of mission.

There is great assurance and firmness in Hamlet's final summary analysis of his reasons for revenge:

Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon—
He that hath kill'd my king and whor'd my
Popp'd in between th' election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such coz'nage—is't not perfect
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

Again, Hamlet startles us with a new motive: that Claudius cheated him of the crown that was rightfully his. But he also expresses a new justification for revenge. Since Claudius represents the fundamental flaws of human nature, original sin itself, hating him is a moral obligation; by rooting him out, we cure ourselves of a deadly ill. This conclusion further clears Hamlet's conscience and removes more barriers to action.

But it also removes incentives to action. Why plan deeply when providence is at work, and clearly on your side? One need only watch one's chance and accept what providence brings. Earlier, he had, though repenting his killing of Polonius, accepted it as somehow an act ordained:

        heaven hath pleas'd it so
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.

And now Hamlet elects to ignore his own forebodings and "defy augury" with the thought that "There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow" (5.2.219-20). Providence delivers Claudius into his hands, as James Calderwood points out, for a double killing and a dual revenge. Hamlet's first killing of Claudius, by swordtip, is "not for his father but for himself, not in response to the Ghost's command but in direct retaliation for the attack on his own life." But there is a second killing of Claudius: forcing the poisoned wine down his throat after the quite sufficient act of stabbing him. "Hamlet stabs Claudius for himself, but poisons him for his father."4

His revenge accomplished, at peace with himself at the point of death, Hamlet is concerned that the truth be known. In a gentler version of his father's request—to remember him—Hamlet assigns his friend the task of telling his story and ensuring that his private sense of accomplishment at having maintained his integrity and fulfilled his moral duty will be conveyed to the world at large and woven into the fabric of a renewed state. A psychological account of Hamlet would focus on his final mood, especially his ability to be at peace with himself: to be "centered" and feel, in Plato's sense, the inner harmony of the just man. Shakespeare's culture offered him the concept of providence as a means of expressing that settled state of mind, but it is equally well described, I think, in terms of Hamlet's acceptance of himself as a mortal being doing his best under terrible conditions.

That Hamlet will die at the end of the play is as much a matter of dramatic convention as of anything in the play's internal dynamics or the psychology of the characters: the killing of Polonius and the death of Ophelia are events that arouse audience expectations of his death. What is in the playwright's hands is how his revenger will meet that fate. Having inflicted upon Hamlet a full range of emotional and moral distress, the psychological burden of impotence in the face of evil, ironies of fate and treacheries of fortune, Shakespeare in the end confers upon him a sanctified, redemptive death that proclaims him a definitive—and multifaceted—hero. He has upheld his own values: the aggrieved youth Laertes, who has also stumbled seeking revenge, forgives him for the death of Polonius; the philosopher Horatio says he died deserving a singing escort to heaven; and he has upheld his father's values as well: his successor Fortinbras grants him the burial rites of a soldier and a king.

And yet we would be right, I think, to see the very invoking of providence as testimony to the power of the revenge theme to open unresolvable questions of justice and order, questions that we, like Hamlet, might have liked the chance to consider. The playwright has provided an emotionally satisfying closure, but it is in a different mode than the play that precedes it [King Lear], and it has taken an act of God to provide it. …


1 Maurice Charney, Hamlet's Fictions (New York: Routledge, 1988), 123.

2 Peter Mercer, Hamlet and the Acting of Revenge (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987), 227.

3 J. W. Lever, The Tragedy of State (London: Methuen, 1971), 10, 12. Lever goes on to say, usefully, that with regard to characters in Renaissance drama, "What really matters is the quality of their response to intolerable situations. This is a drama of adversity and stance, not of character and destiny."

4 James L. Calderwood, To Be and Not to Be: Negation and Metadrama in "Hamlet" (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 46. Another account of the relationship between Hamlet and his father is provided by David Scott Kastan, for whom Hamlet's delay reflects his unwillingness to become like either the father who urges revenge or the uncle on whom it would be visited: "Only when he can persuade himself that revenge is a mode of restoration rather than reprisal can Hamlet move toward its execution, but always he is reminded of the inescapable relatedness of victim/villain/avenger" ("'His Semblable Is His Mirror': Hamlet and the Imitation of Revenge," Shakespeare Studies 19 [1987]; 113).


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Bernard Grebanier (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Dramatis Personae: Sounding Through Their Masks," in The Heart of Hamlet: The Play Shakespeare Wrote, 1960, pp. 249-300.

[In the excerpt below, Grebanier analyzes the natures of Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.]


We have a rough idea of the hero's tragic flaw. Through a consideration of the plot and action we know what he is not, and more than a little of what he is. If we refuse to wander afield from the play, it shall not be difficult to describe Hamlet as Shakespeare created him.

We already know, for instance, that so far from being a shrinking violet or a creature of meditation who acts only in his imagination, he is an extraordinarily active man, a man who finds it easy to act—as witness: his following the Ghost despite his friends' admonitions, his immediately conceiving the plan for the Mousetrap on the first possible occasion, his effective presentation of it, his killing of Polonius, his unsealing the King's commission to England and substituting of other orders, his boarding the pirate ship alone, his winning over the pirates to his bidding, his grappling with Laertes in the grave, his eager acceptance of the challenge to fence, his violent attack on Laertes once he knows he has been tricked, his savage killing of Claudius. We also know that he is thought of not only as a scholar and courtier but as a soldier too, and that it is as a soldier that Fortinbras thinks of him.

Hamlet is thirty years of age. This fact, despite wrangling of scholars over it, is settled by a passage in the play; since it is the only reference to the matter in the entire work, Shakespeare's own words must be considered final and authoritative, and there can be no appeal from them. In the last act the gravedigger informs Hamlet that he took up his profession "on the very day that young Hamlet was born" (V, i, 160); a few lines further on, he adds that he has been working at it "man and boy, thirty years" (177). This poses an even simpler problem in arithmetic than the one we have already so triumphantly solved. (Why so many scholars, no youngsters themselves, are dismayed that Hamlet, who is young, can be thirty, is no less astonishing than shudder-causing to consider. As for Hamlet's being a student at the university, as he and Horatio have been when the play opens, there is nothing strange in that. Until fairly recently universities were not trade schools but institutions of learning. Scholars attended them not to acquire the means of earning a livelihood, nor even to become better citizens, but only to learn. Learning was then an end in itself—a concept now deemed medieval in educational circles (educational authorities do travel in circles)—and the immediate objective was the enrichment of the knowledge of the individual. Even today, of course, one finds many a grey-head among the student population of universities.)

What does Hamlet look like? Certainly he is a man of energetic figure, not at all the wispy creature we so often see upon the boards. It is too ridiculous that when he speaks of his "too too solid flesh" (I, ii, 129) the actor should have barely enough to keep him warm—that when the Queen fears he will lose the match with Laertes because "he's fat, and scant of breath," the Hamlet before us should look like the ghost of a ghost, whom a puff of wind could blow away. Not that we suggest that either of these lines proves the Prince to be corpulent—that would be absurd for a young tragic hero, equally absurd for a man we are to think of as a soldier, an expert fencer, the glass of fashion and the mold of form. A hero of normally athletic frame venting his disgust with the human race in a fit of revulsion against his mother's remarriage might well deem any flesh too solid; and a fencer out of practice and even a trifle heavier than he has been might be too fat and short of breath for the alertness required in the match. Nothing more is conveyed by the two passages.

Aside from the testimony of Hamlet's activities, we have another clue to his physique—a clue that in itself would not be decisive, but which may be considered proof of the justice of what has been said. Shakespeare, writing for his own troupe, knew in advance which actors would assume the various roles he was creating. He knew, while he was composing Hamlet, that Burbage, the great actor who impersonated many of Shakespeare's heroes, would enact the title role. It would be almost unavoidable that the dramatist should, as he evolved the character of Hamlet, have conceived him in the figure of Burbage. And from Burbage's portrait we know him to have been a man of powerful frame. And while in life we would grant, on intimate acquaintance with the person, that a man of powerful physique could actually be timid, or too sensitive, or too thoughtful, or too scrupulous, or complex-ridden, on the stage such qualities can best be communicated by a man delicate—even effeminate-looking—such a Hamlet as unfortunately we usually see. The audience looking at an energetic, muscular figure on the boards will naturally expect him to exhibit energetic, muscular qualities. And these Hamlet possesses.

To reject the idea of a too sensitive, too thoughtful, too scrupulous Hamlet, however, is not to deny him his extraordinary brilliance of intellect. It is a by-product of the specialization which has narrowed every phase of modern life that we take for granted that the hero of the football field avoids the library as he would a leper colony, and that the lover of books will never be found in the stadium. And, indeed, such is by and large our experience. But it was not always so. The Renaissance gentleman held quite as much as the ancients the doctrine of a sound mind in a sound body. His newly recaptured enthusiasm for the riches of human experience, after the long centuries during which only the life after death had been thought worthy of attention, prompted him to encompass as much of it as he could, and to exercise his faculties to their fullest. The depth and the breadth of Hamlet's character make him, far from the melancholic or the neurotic, almost the most magnificent embodiment in literature of the Renaissance ideal. Where shall be found a more splendid expression of this ideal than his rapturous phrasing of it:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

II, ii, 316 seq.,

where a completer tribute to the endless potentialities of man to make this life abundant and beautiful? It is the more significant of Hamlet's make-up that he delivers this apostrophe, from the deepest founts of his nature almost in despite of himself, at a moment of great bitterness; and if he adds:

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me,

it is because he has just become convinced that two of his oldest friends have treacherously sold themselves to Claudius' employ.

When we insist that Hamlet is an athletic man of strong body, therefore, we no way imply that his frame is any more powerful than the intellect it houses. Hamlet, indeed, is probably the most admirably intellectual of the world's tragic heroes. His interests are everywhere; he is at home in the world of books, of sports, of music, of speculation, and on the battlefield, to mention only a few spheres of his knowledge. [This universality is the only respect in which it is safe to say he mirrors his author. Among the endless facets of Shakespeare's genius, the limitlessness of his zest for knowing everything about life is one of the most compelling. It is everywhere stamped upon his very vocabulary… .] This universality is reflected in his uncommon respect and enthusiasm for words. He uses them with the genius and heady delight of a great poet. Whereas for Polonius words are traps in which he is always getting snared, impediments over which he is forever stumbling, for Hamlet they are important realities. He holds them up to the light to glory in their form and color. For him they are more than the vestment for ideas, they are also inspiring sources for new ideas. Language, in the wretched circumstances in which he finds himself, is as much comfort to him as music can be to the musician. And that is why, with no one but Horatio to talk to, he pours out the torrent of his soliloquies—in a flood and power such as Shakespeare has allowed no other of his tragic heroes.

It is this brilliance of his intellect which is responsible for much of the confusion of the commentaries. His mind works with lightning rapidity and hurries on from idea to idea. No one about him is anywhere near being his equal, and Horatio is the only one who always understands what he is talking about. Hamlet always speaks to the point, always talks sense—though expressing it too dazzlingly for his hearers' comprehension. Feeling himself surrounded only by enemies and those in the hire of his enemies, save for one friend and a few honest soldiers, he is too contemptuous of his foes, too indifferent of their opinion, to be plain and homely in his drift, too enamored of words to resist toying with them. It is thoroughly characteristic of him that he is forever using them with double meanings—one for himself, one for his interlocutor; he is not only unconcerned that he speaks beyond the comprehension of the court, he is in this way able to ease his inner torment by venting his scorn of a parcel of time-servers. The others, not following his meanings, find it all the more convenient to explain away their slowness of wit by deeming him mad. But it is surely inexcusable that the scholars, instead of deciphering what he says, should, like Polonius, interpret his flashing brilliance as madness, real or feigned. Hamlet is witty, ironic, sardonic throughout the play—even, at times, because of his speed, cryptic—but he never says anything that for all its brilliance is not perfectly rational and thoroughly logical and appropriate to the moment he says it. One needs the greatest alertness to keep up with him, it is true. But that fact renders him not abnormal, only superior to the normal. [One is aware, of course, that being superior to the norm would render him thoroughly abnormal in the view of some psychologists.]

We have said that he is certainly not a professional philosopher, who discourses for the pleasure of it on abstract concepts—nothing could be more disastrous in drama than such a character given free rein!—but he is a highly philosophical man. That is to say that, like Portia, who in this respect is his counterpart and to a degree shares his basic philosophy, he never starts a train of speculation for its own sake, but rather, like her, is stimulated to speculation by events and experiences. Returning to her home after the trial, Portia observes a light in her house, remarks upon it, and follows it with a philosophical reflection, since that is her turn of mind:

That light we see is burning in my hall.
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
                            V, i, 89 seq.

Thus, too, works Hamlet's mind—but with a difference. Because he is a man of powerful energies, a man indeed of violence when aroused, he does not pause to make the observation of the event, but begins with the speculation which the event arouses. You will find embedded in the turmoil of his soliloquies the occasion which causes the violence, but it is always the conclusion which comes first. Thus, in his first soliloquy, he opens with:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

and goes on to express his disgust with the world:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable,
Seems to me all the uses of this world,

and only after that comes the event which occasions this revulsion: his mother's callously marrying so soon after his father's death:

              That it should come to this!
But two months dead!
                            I, ii, 129 seq.

[One is aware, of course, that being superior to the norm would render him thoroughly abnormal in the view of some psychologists.]

This is the pattern of every one of his soliloquies: first the idea, then the occasion for it. And he soliloquizes in this fashion because his is a volcanic nature, and because in his case the soliloquy is the release for his pent-up feelings. What is important to remember is that, as a philosophic man rather than a philosopher, he is always spurred to powerful reflection by a happening. If we wish to understand him and the play, we must, since this is drama, interpret his soliloquies not literally but in terms of the situations which occasion them.

Since his express conduct is the fundamental part of the tragedy, it is a gross superficiality to follow the lead of the commentators in looking for Hamlet's own philosophy of life in the bitter outporings of his soliloquies. Their dramatic function is to show us his inner ferment. But a man who loves life very much might be the first to say, "I'm sick of it. I wish I were dead," when suddenly someone very close and dear to him behaves in a way that makes all he thought of that individual an empty illusion. To know how Hamlet feels about life we must watch not what he says about it so much as what he does living it. Look at him in this way, and you will find him not melancholy, not complex-ridden, not pessimistic, not even disillusioned basically—but a healthy, vigorous man, much in love with life, who, given the slightest opportunity, is happy, cheerful, companionable, and kind.

It is not in his many bitter reflections that we are to look for his fundamental view of life, for those are always inspired by the disenchanting conduct of those closest to him, but rather in speeches such as his beautiful apostrophe to the nature of man. If we are to judge him under the circumstances when occasion allows him to react normally, according to the inclinations of his own temperament—that is, when he is dealing with people who give him no cause to distrust them, we shall find him remarkably high-minded and generous. Of all his utterances there is perhaps one that gives us the clearest index to how Hamlet would live, given decent surroundings: when he asks Polonius to see that the actors are "well bestowed" and "well used" (conceiving shrewdly that Polonius may be counted upon to treat them shabbily, as his inferiors), the old man responds:

My lord, I will use them according to their desert,

and Hamlet retorts angrily:

God's bodykins, man, better. Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.

II, ii, 546 seq.

This is akin to the principles by which Portia lives; as she phrases them:

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to
The deeds of mercy.
                            IV, i, 198 seq.

But Portia is surrounded by men and women of goodness and kindness, and she is free to allow her philosophy to blossom in all she says and does. Hamlet, encircled by knaves, can be himself only with comparatively few.

He not only takes unconcealed delight in the company of any human being he has no reason to distrust—and no pessimist or disillusioned optimist would do this—but also puts such people at their ease with ready grace, never stands on ceremony with them, never behaves like the self-conscious prince addressing the commoner, is indeed remarkably democratic in his dealings with them. These traits are exhibited at once on his first encounter with Horatio:

HAM. Horatio!—or I do forget myself.
HOR. The same, my lord, and your poor
  servant ever.
HAM. Sir, my good friend. I'll change that
  name with you
[i.e., servant].
                                   I, ii, 161 seq.

Then he turns to Marcellus to say:

I am very glad to see you.
                                                I, ii, 167

When, at the conclusion of the scene, Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo leave, it is with the formal "Our duty to your honour." But Hamlet, indebted to them for their act of friendship, corrects them:

Your love, as mine to you.
                                              I, ii, 254

His is the rare grace of the truly patrician mind which knows how to put others on the footing of equality without condescension. There are many such touches throughout the play. After his interview with the Ghost, when he has sworn Horatio and Marcellus to secrecy, they stand aside for him to precede them out; first he thanks them for their help with great sincerity:

With all my love I do commend me to you.
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to
God willing shall not lack.

and then refuses to allow them to attend him as inferiors:

Let us go in together.
                                       I, v, 184 seq.

Again, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first appear, his great pleasure at seeing them is openly expressed:

My excellent good friends! How dost thou, Guildenstern? Oh Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do ye both?

II, ii, 228 seq.

His great capacity for enjoyment is manifested at their first mention of the Players; he is full of excited enthusiasm:

He that plays the king shall be welcome …

and he plies his schoolfellows with questions about them:

What players are they? …
How chances it they travel? …
Do they hold the same estimation they
  did … ?
                            II, ii, 332 seq.

And when the actors arrive his cordiality and joy are unfeigned:

You're welcome, masters, welcome all. I am glad to see thee well. Welcome, good friends. O, my old friend! Thy face is valanced since I saw thee last; com'st thou to beard me in Denmark? What, my young lady and mistress! By'r lady, your ladyship is nearer heaven than when I saw you last …

II, ii, 440 seq.

Hamlet has serious shortcomings, yet no hero has more endearing traits. Though, in his first fit of anger against Laertes' extravagant display of grief at Ophelia's grave, he fails to remember that the young man has cause enough to resent him, when calm reflection reminds him of the facts Hamlet has the dignity and courage to admit his fault to Horatio (V, ii, 75 seq.), and soon makes public apology to Laertes before the entire Court:

Give me your pardon, sir. I've done you
But pardon't, as you are a gentleman.
                                   V, ii, 237-38

Our respect for his integrity is the greater because he makes this beautiful amends to a man who is prepared to kill him by treachery.

His capacity for affection is profound and untainted by the bitterness of his circumstances. His open cordiality to Marcellus, Bernardo, and the actors proves how quickly he warms to those who deal honorably with him. It is the conduct of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Ophelia which drives him to suspect them. With her he is most loath to be suspicious, indeed, and for all her stupidity and his harsh words his love for her never alters. It is no bar to the love he bears her and his desire to marry her that she is a commoner. The commonplace Polonius and Laertes, who in Hamlet's place would never be so indifferent to disparity of rank, can only think that Hamlet's purposes must be dishonorable. But social differences are of no consequence to the Prince, when he loves.

His friendship with Horatio, his one solace, is one of the great beauties of the play—not to be missed because it is understated. As is common with men, the two need few words to express it, and Hamlet only once feels the urge to put it into words (III, ii, 59 seq.), and then most eloquently. A look, a phrase, suffices for communicating the complete understanding between them; nor does Horatio hesitate gently to inform his friend when he believes him in the wrong. Though quiet, it is one of the great friendships of literature, and is itself a demonstration of Hamlet's capacities for the richest of lives.

[It is a matter for serious consideration whether the institution of friendship, the noblest of human relationships, is not now on its way out, its demise under Freudian auspices. As The New Yorker put it some years ago, things are getting so bad that two men no longer dare to go away together for a weekend without taking along a woman. In these naughty times, it already takes considerable courage to maintain the relationship. For some curious reason, anyone may hate any member of the same sex without incurring the suspicion of abnormality; it is pathological only to feel affection. Hamlet and Horatio must inevitably fall under the axe, when psychoanalysis gets around to them!]

If Hamlet, therefore, pours out bitter words it is not because his nature is warped. On the contrary, his bitterness is only the expression of the frustration of his powers for delight, good health, activity, and affection—of his having to check, because of the situation he is in and the corruptibility of those he has loved best, his deepest impulses to love and to lead a full, wholesome life. It is the bitterness of the dynamic personality straining at the bonds imposed upon it, of the affectionate nature that must withhold its warmth, and instead of loving must distrust.

In terms of his situation how are we then to describe his tragic flaw, the hamartia which will hurl him to destruction? We have already identified it as a species of rashness, and thus placed him in the company of the classic tragic heroes of world literature—Clytemnestra, Oedipus, Electra, Creon, Phèdre, Mrs. Alving, Lady Dedlock, Brutus, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Cleopatra, Jude the Obscure, Eustacia, Emma Bovary, and the Lost Lady—all great souls who fall through heedlessness, each in his own way. [To estimate how distant we are from the commentaries, let us quickly review critical opinion on Hamlet's tragic flaw. Stoll says he has none; he "has no tragic fault …—like Romeo's his fault is not in himself but in his stars."1 Walley agrees: "He is a good man overthrown by evil through no particular fault of his own."2 Spurgeon implies the same: the problem of the tragedy "is not the problem of an individual at all";3 Fergusson adopts this view.4 (None of these explains how, lacking a hero with a tragic flaw, Hamlet qualifies as tragedy.) We have noted that Hamlet's tragic failing according to Goethe is extreme sensitivity; according to Coleridge and Schlegel, excessive intellectualization; Bradley, melancholia; Ulrici, moral scrupulosity; the psychoanalysts, a complex. (Klein and Werder found the root of the tragedy outside the hero's character, in his environing circumstances.) One critic finds Hamlet lacking all passion for action;5 another, lacking all emotion.6 Another accuses him of desiring to be too perfect;7 a lady thinks the cause of his disaster his determination never to marry."8 Masefield finds him too wise to act, since in Hamlet's world action would be fruitless.9 Adams thinks "the young Prince possesses to a fatal extent idealism regarding human nature": his tragic fault is a "too easy faith in human nature."10 And Campbell believes that because Hamlet is inconsolable for his losses, "his grief is of the sort that renders him dull, that effaces memory, that makes him guilty of the sin of sloth."11]

By temperament nothing is easier for Hamlet than to act; his powerful nature propels him into action on the slightest challenge. But his problem is such as is hardest for a man so constituted: to wait, to be patient until he can prove that the Ghost spoke the truth, and, having settled that, to build his case against Claudius so that vengeance will be plainly an act of justice before the world. His own strong-mindedness makes him fully aware of the course he must choose, and he exhibits a degree of self-control remarkable for a man of his volcanic impulses. So far from being the hero who cannot whip himself into action, he is the tragic figure that can act readily, but who must not—until the moment be ripe. It is heartbreaking to witness the extent to which his mind does triumph over his energetic nature, the extent to which he does hold the impulse to act in leash; his self-control is truly heroic. But great as it is, it is not enough. Prescisely when he is beginning to reap the harvest of his hard-won patience, he forfeits everything by his unconsidered killing of the man behind the arras, Polonius—as it turns out. This act of sheer impulse has negated the value of all he has suffered and accomplished, and, moreover, has tendered his fate into the hands of his enemy.

Hamlet is well aware of his tragic rashness of temperament. His admiration for Horatio is based upon his friend's better balanced nature:

                     for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hath ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are
Whose blood and judgment are so well
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that
That is not passion's slave,
and I will wear
In my heart's core …
                              III, ii, 70 seq.

How different from himself, whose blood is ever at war with his judgment! Nor does Hamlet need any other to apprize him of the fatality of his rash murder of the old man; he sees it at once—when the deed is irremediable. And, as he is being hurried off to England, he puts the blame where it is due—his failure to use his head when it was most important to do so:

Sure, He that made us with such large
 discourse [i.e., power of reasoning],
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.
                              IV, iv, 36 seq.

Yes, it was his duty to look before and after, and in truth he did so astonishingly well for such a man. But in his situation, any loss of reason, any impulsive act invites destruction.

Well, fate is kinder than he has title to expect. An impulse causes him to go through the papers of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, and there he discovers the palpable proof of Claudius' criminality that he requires. In his account of the adventure to Horatio, completely forgetting that it was rashness which once ruined his cause and might easily have brought about his own death, he hymns rashness because this time it resulted in a benefit:

And praised be rashness for it; let us know
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall …
                                   V, ii, 6 seq.

His experience should have taught him otherwise. Once again the stars are auspicious; he has a second, even a better chance to carry out his task, despite his tragic error. But as he speaks we tremble for the issue: what can be hoped for a man who is glad to be rash? He is, as usual, too ready

to take arms against a sea of troubles.

And our fears are only too just. He accepts the offer to fence with Laertes. Rashly forgetting that Laertes has no reason to wish him well, and that the King, now his bitter enemy, who has already practised against his life, is the sponsor of the match, Hamlet omits inspecting the foils.

As we have said, no lover of the sport would inspect them. What tennis player examines the ball before it comes his way, to see that it is stuffed with hair, not with dynamite? Ah, but what tennis player accepts an invitation to the match from his deadliest foe? Or, if he did, would it not be wise of him to inspect the balls, unsportsmanlike though it be? Hamlet, in his excitement over the in-incriminating document in his possession, is heedless again, and forgets the resourcefulness of his adversary—this time, fatally. And so, though he presently executes his task, he does so at the needless cost of his life.

This rashness of his is, of course, allied to his best qualities—his strength, his courage, as made demonstrable on the many occasions when he leaps into action. It is allied, too, to his indifference to the esteem of the court, his willingness to let them think what they please of his sanity. It is a byproduct, as are his wit, irony, and toying with words, of his excessive good health, his strong animal spirits.

But, as in life our defects are usually the other side of our best qualities, it is also allied to his worst faults. Because of it, Hamlet, so gracious and just, can be unpardonably unjust. Once he has decided that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz have been sent for by Claudius, he never pauses to ask whether they may not be acting out of true friendship to him, whether their motives may do them no discredit. It is enough for him that his intuitions tell him that they are guilty, and he sends them to a death they certainly have not merited—as Horatio sees may be the case—and he does so without any regrets. The same quickness of temper which makes his discourse scintillate, prompts him to rapid decisions that can be grossly unfair. Thus, too, we listen in amazement as, at Ophelia's grave, he exclaims indignantly to Laertes:

                     Hear you, sir,
What is the reason that you use me thus?
I loved you ever.
                                V, i, 311 seq.

Because he is aware of having always thought only well of Laertes, he can forget that he has killed the young man's father, and that in reason Laertes might hate him as much as he himself hates Claudius.

It is a character with grave faults. [Some, among whom we do not wish to be numbered, would consider Hamlet's occasional adventures into ribaldry as a failing too. Mercutio is even looser of tongue than he, and no one has ever held it against him. The license with which he and Hamlet sometimes speak is harmless, more a symptom in a young man of excessive vitality than an index of licentious character.] But its beauties are so extensive that there is copious room even for such shortcomings. It is a character of great scope, and such defects as are in it are commensurate with the virtues.

Before leaving the Prince, we think it interesting to note that there are three young men in the play in a similar circumstance—and perhaps so placed by the dramatist that we might gauge Hamlet's character the more accurately—Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras. Each has had a father killed and each assumes the filial duty of avenging that death. In circumstances Hamlet is closer to Laertes: their fathers have been murdered secretly, or in a manner that is kept from the world. Fortinbras' father was killed in open combat by the late king of Denmark; the world knows the manner of his death, and Fortinbras is free to seek revenge when he collects an army to march against Denmark (I, i, 80 seq.). In character, however, Hamlet is closer to Fortinbras, and would act with his directness and honor. But he is not free, like him, to engage upon his task. Not having the low traits of Laertes, Hamlet is unwilling to go about achieving vengeance in the former's contemptible manner. Polonius' son is so much concerned about what the world will think of him if he does not at once kill someone—almost anyone—in return for his father's death, that he has not a thought for justice or honor. Unlike Hamlet, he can cry:

Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I'll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.
                            IV, v, 132 seq.

Though not a saint, Hamlet, when he is conscious of what he is doing, will not give the next world to negligence, nor will he damn his immortal soul; he desires justice as well as vengeance. Laertes is first ready to kill Claudius; having no greater motive than personal satisfaction, he is easily quieted by the resourceful King, and won over to a plot against Hamlet. No method is too nefarious for him; he would be willing "to cut his throat" even "in the church"; and he is quick to second Claudius' plan of an unbated sword with the suggestion of envenoming its point. These are short cuts to achieving an eye for an eye, but they are not such as Hamlet's noble nature would ever permit him to employ. If he were as luckily placed as Fortinbras, he would behave as does the Norwegian Prince; being situated as Laertes is, it is impossible for him to deal treacherously like him. Thus Hamlet stands between the two, a nobler Fortinbras situated as Laertes is situated, and unwilling to behave as Laertes would behave.


For the dramatic contest, a hero of such dimension calls for an opponent worthy of him, and in Claudius Shakespeare has equipped Hamlet with a by-no-means contemptible adversary.

It is true, as Professor Adams observes, that Hamlet describes him as a "satyr," a "bat," a "filthy moor," a clown, and a toad, but we are not to fall into the trap with this commentator by calling this "abundant evidence that he is unattractive, even repulsive."12 So, too, Professor Bradley, on Hamlet's authority, says of Claudius that "he had a small nature… . He was a man of mean appearance—a mildewed ear, a toad, a bat; and he was also bloated by excess in drinking. People made mouths at him in contempt while his brother lived."13 Such is indeed Hamlet's portrait of him, but we should be as unwise to take the Prince's word for the picture, as to believe Claudius when he describes Hamlet to Laertes as malicious. Hamlet, unconcerned with being fair to his two old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, will certainly be less so to the man he loathes. Mr. Masefield adds a touch unprovided by Hamlet when he says the King "fears intellect,"14 thus making him akin, for no reason, to Julius Caesar. This ugly, drunken butcher has become all too familiar on the stage, and there are good grounds for being sure that Shakespeare had no such person in mind when he created Claudius.

Gertrude, the last woman to run to adultery, was driven to it obviously by powerful physical attraction to her late husband's brother. To explain to the audience how such a conventional-minded woman could be compelled to indulge so inhibited a relationship, Claudius must be handsome, or at least attractive enough to make evident his sexual magnetism. A few critics have been fairer to him. Professor Jones wisely rejects Hamlet's prejudiced testimony, but he overstates the case by saying: "When Hamlet goes 'mad,' Claudius does everything that a reasonable and kindly man could be expected" to do.15 Kindly towards Hamlet, Claudius certainly never feels. Professor Kittredge, much closer to Shakespeare's intention than most, on the other hand, goes much too far: "King Claudius is a superb figure… . His intellectual powers are of the highest order. He is eloquent … always and everywhere a model of royal dignity … Intellectually, then, we must admit Claudius to as high a rank as Hamlet himself."16 The truth is that there are few men in world drama whom we can admit intellectually to as high a rank as Hamlet.

But Claudius is a highly intelligent man, capable, attractive, and well-fitted to rule a kingdom. Professor Bradley, allowing a disparity between the King's physical and mental attributes, grudgingly admits: "He is not without respectable qualities. As a king he is courteous and never undignified; he performs his ceremonial duties efficiently; and he takes good care of the national interests."17 We can put the case more strongly. Denmark is well-satisfied to have him on the throne. When Guildenstern says to him:

                     We both obey,
And here give up ourselves, in the full bent
To lay our services freely at your feet,
To be commanded.
                              II, ii, 29 seq.

he is no more vilely selling his soul to the devil than are Voltimand and Cornelius, sent on a well-managed embassy to Norway, when they say:

In that and all things will we show our duty.
                                            I, ii, 40

Such, with public reason enough, are the sentiments of the entire court. We have no cause to believe that as a monarch he is inferior to the late king. Hamlet's father was a brave warrior and a scholar; but Claudius by skillful diplomacy keeps his country out of war. He speaks with elegance, courtesy, and intelligence, and it is easy to see why he is well liked. Such a man, of course, makes Hamlet's situation the more desperate. A bloated clown would render his case easier.

Claudius, for all his ability, if not debased and ignoble, is not, however, a noble character. The root of his criminality seems to be a completely materialistic nature, rarely touched by spiritual values; his is the temperament most at home in politics. He has thirsted for the power and riches of this life, and has been undeterred by principle in achieving them in the directest way possible. Having dispatched his brother and married the Queen, he is quite anxious to live on good terms with Hamlet—not out of any kindliness towards him—but because if the Prince is willing to be affable, life will become completely agreeable for the King. He neither fears nor loves Hamlet, indeed must be well aware (intelligent as he is) of Hamlet's intense dislike of him; but a happy, well-contented stepson is all he needs to lay the disturbing memory of his brother's murder. It is for this reason that he perseveres in trying to win the Prince's good will and makes it clear that Hamlet is heir to the throne. Not that he particularly desires Hamlet's affection. But if Hamlet lives apparently at peace with his family, the world will the sooner forget the rapidity of Gertrude's remarriage and its incestuous nature.

Murderer though he is, he is not the worst of men. There is a kind of man who seems beyond all hope of salvation, the self-deceiving criminal, the hypocrite who is swift to lay the responsibility for his own evil at the door of others—such a blood-chilling creature as Shakespeare created in Angelo (in Measure for Measure). Claudius conceals very well from the world his criminality, but he plays no tricks with himself. When he is on his knees trying to pray to God for forgiveness, he knows full well that the miscreant cannot be forgiven while he clutches firm the prize for which he sinned. His terrible honesty at this moment wrenches our hearts with a twinge of compassion for him, and he somewhat merits it. He, at least, is the superior of those who fancy they can cheat Heaven by mouthing empty words of prayer, when in his misery he exclaims:

                 But O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? "Forgive me my foul
That cannot be; since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition, and my
May one be pardoned and retain the offence?
                            III, iii, 51 seq.

If he is not noble, there is a part of his life which partakes of nobility, and that is his love for his wife. It is very plain that he wished to marry Gertrude not for the crown alone but because of his love for her. He says as much to God, when he is baring his soul and its motives. It is the simple truth which, with the embarrassment of one man confessing his love of his wife to another, he delivers to Laertes, when the younger man asks him why, if Hamlet, as Claudius has said, "pursued" the King's life, Claudius took no measures against his stepson:

                     The Queen his mother
Lives almost by his looks; and for myself—
My virtue or my plague, be it either which—
She's so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her.
                              IV, vii, 11 seq.

The testimony to the truth of this red-faced confession is everywhere in the play. You will notice that not once during the entire course of the drama does Claudius ever say a disparaging thing concerning Hamlet to the Queen. Moreover, Hamlet in their presence is untiring in his insults to the King; Claudius may bite his lip, but his answer to the Prince is always polite. He even pretends to construe the offending remark as a cordiality. A clever man, his motives, as with all of us, are mixed; his forbearance with Hamlet—publicly—can only redound to his credit and Hamlet's obloquy. But there is no doubt that his forced patience is also born of his desire to spare his Queen any hurt.

The priggish may point out that the tie between Claudius and Gertrude is a purely physical one. But aside from the question as to whether or not a purely physical tie exists anywhere except on the theoretic plane, even if such a love is not of the highest kind, it is love which is between them, and, Shakespeare plainly feels, such a love is better than no love at all. It certainly deserves being measured by its fruits, and Claudius' considerateness of Gertrude is the one truly elevated aspect of his character. He has spared her all participation in, all knowledge of her first husband's murder, and he continues sparing her by suppressing his growing hatred of Hamlet so that she need not be torn between her love for both of them. He definitely limits his own freedom of action against the Prince through his protectiveness of his wife, and for her sake bears the brunt of Hamlet's public derision—a difficult task for a man of his strong character.

Claudius, of course, unlike the others, at no time thinks Hamlet mad, though it is practicable for him to go along with the rumor. With the unquiet mind of the murderer, he interprets Hamlet's hostile conduct as indicating that the Prince may by some unimaginable means know more than he should. Claudius would give anything to be resolved on this point. Once the Mouse-trap reveals how much Hamlet does know, Claudius is quick to plan removing his enemy. And then his foe's own blunder gives him his perfect opportunity of ending the threat to his own security, and he at once seizes it.


Shakespeare's portrait of the Queen is one of the most brilliant depictions in literature of the sentimentalist. Gertrude is a well-meaning, superficial woman of quick but shallow emotions. Her chief desire is to be happy and see everyone around her contented; like all sentimentalists she is touched by the distress of others but is quite unequal to the smallest of personal sacrifices that might be of help to them. Thus, she is so far superior to Polonius and Laertes, that she anticipates with pleasure Hamlet's marrying a "good girl" like Ophelia, even though she be a commoner; she is gentle and kind with the girl—until she is in trouble. At the news that Ophelia has become demented, Gertrude's first reaction is:

I will not speak with her.

And when she is told the girl's "mood will needs be pitied," answers in self-protection:

What would she have?
                                     IV, v, 1 seq.

Gertrude does not wish to be unnerved by the sight of Ophelia's distress. Once Ophelia is safely dead, however, she can afford the luxury of tender rhetoric:

Sweets to the sweet; farewell!
                            (Scattering flowers)
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's
I thought thy bride-bed to have decked, sweet
And not to have strewed thy grave.

Her love for her son is genuine enough, as far as it goes. She cannot understand why, with everyone else resigned to his father's death, he protracts his mourning—all of two months! She reminds him that "all that lives must die," that death is "common." When Hamlet bitterly throws the phrase back at her:

Ay, madam, it is common,

she completely misses his savage irony, and asks, in her obvious-minded way:

                      If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
                             I, ii, 72 seq.

If only Hamlet would be sensible, is her feeling—if only he would be pleasant to his new father and forget the old, how charming life could be!

She is a soft creature, and affectionate—when the cost is not too high—and would like to see Hamlet marry for her own sake as well as his. She is delighted that her husband has sent for Guildenstern and Rosencrantz on the pretense that they may cheer their old friend and "draw him on to pleasures." Her son's invitation to attend his play she welcomes as a symptom that he is recovering from sullenness, and she eagerly takes up the role of the indulgent mother.

One can imagine that she must have had her bad moments during her late husband's life whenever she had occasion to reflect on her infidelity to him; she is not the kind of woman who could be very happy in sin. But things always turn out for the best! Her husband luckily relieved her of a moral problem by dying, and she was able to marry her lover. It must have been with a sigh of thankfulness that she took on again the mantle of respectability. One can be sure that by the time the drama begins, she has quite forgotten her adultery, though it ended but two months earlier. This would explain her amazing couduct while the Mouse-trap is being presented. She watches it, personally unaffected, as she would watch any other mildly diverting entertainment, and Hamlet learns nothing about her guilt from her reactions. Knowing nothing of a murder, she naturally draws no analogy between the slayer of the little play and Claudius. But we should expect a woman of any depth to be startled by the close similarity to her own experience of that of the fickle Player Queen's. Gertrude fails to see herself reflected. How should this tale of adultery apply to her? The Player Queen is disloyal in her love, and she herself is a respectable married woman! She is so unmoved by the proceedings that Hamlet, foiled in his plan so far as she is concerned, is forced to ask during the performance:

Madam, how like you this play?

And with the clam of an impartial observer she answers:

The lady protests too much, methinks.
                                     III, ii, 239-40

She has the impenetrable hide of your true sentimentalist.

When the Mouse-trap has upset Claudius in some way she does not fathom, she intends giving her son a sorrowful lecture on his filial ungraciousness. Hamlet's violence, however, frightens her out of the dramatics she has planned. Then after the shock of Polonius' death, horrifying to her gentle nature, she is forced by Hamlet for a few brief moments to listen to his torrent of accusation, and the worst of all her experiences commences: she is face to face with the unbeautiful truth about herself. Nothing is less endurable than his relentlessly holding up the glass for her soul; and in terror she cries out:

               O, speak to me no more!
These words like daggers enter in mine ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet!
                              III, iv, 94-96

Suddenly the Ghost appears, and Hamlet holds discourse with what is apparently the vacant air, pointing out the figure that is invisible to her. Her terror ceases, and she murmurs:

Alas, he's mad!
                                       III, iv, 105

—and one can almost hear her adding silently, "Thank God!" He's mad, and everything that he has said is a product of his madness. Nothing he has charged her with was really true—the likeness of that depraved woman he has so powerfully delineated is no portrait of her. Those dreadful words of his were only the ravings of a lunatic. She can forget them now. Rather she can luxuriate in a mother's concern for her poor son and his ruined mind!

It is almost unbearably pathetic to see, as Hamlet proceeds in his efforts to wake her conscience, torturing himself the while, how deluded he is in thinking he is making the slightest impression on her. He does not suspect that she has already forgotten his bitter charges, is already deaf to his renewal of them.

O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain,
                                         III, iv, 156

she weeps, and he imagines that her heart is broken to see how vile she has been. What she means, however, is that her mother-heart is cracked to witness how far gone is her poor son's mental sickness. As she wrings her hands over his plight, she has inwardly returned to her hitherto-undisturbed self-complacency.

[Though commentaries have been scant on Gertrude, she has had her share of critical distortions—all the way from the scholar who maintains she is a queenly woman who never committed adultery,18 to the feminine admirer who is convinced that in the last scene she deliberately commits suicide, drinking of a cup she suspects to be poisoned in order to warn her son against drinking too.19 This absurd notion was incorporated into Mr. Olivier's movie version, with what permanent damage to the play we can tell only when we know whether future productions will make it traditional, as they may. Gertrude, of course, had no way of knowing that the drink was envenomed.]


Shakespeare's portrait of Ophelia is perhaps the most interesting depiction in world drama of a thoroughly uninteresting young woman. She has been compared with various of his other heroines, but actually he has drawn no one like her, except possibly Hero (of Much Ado), and even she has a few flashes of spirit. These two, alone among his women, resemble the type English heroine. The others are truly astounding in the modernity of their conception. One looks in vain for such flesh-and-blood creations as his in the whole range of the English novel (with the exception of the girls of Jane Austen and a very few of Dickens) up to the time of Meredith. How wishy-washy seem the traditional modest maidens to be found in the pages of Richardson, Fielding, Scott, and Dickens—a procession of heroines almost interchangeable—when measured with Juliet, Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, Viola, Olivia, Isabella, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Cordelia, Helena, Cleopatra, Imogen, Hermione, Perdita, and Miranda, how vapid and colorless! No wonder that in exasperation with those English Patient Griseldas Thackeray created his little rogue of a Becky—and then fell victim to the tradition when he conceived his Amelia! Shake-speare's girls are real women, full of charm and warmth and intelligence, most of them witty and gay too. Ophelia is the exception. She is the quiet, modest, submissive, spiritless fair creature dear to the heart of English fiction. Unhappily such girls do exist (though, luckily, in diminishing numbers—one of the few improvements of modern times); many parents have assiduously educated their girl-children to be that sort of "good" girl. And since they do exist, Shakespeare may very well have felt that he needed Ophelia to make his gallery of women complete. She is, moreover, the perfect foil for his hero, the perfect heroine for his story. Anyone less insipid would have dimmed the brightness of his hero and tempered the bitterness of the circumstances in which Hamlet is involved.

If you wish to convert a healthy child into Ophelia's kind of plaint creature without will, the approved method is to suppress every one of her normal impulses as soon as she manifests it, every symptom that she may be thinking independently of your direction. To make her good, as you define goodness, you render her incapable of expressing an emotion (beyond weeping, of course, which you will commend as proper to modesty), incapable of an original thought or motion. Your child, thus trained, will be thoroughly marketable in the marriage mart; you also ensure an uneventful life for her and a maddeningly dull one for her spouse.

In this technique of rearing such a maiden, Polonius has been past master—like all fathers who prefer libertines for sons and nuns for daughters. He has her completely bullied. She is accustomed to delivering up to him her most private thoughts. She allows him to intercept her mail without demurring—fancy what would occur if anyone dared tamper with letters addressed to Portia, Beatrice, or Isabella! But Ophelia cannot imagine rebelling or even objecting. She listens to his endless sermons—and when he becomes short-winded, her brother takes up where he left off. She listens to both with docility, and thinks them very knowing in the ways of the world. The one concern they have is that she keep her maidenhead intact until she is safely married; that is their (and how many others'!) conception of keeping a maid virtuous. They succeed. She always does as she is told, and follows her father's commands to the letter—at the price of her happiness. She has come to be utterly dependent on his management of her life. Without it she is lost. She never says a truer word than, when her father asks if she can be such a fool as to think Hamlet sincere in his honorable professions, her honest admission:

I do not know, my lord, what I should think.
                                        I, iii, 104

That is her customary frame of mind. She has been taught to place no stock in her intuitions, to form no judgment of her own. Her heart tells her that Hamlet's love is true and honorable; but if her brother and father both assure her that it cannot be, she finds it safer to credit them.

It has been asked how so brilliant and vital a man as Hamlet could possibly love a girl as vapid as Ophelia. Ah! If one could answer that, one could also answer why in life A marries B, why X loves Y. Such disparities between men and women in love are only too common. Probably the last mystery science will ever solve is the cause of love.

About Ophelia commentary has been almost as lunatic as about her lover. Of course, most men have not really approved of such high-spirited and intellectual girls as Shakespeare usually created; Beatrice, for instance, has come in for a great deal of disparagement because of her blazing wit; and some critics have been appalled at the possibility of any man's marrying so irrepressible a woman. Ophelia, therefore, has had her particular devotees; it is to be feared that there are still too many insecure men who idealize her sort of nincompoop. Samuel Johnson speaks of her as "the beautiful, the harmless, and the pious,"20 censuring Hamlet for his treatment of her. In the nineteenth century she is described as "like an artless, gladsome, and spotless Shepherdess… The world … is not worthy of her."21 The Germans, who prefer her type as excellent material for a worthy hausfrau, have adored her. One of them says that in her he sees "a gentle violet, a truthful, modest German girl, a completely Nordic woman's temperament—poor in words, shut up within herself, not knowing how to express with her lips her deep rich heart. She is akin to Cordelia and Desdemona … She is thoroughly German, old German, in her family relationships."22 There is little quarrel, then, as to the passivity of her character; the only difference would seem to be whether or not one can admire it. Few of her admirers, however, go so far as to count her losing her mind as another grace: "There is something very poetical in Ophelia's sharing her Hamlet's destiny,—even in the very form,—a mind diseased,—in which it has come upon him. Her pure and selfless love reflects even this state of her beloved; no cup is so bitter but that if it is poured out for him she will drink it with him. Nay, she, the gentle, unresisting woman, drains to the dregs that which his masculine hand can push aside (at least for a time) when he has but tasted it. United as their hearts were by love, this madness of Ophelia brings her closer to Hamlet than any prosperity could have done."23 [Ophelia's madness must certainly have given demonic strength to their love if it could bring them closer—when we remember that during the period which witnessed her loss of mind and her death, he was away at sea.] Greater love than this hath no woman for her lover: that she become insane to keep him company!

It is rather around the matter of "Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia" that the discussion has raged. Nothing in the history of the criticism of this play astonishes more than that this should be a mysterious issue, for nothing is made plainer in the tragedy itself. Nevertheless, Professor Wilson perfectly reflects critical opinion when he says, "The attitude of Hamlet towards Ophelia is without doubt the greatest of all the puzzles in the play, greater even than that of the delay itself."24 It is the part of the drama that most disturbed Professor Bradley, too, who found it impossible "to account for the disgusting and insulting grossness of his language to her,"25 and who says again, "I am unable to arrive at a conviction as to the meaning of some of his words and deeds, and I question whether from the mere text of the play a sure interpretation of them can be drawn";26 the conclusion forced upon this eminent scholar is that Hamlet's love for Ophelia "was not an absorbing passion."27

The most common view, however, is that Hamlet has loved Ophelia sincerely, but that his mother's swift marriage after his father's death has poisoned his feelings towards the entire sex, and it is for this reason that Ophelia becomes, as Goethe describes her, "Forsaken, cast off, and despised."28 Hartley Coleridge puts the case thus: "Hamlet loved Ophelia in his happy youth, when all his thoughts were fair and sweet as she. But his father's death, his mother's frailty, have wrought sad alteration in his soul, and made the very form of woman fearful and suspected. His best affections are blighted, and Ophelia's love, that young and tender flower, escapes not the general infection."29 Such a view cooperates (as does that of the psychoanalysts, that "he rejects Ophelia" because of his Oedipus complex), of course, with a conception of Hamlet which we have already thrown into the discard: a Hamlet morbid, melancholy, and neurotic. It is based usually on his outburst, during his first soliloquy:

Frailty, thy name is woman!
                                              I, ii, 146

But it will be noted that he does not say that Frailty's name is Ophelia; that is to say, it is of his mother he is thinking and speaking when he delivers that line. And there is no reason why a young man of wholesome mind who is properly disgusted with his mother's licentious conduct should transfer that disgust to his sweetheart without occasion.

Another widely accepted view is that Hamlet rejects Ophelia because he must give all his energies, all his thoughts, all his attention to the task of vengeance. A mid-nineteenth-century critic phrases it: "There could be no sterner resolve than to abandon every purpose of existence, that he might devote himself, unfettered, to his revenge; nor was ever resolution better observed. He breaks through his passion for Ophelia, and keeps it down, under the most trying circumstances, with such inflexible firmness, that an eloquent critic has seriously questioned whether his attachment was real."30 Gervinus elaborates the conception by interpreting the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene as "the farewell of an unhappy heart to a connection broken by fate; it is the serious advice of a self-interested lover, who sends his beloved to a convent because he grudges her to another, and sees the path of his own future lie in hopeless darkness."31 Sometimes Hamlet's "rejection of Ophelia" is put on a less self-conscious base; as Schlegel expresses it, "he is too much overwhelmed with his own sorrow to have any compassion to spare for others."32

However convincing such rejection may sound in the abstract, however conceivable on the part of an emotionally unbalanced man, it is perfect nonsense, in terms of human experience, to think it possible to a healthy young man. No normally constituted lover renounces love because he has a great problem to deal with. It is precisely in such crises that the male is most in need of a woman's affection; the greater the problem the greater will be his urge to rely upon the consolation of such affection. It is simply not human to think of Hamlet as giving up Ophelia because he must concentrate on avenging his father—and, moreover, nothing of the kind is said or demonstrated in the play.

Several critics have thought that Hamlet has seduced Ophelia,33 and Tieck gives a peculiarly unpleasant version of that: "The poet has meant to intimate throughout the piece that the poor girl, in the ardor of her passion for the fair prince, has yielded all to him. The hints and warnings of Laertes come too late… . At the acting of the play before the court, Ophelia has to endure all sorts of coarseness from Hamlet before all the courtiers; he treats her without that respect which she appears to him to have long forfeited."34 It is to be hoped that this piece of nineteenth-century morality will make the reader shudder, and think his own era not so bad after all.

Other odd explanations of the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship have been advanced. Quiller-Couch observes that in the old Hamlet story the prototype of Ophelia was a prostitute: Shakespeare altered her character to make her innocent, but made her act as though she were a loose woman.35 (An extraordinary feat in drama!) Adams imagines that Hamlet thinks "Claudius has foul designs upon the innocence of Ophelia."36 Almost the extermest of these positions is Wilson's: Hamlet "treats Ophelia like a prostitute"37 because she agreed to trap him for Polonius and the King; this Wilson thinks the only solution to "the greatest of all puzzles in the play."

It has remained, however, for a Spanish critic to push this hectic view of the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship to the limits of incredibility. Madariaga, whose Hamlet is a monster of monomania, exclaims: "The idea that Hamlet could be in love with anybody but himself is incompatible with Hamlet's character38 … Hamlet was at no time in love with Ophelia,"39 nor was she ever in love with Hamlet, the proof of her emotions being her "acquiescence in her father's designs."40 Merely, through the call of the flesh, Hamlet and Ophelia have "strayed into intimacy without much depth of love."41 They are two sophisticates who have loaned each other the use of their bodies for mutual pleasure, and Ophelia has "been free enough with her favors" to the prince who by this time is margely bored with her.42 (Had the play been a Restoration comedy,this interpretation might make some sense—provided, of course, that even in that period the dramatist had been someone other than Shakespeare.)

The only correct answer to the question as to why Hamlet rejects Ophelia is the same as the answer to the question as to why he procrastinates: he doesn't. We confess that to us "the greatest of all puzzles" about the play is how this particular question ever became a puzzle. Certainly Shakespeare could not have been clearer.

What happens is not that Hamlet rejects Ophelia—such a move would never occur to him—but that, as any young man would interpret her conduct, Ophelia rejects Hamlet. Shakespeare devoted an entire scene (I, iii), and several additional passages, in exposition of the fact. Nothing else develops in that scene but the departure of Laertes—a matter of no dramatic importance, which could have been managed by report or even taken for granted when Polonius later sends Reynaldo to spy on him. But Shakespeare uses the scene of Laertes' departure to further our comprehension of the rift to come between Hamlet and Ophelia. About to leave for foreign parts, Laertes lectures his timid sister, warning her that she must suspect Hamlet of evil designs upon her maidenhead. The pusillanimous Ophelia assures him quite sincerely:

I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart.

And she means it. There are never subtle shadings in the discourse of Ophelia: her simple speech is the expression of a simple mind. Though Laertes is no way gifted to understand either the heart or the head of a man like Hamlet, his sister is so habituated to being directed by her father and brother that she is at least willing to weigh his counsel. Now Polonius comes in to repeat the lecture. When Laertes has left, the old man turns upon her, and we are witness to the bullying process by which he has stamped all vitality out of her:

                     I must tell you
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behoves my daughter and your honour.
What is between you? Give me up the truth.

He laboriously seconds Laertes' certainty about Hamlet's wicked intentions, and pooh-poohs Hamlet's vows of love as well-tested traps to ensnare a green girl—as he knows from his own experience:

                            I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows.

She, as ever, does not know what to think, and so Polonius makes up her mind for her. She is to have nothing more to do with Hamlet.

Being what she is, the spiritless girl faithfully obeys him. Two months later he is able to report to his monarchs that she has locked herself from Hamlet's "resort," admitted "no messengers," received "no tokens," and handed over to her father his letters, one of which he proceeds to read aloud, with critical asides, to Claudius and Gertrude (II, ii, 107 seq.).

No explanation given him, no communication answered, what is Hamlet to think of Ophelia but that she has found it suddenly expedient to break with him, at a time when he has no friends at court? He feels that she has renounced him when most he needs her love, that she is a time-server like her father, that she finds it advantageous to avoid him while he is surrounded by enemies. It is to be sure of this judgment that he forces his way into her room, as he must do if he is to see her at all. There, frightened by his abrupt entry, so unlike his normal courtly behavior, she is too much pulverized by her father's threats to explain to Hamlet why he has not seen her, why she has not been able to write to him. Because of Polonius' orders, she stands before him petrified into silence, and confused. Her confusion, naturally, certifies Hamlet's worst fears.

Then as ever, under her father's thumb, she allows herself to be used as a bait so that Polonius and the King may overhear what Hamlet may have to say to her. It is their first meeting in a long time, with the exception of his anguished storming of her room. This is the crisis of their relationship, and it is Ophelia's complete want of courage which makes the encounter catastrophic to both of them. The poor creature, trapped by Polonius' tyranny, hopes somehow that the gesture of forcing into Hamlet's hands his former gifts will cause him to understand what she knows not how to put into words without disobeying her father. She is the forlorn maiden waiting in her prison tower to be rescued by her fair knight, who does not even know she is there. Alas! such maidens, who cannot make clear their needs, are likely to wait forever for their rescuer.

Knowing her father is listening to all she says, what can she do in her impotence but weep bitterly, weep because her lover does not guess the heavy burden she bears, weep because she cannot tell him, weep because he does not contrive to rescue her from it? Most of Shakespeare's heroines would never have been so unreasonably obedient to their father as to find themselves in such an impasse. But all women expect the unintuitive male to understand without explanations—to know that a rejection is not necessarily a rejection, that a situation is nothing like what it appears to be. Having no clue to her two months' avoidance of him, despite his quick-wittedness, Hamlet can only conclude that she is playing a hypocritical game with him—at a court of hypocrites.

From this time on he naturally tries to kill his love for her, but he never succeeds in doing so. How deep his love remains, we witness at her funeral. It is truly ludicrous to have to consider the to-do raised by criticism over "the disgusting and insulting grossness of his language to her in the play scene." A few bawdy jests lightly tossed off (and mixed, it is true, with some withering sarcasms because of her having trapped him earlier that day, as he thinks)—partly the product of his excitement at the performance of "The Murder of Gonzago," partly an attempt to appear gay enough to disarm any possible suspicions of Claudius'—why should they be construed so heavily? Ophelia accepts them in the merry vein in which they are intended—that much may be said for her—and seems even pleased at Hamlet's sallies as signifying his recovery of high spirits. Though assuredly a "nice girl," if ever there was one, she understands his bawdry very well, and gives no token of being really offended with it. She reproves him almost with an embarrassed titter which shows that she is quite pleased with him—in a way that women often do at such moments. Moreover, the standards for decency were quite different in the days before Puritanism so much altered the English character. Many of Shakespeare's most exquisite heroines deliver themselves of ribaldries that would have made a Victorian damsel feel obliged to faint only to hear. Certainly no one would censure the morals of Portia or Beatrice because they own a robust sense of humor; and Desdemona listens to the "indecencies" of Iago without making a scene, but rather encourages him to continue with his merriment. Ophelia, even though her speech (until she loses her mind) would satisfy the most rigid Victorian code, as an Elizabethan would have been accustomed to taking ribald merriment in her stride. That she was by no means unfamiliar with it is proved by the fact that in her madness she sings a song of such bawdiness as matches anything Hamlet says. Obviously she has not only heard the ditty, but memorized it as well. This is a stupid point to have to discuss, and one leaves it willingly.

Her misery over her situation, over her lover's madness (thus she accounts for his severity towards her), and then over her father's death and Hamlet's exile proves too much for her weak spirit to bear, and she loses what little mind she ever had. Without her father's commands she hardly knows how to live. It is in her madness that she at last touches us with deep pity. Shakespeare nowhere shows himself a sublimer artist than in the manner in which he gives us to understand during the ravings of her disordered mind how fearful was her life in her father's household—through the fragments of her vagrant thoughts we read the dreadful subjection of her days, all the dread things she has overheard, all the unspeakable things she knows but has had to suppress within herself lest they leap into the light, all the terrible cost of her filial obedience. Shakespeare's genius enabled him to reveal the mysterious workings of the unconscious mind in the "mad scenes," centuries before the Freudian theories, and not in the dangerous clinical manner of the psychoanalysts, but, like the true artist, as an imitation of life as it is lived.

It should be observed, by the way, that the madness of Ophelia might readily have settled the question of Hamlet's reputed madness or feigned madness. As Shakespeare shows us her loss of mind, we find it much resembling the madness of Lear and the pretended madness of Edgar—these three examples clearly exhibiting Shakespeare's method of representing insanity on the stage. All three appear more or less fantastically garbed, all three speak without order or logical sequence, all three are unaware (except for moments of clarity) of the identity of the people they address. That fact alone should deal the death-blow to any wisp of a suspended judgment on the question as to whether or not Shakespeare intended the Prince to be understood either as mad or feigning madness. Hamlet's dress is the normal dress for mourning, his remarks are always to the point and flow in recognizable order, and he is always very much aware of to whom it is he speaks, much more aware than his interlocutor (or often the critic) remotely guesses!


With the exception of the Prince himself, Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the persons of the drama most frequently misrepresented on the stage.

Actors interpret Polonius either as a charming old man, running over with sound opinion, and an affectionate, indulgent father; or as a pleasant but somewhat befuddled councilor, with the best of intentions in the world. Among the critics the most extreme tribute paid to him has been that of Tieck: "I see in Polonius a real statesman. Discreet, politic, keen-sighted, ready at the council-board, cunning upon occasions, he had been valued by the deceased King, and is now indispensable to his successor."43 As regards the old man's intelligence, even Samuel Johnson's famous "dotage encroaching on wisdom," though nearer the truth, is a characterization far too generous. That Polonius did serve the late King is an indication that he may once have possessed some ability; but it must have been entirely in the realm of politics. He has the kind of mind, often to be met with in the business and professional worlds, that by its shrewd concentration upon material successes achieves its goal at the cost of everything else. He is devoid of warmth, humanity, and affection (except for his son), and gives symptoms of never having known a spiritual impulse in his life. A career of making all his acts subservient to self-advancement has in the end deadened even his practical cunning. At the age we meet him he is certainly indispensable to no one. Nothing is left of his ability and shrewdness but a few tags, a few catch-phrases, to which, even when they do express some grains of truth, he pays scant heed in his own demeanor. It is he, for example, who utters the celebrated:

brevity is the soul of wit
                                       II, ii, 90

—a profound truth; but no character in Shakespeare is so long-winded as Polonius. He is always threatening to be brief, is always about to sum up in a few words—and continues to harangue his audience by the hour.

We never encounter him doing a wise or creditable thing, or giving anyone intelligent counsel. He is, in short, a dotard of the most limited horizons, a clumsy fool who stands in his own light. Understanding the world from his own unenlightening experiences, he is honest enough in refusing to believe that Hamlet could possibly wish to marry anyone so far below him in rank as Ophelia. Though Hamlet's intentions were entirely honorable, and even the Queen approved her son's choice, Polonius in Hamlet's place would never have made such a disadvantageous match.

He is very well pleased with his own feeble mind, however, and thinks he knows the answers to all questions. His inability to follow the speed of Hamlet's intellect is merely evidence to him (and many critics) that the Prince is "far gone." Besides being an ass, he is, of course, a time-server, always the friend to the party in power, with the keen scent of politicians for which way the wind is blowing.

It is probably an uncritical admiration for the well-known advice he gives Laertes before his son's departure for Paris which is responsible for Polonius' reputation for wisdom. That passage has been memorized by generations of unhappy school children, as though it were an ideal guide to the good life. Listened to carefully, however, though containing a few acceptable platitudes, it turns out to be admirable enough as precepts for getting on in the world; but the man who followed it would certainly be cheated of experience's richest rewards. Yet the phraseology of this speech has echoed down the centuries—for no good reason. What has been the point of mouthing

And it must follow as the night the day
                                           I, iii, 79

as though it were the sublimest instead (as Shakespeare intended) of the emptiest of images, a perfect reflection of the obvious-mindedness of the dotard who speaks it? In the advice there are, as we have said, some truisms, but such platitudes

              so extreme in date,
It were superfluous to state!

Keep the friends you have tried; do not be running after new ones; dress well but not gaudily—even a dunce knows that much. But the passage taken as a whole contains nothing admirable.

This above all: to thine own self be true

sounds noble enough—until you realize that in context it can only mean, "Be true to your own material advantage; see to it that you line your pockets well." For Polonius advises: Do not go about letting people know what you really are thinking; let others confide in you and express their opinions as much as they wish—but keep your own counsel. Avoid getting into a quarrel, but once you are in it see that you win (no matter, apparently, whether you are in the right or the wrong). Remember that clothes make the man. Never lend money; that is the way to lose money and friend. Never borrow money; that discourages habits of thrift.

Such guidance will do for those who wish to make the world their prey, but it is dignified by no humanity. Who can live humanly without ever borrowing or lending? Is one to turn his back on his best friend in an hour of need? Will the sensible man grieve when he has lost what he took to be a friend because of a loan made him? Does he not rather congratulate himself at having made a good investment, no matter what the sum, at having paid little for so important a discovery? Polonius, naturally, can give to his son only the crass philosophy which molded his own career. (How different is the precept of the noble Countess of Rousillon, who is able to hold as a model to her son a father quite other than Polonius—who need only remind him what he owes to his line, when she would teach him how to live:

Be thou blest, Bertram! and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape! thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee; and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright! Love all, trust a
Do wrong to none:
be able for thy enemy
Rather in power than use; and keep thy friend
Under thy own life's key.
                     All's Well That Ends Well,
                                          I, i, 70 seq.

Like everyone else in the play, Polonius's character is to be gauged by the way he behaves. He bullies his daughter, crushing every spark of life out of her. He sends a spy after his son to discover just what the young man is up to in Paris (II, i). His emissary, in order to draw out the Danish colony in Paris, is himself to slander Laertes first. He is to describe him as "very wild," addicted to what Polonius thinks the "usual slips" of youth. Such as gambling? inquires Reynaldo. Yes, answers Polonius—gambling, or drinking, or swearing, or quarreling, or frequenting houses of prostitution. The servant, finer than the master, is astounded that he must so besmirch Laertes' character. But to Polonius these vices are to be expected of the "fiery mind"—he remembers his own youth! Reynaldo is not to go too far, however; he is not to represent Laertes as a steady patron of bawdyhouses. And why all this invention? Because, Polonius assures his man,

Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth:

some Dane will be sure to come forward with the information that he has indeed seen Laertes gambling, or drunk, or quarreling, or entering "a house of sale—videlicet, a brothel." Having learned this, Reynaldo is to allow Laertes free rein. One cannot but conclude that Polonius is less worried that his son may be leading a vicious life than that it may not be vicious enough.

He is, in short, a notable upholder of a double standard for men and women. Ophelia is to make her prime concern retaining her virginity; Laertes may drink, swear, quarrel, and patronize the prostitutes—all in moderation. These vices would prove his son a youth of spirit. There is, unluckily, many a Polonius among fathers, suppressing his daughters' simplest human impulses, but eager to encourage his sons to be what he likes to think of himself as having been, a reckless young devil. Having learned nothing from life, having given nothing to it, their hope is to have their sons follow in their foot-steps, to learn no more and give no more.

Polonius' most obvious trait is, of course, his tendency to become lost in words, the index of a befuddled brain which cannot follow through with an idea, which inevitably loses the thread in a labyrinth of verbiage. He might be considered, indeed, almost entirely a comic character were it not for the darker side of his nature which prevents our taking him too lightly. But his mental confusion, his being forever trapped by language, is certainly laugh-provoking. He is like an athlete practising on one of those treadmills which require one's running fast if one is to stay in the same place. So Polonius puffs away at words; the more of them he employs, the less he advances what he is trying to say. He could be said to sound like a walking thesaurus, if his words were not so dull, for he is unable to express the simplest notion without the aid of many synonyms. The more his phrases pile up, the less he contrives to say. Thus, while he is reporting his theory of the cause of Hamlet's "madness," he begins with the premise that the Prince is mad. Although Claudius and Gertrude are both prepared to grant him that, Polonius must embellish the idea—can no more put it aside than if it were glued to him:

I will be brief. Your noble son is mad.
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad? …
That he is mad, 'tis true; 'tis true 'tis pity,
And pity 'tis 'tis true. …
Mad let us grant him then; and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause. …

Words, words, and nothing! At last he comes to Ophelia, and again he begins by announcing a truth no one would dispute:

I have a daughter;

even this, however, he cannot allow to pass without some addition:

—have while she is mine.
                               II, ii, 92 seq.

The stupidity of this old fossil is excruciatingly funny. His dullness is in complete contrast to, and thus makes a perfect foil for, Hamlet's lightning-like rapidity; Hamlet's mind is all light and his is all fog.

One can understand, nevertheless, why some critics have felt that Polonius is "indispensable" to Claudius, despite the folly of his suggestions. It will be noted that the King always seems to be complimenting him quite effusively. Such, at first, would seem very odd behavior on the part of a man as clever and strong-minded as Claudius, whom one would expect only to be irritated at the constant attendance of a pedantic fool. Why does he even tolerate the old buffoon, who must be a sore trial to his patience? Why is he forever at pains to smooth him down? To Laertes Claudius says before the whole court:

The head is not more native to the heart,
The hand more instrumental to the mouth,
Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.
                            I, ii, 47 seq.

This is fairly extravagant praise, considering the intelligence of the speaker and the dim-wittedness of the subject. Later, to Polonius himself he says:

Thou still hast been the father of good news.
                                           II, ii, 42

In the middle of the old man's recital of Ophelia's obedient rejection of Hamlet's communications, Polonius invites the offer of another bouquet, and it is forthwith presented to him:

POL              What do you think of me?
KING. As of a man faithful and honorable.
                                   II, ii, 129-30

And again:

POL. Hath there been such a time—I'd fain
  know that—
That I have positively said, '"Tis so,"
When it proved otherwise?
KING.                     Not that I know.
                                          II, ii, 153 seq.

Why should Claudius be so anxious to please him? Why should he choose to retain him as his counselor at all? The obvious answer (and in light of it, we may justly interpret Polonius' quoted remarks as a reminder to the King of his indebtedness to him) is that the old man's position under Hamlet's father must have borne considerable weight in winning the election of the crown for Claudius. So much we take for granted about this time-server.

But do not Polonius' words remind Claudius of a deeper indebtedness? Does not Claudius retain the old man's services because he has no other choice?

There is a certain amount of evidence in the play which would point to Polonius' being rather worse than an old bore and time-server to his being more nefarious than his white hairs would suggest. Why should Claudius, for example, after the Mouse-trap has revealed to him that Hamlet knows of the late king's murder, run so great a risk as to commission Polonius' listening behind the arras in Gertrude's chamber, when the King must know that Hamlet will speak of that murder to his mother? Why should he allow anyone to hear that tale? Why should he put the possession of such knowledge—even if it were only to be taken as a rumor not to be credited—in the hands of Polonius—why, unless Polonius already knows all about the murder, unless nothing he could hear would be news to him? In short, was not Polonius an accomplice in the murder of Hamlet's father? Such a deed as Claudius committed is almost impossible to manage singlehanded. Who would have been in a better position to assist him, who readier (in exchange for future favors) to assist him, than Polonius? It is entirely within the possibilities of his character that the old councilor should have been a partner in arranging the slaying, and it would explain Claudius' endless and otherwise incredible patience with him. And it would explain too the King's willingness to have Polonius an audience to Hamlet's talk with Gertrude; Claudius is certainly not the man to jeopardize his security under the circumstances with any man, unless that man were already as much involved in the crime as himself. It would add weight to the argument to remember that it is Polonius, moreover, who puts an end to the acting of the Mouse-trap when the King rises too agitated to stop the performance by word of mouth himself.

OPH. The King rises.
HAM. What, frighted with false fire?
QUEEN. How fares my lord?
POL. Give o'er the play.
                                   III, ii, 276 seq.

The accusation against Polonius as an accomplice in the murder has been maintained by a few critics,44 and, we believe, with reason. As a matter of fact, … Ophelia's mad scene would seem to contain fairly conclusive proof of his cooperation in the killing of Hamlet's father.

It is nevertheless undeniable that Shakespeare has preferred to leave this point in the background of the play, so that we are never more than dimly aware of it as a possibility. He had two chief reasons for underplaying Polonius' guilt:

  1. He did not want to burden the portrait of Polonius to the extent that he must cease to be a source of comedy in the play—as he must if we consciously think of him as co-conspirator in the murder.
  2. Polonius' complicity is not important to the plot. It is rather part of the story's background, and therefore does not merit undue prominence. (Shakespeare is always remarkable in knowing when to avoid unnecessary explanations. He knew that in plays where every trifling detail is explained and given full attention, the background tends to disappear altogether, everything moves up to the foreground, and the picture loses dimension.)

Shakespeare plainly wished us to do no more than strongly suspect Polonius of nefariousness. Since he chose to imply rather than to represent his complicity, it devolves upon us to feel vaguely about the whole matter too, but to feel strongly that Polonius is a repulsive old man, whose death causes pity not for himself, but for the reckless Prince who must perforce pay a heavy price for it.

[Counterbalancing the popular overkindly view of Polonius' character is a particularly mad one of the German critic Flathe, who finds: that the whole "Polonius family" is a collection of heartless, ruthless, ambitious creatures, more important to the play than Claudius; that they are all straining for royal power; that Ophelia has no love for Hamlet but falls in with her father's machinations because she wishes to be Queen; that they all use Hamlet's madness for their own ends, and play upon it; that when Hamlet ceases to love Ophelia, Polonius' furious ambition blinds him to the fact to the length that he brings about his own death; that Ophelia loses her mind because her father's death puts an end to her hopes for the throne, etc., etc.45]


Laertes is a chip off the old block. Did an early death not cut him off in time, what Polonius is he would become. The unattractiveness of his character does not strike us so forcibly, however, because he is a young man. He has some of the dash, hence some of the charm, of youth; he is young enough to be capable of passionate emotion; the genuineness of his love for his father and sister indicates potentialities superior to Polonius. That capacity for love prevents our detesting him.

But he is undoubtedly headed the same way as his father. His moral strictures to Ophelia are identical with those of Polonius, and proceed from the same narrow limitations of values. He, too, cannot believe in Hamlet's sincerity of love only because the latter is a prince; he, too, defines virtue for his sister in terms of her maidenhead; he, too, believes it best for her to distrust her emotions till the marriage-knot has been safely tied. And he, too, believes in one code of morals for his sister and another for himself. When Ophelia, heeding his warning, recommends his advice to himself to live chastely too, he brushes her off with:

O, fear me not.
                                    I, iii, 51

While he has already displayed his father's penchant for sermonizing her, he is not at all disposed to be lectured to by her, however briefly.

But it is on his return to Denmark that his unpleasanter side is exposed to us. How differently from Hamlet he goes about avenging a father's murder! His recklessness, unsupported by either the intelligence or the noblemindedness of a Hamlet, precipitates him into the vilest sort of behavior. It is clear that the chief ingredient in his furious need of revenge is his concern about the world's opinion of him if he does not at once kill—anybody—in retaliation:

QUEEN.              Calmly, good Laertes.
LAER. That drop of blood that's calm proclaims
  me bastard,
Cries cuckold to my father. …
                               IV, v, 116 seq.

This regard for the esteem of others causes him to feel the lack of ceremony attending his father's burial as almost as great a catastrophe as the old man's death itself:

                     his obscure burial—
No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o'er his
No noble rite nor formal ostentation—
Cry to be heard, as 'twere from heaven to
  earth …
                              IV, v, 213 seq.

His grief is real enough; but he is making a fuss partly because he feels it expected of him. His attitude is in marked contrast to Hamlet's indifference to the opinion of others.

Rash without nobility or a desire for justice, he is no match for Claudius. Though storming the palace with a rabble, and ready to take the King's life in revenge, he is quickly wound around the monarch's little finger, and before he knows it is apologizing for his threats.

When Claudius presently identifies Hamlet as the slayer of Polonius, we see Laertes at his worst. He is unconcerned with the facts—Hamlet, after all, did not deliberately commit murder—and is anxious only to get even, no matter how dishonorably. He would be willing to cut the Prince's throat even in a church, is willing to jeopardize his own immortal soul, will stoop to the most nefarious means—as long as he succeeds in killing Hamlet. While Hamlet cannot think of using any method of vengeance inconsistent with his own dignity, Laertes, having no such commodity, is prepared to employ any means. The King's plan of arranging for an unbated sword in the fencing match is vile enough, but it is Laertes who at once offers to anoint his sword with a mortal poison, a scheme worthy of the lowest kind of villain. Laertes is, of course, not that; our disgust with his methods is somewhat tempered by the sincerity of his anguish. Nevertheless, his proneness to base trickery reveals capacities for unlimited treachery.

His virility is only of the obvious kind, the kind his father has approved of, but it lacks any moral stature. When Hamlet publicly apologizes for his conduct at Ophelia's grave, Laertes, did he possess any quality, must feel ashamed of the part he has agreed to play, and is still in time to renounce it. Instead, he hypocritically pretends to accept Hamlet's friendly overtures at the very moment he knows his murderous purposes are in a matter of minutes to make an end of the other.

The best of him is his strong family feeling. But even here, though he wins our sympathy, we must feel the same distaste that is Hamlet's for his melodramatic display of emotion at his sister's grave. The emotion is sincere, but experience teaches us that those who can make a great show of feeling on such occasions are never those who feel most deeply. Unlike Hamlet, he weeps easily. He feels as deeply as he can, but the very excess of his exhibition points to a quick recovery.

What he is, Polonius in all likelihood once was. Thus are we forced to judge him.

[E. K. Ilyin has made available the record of a conversation held in French between Gordon Craig and Stanislavski in 1909 on the stage of the Moscow Art Theatre, where the young Craig had been invited to stage Hamlet. The discussion, taken down in Russian by a co-producer of Stanislavski's, is quite amusing to read not only because Craig's discomfort is obvious (possibly it was owing to the annoyance of seeing his words being transcribed as they came out) but also because his opinions about Polonius and his two children are very lively. Almost the first thing he says is: "Laertes is basically nothing but a little Polonius" (almost our own very words for years before the article was printed). Stanislavski expresses surprise that there should be anything "different" about that family. Yes, Craig assures him, "a fatuous stupid family." Ophelia too? "I am afraid so. She must be both stupid and lovely at the same time. … Like the whole family … she is a terrible nonentity. … All the advice that Laertes and his father give Ophelia shows their extraordinary pettiness and insignificance." Stanislavski simply cannot conceive of such an Ophelia; how can she be such a fool as Craig describes her? "Perhaps she was frightened by a boy on a fence who made faces at her."46

Despite the desultoriness of Craig's remarks, his are the only opinions about the three we have ever been able to be in full accord with. It is too bad he has nothing to say about Hamlet or any of his problems—though he is unintentionally droll about the Prince's relations to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. "They were good friends at school," he says, and then adds inaccurately, "that is why he sent for them, to have the chance of renewing their friendship." Stanislavski is quick to remind him that it was Claudius who sent for them. "Yes," counters Craig, "but they were brought up together." "Lots of people are brought up together! There's a great difference between being brought up together and being friends." Cornered, Craig blunders badly: "Quite right. When they found out that Hamlet had not inherited the throne they went over to the King."

(Craig, by the way, finds Desdemona "rather stupid," but adores Cordelia and Imogen.)]


It is Shakespeare's practice in many of his tragedies to include among the persons of the drama a man close to the central character, a man of less magnificence than the hero but also without his shortcomings, a man of less genius but greater balance of character, remarkable in the play's setting for his loyalty, soundness of judgment, and humanity—the individual in the drama who represents the norm of human conduct at its best, a man who is the salt of the earth. In Romeo and Juliet he is Benvolio, always bespeaking moderation and calm reflection; in King Lear he is Kent, rugged, frank, loving, speaking out when no one else dares speak the truth; in Antony and Cleopatra he is Enobarbus, rough soldier, mincing no words, stooping to no flattery when his commander is bent on self-destruction; in Hamlet he is Horatio. The dramatic employment of these characters is another demonstration of Shakespeare's cunning as an artist. For it is against the boundless good sense and loving concern of these men that we best gauge the excesses of the more gifted hero.

From the very beginning Horatio's is the voice of sane judgment in the tragedy. In the opening scene, we find Horatio politely skeptical about the existence of ghosts:

Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.
                                             I, i, 30

But, though rational, he does not push his rationality, as so many do, to the point of fanaticism. There is no need for Hamlet to assert to him that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy, for Horatio is not so foolish as to deny the evidence of his senses even if he cannot account for what they perceive.48 The Ghost appears, and its appearance puts an end to Horatio's skepticism:

Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.
                               I, i, 56-58

Reason dictates doubt about such matters; but good sense requires accepting the evidence, even when it defies logic.

Thus, throughout the play, Horatio's quiet voice continues to urge intelligence and moderation upon Hamlet and anyone else he speaks to. It is characteristic of him, when the Queen dreads having to see Ophelia in her madness, that he should remind her that there are more important considerations than her own thinness of skin:

'Twere good she were spoken with, for she
  may strew
Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.
Let her come in.
                               IV, v, 14-16

He is a man of few words, and his friendship with Hamlet is so perfect that they need none. Whatever Hamlet has to impart, he understands at once. When Hamlet's affection one time starts to pour out in words, Horatio, who needs no reassurance, tries to intercept the flow:

HAM. Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man
As e'er my conversation coped withal.
HOR. O, my dear lord,—
                                   III, ii, 59-61

He never fears to disagree with his friend. He indicates his feeling that Hamlet has been unjust to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (V, i, 56); when the Prince quarrels with Laertes at Ophelia's grave, it is Horatio who murmurs:

Good my lord, be quiet.
                                   V, i, 288

And when Hamlet, revolted at the insensitiveness of the gravedigger who can sing an idiotic song quite cheerfully while shoveling up a skull that once tenanted a human brain, asks:

Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?

Horatio in a terse line reminds him that since the world cannot dispense with gravemakers, we must expect them in self-defense to harden themselves if they are to endure their necessary work:

Custom hath made it in him a property of

Hamlet is quick to catch the gentle reproof implied by his friend, and handsomely acknowledges the thoughtlessness of his over-exquisite revulsion:

Tis e'en so. The hand of little employment
  hath the daintier sense.
                                   V, i, 73 seq.

Again, in the same scene, when the sight of Yorick's skull generates a train of gloomy thoughts in the Prince:

To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?

Horatio gently warns his friend that there is neither intellectual nor spiritual profit in indulging the mind in morbid speculations of that kind:

'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
                                                V, i, 223 seq.

It is part of wisdom to recognize as insoluble the mysteries of life and death, and not to dissipate the health of the mind in attempting to answer the unanswerable. There are enough questions which we can answer.

At the end of the tragedy, the survival of this perfectly balanced, admirable man among the living forms a significant part of the katharsis. After Hamlet's death, with a man of Horatio's stamp still in the world, we feel some justification in the race's continuing its hard struggle against evil.


While Hamlet's two old schoolfellows have not the beauty, modesty, humanity, or sensitiveness of Horatio's intelligence, there is no warrant in the play for their being represented, as they constantly are on the stage, as a pair of reptiles.

They were never as close to the Prince as Horatio, but the evidence is that among his friends they have shared the next place in his affections. It is unthinkable that a man as quick and intuitive as Hamlet, who misses no look of the eye or intonation of the voice, would have made friends of two "smirking and bowing, … assenting, wheedling, flattering" knaves such as Goethe describes them as being,47 and the world conceives them to be. Such could not have come within a mile of intimacy with Hamlet.

They seem to be the not very profound but agreeable, jolly good fellows we all number among our acquaintances. The three of them must have had many good times together, and it is on the basis of their capacity for drawing him "on to pleasures" that the King has pretended to send for them. We all retain people dear to us because they have been "of so young days brought up" with us, and this was their sort of friendship with Hamlet. He could not be more delighted than he is to see them, when they first arrive (II, ii, 228 seq.). If they were treacherous by nature, Hamlet would have been the first to know it, and the last to greet them with such obvious pleasure. It is in the very nature of their relationship that they should be the bearers of the news of the theatrical world and also herald the arrival of the actors in town.

But Hamlet assuredly turns against them, remorselessly and finally. Before their first interview in the play is ended he, who has welcomed them as best of friends, parts from them as among the most contemptible of his foes. Nothing in the play is more subtly demonstrated than this alteration in his feelings. When Hamlet feels he must distrust them, it is the last in the series of his disenchantments with those he has loved. But that he feels this does not mean that he feels it justly.

As a matter of fact, poor Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are the unlucky victims of circumstance in the play. It is their misfortune to become enmeshed quite innocently in the struggle between Hamlet and the King. Their original intent was honorable. They have been asked, as good friends, to do what they can to divert Hamlet and try to discover what it is that afflicts him, and to find out whether there be anything that Claudius as a loving father can do that lies within his remedy (II, ii, 18). The Queen has seconded this plea of the King, adding that Hamlet has much talked of them.

And sure I am two men there are not living
To whom he more adheres.

The King, of course, means to use them because his own uneasy mind wishes to discover what can be the cause of Hamlet's discontented conduct. But they honestly believe that Claudius is anxious to help their friend—why should they not? When the King and Queen both inform them that Hamlet is "transformed," there is no reason why they should not credit what has been told them or entertain any suspicion of Claudius's motives. Had they been bosom-friends to Hamlet, like Horatio, the case might have been different.

When they meet their friend, they therefore look for signs of his mental aberration, and soon enough find them—since they know nothing of Hamlet's problem or misery. All they can see is that Hamlet's mother and stepfather are so concerned over his well-being that they themselves have been expressly sent for. Yet he speaks of Denmark as a prison—he, the heir-apparent! Their poor friend is in a bad way.

They have, in short, with the best of intentions, undertaken a mission better declined. No one can play the spy on a friend—for no matter what high-minded ends—with honor. It is an office they should have refused.

They have, unluckily for them, simple, unsubtle minds. They cannot comprehend Hamlet's sudden detestation of them—unless it be on the grounds of madness. It is with the sorrow of despised friendship that Rosencrantz overcomes his pride to ask sincerely:

Good, my lord, what is the cause of your distemper? You do surely bar the door upon your own liberty if you deny your griefs to your friend.

The lines cry out the man's sincerity. Hamlet's curt answer evokes another response from his old friend which bespeaks his mystification:

HAM. Sir, I lack advancement.
ROS. How can that be, when you have the voice of
the King himself for your succession in Denmark?
                            III, ii, 350 seq.

Loathing them, Hamlet refuses to be forthright with them again, nor will he afford them an opportunity to prove the honesty of their friendship.

In the end they are put to death without justice. They have no knowledge that the sealed documents they bear to the English King command Hamlet's death. In their eyes the flight to England is a measure for Hamlet's protection after his murder of Polonius. Claudius can have appeared to them only in the light of a patient father whose love for Hamlet, like theirs, has been rejected because of their friend's warped mind. But for Hamlet, rash man, capable of being as monstrously unjust as he is nobly desirous of being honorable, it is enough that they bear the commission for his execution. And so without a tremor he sends them to their death.

It indeed proves catastrophic for these two that they should, though innocent, come

Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.
                                   V, ii, 61-2

Men of their rather commonplace, if agreeable, stamp are ever in danger of disaster when they make friends with a man of Hamlet's volcanic character. The atmosphere hovering about genius is always charged with lightning.

Luckless pair! Victims of the machinations of Claudius and the rashness of Hamlet, they have since been doomed to be even more the victims of the misunder-standing of critics, directors, and actors!


1 E. E. Stoll, Hamlet: an Historical and Comparative Study (Minneapolis, 1919), p. 27.

2 H. R. Walley, "Shakespeare' s Conception of 'Hamlet' " in Publications of the Modern Language Association XLVII I (Sept. , 1933), p. 797.

3 C. F. E. Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (New York, 1935), pp. 316-20.

4 F. Fergusson, The Idea of a Theater (Garden City, 1953), p. 145.

5 R. Loening, Die Hamlet-Tragödie Shakespeares (Stuttgart, 1893), p. 22.

6 C. D. Stewart, Some Textual Difficulties in Shakespeare (New Haven, 1914), pp. 204-29.

7 G. R. Foss, What the Author Meant (London, 1932), pp. 12-26.

8 F. Gilchrist, The True Story of Hamlet and Ophelia (Boston, 1889), p. 21.

9 J. Masefield, William Shakespeare (London, 1930), p. 158.

10 J. Q. Adams, Hamlet (Boston, 1929), p. 193.

11 L. B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes (Cambridge, England, 1930), p. 115.

12 J. Q. Adams, op. cit., p. 182.

13 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearen Tragedy (London, 1929), p. 169.

14 J. Masefield, op. cit., p. 161.

15 H. M. Jones, The King in Hamlet (Austin, Texas, 1918).

16 G. L. Kittredge, Hamlet (Boston, 1939), pp. xviiixix.

17 A. C. Bradley, op. cit., pp. 168-9.

18 J. W. Draper, "Queen Gertrude" in Revue Anglo-améThe Plays of Shakespeare (London, 1765), Vol. VIII, p. 311.

21 "T. C, " "Letters on Shakespeare" in Blackwood's Magazine (Feb., 1818), p. 511.

22 F. T. Vischer, Kritische Gange (Stuttgart, 1861), Vol. II, p. 98.

23 H. H. Furness, Hamlet (Philadelphia, 1918), Vol. II, p. 173.

24 J. D. Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet (New York, 1936), p. 101.

25 A. C. Bradley, op. cit., p. 103.

26Ibid., p. 153.

27Ibid., p. 158.

28 J. W. von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister (translated by T. Carlyle) (Boston, 1851), Vol. I, Book V, p. 296.

29 H. Coleridge, Essays and Marginalia (London, 1851), Vol. I, p. 166.

30 Anon., "Hamlet" in Quarterly Review LXXIX (1847), p. 334.

31 G. G. Gervinus, Shakespeare Commentaries (translated by Miss Burnett) (London, 1863), Vol. II, p. 151.

32 A. W. Schlegel, Letters on Art and Dramatic Literature (translated by J. Black), (London, 1815), Vol. II, p. 194.

33 E.g., M. Huhner, Shakespeare's Hamlet (New York, 1952), p. 150.

34 H. H. Furness, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 286-7.

35 Sir A. Quiller-Couch, Shakespeare's Workmanship (London, 1919), pp. 209-10.

36 J. Q. Adams, op. cit., p. 238.

37 J. D. Wilson, op. cit., p. 103.

38 S. de Madariaga, On Hamlet (London, 1948), p. 36.

39Ibid., p. 40.

40Ibid., p. 41.

41Ibid., p. 59.

42Ibid., p. 56.

43 H. H. Furness, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 285.

44 R. Limberger, Polonius (Berlin, 1908). E. Reichel, "Polonius" in Magazine für Literatur LXLX (Feb. 10 and Feb. 17, 1900), pp. 163-6; 179-82.

45 J. L. F. Flathe, Shakespeare in Seiner Wiklichkeit (Leipzig, 1863), Vol. I, pp. 37-151.

46 E. K. Ilyin, "Gordon Craig's Mission to Moscow" in Theatre Arts (May, 1954), pp. 78-9; 88-90.

47 J. W. von Goethe, op. cit., Vol. I, Book V, p. 357.

48 They tell a story, not really amusing, but illustrative of the man of remorselessly logical mind—than whom no one is ever, probably, more unbalanced. Such a one—he was a German, of course—met an American traveler at Cairo, and said, "Young man, I suppose you came the canal through?" "No," said the American. "Then you came the river down?" "No," said the American. "Then you came the desert across?" "No," said the American. "In that case, my friend," said the German haughtily, "you haff not yet arrived."

49 The 1604 edition of the play assigns these lines to Horatio, the 1623 edition (plainly in error) to the Queen. The advice has the very sound of Horatio's good judgment.

Baldwin Maxwell (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Hamlet's Mother," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 3, Spring, 1964, pp. 235-46.

[In the following essay, Maxwell maintains that Gertrude is a passive character, dominated by Claudius until the final moments of the play.]

In an article entitled "The Character of Hamlet's Mother" (Shakespeare Quarterly, VIII (1957), 201-206), Miss Carolyn Heilbrun expressed strong disagreement with what had been the generally accepted estimate of Queen Gertrude. Seemingly unaware of the essay by Professor Draper1 , the Queen's most ardent defender, Miss Heilbrun wrote that "critics, with no exception that I have been able to find, have accepted Hamlet's word 'frailty' as applying to [Gertrude's] whole personality, and have seen in her … a character of which weakness and lack of depth and rigorous intelligence are the entire explanation" (p. 201). She, as had Professor Draper, rejected almost in toto the views of such critics as A. C. Bradley, Miss Agnes Mackenzie, H. Granville-Barker,2 and others who had declared the Queen "weak", "neutral", or "little more than a puppet".

Professor Draper, who thought Gertrude innocent of adultery prior to King Hamlet's death, not only denied her weakness but excused her hasty and incestuous marriage as politically necessary because of a national crisis, "a marriage more of convenience than of love" (p. 121). To him the Queen appeared "dignified, gracious, and resourceful", one who "as a wife, as a mother, as a queen … seems to approximate, if not the Elizabethan ideal, at least the Elizabethan norm". She is, he insisted, "no slave to lust" (pp. 123, 126). It is only on this last point that Miss Heilbrun and Professor Draper markedly disagreed. Although persuaded that Gertrude was innocent of adultery prior to the elder Hamlet's death, Miss Heilbrun argued that her marriage to Claudius was brought about not by a need to settle a national crisis, not by the witchcraft of Claudius' wit, but by lust alone, "the need of sexual passion" in her widowhood. Apart from this passion, the Queen is, Miss Heilbrun believed, a "strong-minded, intelligent, succinct, and … sensible woman", who is, except for her description of Ophelia's death, "concise and pithy in speech, with a talent for seeing the essence of every situation presented before her eyes" (pp. 202-203).

This view of the Queen's character is at such variance with that previously current that one may wish to reexamine her appearances in the play, scene by scene, for light upon the impression Shakespeare sought to create. Little time is needed to do so, for however important the part of the Queen in the story of Hamlet, her role in the play is definitely subordinate. She appears in ten of the play's twenty scenes, but in those ten scenes she speaks fewer lines than does Ophelia, who appears in only five; and, unlike Ophelia, the Queen is never the central or dominant figure on the stage. She speaks but one brief aside and never the concluding line of a scene. To be sure, a gifted actress may, by clever stage business and a gracious manner, provide for the role an illusion of importance; but this importance is not supported by the lines she speaks and presumably was not purposed by Shakespeare.

Practically all recent critics have agreed that Gertrude was not only innocent of complicity in the murder of her first husband but wholly unaware of it. That she was, however, guilty of an "o'erhasty [second] marriage", she herself testifies. Nor is it permissible to see that marriage as other than incestuous. The one sin of which the Queen has been accused but of which her guilt may be debatable is that she had been Claudius' mistress while the elder Hamlet was alive.

When in I.ii, the Queen appears on stage for the first time, the audience has heard nothing whatsoever about her. It is prejudiced neither in her favor nor against her. She doubtless enters on the arm of King Claudius, who directs his ingratiating smile towards her during part of the remarkable speech with which the scene opens and from which we learn that he, having shortly before lost a brother, has recently taken to wife his brother's widow. Incest, to be sure—a horrible sin in the eyes of both church and state. But with such consummate skill has the King's speech been phrased that all on the crowded stage—or at least all but one—show neither shock nor disapproval. As a result the audience may naturally assume that the general satisfaction should outweigh the displeasure of one individual, and, in the absence of other details, accept the unusual marriage—at least for the time being—as an act which may well be shown to be both wise and—under the circumstances—permissible.

After the King has explained the present situation and expressed "For all, our thanks", the Queen, apart perhaps from a smile, offers no word of thanks for herself. She remains silent as the King instructs the departing ambassadors and questions Laertes and Polonius on the former's desire to return to France. Gertrude is the last to speak. Upon Hamlet's bitter punning reply to the King,

Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun,

the Queen makes her first speech—six lines, one of the three longest she speaks in the entire play. She urges Hamlet to "look like a friend on Denmark", to cease mourning for his father since

Thou know'st 'tis common. All that lives must
Passing through nature to eternity.

That she misunderstands Hamlet's reply to her cliché, "Ay madam, it is common", is shown by her then asking

                 If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?—

indicative not only that she has herself ceased to mourn her late husband's death but as well that she completely fails to understand her son. After Hamlet's answer, the King, his composure recovered, quickly speaks thirty-one lines, ending with the wish that Hamlet remain at Elsinore. This wish the Queen now seconds in her third and last speech of the scene:

Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet.
I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.

Nine lines later all exeunt save Hamlet.

Such is the Queen's part on her first appearance. She speaks slightly over nine lines in her three speeches—nine lines to the King's ninety-four. Her speeches are short but hardly seem more "concise and pithy" than speech in dramatic verse normally is. Nor do they, composed as they are of a cliché, a misunderstanding, and an echo, encourage the view that she is a "resourceful", "strong-minded" woman, "with a talent for seeing the essence of every situation presented before her eyes". Perhaps, too, her obedient rising at the King's "Madam, come", suggests her domination by him. Such a suggestion is supported by her leaving the stage in three later scenes upon similar words from the King ("Come, Gertrude", IV.i; "Let's follow, Gertrude", IV.vii; "Sweet Gertrude, leave us", III.i) and by her only once speaking as she makes her exit.

Such is our introduction to Queen Gertrude. So much do we know about her when Hamlet later in the scene, in his first soliloquy, expresses his disgust that his mother

A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father's
Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she—
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer—married with
  mine uncle,
My father's brother. …
                     O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!

That unusual marriage, upon which we had earlier in the scene passed no verdict, we now begin to question. But Hamlet is only one; the court as a whole had seemed neither to disapprove of the marriage nor to condemn its haste. Yet Hamlet's view, as we are soon to learn, is not peculiar to him, does not spring from thwarted ambition or from an excess of filial affection for his mother. Before we again see Queen Gertrude we are to hear another witness, one eminently qualified to judge her. Three scenes later the Ghost of the dead king is to inform Hamlet that his uncle,

 … that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous
O wicked with and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous
  queen. …
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in the shape of
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.

Surely we are not now likely to attribute Gertrude's quietness during her earlier appearance either to remorse for her o'erhasty marriage or to an awareness that her former husband was to her present as "Hyperion to a satyr".

But, one may ask, is the Ghost a wholly disinterested witness? Are we to accept everything he relates? Does he really know whereof he speaks? To the accuracy of his knowledge of the present and the future, I must return later, but I think it can hardly be contested that we are to assume that he has, from his vantage point beyond the grave, learned specifically all that concerned his murder. He was asleep when the poison was poured into his ear, and the dumb-show of the play-within-the-play—though that at best is only Hamlet's interpretation of what the Ghost had revealed—does not show him as awakening before he died. Yet, be it noted, the Ghost reveals not only the identity of the murderer and the instant effect which the poison had upon him but, even more remarkable, the very poison used—the "juice of cursed hebona". Further, the King's reaction to the play-within-the-play confirms the Ghost's account of the murder in every detail. Must we not assume, therefore, that every other revelation of the past which the Ghost gives is equally accurate: that Claudius,

With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous
… won to his shameful lust
The will of [the] most seeming-virtuous queen.

Miss Heilbrun, who thinks Gertrude had not been Claudius' mistress, denies that Claudius had won her by the witchcraft of his wit. The real reason Gertrude had entered upon her hasty second marriage, Miss Heilbrun claimed, was given by the Ghost later in the same speech:

But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in the shape of
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.

But if we accept as true one part of the Ghost's speech, must we not accept the other also? And do not the last three lines quoted above suggest a violation of the marriage vows? That they were intended to do so is evidenced by the Ghost's having protested in the same speech, in lines immediately preceding, that his

      … love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage;

and that Hamlet understood the Ghost's words as indicating Gertrude's adultery is shown by his charging her in the Closet Scene with

              Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
… makes marriage vows
As false as dicers' oaths.

So much, then, do we learn of Gertrude in Act I. On these lines must be based the original impression Shakespeare wished to give us. It is interesting and, I suspect, significant that a very large part of what we have so far learned of Gertrude and Claudius represents modification or elaboration by Shakespeare of what is found in Belleforest's account. There, of course, Gertrude is neither weak nor neutral. Although she is not said to have participated in planning the murder of her husband, she was an accomplice after the murder, for she did not deny her lover's claim that it was in defence of her that he had slain his brother. Where, asked Belleforest, would one find "a more wicked and bold woman?" Such a question would never be asked by one writing of the Gertrude of the play. Her character Shakespeare has decidedly softened, even though in the play she appears guilty on every count cited by Belleforest except that of giving support to a false account of her husband's slaying. Shakespeare has softened her character not only by making her ignorant of the murder of her husband but by elaborating, in a way most effective upon the stage, that artful craft of Claudius as reported in Belleforest's account. There the murderer "covered his boldnesse and wicked practise with so great subtiltie and policie, and under the vaile of meere simplicitie … that his sinne found excuse among the common people, and of the nobilitie was esteemed for justice". Claudius' persuasive cunning is further suggested by Belleforest's observing that Gertrude, "as soone as she once gave eare to [her husband's brother], forgot both the ranke she helde … and the dutie of an honest wife".3 To portray this smooth persuasiveness and subtle craft the dramatist introduced a brilliant dramatic touch for which there is no suggestion in Belleforest—the ingratiating smiling which leads Hamlet to declare Claudius a "smiling damned villain", and to cry out:

My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.

So much for Act I. The Queen next appears in II.ii. Rosencrantz and Guildenstem have been summoned to spy upon Hamlet, and Gertrude's first two speeches merely echo in fewer words the welcome given them by the King. With one exception her five remaining speeches in this scene are of one line or less, most of them designed to break and give a semblance of dialogue to Polonius' artful narration. The one exception is a speech of two lines in reply to the King's reporting to her that Polonius claims to have found

The head and source of all your son's

The Queen replies:

I doubt it is no other but the main,
His father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage.

This speech, which some critics (mistakenly, I think) have seen as evidence that the Queen's conscience is already troubled, Miss Heilbrun pronounced "concise, remarkably to the point, and not a little courageous" (p. 203). One could the more readily agree with her had Gertrude omitted the word "o'erhasty". When the King first announced his marriage to his brother's widow, he passed quickly on to important affairs of state, but since then we have heard the incestuous nature of that marriage emphasized by both Hamlet and the Ghost. Are we to assume from her mentioning only the hastiness of their marriage—a censurable indiscretion perhaps but no mortal sin—that Gertrude failed to realize that her marriage to Claudius, no matter when performed, must bear the graver stain of incest? As she is at the time alone with the King, I think we must so assume. She hardly reveals here "a talent for seeing the essence of every situation presented before her eyes". But how can she have been so blind to the true nature of her marriage? The only explanation would seem to be that she is blinded by the traitorous gifts of Claudius, by the witchcraft of his wit. She thinks as he directs, acts as he wishes.

The next scene in which the Queen appears is III.ii—the play scene. Here she is on stage for 187 lines and speaks a total of two and one half lines. When to her first speech, "Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me", Hamlet replies that he prefers to sit by Ophelia, the Queen is silent until 127 lines later, when, to emphasize the purport of such lines as "None wed the second but who killed the first", Hamlet asks, "Madam, how like you this play?" She answers simply, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks"—a speech which need not suggest stupidity, for she, unlike us, has not heard the ghost and knows not what is in Hamlet's mind; but unless we are to think of her as an artful villainess indeed, the simplicity of her reply is enough to urge her complete innocence of any participation in the murder. She now follows the play intently, saying nothing more until, when the frightened King rises, she anxiously enquires "How fares my lord?" In this scene then, aside from the first clear indication that Gertrude has been no accomplice in the murder, we see in her just what we see in her in other scenes—her love for her son, her devoted concern for Claudius, and her remarkable quietness, with long periods of silence.

It is when she next appears, in III.iv—the so-called Closet Scene—that the Queen has her biggest part. The scene opens with Polonius' hiding himself behind the arras that he may overhear the interview between mother and son—an interview in which the Queen has promised to "be round with him" in the hope of dis-covering the cause of Hamlet's strange behavior. The scheme had been conceived by Polonius and suggested to Claudius in II.ii, when Gertrude was not on stage. We do not witness the King's persuading the Queen to assist in this eavesdropping upon her son, but that she had received specific instructions on how the interview should be conducted is brought out in her conversation with Polonius before Hamlet enters:

Polonius: 'A will come straight. Look you lay
  home to him.
Tell him his pranks have been too broad to
  bear with,
And that your grace hath screened and stood
Much heat and him. I'll silence me even here.
Pray you be round with him. …
Queen: I'll warrant you; fear me not.

The Queen had consented to these "lawful espials", as she had consented earlier when Ophelia had been used as a decoy, probably both because she is hopeful that such a scheme may indeed unearth the secret of Hamlet's strange behavior and because the stronger Claudius is able always to dominate her will and persuade her to serve his purpose. That this second explanation is sound is, I believe, shown by a departure which Shakespeare here makes from the account of the Closet Scene as related by Belleforest. In Belleforest the King and his councillor, without taking the Queen into their confidence, arrange for the councillor to secrete himself where he may overhear mother and son; the Queen not only has no part in planning the interview, but does not suspect the presence of the eavesdropper until he is discovered by the crafty and suspicious Hamlet's beating his arms upon the hangings. By this change in the Queen's part from that of an unwitting participant to that of an active accomplice Shakespeare seems to emphasize the extent to which Claudius dominates her and uses her as his tool.

The Queen begins the closet interview with bluster and some confidence. She has apparently been well briefed as to what she shall say. But when Hamlet proves recalcitrant, when in an ugly mood he assumes the offensive and by so doing throws her out of the part she has been coached to play, she is for a brief moment bold and stubborn. "What have I done?" she cries:

What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy
In noise so rude against me?

But as Hamlet becomes more specific in his charges, Gertrude has neither the strength nor the inclination to bluster it further. She appears, indeed, stricken in con-science:

O Hamlet, speak no more,
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grainèd spots
As will not leave their tinct.

And again,

O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.

Although in this scene the Queen has more speeches and more lines than she has in any other scene, she is throughout overshadowed by Hamlet. In the same number of speeches he speaks four times as many lines as does she. Of her twenty-four speeches, thirteen—more than half—are one line or less, and four others are less than two lines.

Some of her speeches invite comment. Miss Mackenzie has noted that Gertrude sees her penitence not as the consequence of her own actions but rather as a result of Hamlet's harsh words to her:

O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.

Second, it is important to note that the question which she, contrite, puzzled, and helpless, addresses to Hamlet as he prepares to leave, "What shall I do?", illustrates the lack of initiative and independence which mark her throughout. Too weak to determine any procedure for herself, she must rely upon others for guidance in every action.

More puzzling is the Queen's last speech in the scene—a reply to Hamlet's

I must to England, you know that?
Ger. Alack,
I had forgot. 'Tis so concluded on.

No one has ever questioned Gertrude's devotion to her son, although in urging him earlier to "stay with us, go not to Wittenberg", she may have spoken the instructions of Claudius as well as her motherly affection. It is impossible that by "I had forgot" she could have meant other than that the many unhappy events of the evening had crowded out of her mind the realization that Hamlet was to be sent to England. But the King's decision that he be sent away she had apparently accepted without protest as one accustomed to accepting without question what others decide for her.

In Belleforest's account the Queen, although she never appears after the Closet Scene, is definitely and actively an ally of her son, working in his absence to facilitate his revenge. In Shakespeare, although she protests to Hamlet:

Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me,

and although she keeps her promise, the Queen utters not one word in condemnation of the crimes of Claudius which Hamlet has revealed to her, and indeed in the very next scene greets him as "mine own lord". Never is there an indication in the later scenes that her attitude toward Claudius or her relations with him have been altered by what Hamlet has told her. True it is that immediately following the Closet Scene she apparently lies to the King in an effort to protect her son. Although Hamlet has confessed to her that he is "not in madness, But mad in craft", she assures the King that Hamlet is

Mad as the sea and wind when both contend
Which is the mightier. In his lawless fit,
Behind the arras hearing something stir,
Whips out his rapier, cries 'A rat, a rat!'
And in this brainish apprehension kills
The unseen good old man.

And she reports that Hamlet has gone

To draw apart the body he hath killed;
O'er whom his very madness, like some ore
Among a mineral of metals base,
Shows itself pure. 'A weeps for what is done.

One need have little hesitation in concluding that Gertrude is here lying in an effort to render Hamlet's act less responsible and therefore more pardonable. The Queen has not seen Hamlet since the audience witnessed their parting, and Hamlet was surely not weeping then. But though the Queen lies to help her son, it is important to add in any assay of her character that it was not upon her own initiative that she does so. Here no more than earlier is she acting independently. Incapable of herself determining any course of action, she is merely following the course which Hamlet had suggested to her. To her helpless "What shall I do?" Hamlet had replied:

Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat King …
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. 'Twere good you let him
For who that's but a queen, fair, sober, wise,
Would from a paddock, from a bat, a gib,
Such dear concernings hide? Who would do
No, in despite of sense and secrecy,
Unpeg the basket on the house's top,
Let the birds fly, and like the famous ape,
To try conclusions, in the basket creep
And break your own neck down.

Such is Hamlet's sarcastic direction in answer to the Queen's uncertain "What shall I do?" She must decide upon some course immediately, for the King is impatiently awaiting a report of the interview. Accordingly she follows Hamlet's direction; she lies to keep his secret, perhaps because maternal love demands that she protect him, but also because, accustomed to having others make all important decisions for her, she is incapable of substituting for Hamlet's direction any procedure of her own.

In Belleforest, as has been said, the Queen never appears after the account of the interview in her closet. Although we learn later that she had kept her promise to assist her son in his revenge upon her second husband by fashioning, during her son's absence in England, the means of his revenge, we are told nothing of her later life—how she conducted herself in her relations with the King or how she died. In Shakespeare's play, however, she figures in five later scenes—exactly half of the total number in which she appears. Her part in these scenes, having no basis in the older accounts, must have been added either by Shakespeare or by the author of an earlier lost play. The first of these scenes is that just mentioned—that in which she reports to the King. In only one of them, IV.v, her next appearance, does she reveal any remorse or any sense of guilt; and before the end of that scene her sense of guilt seems completely erased by a determination to follow the easier way, to accept the status quo, to continue a way of life she had found pleasant.

IV.v opens with her refusal to admit the mad Ophelia to her presence—a refusal due perhaps to a characteristic desire to escape any distressing situation, or perhaps to her already being burdened with grief and remorse. When Ophelia enters, Gertrude is sympathetic but quite inarticulate. Her three speeches to Ophelia are—in full:

  1. How now, Ophelia?
  2. Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?
  3. Nay, but Ophelia—

Then, upon the King's welcome entry, with "Alas, look here, my lord", the Queen turns the unpleasant situation over to him and retires into silence until after Ophelia has departed. Her unwillingness to see Ophelia and her inability to express any words of comfort or sympathy may, as I have said, be due in part to her being, at the moment, too heavily oppressed by her own griefs and her own sense of guilt. As Ophelia enters, Gertrude offers in an aside the only admission of guilt she makes after the Closet Scene:

To my sick soul (as sin's true nature is)
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.
So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.

Before the end of the scene, however, the Queen is to cry out upon Laertes' mob threatening the King:

How cheerfully on the false trail they cry!
O, this is counter, you false Danish dogs!

and, in order to save Claudius, is first to seize Laertes' arm and then to assure him that it was not Claudius who had caused the death of his father. Having, perhaps unconsciously, directed Laertes' hatred towards Hamlet, she offers no fuller explanation and is silent for the remaining ninety lines of the scene. Her extended silence here is certainly not indicative of remorse for her earlier acts; it has been characteristic of her throughout the play. In this scene she reveals perhaps, as she reveals nowhere else in the play, the sensual side of her love for Claudius. Before the scene is half over her sense of guilt has been crowded out of her mind. She shows no repentance. Unlike the Queen in Belleforest or the Queen in the pirated first quarto, she has not aligned herself on the side of her son. Now that he has gone, she finds it easier simply to continue the life she had led before he had made his dreadful revelation. Had Hamlet remained in Denmark, had he been at hand to remind her of her weakness and to answer whenever necessary her question "What shall I do?" it is possible that her sense of guilt might have persisted, that she might even have repented and changed her way of life. But without initiative and independence, she can in Hamlet's absence only drift with the current.

Only twice, then, does Gertrude reveal the least remorse—in the latter part of the Closet Scene and in the single aside as she awaits the entrance of the mad Ophelia. From that time on, as earlier in the play, her actions and speeches evince no prick of conscience although the Ghost, in his instructions to Hamlet in I.v, had implied that she was to suffer the consequence of her sins. " … Howsomever thou pursues this act", the Ghost had told his son,

Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. …

The Ghost is, as I have noted, most accurately informed of the past. That ghosts were often well informed of the future is indicated by Horatio's beseeching the Ghost to speak

If thou art privy to thy country's fate,
Which happily foreknowing may avoid.

But that ghosts might be ignorant of the future and even uncomprehending of the present is shown in The Spanish Tragedy by the repeated questioning by the Ghost of Andrea as he watches the play unfold. The Ghost of King Hamlet clearly expects his son to sweep to a swift revenge; he does not understand the delay; nor surely did he expect such complete catastrophe to engulf the entire royal family. In spite of his exact knowledge of the past, therefore, it would appear that the Ghost's knowledge of the immediate present and of the future was far too limited to warrant our acceptance as testimony of Gertrude's remorse his mention of

… those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. …

Indeed, if one may, without confusing life and art, delve into the past of characters in a drama, it may be said that King Hamlet had ever but slenderly known his wife. Created in an heroic mould, he understood not the mortal frailties which might lead his "most seeming-virtuous queen"

                     to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of [his].

Just as he had, before learning of her transgressions, been deceived by his wife's seeming-virtue, so, after learning of them, he expected her to be tortured by the stings of conscience. He was apparently twice deceived.

But to continue tracing the Queen's part in the play. She appears, of course, in all of the last three scenes. She enters late in IV.vii, after the King and Laertes have completed their plans for bringing about Hamlet's death, and in her longest speech in the play announces Ophelia's drowning. Her purpose here, however, is that of a messenger; her speech throws little light on her character—and certainly reveals no awareness of her own responsibility for the young girl's death.

In V.i, the scene in the graveyard, the Queen first mentions in a single speech her thwarted hope that Ophelia might have been Hamlet's bride, and then, as Hamlet and Laertes struggle in the grave, she, in her remaining speeches, follows the lead of Claudius:

King: Pluck them asunder.
Queen: Hamlet, Hamlet!
King: O, he is mad, Laertes.
Queen: For love of God, forbear him.


                 This is mere madness;
And thus a while the fit will work on him.
Anon as patient as the female dove …
His silence will sit drooping.

The Queen, of course, does not know of the treachery plotted by Claudius and Laertes. She must by these speeches have sought to end the struggle in the grave and to lessen Laertes' resentment at Hamlet's behavior, but it is noticeable—and I think characteristic—that in each of her speeches she echoes or enlarges upon ideas just expressed by Claudius.

In V.ii, the concluding scene of the play, the Queen for the first time, I believe, acts with initiative and speaks for herself. Just before the court enters to watch the fencing match, an unnamed lord brings a message to Hamlet: "The Queen desires you to use some gentle entertainment to Laertes before you fall to play". As the effect of this message would be to lessen any suspicions of foul play, to encourage Hamlet's acceptance of the match as a "brother's wager frankly playfed]", one is tempted to suggest that the Queen's message may have originated with the King, that here as earlier the Queen is being used to further the plan of another. (It will be remembered that immediately after the play-within-the-play Polonius brought Hamlet word that "the Queen would speak with you, and presently" (III.ii. 359), but, as previously noted, the idea of the interview was not the Queen's. It had originated with Polonius, and the King, to whom he suggested it (III.i. 182ff.), had off-stage persuaded the Queen to cooperate.) However, in the absence of any statement to the contrary, I presume we must accept the message as the lord delivers it, as the Queen's own suggestion. And in some respects it is a thoroughly characteristic suggestion, revealing as it does her recurring hope that in spite of all that had gone before, she and others, without being required to pay the price of penitence, may go on enjoying the present by simply refusing to remember the past.

During the closing scene the Queen is silent for the first sixty-one lines she is on stage. She then within a space of twenty-four lines has four speeches, totaling six pentameter lines. She refers to Hamlet's scantness of breath and offers her napkin to mop his brow. Then, for the first time in the play escaping the dominance of Claudius, she acts independently and counter to his expressed wish—and her crossing him means her death.

Queen: … The queen carouses to thy
  fortune, Hamlet.
King: Gertrude, do not drink.
Queen: I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me.

And so she drinks from the poisoned cup. I can see no justification whatsoever for the view of a critic who sought to defend the Queen's character by suggesting that she, suspecting the wine to be poisoned, drank it to protect Hamlet and to atone for the wrongs and sins of her past. Others, like the author of the New Exegesis of Shakespeare (1859), have remarked that her death was "as exquisitely negative as possible—that is, by poison, from her own hand, in a VINOUS BEVERIDGE [sic], and THROUGH MISTAKE."4 But however negative her death, it was, ironically, the result of her one act of independence. And her final speech, in answer to the King's hasty explanation, "She sounds to see them bleed":

No, no, the drink, the drink! O my dear
The drink, the drink! I am poisoned—

Here for the first time the Queen seems to understand the essence of the situation. Only in this last speech does she recognize or admit to herself the villainy of her second husband. Only here—long after her counterpart in Belleforest had done so—does she take her position beside her son and against the King.


1 John W. Draper, "Queen Gertrude", The Hamlet of Shakespeare's Audience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1938), pp. 109-126. The essay first appeared in Revue Anglo-Américaine for 1934.

2 To Bradley "The Queen was not a bad-hearted woman. … But she had a soft animal nature, and was very dull and very shallow. She loved to be happy. … The belief at the bottom of her heart was that the world is a place constructed simply that people may be happy in it in a good-humoured sensual fashion" (Shakespearean Tragedy, London: Macmillan, 1929, p. 167).

Miss Mackenzie follows Bradley but is more severe. To her Gertrude is "simply … stupid, coarse, ["cheap"] and shallow". "She has", continued Miss Mackenzie, "the qualities of a pleasant animal—docility, kindliness, affection for her offspring, a courage in defence of her mate. She would have made a very lovable cat or dog" (The Women in Shakespeare's Plays, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1924, pp. 202, 224).

Granville-Barker was more kind. He saw Gertrude as "a woman who does not mature, who clings to her youth and all that belongs to it. … She is drawn for us with unemphatic strokes, and she has but a passive part in the play's action. She moves throughout in Claudius' shadow; he holds her as he had won her, by the witchcraft of his wit" (Prefaces to Shakespeare, 3rd Series, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1937, p. 284).

3 Quoted from Furness, Hamlet (Variorum ed.), II, 93-94.

4New Exegesis of Shakespeare; interpretation of his principal characters and plays on the principle of races (Edinburgh: A. & C. Black, 1859, p. 66).

C. P. Aichinger (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Hamlet and the Modern Dilemma," in Culture, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, June, 1968, pp. 142-49.

[Here, Aichinger remarks that Hamlet's character is not afflicted by a tragic flaw, as many commentators have contended, but rather faces a dilemma similar to those posed in the twentieth-century Theater of the Absurd.]

It seems that the underlying concept of almost all Hamlet criticism is that Hamlet suffers from a tragic flaw in his character—something akin to Oedipus' quick temper, Othello's jealousy, or Lear's senile vanity, which causes him to make the classic "mistake in judgment" that will lead to his downfall. It is true that one is able to detect such a flaw in the characters of many of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, but the fact that an idea is generally applicable should not lead us into the mistake of trying to apply it universally in cases where it manifestly does not fit. Hamlet appears to be one of these cases.

A consistent interpretation of Hamlet's actions can be made by examining the play in the light of the modern Theatre of the Absurd. The psychiatrists point out that the word "schizophrenia" is commonly misunderstood—to most people it has connotations of "split personality", while in actual fact the popular term "split personality" refers to a form of amnesia. Schizophrenia occurs when the individual finds himself incapable of communicating with the rest of society. It refers to the breakdown, for psychological reasons, of communications between the individual and the group. The Theatre of the Absurd is a reflection of social schizophrenia on a large scale. The Absurd, in the words of Eugène Ionesco, is the situation in which man finds himself "devoid of purpose … Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; All his action becomes senseless, absurd, useless".1 Although a literary movement specifically dedicated to the treatment of this aspect of the human condition has only appeared in the twentieth century, there is no reason to suppose that the condition is peculiar to this century. Shakespeare was just as likely to observe the phenomenon in the sixteenth century, and to deal with it in the character of Hamlet, as Samuel Beckett was to observe it and deal with it in the characters of Didi and Gogo, in the twentieth.

If Hamlet is not the classic "flawed hero", how can his character be defined, and what are the factors which contribute to his downfall? In the first place, the evidence of the play seems to indicate that Hamlet is not a weak character, but a strong one. His "problem" is that he combines extreme sensitivity and perceptiveness with a degree of moral strength which enables him, or forces him, to act morally in an essentially immoral world. Hamlet is the picture of a humane man in a harsh world, a moral man in an immoral world, a sensitive man in a cruel society. Hamlet delays killing the king for the simple reason that killing a human being in cold blood is a morally repulsive action. The society in which he lives, in urging him to carry out the most primitive of all acts—revenge—provides the force against which his nature instinctively reacts, thereby placing him in a situation analagous to that of the characters in the Theatre of the Absurd.

Before going on to establish the evil nature of the society in which Hamlet lives, it is necessary to establish that Hamlet really has a strong moral character. On the negative side, it is easy enough to show that Hamlet is not a coward, that he does not suffer from any weakness of will or inability to act, that he does not lack the ability to think clearly, and that he does not suffer (with one clearcut exception) from any mental disorder. Hamlet does have a moment of madness, but mental illness is not a permanent factor in his makeup.

On the positive side, there are a multitude of factors pointing to the strength of Hamlet's character. Throughout the play, he displays a gentility and moral sense superior to that of any other person. His treatment of Horatio and the players is democratic and humane.

With his mother, even in his moment of greatest revulsion at her actions, he limits himself to "speaking daggers" to her even though he is sufficiently over-wrought to use them on another, less fortunate person. His attempts to deal frankly with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even after he suspects their duplicity, are almost pathetic in their sincerity. With Laertes, in the last moments before their duel, he is nobility and generosity incarnate; a fact which Shakespeare underlines by contrasting Hamlet's generosity with Laertes' oafishness and equivocation.

In his relationships with these most intimate of his associates, Hamlet offers open friendship, honorable treatment, and unfailing courtesy, until the enmity or immorality of the individual forces him reluctantly to change his approach. He is a man hoping always to find goodness predominant in human nature. The revulsion produced in him by the immoral conduct of certain individuals is one of the tragic elements of the play. But there is an infinitely more destructive factor which wears down his resistance and, at one point (the killing of Polonius), causes him to act as savagely as his fellows. This factor is his inability to verbalize his objection to the social code, to define exactly what it is that revolts him, while remaining under constant pressure (even from himself) to carry out the act of revenge. His refusal to kill the king involves him in all the metaphysical anguish of a man out of touch with his fellows; he thus finds himself in a position which is essentially Absurd.

It seems that to understand the play's significance in the modern day, one must take as a basic premise that society is one of the chief protagonists; a protagonist more pervasive, subtle and insidious in its evil effects than any poor mortal like Claudius could possibly be. The magnitude of the struggle in Hamlet and the impact of the tragedy are derived from the fact that, while Hamlet is morally revolted by the conduct of most of his fellow creatures and by the act which society as a whole urges him to commit, he himself remains a product of that society. That is to say, the effort to withstand its influence does not merely involve refusing to carry out an act of revenge, however dishonoring and shameful such a refusal might be. It involves far more than that. To succeed in his effort, Hamlet must consciously subdue that element of society which is part of his own personality, and which is reflected even in Horatio's philosophic complacency as well as in Gertrude's casual sensuality. The effort to maintain his moral position involves Hamlet in a rejection of the social order which is part of the warp and woof of his very character, without providing him with an alternative moral position.

Hamlet's rejection of the moral standards of his society is crystallized by the events which follow his father's death. The shock of that event, followed by young Hamlet's loss of the election to the throne, Gertrude's casual acceptance of her husband's death, and her "o'er hasty marriage", serve to heighten his awareness of the condition of society. The general state of immorality within the royal household, as exemplified by Claudius' drunkenness and Laertes' anxiety to return to the fleshpots of Paris, is a microcosmic glimpse of the world at large in which states waste their time and substance in bloody wars over patches of ground that have "no profit but in the name".

But it is not mere revulsion at the overt malignancy of individuals or states that essentially characterizes Hamlet's reaction. After all, his ability to define their wickedness should imply that he could keep himself aloof from such conduct. They could go their way and he his. The problem, and the tragedy, stems from the fact that this society and these individuals make a specific demand upon him which he cannot ignore. If he were asked to participate in some relatively simple act of evil—treason, debauchery, betrayal of a friend—the refusal would be a simple matter; and it would be simple because it would be a refusal of an action that was accepted as evil within the context of society, i.e., it would involve merely a denial of temptation. The crux of the whole tragedy, however, is that Hamlet is urged to commit the most evil of all acts—revenge—while being denied any moral basis for his delay. The society in which he lives accepts the concept of revenge as perfectly moral, just as every society accepts as perfectly moral some concept that is essentially evil. Hamlet himself is not even capable of defining his opposition to the concept. At best, he is instinctively and subconsciously aware of its evil nature, but the great boon of being able to see clearly what he is struggling against is denied him, not only because he is steeped in the tradition of a society that glorifies such an act, but also because the demand for action was imposed upon him by the person he revered most of all—his father. The most violent efforts of his conscious or "socially-conditioned" nature to bring him to act are really efforts which go against his true nature. Thus, his delay seems to him to be moral cowardice, and he really is puzzled by the question: "I do not know / Why yet I live to say 'This things' to do'" (IV, iv, 43-4).

The fact that Hamlet is not able to formulate his problem in words does not diminish its urgency in any way. Nor does it lessen the pressure upon him. He is in the most desperate of situations—a man under growing internal and external pressure from a source which he is scarcely capable of defining. It is little wonder that, tempted almost beyond his endurance, he cries: "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so". When he utters these words he has come very close to accepting the savage standards of his society. His resistance to temptation, however, is bought at a terrible price, since it is the cause of the temporary insanity which afflicts him in Act III when he gratuitously insults Ophelia and kills her father. There is plenty of evidence to support the contention that Hamlet's harsh treatment of Ophelia and the killing of Polonius (the two most evident contradictions of the claim that Hamlet is really a man of great moral strength) result from a temporary insanity. These events occur at the times when Hamlet is under the severest emotional stress. The significance of the "Mousetrap" scene is not that its success will ease the execution of Hamlet's apparent duty; but that its proof of Claudius' guilt will close the last avenue by which Hamlet could have avoided the demands of society. It is his own doom that Hamlet waits to see revealed, not that of the king. In such circumstances, and considering the strain he has suffered up to that point, it is not hard to understand his behaviour both here and in his mother's chamber.

What proof is there that Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia and his killing of Polonius are acts of real insanity? Firstly, every bit of evidence in the play supports the contention that Hamlet is normally the soul of courtesy. For him to take suddenly and gratuitously to insulting women, particularly the one he loves, would be incongruous beyond imagining. Similarly, in the killing of Polonius his madness is readily apparent. His actions and his expression when he enters his mother's room are enough to cause her to panic and cry out for help, an action which mothers normally do not resort to during interviews with their sons. Secondly, there is the matter of his seeing the Ghost again. If the Ghost revealed itself, or was unable to conceal itself, from the sight of everyone on the ramparts, regardless of rank, why or how should it conceal itself from the sight of its former wife? The Ghost, in this instance, must definitely be a hallucination and definite proof of Hamlet's madness. Finally, there is the strongest proof of all that Hamlet was mad: he admits it himself. As E. E. Stoll has pointed out, the Elizabethan audience was even less familiar with the jargon of psychoanalysis than is the modern audience. As he so rightly claims, whenever the action takes a turn that requires the least psychological knowledge, Shakespeare is careful to have a commentator explain the situation.2 Thus, when Hamlet says to Laertes in Act V:

… you must needs have heard, how I am
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
                            (V, ii, 239-42)

we would do well to believe him. Nor is there any reason for supposing that Hamlet would seek to excuse his actions on the grounds of his feigned madness. Such baseness would be completely incongruous with his character and with the mood in which he seeks Laertes' forgiveness.

The deaths of Polonius and Ophelia are the lowest points in the abyss of madness which Hamlet must traverse; but he survives these experiences and, in doing so, he ceases to be hag-ridden by the spectre of revenge. The tone and mood of Act V are radically different from those of the preceding acts, and the essence of the difference is that Hamlet has resolved the problem which harried him, at one point, beyond the bounds of sanity. From this point onward, the battle he fights is his own, not his father's.

In order to understand the shift in Hamlet's point of view in Act V, it is important to make the distinction between revenge and self-defence. Revenge was the morally revolting deed, condoned and even applauded by the society in which he lived, which he could not bring himself to commit. His battle throughout the play is to withstand the forces urging him to commit this action. This does not suggest, however, that he is a sort of Pollyanna who shrinks from any form of killing. Hamlet is the child of his time when it comes to self-defence, and the man who balks at the concept of revenge acts swiftly and surely to eliminate those individuals—Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Claudius—who have shown themselves to be his personal enemies.

It is possible to see a threat of revenge against the king in Hamlet's speech:

Does it not, think'st thee, stand me now
He that hath kill'd my king and whored my
Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage—is't not perfect
To quit him with this arm? and is't not to be
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?
                            (V, ii, 63-70)

but then Hamlet has ranted on about revenge throughout the play ("Now could I drink hot blood", etc.) without actually carrying out his threats. The real significance of the lines just quoted seems to be that they are a summary of the offences against Hamlet's family and himself which bode very ill for the future unless Hamlet can rid himself, and incidentally the state, of this menace. Finally, of course, there is the fact that Hamlet makes no mention of revenge when he kills Claudius, however appropriate and satisfying such mention might be. It cannot be seriously doubted that at this moment Hamlet is striking in his own behalf. His fear that his previous delays might be misinterpreted is the basis for his dying request to Horatio, the man who understood him best and who would be most likely to see the true reasons for his actions. After all, if he had acted from a motive of revenge, he would not have needed the services of an apologist. Everyone would recognize and applaud a revenge. What they would not recognize and what would require some explanation, is the idea that a man could reject the concept of revenge as a basis for action.

It seems logical, then, to believe that Hamlet's problem differs in degree, but not in kind, from the dilemma of modern man. On the one hand, there is no valid reason for taking the "tragic flaw" concept as the sole basis for tragedy; on the other hand, taking the point of view that Hamlet is forced into a schizophrenic isolation from society provides a consistent (and no less tragic) explanation of his actions. Certainly, the revenge motif is not sufficient foundation for the universal and lasting significance that the play holds for its audiences. The grisly excesses of The Spanish Tragedy and The Jew of Malta have long since relinquished their hold upon humanity; but Hamlet, the tragedy of a man who finds himself in a morally absurd situation, lives on, ever fresh and vital.

The Absurdity of Hamlet's situation is the basis for the play's universal and enduring appeal. One of the truly tragic situations is that in which man's moral nature is faced with an unavoidable, immoral choice, and in which the essential immorality is condoned by society. In Hamlet, Shakespeare has heightened the situation by making the choice one which involves life and death. Whether or not to kill a man is the supreme moral question—far more real, more immediate, than any philosophical or theological speculation. Hence Hamlet's remark to Horatio: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (I, v, 166-7). His agonizing struggle to resist society's demands that he kill Claudius is thus the paradigm of the lesser moral decisions which every man is forced to take from time to time. The keynote of Hamlet's problem is voiced early in the play, in Polonius' unwittingly apposite saw: "To thine own self be true". Hamlet tries to be true to what he thinks should be his real nature, thereby placing himself in a situation that is basically Absurd, and setting afoot the train of events leading to the tragedy.


1 Eugène Ionesco, "Dans les armes de la Ville", Cahiers de la Compagnie Madeleine Renaud-Je an-Louis Barrault (Paris), No. 20 (October, 1957).

2 E. E. Stoll, Shakespeare Studies (New York, G. E. Stechert & Co., 1942).

James L. Calderwood (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Hamlet: The Name of Action," in Modem Language Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4, December, 1978, pp. 331-62.

[In the following essay, Calderwood examines structure and the language of naming in Hamlet in order to arrive at an assessment of Hamlet's character—forged throughout the play as a conjoinment of the concrete and the universal.]

Off the coast of Wales to the northwest of Caernarvonshire is the island of Anglesey, which the Romans (and Milton in "Lycidas") called Mona, and on the landward side of this island is a town with the name of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillllandtysiliogogogoch. As one would expect, it means "The church of St. Mary on the pool of the white hazel by the raging whirlpool near the church of St. Tysilio of the Red Cave." One wonders why the local folk, who delight in baffling visitors with the pronunciation, should have burdened themselves originally with such a backpack of sound. My first guess imputed to the name-givers a kind of scientific or cartographic motive. Wanting to get the town exactly situated, they invented a name embodying a set of landmarks, a name as much like a map as possible. Standing by the pool with the white hazel and the raging whirlpool and the church of St. Tysilio and a red cave, and consulting the name, which you would unfurl like a scroll, you would know that you were indeed at the right place.

Thus the name is a wonderful particularizer, announcing, "This place here and nowhere else." But if the name issued from a cartographic impulse, it is too self-referential to serve as a map. In fact, it is a closed circle of designation: you can locate not merely the church of St. Mary but any of the defining terms simply by turning the name this way or that. Thus "The church of St. Tysilio of the Red Cave near the raging whirlpool by the pool of the white hazel near the church of St. Mary," and so on. The name is a self-enclosed system of mutually defined places, much like a dictionary that sends us from one term to another—from, say, "being" to "actuality" to "existence" and back to "being"—in order to understand the first word looked up. Unless you already knew the location of Llanfair P. G., as the local post office now calls it, you could not find it by means of its name. Its admirable particularity deprives it of meaning by disconnecting it from frames of geographical reference.

If we look at the flyleaf of Stephen Dedalus's geography book, we shall see that the cartographic spirit works with greater rigor in Ireland than in Anglesey:

     Stephen Dedalus
    Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
     County Kildare
      The World
     The Universe

Stephen's personal chain of being works up from his particular case through ever-broadening classes toward the universe and God as the class of all classes. Going up gets Stephen to God's address; going down gets God to Stephen, who does not want God to confuse this particular Irish sparrow with any of the others. Also, by situating his name within such a hierarchy of classes, Stephen evades loneliness, becoming a part of larger wholes. Llanfair P. G., on the other hand, remains uniquely isolated. The marvelous name must have been bestowed by poets instead of scientists, for far from revealing the location of the town, it conceals it within a song of self-celebration.

With these preambling remarks I seem in danger of not finding Shakespeare and Hamlet, let alone Llanfair P. G. But there is a route from the one to the other, for the hero of Hamlet appears by virtue of his proper name to acquire something of the uniqueness and isolation of the Welsh island town. Proper names are the linguistic ultimates—the verbal quarks—of particularizing, the point at which an existentialist reduction would stop, since it is at that point that meaning is stripped from words and we are left to confront sheer being. Thus Wittgenstein observes, "A name cannot be dissected any further by means of definition: it is a primitive sign";1 and Gilbert Ryle adds, "Dictionaries do not tell us what proper names mean—for the simple reason that they do not mean anything."2 Instead of meanings, proper names have merely "bearers"—the horse we call Bucephalus or the ship we call Queen Mary. "Proper names are arbitrary bestowals," Ryle says, "and convey nothing true and nothing false, for they convey nothing at all" (p. 358).

Meaning, like men, is begotten by coupling. In nature each bird or bush exists merely as itself, unlinked to any class: it simply is. The bearer of a proper name is also simply there, a "this" to which we may point. Only when we couple the perceptual object with a verbal category—"This … is a bird"—does being graduate into meaning. To say "This is Bucephalus," however, is no more than to say "This is this"—or perhaps, with Feste, "That that is is." Radical thisness, which simply is, acquires meaning by merging with a class, by uniting, like Stephen Dedalus, with a larger whole.

Not all proper names are alike, though. At one extreme we find those that particularize almost as impressively as Llanfair P. G. Oscar Wilde, for instance, was born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. Such precise differentiation implies an extraordinary number of Wildes in Dublin. If so, perhaps it is understandable that as this Wilde grew older he jettisoned most of his names and hoped eventually to be known simply as "The Oscar" or "The Wilde"—names designed not to differentiate him from others within the same class but to proclaim him as a class in himself.

At the other extreme are "common" proper names. In his essay "Of Names" Montaigne points out, "History has known three Socrateses, five Platos, eight Aristotles, seven Xenophons, twenty Demetriuses, twenty Theo-dores; and just guess how many it has not known."3 Here the proper name, grown common, no longer particularizes. Of course no one questions who is meant if we say Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle. But it was the class or universal aspect of the name that appealed to the parents of the third Socrates or the fifth Plato, who no doubt hoped for a generic transfusion of distinction from the original bearer of the name.

Between these extremes are the proper names normally bestowed on people: Gilbert Ryle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, etc. And here, it would seem, contrary to Ryle, proper names do have a certain meaning and are not arbitrary bestowals. The father of Peter Quince, for instance, may give his son, as arbitrarily as he likes, the name of Peter or John or Fred, quite in keeping with Ryle's claims. But he cannot call him Peter Brown or Jones or Ryle, for his surname represents a class that is not arbitrary. As it is, the forename Peter particularizes the surname Quince by singling out this special ballad-making member of the Quince family. Or, the other way round, the surname Quince universalizes the particular Peter by incorporating him into a larger class. Together, the names comprise a concrete universal abbreviating the descriptive "Peter is a Quince." Thus the individual Peter, who simply "is," acquires meaning quite literally through his "relations," through his membership in a family. By the same token, the Romeo who stands in Juliet's orchard exhibits a roselike, nominalistic uniqueness. By whatever word we call him, he is simply there, like Adam in an earlier garden. But add to Romeo the surname Montague, and he becomes most dangerously meaningful as a member of a feuding class.

How is it, then, with Hamlet? First, it is a play in which Shakespeare, the dramatist godfather, has been both careless and careful with his name-making. His Danes, for instance, are by no means recognizably Danish. As Harry Levin remarks, "If Marcellus and Claudius are Latin, Bernardo and Horatio are Italian, and Fortinbras signifies 'strong arm' not in Norwegian but in French (fort-en-bras)."4 Scandinavian names, like the Germanic Gertrude, are hard to find. But if this suggests carelessness, a certain carefulness is implied by the characterization of the contentious Fortinbras as "strong arm," or by that of the scholarly Horatio, he who addresses the Ghost and is to deliver Hamlet's story to the surviving audience, as "orator"—if we elide the initial letter and transpose Italian into Latin.

However, Shakespeare seems less concerned with the nationality of his characters' names than with their concrete universality, or lack of it. The play presents us with one Ophelia, one Gertrude, one Laertes, one Polonius, one Horatio, one Osric, and so on. That these characters require only a forename suggests their singularity—though not their individuality, for they certainly have their generic features. Osric, Horatio, and Polonius, for instance, are types of the fop, the faithful friend, and the foolish counselor. But although they may be linked as types with other characters in other plays, within Hamlet itself they are distinctly singular, disconnected in nature and in name from the other characters—except of course for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom not even names can distinguish.

Claudius, too, has but one name, but his case is quite different, partly because, as "Claudius," he does not exist in Shakespeare's play. We call him Claudius because the original stage direction to Act I, scene ii informs us of the entrance of "Claudius, King of Denmark." Audiences in the theater do not hear stage directions, however. Nor do they hear the name "Claudius" spoken by any of the characters in the play, since the man of that name is without exception referred to as "the King." This is curious on two counts—first, because the character had a name, Feng, in both Saxo and Belieforest and, second, because each of Shakespeare's other kings (Richard II and III, the Henrys, John, Macbeth, and even the regal Lear) is called by his name as well as by his title. Claudius alone is nameless apart from his royal office. Why, one wonders, should it be so particular with him?

"Particular" is precisely what it is not. The particular Claudius is nominally a mystery, a blank. He exists only as the King, and to be called "the King" is not the same as to be called "the Wilde," since the royal class name obscures whereas the proper name announces individuality. Of course Claudius the man is individualized by private thoughts and feelings to which we are made privy, as in his efforts at prayer. But in titling him always "the King," Shakespeare seems to imply a certain erasure of the individual by his office. Thus in Claudius's first scene (I.ii) the pronouns of corporate royalty—"we," "our," and "us"—come forth with practiced ease as he ticks off the items of state business. He himself speaks of "the King's rouse" and of himself, even more universally, as "Denmark" (I.ii. 125-27).5 His corporate identity is given stately expression by Rosencrantz:

                     The cease of majesty
Dies not alone, but, like a gulf, doth draw
What's near it with it. It is a massy wheel,
Fixed on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser
Are mortis'd and adjoin'd; which, when it
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone
Did the King sigh, but with a general groan.
                            (III.iii. 15-23)

But the emptying of selfhood by the office is mordantly asserted when Hamlet, having said "The King is a thing," is interrupted by a shocked Guildenstern—"A thing, my lord!"—and concludes, "Of nothing" (IV.ii.30-32). If saying "This is Claudius" is no more meaningful than saying "This is this," then, at the other extreme, saying "This is the King" is no more "beingful" than saying "Let X equal 4 and Y equal 5." In his royal universality Claudius is replete with meaning but devoid of identity—a "thing" or "no-thing"—as though the price of office has been paid in the coin of self.

Generalized in this fashion, the King is appropriate as a "mighty opposite" of Hamlet, perhaps the most complex, unique, and inward-dwelling of literary characters. This uniqueness would seem to be reflected by the singularity of his name, for he, like the others, has but one name. At the risk of seeming foolish, however, we may wonder whether "Hamlet" is forename or surname. It sounds like a forename, of course, but we have no way of knowing. This slight problem is complicated if we recall that Hamlet shares his name with his dead father, old Hamlet. Thus the name both is and is not his. In so far as it is his alone, he is distinctively himself, a unique person; but in so far as it is not his alone, he yields his personal identity to family relations, to the class comprised by at least his father and himself. With these two dimensions of identity, self and son, compressed into one name, Hamlet is neither entirely himself nor wholly consubstantial with his father.

How does Hamlet define himself? Normally we define men as we define words, putting like together with like (genus), then separating out the individual (differentiae). Thus "Man is the animal (genus) that reasons, talks, makes tools, or works out definitions (differentiae)." As with the word "man," so with man himself. Governed by participative tribalism, primitive man had little realization of personal identity: "I" and "we" were largely interchangeable. A Maori, speaking of a tribal battle several hundred years ago, will say, "I defeated the enemy there," or, indicating thousands of acres of tribal land, will say, "This is my land."6 In this version of Platonic realism, the individual is absorbed by the species. Only gradually in the evolution of culture does such primitive unity yield to multiplicity, the tribal genus separating out into individuals. Similarly within the family, primitive or other, only gradually does the child disengage himself from the parental matrix and acquire a sense of personal identity.

Hamlet's "problem" is in part a matter of self-definition, since he, like all young men, must distinguish himself from his father, from whom he is genetically descended and to whom he is therefore generically related. These genetic and generic aspects of identity fuse in the name which Hamlet inherits from his father. But the name is not all Hamlet inherits. With the Ghost's return to tell his story and to swear Hamlet to revenge, Hamlet inherits also an act of filial obligation. In swearing to revenge his father, he swears in effect to relinquish for a time his personal identity and to unite with his father not merely in name but in actional fact. That is, to assume his father's cause—to adopt as his own his father's enemy, his motives, goals, and pains—is to assume his father's identity. No doubt the deputy is always in some degree an extension of the authority behind him. All the more so when the deputy is a son endowed with his father's name and sworn to go about his father's business.

Hamlet, however, does not go about his father's business in very great haste, and that—his delay or irresolution—has been a vexed issue among critics. Let me succumb to Hamlet's malady myself for a while and, before discussing him further, turn to two other characters who are in a like situation.

First, Fortinbras, who is something of a puzzle. Criticism has had little to say about him, and that is understandable. He does not appear, by his own or any other name, in Saxo or Belleforest, shows up in person just once before the very end of our play, and is referred to only four times. He speaks even fewer lines than Osric—and the bibliography of Osric criticism is less than voluminous. Yet here is Fortinbras, moving silently around the edges of the play, raising armies against Denmark, employing them against Poland, appearing suddenly amid the carnage of the final scene to receive Hamlet's dying vote, taking charge of Hamlet's funeral, and preparing to assert his title to the Danish throne. But why is he here at all?

Fortinbras is the one other character in the play whose name, like Hamlet's, is both singular and identical with his father's. Of course there are other parallels. Like Hamlet's, Fortinbras's father has been killed—by Hamlet's father—and his father's brother has assumed the throne of Norway, as Claudius has done in Denmark. Fortinbras is prompted, though not by a Ghost, to revenge—to regain the lands forfeited by his father upon his defeat by old Hamlet. Unlike Hamlet, Fortinbras is swift to act. Despite the fact that the encounter between the two kings was a model of chivalric combat, its compact of terms "Well ratified by law and heraldry," young Fortinbras has "Shark'd up a list of landless resolutes" and seeks to recover the land "So by his father lost" (I.i.87 ff.). Not inheriting his father's crown—did old Norway pop in between the election and his hopes?—Fortinbras now seeks by conquest to inherit his land. By defeating the Danes and recovering the lost land, he would engage in a restorative act that would annual his father's defeat and render the son consubstantial with the father.

Thus in taking up his father's cause, as the Ghost implores Hamlet to take up his, Fortinbras "becomes" his father. But the coalescence is short-lived. If old Fortinbras breathes for a time in young Fortinbras, he is killed once and for all through the intervention of Claudius, who warns old Norway of Fortinbras's military ambitions. Distressed by the deception, old Norway

                 sends out arrests
On Fortinbras; which he, in brief, obeys,
Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine
Makes vow before his uncle never more
To give th' assay of arms against [Denmark].
Whereon old Norway, overcome with joy,
Gives him three thousand crowns in annual
And his commission to employ these soldiers,
So levied as before, against the Polack.

Fortinbras then takes his army peacefully through Denmark en route to Poland, where he is victorious, and returns to Denmark in time to hear Horatio's account of the tragedy and to prepare to ascend the throne.

One answer to the question "Why does Fortinbras appear in Hamlet?" is that he presents us with a clearly articulated paradigm of self-definition—of the process by which the individual emancipates himself from the bonds of family, especially in this case the father. The steps are clearly marked. First, assuming the cause of old Fortinbras, the son identifies himself with his father. Then, prompted by Norway, he forswears that cause, in effect burying his father and giving birth to himself as an individual. Receiving authority from Norway, he takes command of an army, an act that suggests the kind of self-mastery symbolized in the stories of Joseph Conrad by one's taking command of a ship. Finally, his military success in Poland confirms the emergence in Fortinbras of an identity discrete from his father's and distinguished in itself. He now becomes qualified to assume control, not, oddly enough, of Norway, but of Denmark. Why Denmark? Because by indirections, it seems, Fortinbras has found directions out. The Danish lands which he sought through direct conquest to regain in his father's name have come to him after all, by way of a plot of ground in Poland so small that "the numbers cannot try the cause" (IV.iv.63). Pursuing his own cause in Poland, Fortinbras has mysteriously served his father's cause in Denmark. Self-fulfillment, it turns out, is not inconsistent with filial obligation. The two lines of self-definition—genus and differentiae—converge at the same point.

A more obvious parallel to Hamlet, certainly a more frequently noted one, is Laertes, of whom even Hamlet says, "For by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his" (V.ii.77-78). Like Fortinbras, Laertes also makes occasions inform against Hamlet, for though both have a father killed and ample excitements of reason and blood, yet Laertes acts with impetuous urgency and Hamlet does not. But that is a beaten path. The present argument would contrast Laertes, certainly with Hamlet, as we shall see, but also with Fortinbras. For we have seen Fortinbras first embrace and then forswear his father's cause, while Laertes perseveres to the death in revenging Polonius.

Laertes' values tend toward the universal—toward "relations"—from the start. Admonishing Ophelia against too much hope in Hamlet, he claims that

                 his will is not his own;
For he himself is subject to his birth.
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, …
                                   (I.iii. 17-20)

The man who loves Ophelia is overshadowed in Laertes' view by the prince, the king's son who is "subject to his birth."

If Laertes cannot distinguish Hamlet from the king's son, neither can he disengage himself from Polonius. Although he is advised "to thine own self be true," the very scene in which the remark is made—with Polonius conferring his blessing and patterns of prudential wisdom upon the departing Laertes—illustrates the dominance of father over son, the latter remaining "subject to his birth" even while journeying abroad. That their physical separation is belied by a psychological merger of father and son is confirmed in II.i, when Polonius coaches Reynaldo in the subtleties of surveillance. Control through precept is reinforced by control through spying. Even in distant, risqué Paris, Laertes remains very much in the sun.

Thus it is quite in accord with what we know of Laertes that upon the death of Polonius he should forsake his life in Paris, rush back to Denmark, and address him-self to sudden vengeance. The extremity of his self-sacrificial commitment is suggested in the extremity of his rhetoric:

To hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I'll be reveng'd
Most throughly for my father.

Cool, bland, and shrewd, Claudius finally clams Laertes, until he speaks "Like a good child and a true gentleman" (IV.v.148). Later, playing upon him like a pipe ("Laertes, was your father dear to you? … Not that I think you did not love your father" [IV.vii. 108 ff.]), Claudius rouses his passions again and directs them toward action:

              What would you undertake,
To show yourself your father's son in deed
More than in words?

Claudius knows his man, or his son. The dueling plot is conceived and, despite last-second reservations on the part of Laertes, carried out. Laertes does, in deed, show himself his father's son—as we never doubted. So too, in his own roundabout fashion, did Fortinbras show himself his father's son, but not before he had first become his own man.

It is fitting that one as devoted to the generic as Laertes is should ally himself with a man who, as "the King," is the generic personified. But then Claudius and Polonius play the same role toward Laertes, the King's manipulations merely succeeding those of the father. Indeed, since fatherhood is implicit in kingship, Claudius is a symbolic substitute for Polonius, ostensibly serving the father's cause while actually securing his own ends. With the King incorporating the Polonius principle of paternal dominance as well as his own unroyal motives, it is apropos that the dying Laertes should cry, "the King, the King's to blame" (V.ii.331). Perhaps with these words, and with his exchange of forgiveness with Hamlet (which suggests that he is not willing to sacrifice quite everything for his father, in contrast to his earlier "I dare damnation"), Laertes gains for himself at least some small measure of personal identity.

Hamlet's situation is of course more complicated than that of Fortinbras or Laertes. For one thing, Laertes and Fortinbras are, so far as we know, motherless. This in itself—the exclusively father-son aspect of their stories—alerts us by parallel to the paternal aspect of Hamlet's situation, which we might have scanted if we adopted a Freudian view-point or, say, accepted T. S. Eliot's claim that "Mr. Robertson is undoubtedly correct in concluding that the essential emotion of the play is the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother."7 If we should not overplay the mother-son relationship, as Robertson and Eliot and Oliver's movie may have done, neither should we disregard it. I shall have little to say on that score, simply because others have said much. Criticism, after all, is a corporate venture, or at least a potluck meal to which each of us brings some-thing, without, we all hope, too much duplication of dishes.

I have stressed the paradoxical duality of Hamlet's identity, as both self and son, the two coalescing in his name, which is and is not his. For Hamlet to be either the son, through merger with his father, or entirely himself, through division from his father, is made more difficult by his having a surplus of fathers. His first utterance in the play is in response to the word "son." "But now, my cousin Hamlet," Claudius says, "and my son—," at which point Hamlet interjects, "A little more than kin, and less than kind" (I.ii.64-65). In one reading of this, Hamlet's words play on universals—"kin" and "kind" (as species): "We are too closely related, having nothing in common." Asked to trade in one father for another, he is indeed, as he says, "too much i' th' sun" (67). At this point, the individual Hamlet is too much in shadow. His "inky cloak" (77), which contrasts on stage with the ordinary clothes of the others, seems to emphasize his separateness, but actually emblematizes his choice of fathers. Whatever psychological kinship he may have with Claudius—however much his Oedipal impulse to kill his father and marry his mother associates him with the man who has done both already—it occasions in him only repugnance.8

At this point the Hamlet of "vailed lids" (70) and "suits of woe" (86) is less his own man than his father's grieving son. This universalized identity is modified, however, by a particularity of feeling in Hamlet. "Thou know'st 'tis common," Gertrude reminds him, "all that lives must die." But with his "Ay, madam, it is common," Hamlet rejects the common (universal) as common (vulgar). "If it be," she replies, "why seems it so particular with thee?" "Seems, madam!" (72-76)—and in a famous speech he recoils from the universality not only of death but also of seeming: "But I have that within which passeth show" (85). Universals, however, are hard to elude, and particulars hard to catch. Flush a particular out of one generic bush, it only finds cover in another. Hamlet's inner particularity of feeling frees him from the universality of courtly seeming, only to bind him to his father.

If Hamlet is dominated at this point by "relations"—by universal aspects of identity—it is appropriate that his father's Ghost returns not merely to enlighten him but to impose upon him the burden of action. For it is a peculiarity of language that although we can particularize substantives—zeroing in on the haecceitas, quiddity, or "inscape" of things or people—the individuality of actions quite escapes the wide-gauge mesh of our verbal nets. Demonstrative adjectives like "this" and "that," and proper nouns of the sort discussed earlier, can be made to single out unique objects—"that man in the corner wearing a yellow tie" or Beethoven's "Eroica." But no class of verb corresponds to the demonstrative adjective, and the notion of a "proper verb" ties knots in one's imagination. The most vivid and active of verbs—say, "slash" or "hack"—is doomed by its nature to abstraction.9 And of course it is precisely that most abstract and universal of all verbs, "to be," that frets Hamlet in his most famous soliloquy—during which the universal "not to be" seems an acceptable escape to him until dreams intrude ("Perchance to dream!"), for dreams issue from particular experience, the private, unsharable psyche.

An act, as Macbeth knows even before he himself acts, is defined by its consequences, and a man may be defined by his acts. If Macbeth brings into being the act of regicide, that act reciprocates by bringing Macbeth into being in a new and murderous form. When the actor is summed up by his act, he inevitably absorbs the generic character of action. He who poisons is a "poisoner," who lies is a "liar," and who revenges is a "revenger." Inducted into the category of verbal noun in this fashion, the actor takes on meaning, especially in the eyes of the law. What he loses in the process is a wealth of "being," all of the characteristics apart from the act that define the actor for what he uniquely is.10 It is this "being," his individuality, that Hamlet is asked to sacrifice to become a "revenger." Moreover, Hamlet's act is to be performed, not for himself, like Macbeth's, but for his father, so that he is doubly subordinated, to the universality of action and to the role of father surrogate.

An act is defined by its consequences, and in the "To be or not to be" soliloquy Hamlet ponders the consequences of the ultimate act of suicide, which will be defined by an unknown "something after death" that "puzzles the will" and so causes his enterprise to "lose the name of action." But an act is also defined by its context, or scene, and what puzzles Hamlet's will about the act of revenge is its context—the world of Denmark so well described by Maynard Mack."11 Unlike Shakespeare's other major tragic heroes, each of whom introduces evil into a world of comparative innocence, Hamlet inherits a world already contaminated by Claudius's misdeeds. Thus, whereas Lear, Othello, and Macbeth have primarily themselves to come to terms with, Hamlet has both himself and his scene—a world of mystery, disease, corruption, degeneration, seeming, and death. To exist amid contamination, merely to suffer a world in which the bottom has fallen out of all values, is task enough. To have to act, and to bear the identity imparted by one's action, is harder yet. But the Ghost asks even more of Hamlet—that he touch pitch and remain undefiled: "But howsoever thou pursuest this act, / Taint not thy mind" (I.v.84-85).I2 If men are defined by their acts, and acts by their contexts, then the Ghost's caveat seems a riddling impossibility. Hamlet's predicament is illuminated by contrast with that of Laertes and Claudius, who care nothing for context. Laertes would prove his father's son by cutting Hamlet's throat "i' th' church," letting the holy scene define the act, and himself, however foully; and Claudius is in agreement: "No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize" (IV.vii. 127-28).

Hamlet cannot be so unmindful of his scene, or of his precedents. If he is to kill a king, he must share his identity with all killers of kings. As he contemplates regicide, his precedents are chivalric combat in the field, on the one hand, and murder in the orchard, on the other—the open sword of old Hamlet or the concealed poison of Claudius. The chivalric style of old Hamlet and old Fortinbras, however, has receded into the feudal, almost mythic past. Once Claudius's poison has seeped into Denmark, coursing like quicksilver through "The natural gates and alleys" (I.v.67) of not merely old Hamlet's body but the body politic as well, chivalric combat waged under covenants of honor is hopelessly anachronistic. Claudius is the modern model, poison and lies the modern weapons, a diseased and rotten world the modern context. Now act! the Ghost demands, and "Taint not thy mind."

When corruption goes abroad, the sensitive individual normally goes apart, seeking private sanctuary from the public plague. Romeo and Juliet follow this course, retiring into Juliet's orchard, denying family ties, and striving to meet as purely individual lovers. However, the fact that the orchard in Hamlet is the original scene of corruption implies the unavailability of this solution to Hamlet. Nor are the groves of academe open to him: even before he learns of his father's murder, his intention of returning to Wittenberg is intercepted by Claudius. If, withdrawing, he cannot be himself in Wittenberg, he is assured by Claudius that, remaining, he can "Be as ourself in Denmark" (I.ii.122). In the shared identity of the common noun "king-killer," Hamlet risks being just that.

However much Hamlet might prefer to remain uniquely himself, isolated from a Denmark that is out of joint, he is compelled by family to act, to insert himself destructively into the context of society. Under normal conditions, not to act at all would carry a guarantee of innocence. Given the Ghost's injunction to revenge, however, inaction is as fraught with guilt as action. To remain true to himself, free of defiling action, Hamlet must of necessity betray his father's Ghost. To adopt his father's cause, on the other hand, he must betray himself.

Let me leave Hamlet at this point—puzzled of will, irresolute, berating himself for his failures to act—and examine T. S. Eliot's claim that "Hamlet's bafflement … is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem" (p. 125). I have elided Eliot's reference to the "objective correlative" here because I am concerned, not with how well Shakespeare reifies emotions in the play, but with how he achieves structural unity in it. For the structure of Hamlet is, if not perhaps a baffling, surely a troubling problem for the play's creator. How he solves the problem will get us back to Hamlet's problems with his divided identity.

The structural problem of Hamlet, or indeed of any play, is implied by Hamlet's address to the players, when he urges them to "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action" (III.ii.19-20). Of course he refers to acting, but his words apply equally well to drama itself, which requires a coalescence of words and action, poetry and performance, dead script and live actors. That coalescence, and the temporary lack of it, are most apparent in the form of revenge tragedy, where the initial "word"—the hero's vow of revenge—is fulfilled by a terminal "action"—the revenge itself—with the interval between the two devoted to attempts by the hero to bring about the desired fusion. In Hamlet, however, the fact that the interval is an interval, an eddy in the dramatic current, is not concealed, as it usually is in revenge tragedy, but proclaimed—by Hamlet himself, by the Ghost's return, by the contrast of Hamlet with Laertes and Fortinbras.13 In retrospect we can see that the form of the play can be likened to several rhetorical constructions, at the lowest level the scheme "tmesis," in which a compound word is separated by an interjection, as in Hopkins's "brim, in a flash, full."14 Tmesis is, in Puttenham's taxonomy, a "figure of disorder," as, at a higher syntactic level, is "parenthesis," in which the development of a sentence is interrupted by interposed words. Higher yet, at the level of argument, the analogue to tmesis and parenthesis is "parecbasis" or digression, a trope of invention in which, as Thomas Wilson says, "We sometimes swarve from the matter, upon just considerations, making the same to serve for our purpose, as well as if we had kept the matter still."15

In each of these constructions, as in Hamlet, the accentuated interval between beginning and end threatens the unity of expression—hence Puttenham's term "figures of disorder." The coherent, ordered interval between "tick" and "tock," in Frank Kermode's interesting example, is in danger of deteriorating into the meaningless, chaotic interval between "tock" and "tick."16 In such constructions, great stress is placed on the end-term, which must rescue the stalled or diverted middle from irrelevance. Of course the middle may not always be rescuable. Wilson, speaking of digression, says he knew "a Preacher that was a whole hower out of his matter, and at length remembring himself, saied well, now to the purpose … whereat many laughed, and some for starke wearinesse were faine to goe away" (p. 182). In the preacher's sermon the end evidently issued directly from the beginning, the digressive middle being a throwaway. Ideally, the end in this kind of form should unite with both the beginning and the middle. Thus in Hopkins's "brim, in a flash, full' the end-term "full" completes the beginning semantically and issues from the middle alliteratively.

How is it, then, with Hamlet? Its structure requires an act of completion, a final murder that will fulfill the initial vow of revenge. At the same time, if the middle is to be relevant, the act of revenge should be a product of the hero's efforts subsequent to his vow. But that is just what we do not have. The killing of Claudius fulfills the initial vow, but it is not a product of Hamlet's efforts during the middle of the play. Indeed, Claudius's death, as Dr. Johnson complains, "is at last effected by an incident whihc Hamlet has no part in producing."17 Not that Hamlet has been inactive. He has assumed an has been inactive. antic disposition, mocked Polonius, traduced Ophelia, toyed with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, directed "The Murder of Gonzago," killed Polonius, reviled his mother, boarded a pirate ship, and contemplated skulls. But none of these acts has swept his way to revenge, and in fact when he has Claudius at his mercy he spares him, albeit for unmerciful reasons. Finally, after all this digressive action and inaction, we arrive at the scene of the duel, where Shakespeare, rather like Wilson's preacher, apparently remembers himself and says, "Well, now to the purpose."

If the play requires an act of completion, the act requires an actor or agent. The logical agent, the Ghost, is evidently lacking in the required corporeality, and so must employ Hamlet as an instrument. But Hamlet is diverted—in part, as Maynard Mack has argued, by his world. Faced with a well-defined, concrete task, to kill a king, Hamlet expands upon it infinitely, becoming preoccupied with the sordid nature of the world he inherits from Claudius. Turning from his particular task, he addresses himself to universal issues. The point is writ small in the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, where the specific question "Should Hamlet commit suicide?" is quickly ballooned into the universal "Why should man live in such a world?" However, it is typical of the slipperiness of universals and particulars that in universalizing his problem Hamlet particularizes himself. For it is during this middle period—in soliloquy and conversation and, to be sure, in such actions as I have indicated above—that Hamlet reveals himself to us as perhaps the most individualized character in literature.

During this period Hamlet is, in a complex fashion, naming himself. To do so, he must sacrifice his father, abandoning his cause and paying the price in guilt. That is, naming himself involves "de-naming" himself as his father's son. Like Stephen Dedalus, who defines himself more by division than by merger—disengaging himself from church, state, family, and school-fellows—Hamlet acts on the Spinozan principle that Omnis determinatio est negatio, "All determination is negation." He asserts, not what he is, but what he is not—disjoining himself by word or deed from old Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude, and, most of all, Claudius. His identity grows complex, not by multiplying relationships, but by multiplying disrelationships. His multifariousness of being would be radically curtailed if his thoughts and feelings were channeled exclusively into the role of revenger, if self were subsumed under son. And yet, precisely because it is not, because the freewheeling, irresolute self takes priority over the dedicated son, Shakespeare's play seems in danger of deteriorating from dramatic action into personal biography. If the individualized Hamlet of the middle of the play is irrelevant, and even apparently an impediment, to Hamlet the generic revenger, is not the middle of the play itself irrelevant to the structure? Is the middle rescuable?

To talk further about dramatic unity in Hamlet, let me adapt some notions from John Crowe Ransom's theory of the "concrete universal." Ransom's theory—derived from Kant, Hegel, Coleridge, and perhaps Clive Bell—holds that a universal idea or argument, the "structure" of the poem, is given concrete embodiment in a "texture" of local details. As Wimsatt and Brooks explain:

Though the texture is strictly irrelevant to the logic of the poem, yet it does after all affect the shape of the poem; it does so by impeding the argument. The very irrelevance of the texture is thus important. Because of its presence we get, not a streamlined argument, but an argument that has been complicated through having been hindered, and diverted, and having thus had its very success threatened. In the end we have our logic, but only after a lively reminder of the aspects of reality with which logic cannot cope.18

Ransom is talking about poems, especially short lyric poems; but if we transpose for drama, the poetic "argument" becomes the dramatic plot, the pattern of evolving action, which is "universal" in that it is shared by plays comprising, in Hamlet's case, the revenge tragedy genre. That plot—featuring a crime, a vow to revenge, obstacles to the revenge, and a final fulfillment of the vow in a murderous act—is, in Ransom's term, "impeded" by an irrelevant texture. In Hamlet this impediment is the middle of the play, where Hamlet the unique individual receives expression at the expense of Hamlet the revenging son.

Since delay is a built-in feature of the revenge tragedy form, plays of this sort normally set obstacles before the hero. They do not normally make the hero himself the major obstacle, and they certainly do not have him repeatedly announce that nothing impedes his revenge but himself:

                     I do not know
Why yet I live to say, "This thing's to do,"
Sith I have cause and will and strength and
To do't.

Hamlet is baffled here and elsewhere, according to Eliot, because Shakespeare is baffled—unable to find an objective correlative adequate to the emotion he seeks to express. I would argue, however, that Shakespeare is not baffled, he is resistant. Hamlet's expressions of bafflement publicize the structural hiatus in Shakespeare's play and—by announcing the presence on his part of cause, will, strength, and means—suggest that his delay is at least partly arbitrary, a product less of Hamlet himself than of the dramatic form and his author. For Hamlet stands not only between himself and his revenge upon Claudius but also between the form of revenge tragedy and its fulfillment in Shakespeare's play. And of course it is Shakespeare who has stood him there. Hamlet's inexplicably stalled revenge, in other words, is to some extent a meta-dramatic reflection of Shakespeare's resistance to the conventional, hackneyed revenge tragedy form.

Let me put it, as I think Shakespeare has, in terms of names, During the period of delay, Hamlet is in effect naming himself in all his complex individuality. At the same time Shakespeare is, if not exactly naming himself, at least naming his play in all its complex individuality. And this naming, like Hamlet's, involves a "de-naming." For there is one more curious parallel concerning names. Fortinbras is not the only analogue to Hamlet in having a name that is both his own and his father's. The play Hamlet has also—or in its own time had—such a dual identity. Its dramatic "father," the lost play written around 1589 presumably by Thomas Kyd, was also called Hamlet, by which name one of its performances was recorded by Henslowe in June 1594. This play, now known as the ur-Hamlet, is thus related to Shakespeare's Hamlet—both genetically (as a source) and generically (as a revenge tragedy)—precisely as old Hamlet is related to young Hamlet.

In this sense Shakespeare's problem is analogous to his hero's. Like Hamlet, Shakespeare has committed himself (has he "sworn" to the Chamberlain's Men?) to a generic task, not an act of revenge but an act of restoration, the writing of a play based on the ur-Hamlet. Adopting Kyd's plot and some of his dramatic techniques, Shakespeare risks producing a play that shares not merely its name but its nature with its literary forebear. As the name "Hamlet" both is and is not Hamlet's, so the title Hamlet is and is not Shakespeare's. Of course we do not know the contents of Kyd's play, but the repetition from it of the phrase "Hamlet revenge"—by Lodge in Wit's Miserie, by Dekker in Satiromastix, and in a pamphlet by Samuel Rowlands—suggests that it stressed the act of revenge itself rather than the enervating effects of self-exploration. If this self-exploration distinguishes Hamlet from other revenge tragedy heroes, then form-exploration distinguishes Hamlet from other revenge tragedy plays. For in having Hamlet publicize his inactivity as revenger, Shakespeare calls the generic structure of his play into question, even as Hamlet calls himself into question. In their similar self-reflexive ways, then, both hero and play become individualized, confiscating for themselves the names they share with their respective "fathers." The nominal identity and generic kinship of Shakespeare's play with Kyd's are merely a matrix from which the unique, self-conscious particularity of Hamlet develops. But in the process Shakespeare has opened the door of delay so wide that he endangers the unity of his play. How he escapes that danger we shall have to try to find out.

If, as I have just said, Shakespeare's play is form-conscious, it is also, as many have said, theater-conscious as well. A touring stage company suddenly appears in Denmark, allusions are made to the child actors of Shakespeare's time, Polonius supplies a catalogue of dramatic genres, a player auditions for Hamlet in the role of Hecuba, Hamlet discourses on styles of acting, "The Mousetrap" is performed, the words act and play are endlessly explored, and so forth. One effect of this within the play is that the illusions of theatrical art and the "seeming" of Claudius's court interpenetrate to fashion a pervasive mysteriousness in which reality dissolves and metamorphoses like the forms in an engraving by Escher. This mysteriousness invades not only Hamlet's Denmark but the audience's Hamlet. Uncertain whether drama is a metaphor for life, or life a metaphor for drama, we grow, like Hamlet, unsure of our own world. Are we in the play or is the play in us? Where does the apron stop? With Ophelia "acting" for Hamlet, and Hamlet "acting" for the King and Polonius, and the King and Polonius, and all, acting for us, who are observing the King and Polonius observing Hamlet observing Ophelia—how far out does the fiction reach to incorporate our world? On the other hand, the play-within-the-play and all its quasi-dramatic satellites serve as Brechtian "alienation devices" to disengage us from the play as "real life" and make us see it, at least momentarily, as an artificial construct—pure theatrical illusion—quite distanced from ourselves.

This ambiguous in-and-outness is reflected in Hamlet himself. Any dramatic character has in a sense a dual identity. On the one hand, he is a more or less realistic person whom we see making choices and taking actions that help create the plot of the play. On the other hand, he is less his own person than the playwright's instrument. He does not choose and act; he is made to choose and act to fulfill the needs of the play. Thus a character is both an agent of action, doing his own will, and an instrument of action, dancing to the tune of the author and his plot. Ideally, the playwright fashions a character who serves the plot while appearing to act on his own.

This division of identity appears in any literary character, whether in novel, poem, or play. Plays, however, give rise to a reinforcing division of identity that allows us to distinguish between "character" and "actor"—between the illusion of a man named Hamlet and, say, John Gielgud, who conveys that illusion to us. If we are conscious only of the character Hamlet, we are absorbed in the play as fictional life. If we become conscious of the actor Gielgud, however, Hamlet the character disappears, however briefly, and with him the fiction of real life in Denmark. We are left with theater—with Gielgud and grease paint, aprons, props, makeshift illusions. Hamlet the character acts, as it were, on his own volition within the fictional world, but Gielgud the actor is constrained by plot and script, by the role he is handed. If the actor finds his role unsatisfactory, he may complain to the playwright, "Hamlet would not say that, he would say this," or "Why doesn't he kill him while he's praying—he just proved he's guilty?" Or, as the actor gets further into his role, "he" becomes "I"—"Why is Fortinbras sent to war when I, who have cause and means and strength to do't, cannot be loosed upon this Claudius?"

In Hamlet, Shakespeare seems to have fashioned a character who is conscious of his dual identity and able to articulate it, almost as though he were an actor at a rehearsal. He puzzles over the fact that as a character he is fully equipped for revenge but that as an actor, or instrument, he is not allowed to proceed with it. Thus, envying the player's facility with tears, distraction, and a broken voice, Hamlet says:

                            What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have?

We see Hamlet here not as a character but as an actor—an actor playing Hamlet, who is envying an actor playing Hecuba. Lamenting that his own role is full of passionate potentials to which he is denied expressive access, he seems to rebel against his role and, as if to spite his author, clarions passion in all directions, ending in a great spate of invective: "Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!" (608-609). Then, as though embarrassed by this out-of-character, or out-of-role, behavior, he tries to talk his way back into his part:

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!
Fie upon't! Foh! About my brain!

Throughout the middle of the play, Hamlet the character is allowed—is, of course, obliged—to explore the plenitude of his own being, to spin out on the filaments of speech the magic and marvelous web of his personality. The actor-Hamlet is permitted his complaints, his bafflement, his minor revolts, but for the most part he is suppressed. However, if the play is to conclude, Hamlet the singer of self must be silenced; otherwise, he could go on endlessly examining himself and his world until an eddying in the dramatic current became a whirlpool. But this transition must be carefully negotiated, for if Shakespeare simply transforms the truant individual into the generic avenger, the middle of the play will have been lost to episodic irrelevance. What Shakespeare needs for his digressive structure—to make his "swarving from the matter" serve his purpose "as well as if [he] had kept the matter still"—is an end-term that will both rescue the middle and fulfill the beginning. I think he provides such a term in the graveyard and duel scenes of Act V.

Most critics agree that after the ocean voyage we encounter a changed Hamlet, one whose restless questioning of himself and his world has given way to something like resignation. He has been off stage for a little over three scenes. He is dressed differently from when we last saw him. He can now admire unpremeditated action, talk of a divinity that shapes our ends, see a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, and address himself to his own death composedly. The question, of course, is "Why?" It is not easily answered, however, for which reason it is not often asked. Hamlet accepts his world, but Shakespeare "does not outline for us the process of acceptance" (Mack, p. 520).

Some of the difficulty may lie in Hamlet's ambiguously divided nature. As a realistic character, Hamlet passes from irresolution to a readiness for action, from self-exploration and cosmic doubt to an acceptance of self and world. Such a change, we feel, should be made psychologically plausible, but since the change occurs off stage, Hamlet's thoughts and feelings remain undramatized. In his other mode of being, as the instrument of the playwright, Hamlet must exchange the role of truant for that of revenger. Since roles do not have psyches, the only plausibility required is formal: Hamlet must be maneuvered to serve the causal demands of the plot and the aesthetic context of the play. In both modes he moves from the particular toward the universal, passing (as a person) from self toward son, from individual toward society, and (as a role) from structural irrelevance toward contextual integration. As a character he now becomes answerable to his ghostly father. As a role he becomes answerable to Shakespeare—another kind of father, and especially so if Rowe was correct about Shakespeare's having acted the part of the Ghost.

I suspect that no attempt to supply reasons, motives, psychological grounds for Hamlet's change will prove entirely persuasive. Nor is it adequate to claim that Shakespeare, having individualized Hamlet, simply shifts from a realistic into a dramaturgical gear and abandons the character for the role of revenger required by the plot.19 Shakespeare has not done either one or the other entirely but both simultaneously, because his goal is to fuse the two dimensions of Hamlet that have previously been divided. From the concrete and the universal Hamlets must come the concrete-universal Hamlet. The individual "I" must unite with the generic "son," the agent with the instrument, the character with the actor. Thus the change is effected partly in psychological terms, partly in symbolic ones.

To begin with, one thing at least seems clear and direct: the exact moment of the change. It is underscored for us in Hamlet's account of his ocean voyage at the start of Act V, scene ii:

Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep. Methought I lay
Worse than the mutines in the bilboes.…

Pausing here, we should note that these lines sum up for us the Hamlet we have known prior to the ocean voyage, a Hamlet whose restlessness of spirit precluded resignation, who could neither "sleep" contentedly in Claudius's Denmark nor risk what dreams might come in the "sleep" of death, who regarded Denmark as a prison and himself in shackles, as he told Rosencrantz, and who has mutinied against Denmark's new command, not to mention his own revenging role. Out of this irresolution of half-sleep, half-waking, Hamlet suddenly, rashly—"And prais'd be rashness for it"—rises, fingers the packet kept by his schoolfellows, opens it, and discovers Claudius's commission to England, which he rewrites and seals, along with the fates of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

In retrospect, as he tells Horatio the story, Hamlet marvels at the ease and effectiveness of these unpremeditated acts. Rashly he arose, and rashness is to be praised. Rashly he rewrote the commission—"Ere I could make a prologue to my brains, / They had begun the play" (30-31)—and his rashness saves his life. On the one hand, he acts on impulse to protect himself, but at the same time he feels himself acted upon, as part of a larger order of causation. The "divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will" (10-11), which is part of Hamlet the character's world, is paralleled by the later "prologue" and "play," which are part of Hamlet the actor's world. Or, rather, he—as he is now realizing—is a part of them: the providential plot within, the revenge tragedy plot without.

The focal source of Hamlet's change—the major prop of his shipboard drama—is the King's commission. If the earlier Hamlet individualized himself in part by pondering universal issues, the universal now becomes most frighteningly particular when he reads the commission, his death warrant. Death does not here take the abstract form of universal verbs, "To be or not to be," but the concretely imagined crush of flesh and bone under the stroke of an unsharpened ax, the head—his head—rolling and spurting under the studious gaze of his two schoolfellows. Yet curiously enough, this particularizing of death—as though the King's commission has converted "death" from an abstract noun into a proper name—seems less awful to Hamlet than the universalized death of his famous soliloquy. Why?

Because, I think, of the indirections Shakespeare is pursuing in this act, which are of two sorts. First, the moment of Hamlet's crucial change is not dramatized for us but narrated. It takes place in that great off-stage void from which only ghosts, ambassadors, and pirate messengers return. As history, therefore, Hamlet's change can appear only in retrospect, filtered to us through time the distancer and Hamlet the taleteller, so that the changing Hamlet lives only in the voice of the changed Hamlet.

The second indirection is more curious: Shakespeare's inversion of the logical syntax of Act V. Why, we cannot help wondering, does the playwright let Hamlet converse with Horatio through a lengthy graveyard scene without once mentioning the ocean voyage, the events of which we should have expected him to disclose immediately? Perhaps for the same reason that Shakespeare narrates rather than dramatizes the sea change, for by inverting his dramatic syntax he causes the story of the sea voyage to issue as much from the graveyard scene as from the voyage itself. Hamlet's shipboard experiencing of potential death, or rather his telling of it, is thus colored by his graveyard experiences, in which we see him coming to terms with the corporeal reality of death as both universal (the various skulls) and particular (Ophelia).

Hamlet's encounter with death at sea, not as a universal but as concrete and personal, is a culmination of that whole middle section of the play in which he has individualized or named himself. The last step in his naming of the "I" in "Hamlet" is his naming of death as "mine." It marks his completion as an individual. But, as befits a divided Hamlet, death works two ways. His reading of the commission, in so far as it symbolizes his own death, kills off the individual Hamlet we have known and gives rise, phoenixlike, to the universalized revenger who will act in this last scene. But in so far as Hamlet rewrites the commission, evading his death, it represents, not the killing off, but the fulfillment of Hamlet the individual, who assimilates death and becomes qualified to universalize himself as the play moves toward its climax. Thus both of Shakespeare's "indirections"—the narration and the inversion of sequence—conspire to particularize Hamlet's experience at sea and yet to subsume that particular under the aegis of the universal.

In the graveyard we encounter a Hamlet who is already changed. The graveyard is itself a scene of ends, reminding us of the parts we all play within the plot of our lives, and the first words we hear, from the grave-digging clowns—a prelude to Hamlet's entrance—sound the theme of agents and instruments. The question is whether Ophelia drowned herself or was drowned accidentally. The answer of the churlish Priest is that she drowned herself and should, as an agent of her own destruction, lie in unsanctified ground, sans prayer and requiem. However, "great command o'ersways the order" of the Priest (V.i.251), so that Ophelia receives, if not full absolution, at least the ambiguity of "maimed rites" (242).

If Ophelia's "death was doubtful" (250), leaving us uncertain whether she was active agent or passive instrument, Hamlet increasingly regards all life and death as episodes in a larger plot. Those whose skulls he examines—the politician, the courtier, Lord Such-aone, the lawyer, the great buyer of land, and even Yorick—play their parts in their individual dramas and make a common exit to the tiring house of soil. Even death itself is part of a process. In a still more comprehensive plot, Alexander exits from life only to enter upon another series of roles, as noble dust, earth, loam, and, at the vulgar end, beerbarrel stopper.

Hamlet too has become part of a larger plot, which he now accepts without complaint or bafflement. He is reconciled, not merely to his world, but to his role in Shakespeare's play. Earlier, if I can strain to make a point, he aspired to the role, not of revenger, but of dramatist, seeking to attain the kind of synoptic overview that would enable him to understand the entire play, instead of contenting himself with the limited perspective vouchsafed him as a character. With his return to Denmark, however, he begins to accept his place in the dramatic context rather than trying to dominate and transcend it.

Shakespeare signifies this transition, once again, with a name, when Hamlet issues his challenge to Laertes at the grave of Ophelia: "This is I, / Hamlet, the Dane!" (V.i.280-81). His announcement is a model of self-definition. The anonymous "this" becomes the unique "I," who is part of the paternally shared "Hamlet," who merges with the universal "Dane." During the middle of the play, Hamlet could have gone no further than the "I." Now, as he is about to descend with Laertes into a grave and emerge again—a shorthand version of the death-and-rebirth symbolism of the sea voyage—the presence of all three terms implies the accommodation of the confirmed self within a universal context.

Hamlet's "This is I, / Hamlet, the Dane!" represents the end of the hero's naming of himself, his verbal self-definition. He now moves toward definition by action. But name and act may be more closely related than we suspect. If a man can be defined by his act, perhaps the reciprocal is true: to define oneself is to predispose oneself to action. Naming is not merely symbolic action—a substitute for doing—but incipient action—a preparation for doing. Hamlet's naming of himself at Ophelia's grave, then, should contain the act of revenge in potentia. That this is so is made more evident when Hamlet, having told Horatio of the ocean voyage, goes on to say:

Does it not, thinks't thee, stand me now
He that hath kill'd my king and whor'd my
Popp'd in between th' election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage—is't not perfect
To quit him with this arm?

Hamlet's revenge will be justified by Claudius's evil acts, which correspond precisely to the three terms of self-definition in Hamlet's "This is I, / Hamlet, the Dane!" The primal act of killing "my king," which paved the way to the whoring of "my mother," brings into focus Hamlet the son who bears his father's name. Stealing the election for kingship emphasizes Hamlet as Prince of Denmark, "the Dane." And the angling for his "proper life" calls forth Hamlet the unique individual. The revenge-minded hero is warranted to act as "I," as "Hamlet," and as "Dane"—self, son, and prince.

Having been rendered potential through naming, the act must now be made actual through performance. And Shakespeare stages its performance most carefully. Despite Hamlet's praise of "rashness," he does not, like Laertes, simply storm the King's quarters with bloody intent. Nor, on the other hand, does he devise Machiavellian plots and stratagems to effect his revenge. To do so would be to accept Claudius's early invitation, "Be as ourself in Denmark" (I.ii.122), and to become tainted by the world of seeming in which he maneuvered. (Whereas even Claudius admits to Laertes that their plot is likely to succeed because Hamlet, "Most generous and free from all contriving" [IV.vii.136], will not examine the foils.)

To the contrary, Hamlet has forsworn plots, having come to feel that "our indiscretion sometimes serves us well / When our dear plots do pall" (V.ii.8-9). Instead of a plotter, he is now a player, with parts in other plots—that of providence, that of Shakespeare. He has a part also in Claudius's plot, a role that requires him to "fall to play" with Laertes.

Immediately before this final "play," however, Hamlet makes a generous gesture of apology to Laertes:

              What I have done
That might your nature, honour, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet!
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness. If t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.

This is a curious apology because the offense is left unidentified as simply "it" and "What I have done." We may assume that Hamlet refers to his outburst at the grave of Ophelia, which Claudius and Gertrude both labeled "madness." But his apology seems excessive to that somewhat peripheral occasion, and I think Shakespeare—by keeping the offense vague, by having Laertes speak of his motives for "revenge" (255-57)—means us to see through the business in the grave-yard to the primary offense, Hamlet's murder of Polonius. For it is certainly that, rather than the scuffling in the grave, for which Laertes is already plotting revenge.

Hamlet lays all blame at the cell-door of madness because, of course, until his own revenge is consummated, he must pretend to an "antic disposition." But "madness" here is less an outright lie than a metaphor. The apology repeats the theme of identity—"Hamlet" and "not-Hamlet," Hamlet sane and Hamlet mad—that we have marked in the division between son and self. In these terms Hamlet's "madness" issues from his identity as son, since it is in this role that he is obliged to be, as he told his mother after murdering Polonius, "mad in craft" (III.iv.188) in order to conceal his designs from Claudius. It is also Hamlet the son, not Hamlet the unrelated self, who stabs Polonius, thinking him Claudius ("Is it the King? … I took thee for thy better" [26, 32]), who in the same scene extols old Hamlet and denigrates his successor, and who uses words like daggers to pierce his mother's conscience. The equation of madness with Hamlet the son is made explicit with the reappearance of the Ghost, whose special relationship to Hamlet is underscored by its invisibility to Gertrude. As Hamlet says, "Do you not come your tardy son to chide," Gertrude cries, "Alas, he's mad!" (105-106). As a metaphor for Hamlet's bond to his father—for that sense in which Hamlet as revenger is "possessed" by his father's Ghost—Hamlet's "madness" is truly no part of himself, and is in fact "poor Hamlet's enemy." For his personal identity and fullness of self lie in his unrelated particularity—that concrete "being" which is in excess of and irrelevant to his universal "meaning" as son and revenger.

Just prior to the duel, then, Hamlet seeks to dismiss as "madness" that part of himself which sought to revenge his father and killed Laertes' father instead. His apology seeks not only to erase that murderous act; it would, if accepted by Laertes, divest both men of their "sonship"—exorcising the "ghosts" of the dead fathers, who demand revenge—so that they might meet as discrete individuals. Thus for a brief moment as the play tips toward its fatal conclusion Shakespeare recalls for us the Hamlet of the middle of the play—the self-searching, multifarious "I" to which has subsequently been added "Hamlet, the Dane." And in the process he draws our attention to Hamlet's ambiguity as both active agent and passive instrument. For the effect of his apology is to transform Hamlet the agent, defined by and responsible for his own actions, into Hamlet the instrument, possessed by madness and victimized by actions he is complelled to perform. This ambiguity is to be sustained in the duel and brought to culmination in the murder of Claudius.

If Hamlet the revenging son is "not himself," neither is Hamlet the duelist, for the same actional reason. Since in dueling the ordinary free play of action is disciplined to the conventions of swordsmanship, the man turned duelist loses his individuality in his actional role—as, in a more complex fashion, the actor loses his individuality in his dramatic role. In the duel-drama metaphor, which many critics have noted, Hamlet enters a fictional world, an "as-if" world of bated foils in which fencers pretend to engage in real combat, and loses himself in a series of stylized actions. But of course Laertes is not "acting." Nor, once wounded, is Hamlet. In the form of the unbated foil, reality invades fiction. The illusion of play is shattered, fencing becomes fighting, and at the end Hamlet leaps from his role as duelist into his role as revenger, out of fiction into reality—like an actor leaping from the stage into the theater—to kill the most attentive member of his audience.

At last the deed we have awaited is performed, the promise fulfilled. And yet, is this really the deed we awaited? Why does Hamlet kill Claudius? To ask that question at this late date may seem odd, given all the motives for revenge Hamlet has catalogued throughout the play. But the point of asking it is that Hamlet does not kill Claudius as an act of revenge for his father.

When he cries, "The point envenom'd too! / Then, venom, to thy work" (V.ii.332-33), and thrusts at Claudius, it is not poison in the ear but venom on the sword tip that prompts Hamlet's attack. He kills Claudius, not for his father, but for himself, not in response to the Ghost's story and in fulfillment of his vow, but in direct retaliation for the attack upon his own life. Indeed, his stabbing of Claudius is less an act of revenge than a reflex action. Hamlet answers the thrust of Claudius's plot against him as he answered the thrust of Laertes' unbated foil, with a quick and fatal riposte.

There is another question to be asked: Why does Hamlet kill Claudius twice? For having already stabbed Claudius with a foil whose venomed point yields "not half an hour of life" (326), he then seizes the poisoned stoup of wine—

Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned
Drink off this potion! Is thy union here?
Follow my mother!

Whereas the venom on the unbated foil has been applied by Laertes (see IV.vii. 141-49), the stoup of wine has been poisoned by Claudius himself. Thus the stabbing has been poisined by Claudius, though it involves poison, does not recall the original poisoning of Hamlet's father by Claudius but the poisoning of Hamlet himself, whereas just the reverse is true of Hamlet's forcing the poisoned wine upon Claudius. Thus if Hamlet stabs Claudius for himself, he forces the poisoned potion upon him for his father. The "union" is of course the pearl which Claudius dropped in the stoup of wine, but in its punning sense, as "marriage," it harks back to the poisoning of Hamlet's father, which enabled the poisoned marriage between Claudius and Gertrude. If the pearl is set in a ring which contains poison, in the Lucrezia Borgia style, then the "poisoned marriage" pun is perfected.

In having Hamlet kill Claudius twice, Shakespeare emblematizes, I think, two other "unions"—the union of Hamlet's previously divided identity and the union of Shakespeare's disjunctive dramatic structure. In the tmesislike structure of Hamlet the first killing of Claudius is a product, not of the beginning of the play, where Hamlet swore to revenge his father, but of the middle. It issues from that long digressive phase in which Hamlet, distracted from his generic task as revenger, reveals to us the unique workings of his tormented consciousness, the period in which he names himself. Had he killed Claudius merely as an act of revenge, the middle of the play would have been irrelevant indeed; and Hamlet's conversion from self to son would have been inexplicable and arbitrary. As it is, however, in acting for himself, Hamlet acts for a self that has been freighted with value and significance by virtue of that self-exploratory middle phase. Thus his self-revengeful killing of Claudius emphasizes the achievement of individuality that is a precondition of meaningful action in Hamlet.

If this first killing helps rescue the individual form of Shakespeare's play by binding the end to the middle, the second killing accedes to its generic form as revenge tragedy by binding the end to the beginning. For the second killing is performed by Hamlet the revenger fulfilling his vow to the Ghost, completing the initial "word" with a terminal "act." What has made Hamlet innovative as a revenge tragedy—a play uniquely itself within its genre—is its departure from the generic pattern in order to explore both the consciousness of its hero and the nature of its own form. By this means, both play and hero distinguish themselves from their patronyms, the ur-Hamlet and old Hamlet, and "name" themselves as discrete entities. Yet as part of the paradox of the concrete-universal, individual fulfillment may coincide with generic achievement: self and son may interpenetrate. For the Hamlet who kills Claudius for himself kills him also for his father, rather like Fortinbras regaining his father's lands in Denmark by conquering for himself in Poland. Perhaps this gives additional point to Polonius's famous advice to sons:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

By exploring and naming the "I" in "Hamlet," then, the hero proves at the end not to have been false to old Hamlet, or to himself. By earning the name for himself, investing it with his own meaning, Hamlet has the more truly merited his father's legacy. The singular name is now a symbol for the fusion of self and son wrought by a final act that, in its doubleness, is at once individual and generic.

What applies in this regard to Hamlet applies also to Hamlet. Having gone its own self-defining route, the play nevertheless honors its genetic and generic obligations at the end, fulfilling the requirements of the revenge tragedy form, yet in the process compelling that universal form to make its way—hindered and diverted, its success in constant jeopardy—through the density of concrete experience. So wrought by its particular embodiment in this play, in this hero, the generic form is no longer what it was. It has been twisted, tested, and modified by a playwright who, in making the form answer to the needs of his original play, has revivified it as a genre. Thus Hamlet the hero and Hamlet the play have achieved the independence of "being" attached to proper names and at the same time the breadth of "meaning" possessed by common nouns. Both have truly named themselves.


1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. McGuinness (New York: Humanities Press, 1961), p. 25.

2 "The Theory of Meaning," Collected Papers, 2 vols. (London: Hutchinson, 1971), II. 357.

3The Complete Works of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), p. 204.

4 "Shakespeare's Nomenclature," Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 68.

5The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. William A. Neilson and Charles J. Hill (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942).

6 Elsdon Best, The Maori, 2 vols. (Wellington, N.Z.: Board of Maori Ethnological Research, 1924), 1, 397-98; cited by Erich Kahler, Man the Measure (New York: Pantheon, 1943), p. 37.

7 "Hamlet," Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932), p. 124.

8 Ernest Jones's Freudian interpretation of the play appears in Hamlet and Oedipus (New York: Norton, 1949), though it originated in 1910 as an explanation of a footnote in Freud's Traumdeutung (1900). For an even more exhaustive psychoanalytic treatment of the play, see K. R. Eissler. Discourse on Hamlet and "Hamlet": A Psychoanalytic Inquiry (New York: International Universities Press, 1971).

9 I know that all language is abstract by nature and cannot deposit before us a concrete object, as Swift's virtuosi in the Grand Academy of Lagado could. Even the particularizing of "that man in the corner wearing a yellow tie" is accomplished with a series of abstract terms. Nevertheless, within its context of necessary abstraction, language can particularize things but not acts.

10 Harold Rosenberg distinguishes between "personality" (representing the felt unity of the evolving organism) and "identity" ("the character defined by the coherence of his acts") in his discussion of "Character Change in the Drama" (The Tradition of the New, 2nd ed. [New York: Horizon Press, 1960], pp. 135-53). See also,

11 "The World of Hamlet," YR, 41 (1952), 502-23.

12 would depart here from Neilson and Hill's text, which sets a comma after "Taint not thy mind" and continues "nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught," in favor of the semicolon that appears after "mind" in the Folio text. The difference is crucial, the comma making a less sweeping demand on Hamlet than the semicolon.

13 In "Hamlet When New" (SR, 61 [1953], 15-42), William Empson argues that Shakespeare has Hamlet almost ostentatiously call attention to his delay in order to intercept the audience's impulse to laugh at the revenge structure and to make theatricality itself one of the themes of the play.

14 For a brilliant discussion of various examples of "overspecified ends and indeterminate middles"—tmesis being one—which force upon us the act of interpretation, see Geoffrey Hartman, "The Voice of the Shuttle: Language from the Point of View of Literature." Beyond Formalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 337-55.

15Wilson's Arte of Rhtorique (1560), ed. G. H. Mair (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), p. 181.

16The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 44-46.

17Johnson on Shakespeare, e d. Walter Raleigh (London: Oxford University Press, 1908), p. 196.

18 William K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History (New York: Knopf, 1957), p. 627. Ransom's theory appears in various of his articles and books, but most clearly perhaps in "Criticism as Pure Speculation," in The Intent of the Critic, ed. Donald A. Stauffer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), pp. 91-124, and "The Concrete Universal," Kenyon Review, 17 (1955), 383-407.

19 This notion of a shift is put forward by Rosenberg, who maintains that the self-exploring, inactive Hamlet is arbitrarily transformed into the revenger because the play must become a tragedy. Though I think that this is but part of the story, I am nevertheless indebted to Rosenberg's thoughtful discussion of this aspect of character change.

Rebecca Smith (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare's Gertrude," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely, eds., 1980, pp. 194-208.

[In the essay that follows, Smith contends that Shakespeare's Gertrude is not lascivious or deceitful, but rather submissive, compliant, nurturing, and caught in the struggle between her two loves, Hamlet and Claudius.]

Gertrude, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, has traditionally been played as a sensual, deceitful woman. Indeed, in a play in which the characters' words, speeches, acts, and motives have been examined and explained in myriad ways, the depiction of Gertrude has been remarkably consistent, as a woman in whom "compulsive ardure … actively doth burn, / And reason [panders] will" (III.iv. 86-88).1 Gertrude prompts violent physical and emotional reactions from the men in the play, and most stage and film directors—like Olivier, Kozintsev, and Richardson—have simply taken the men's words and created a Gertrude based on their reactions. But the traditional depiction of Gertrude is a false one, because what her words and actions actually create is a soft, obedient, dependent, unimaginative woman who is caught miserably at the center of a desperate struggle between two "mighty opposites," her "heart cleft in twain" (III.iv.156) by divided loyalties to husband and son. She loves both Claudius and Hamlet, and their conflict leaves her bewildered and unhappy.

Three famous film versions of Hamlet illustrate the standard presentation, wherein Gertrude is a vain, self-satisfied woman of strong physical and sexual appetites. Thus, Grigori Kozintsev (1964) shows her gazing into a hand mirror and arranging her hair as she chastens Hamlet for the particularity of his grief in the face of the commonness of death. Tony Richardson (1969) repeatedly shows her eating and drinking. Jack Jorgens's description in Shakespeare on Film is vividly accurate: "Richardson's film shows the bed as a 'nasty sty' where overweight Claudius and pallid Gertrude drink blood-red wine and feast with their dogs on greasy chicken and fruit."2 Gertrude sustains herself throughout the play with frequent goblets of greedily swilled wine.

In the same way, in the Olivier Hamlet (1948), the dramatic symbol for Gertrude is a luxurious canopied bed. This bed is one of the first and last images on the screen and emphasizes both Gertrude's centrality in the play and Olivier' s interpretation of the centrality of sexual appetite in Gertrude's nature. Even her relation-ship with her son is tinged with sexuality. Olivier's Hamlet brutally hurls Gertrude—the ultimate sexual object—onto her bed, alternating embraces and abuse in the accusatory closet scene. In Richardson's and Kozintsev's film versions, the sexual passion between Claudius and Gertrude receives similarly emphatic treatment. For example, Richardson has Claudius and Gertrude conduct much royal business from their bed; and in one particularly obvious scene, Kozintsev's Gertrude is led by Claudius through the midst of people scantily costumed as satyrs and nymphs and dancing in frenzied celebration. She is then literally pushed into a darkened room, whereupon Claudius moves toward her (and the camera) with a lustfully single-minded expression on his face. The misrepresentations that these film versions of Gertrude perpetuate take their cues from respected critical interpretations of Gertrude,3 which seem to assume that only a deceitful, highly sexual woman could arouse such strong responses and violent reactions in men, not a nurturant and loving one, as is Shakespeare's Gertrude.

Gertrude, like Hamlet, is a character who undergoes subtle but significant changes between Shakespeare's sources and his play, changes which increase her complexity and ambiguity. In the earliest Amleth/Hamlet stories, Gertrude clearly is culpable. In Saxo Grammaticus's twelfth-century Historiae Danicae, Gerutha/ Gertrude marries Feng/Claudius, who is the known murderer of her husband. François de Belleforest, in his sixteenth-century retelling of the story in the Histoires Tragiques, makes one important addition to the depiction of Gertrude: he states that the Queen committed adultery with her brother-in-law during her marriage to the King.4 Finally, in the Ur-Hamlet, significant actions by Gertrude reinforce the suspicion of her culpability: "After the death of Corambis (Polonius) she blames herself for Hamlet's madness, and believes that she is thereby punished for her incestuous re-marriage, or else that her marriage, by depriving Hamlet of the crown, has driven him mad from thwarted ambition. Hamlet upbraids her for her crocodile tears, and urges her to assist in his revenge, so that in the King's death her infamy should die."5 In this earlier version, Gertrude promises to "conceale, consent, and doe my best / What stratagem soe're thou shalt deuise," and she sends Hamlet warnings by Horatio, thus taking direct steps to aid Hamlet's revenge and thereby rid herself of guilt.6

As Kenneth Muir points out, Shakespeare's play apparently follows the main lines of the Ur-Hamlet (with its secret murder, doubtable ghost, feigned and real madness, play-within-a-play, closet scene, killing of the Polonius/Corambis figure, voyage to England, suicide of Ophelia, and fencing match with Laertes—Shakespeare's additions including only the pirates, Fortinbras, and possibly the gravediggers).7 The changes that Shakespeare does make in the structure and characters of the play demand attention as significant indicators of a redirection that adds subtlety and thematic complexity: melodrama is replaced by tragedy. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, many questions about Gertrude arise that cannot be fully answered: the murder of old Hamlet is not public knowledge, but does Gertrude know, or at least suspect? Is she guilty of past adultery as well as current incest? Does the closet scene demonstrate her acknowledgment of sexual guilt, and does she thereafter align herself with Hamlet in his quest for revenge and thus shun Claudius's touch and bed?

Indeed, does Gertrude demonstrate change and development in the course of the play, or is she incapable of change?

Finding answers to these questions about Gertrude is complicated by the fact that in Hamlet one hears a great deal of discussion of Gertrude's personality and actions by other characters. She is a stimulus for and object of violent emotional reactions in the ghost, Hamlet, and Claudius, all of whom offer extreme descriptions of her. The ghost expresses simultaneous outrage, disgust, and protectiveness in his first appearance to Hamlet: "Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest. / But howsomever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught" (I.v.82-86). The ghost first asks Hamlet for revenge, describes his present purgatorial state, spends ten lines sketchily outlining the secret murder, and then begins a vivid sixteen-line attack on the sexual relationship of Claudius and Gertrude (42-57). He returns to a brief description of the actual murder only because he "scentfs] the morning air, / Brief let me be" (58-59). Before he disappears, he returns to the topic of Gertrude's sexual misdeeds, but again admonishes Hamlet to "leave her to heaven." The ghost's second appearance to Hamlet is prompted by the need for further defense of Gertrude. Hamlet's resolution when he is preparing to visit his mother's bedchamber after "The Mousetrap," to "be cruel, not unnatural," to "speak [daggers] to her, but use none" (IIIii.395-96), seems to be failing. His frenzied attack on Gertrude gains verbal force and violence (which, on stage, is usually accompanied by increasing physical force and violence) until the ghost intervenes. Hamlet shares the ghost's obsession with Gertrude's sexuality, but is dissipating the energy that should be directed toward avenging his father's murder in attacking Gertrude for, he claims, living "In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty!" (III. iv.93-95). The ghost must intervene to whet Hamlet's "almost blunted purpose" of revenge and to command Hamlet to protect Gertrude, to "step between her and her fighting soul," since "conceit in weakest bodies strongest works" (111-14).

Hamlet's violent emotions toward his mother are obvious from his first soliloquy, in which twenty-three of the thirty-one lines express his anger and disgust at what he perceives to be Gertrude's weakness, insensitivity, and, most important, bestiality: "O most wicked speed: to post / With such dexterity to incestious [sic] sheets" (I.ii.156-57). Gertrude's apparent betrayal of his idealized Hyperion father, not the actual death, has given rise to Hamlet's melancholy state at the first of the play. A. C. Bradley's analysis of the cause of Hamlet's sickness of life and longing for death is vividly corroborative: "It was the moral shock of the sudden ghastly disclosure of his mother's true nature, falling on him when his heart was aching with love, and his body doubtless weakened by sorrow… . Is it possible to conceive an experience more desolating to a man such as we have seen Hamlet to be; and is its result anything but perfectly natural? It brings bewildered horror, then loathing, then despair of human nature."8

Later, when the ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius, Gertrude's second husband, is the murderer of her first, his generalized outrage at women increases and spreads. His sense of betrayal is soon further fed by the unexpected rejection of his love by Ophelia, who obeys the commands of her brother and father that result from their one-dimensional conception of a woman as a sexual "object." Laertes advises Ophelia that "best safety lies in fear" (I.iii.43), and Polonius, in a mean-minded speech, demands her immediate rejection of Hamlet's apparently "honorable" (111) espousals of love. To all of this, Ophelia replies, "I shall obey, my lord" (136). Hereafter, Hamlet is described by Ophelia as behaving quite strangely (II.i.74-97), and he is heard by the audience speaking to Ophelia abusively or coarsely, as he does to his mother. His experiences lead him to attack what he perceives to be the brevity of women's love (I.ii.129-59; III. ii.154), women's wantonness (III.i.145), and the ability that women have to make "monsters" of the men (III.i.138) over whom they have so much power. Indeed, in the sea of troubles that may lead one to seek an end to life, "despis'd love" (III.i.71) is fourth in the list of heartaches.

Claudius creates an impression of Gertrude for the audience because she is the object of violent conflicting emotions for him as she is for the ghost and Hamlet. She is, he says, "My virtue or my plague" (IV.vii.13). He suffers under a "heavy burthen" (III.i.53) of guilt, but he refuses to give up "those effects for which I did the murther: / My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen" (III.iii.54-55). He speaks respectfully to Gertrude throughout the play, and tells Laertes that one of the reasons for his toleration of Hamlet's extraordinary behavior is his love for Gertrude:

     The Queen his mother
Lives almost by his looks, and for myself—
My virtue or my plague, be it either which—
She is so [conjunctive] to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her.

In Belleforest's version of the Hamlet story, the Claudius figure kills the King ostensibly to save the life of the Queen, his mistress. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Gertrude's attractiveness for Claudius is one of the causes—and his sexual possession of her one of the results—of the murder of old Hamlet. To possess Gertrude, Claudius is brazenly willing to risk the displeasure of "the general gender" (IV.vii.18) who bear great love for young Hamlet and does not hesitate to displace him on the throne by marrying Gertrude—"our sometime sister, now our queen, /Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state" (I.ii.8-9). Claudius is as obsessed by Gertrude as the two Hamlets are, and—although he clearly loves her—he shares the Hamlets' conception of Gertrude as an object. She is "possess'd" as one of the "effects" of his actions (III.iii.53-54) and is thereafter "Taken to wife" (I.ii.14). It may then seem contradictory that he does not forcibly stop Gertrude from drinking the poisoned wine, but there are, in the context of the final scene of the play, many strong reasons for his self-restraint. Therefore, one has no reason to assume that his lecture to Laertes on the ephemerality of love—which "Dies in his own too much" (IV.vii.l 18)—arises out of his experiences with Gertrude.

Although she may have been partially responsible for Claudius's monstrous act of fratricide and although her marriage to Claudius may have been indirectly responsible for making a "monster" of Hamlet, Gertrude is never seen in the play inducing anyone to do anything at all monstrous. Jan Kott's assertion notwithstanding—that Gertrude "has been through passion, murder, and silence. … suppressing] everything inside her," so that one senses "a volcano under her superficial poise"9—when one closely examines Gertrude's actual speech and actions in an attempt to understand the character, one finds little that hints at hypocrisy, suppression, or uncontrolled passion and their implied complexity.

Gertrude appears in only ten of the twenty scenes that comprise the play; furthermore, she speaks very little, having less dialogue than any other major character in Hamlet She speaks—a mere of 4,042 (3.8 percent).10 She speaks plainly, directly, and chastely when she does speak, using few images except in the longest of her speeches, which refer to Hamlet's and Ophelia's relationship (III.i.36-41 and V.i.243-46), to Ophelia's death (IV.vii. 166-83), to her sense of unspecified guilt (IV.v. 17-20), and to Hamlet's madness in the graveyard (V.i.284-88). Gertrude tells Ophelia before the spying scene that she hopes that the "happy cause of Hamlet's wildness" is Ophelia's "good beauties." If so, she trusts that Ophelia's "virtues" can effect a cure (III.i.39-40); and later, when relaying the news of Ophelia's death, Gertrude characteristically disdains liberality and creates her bittersweet pictures in the language of the "cull-cold maids." Gertrude's brief speeches include references to honor, virtue, flowers, and a dove's golden couplets; neither structure nor content suggests wantonness. Gertrude's only mildly critical comments are in response to the verbosity of Polonius ("More matter with less art"—II.ii.95) and that of the Player Queen ("The lady doth protest too much, methinks"—III.ii.230).

Gertrude usually asks questions (ten questions in her approximately forty-five lines of dialogue in the closet scene) or voices solicitude for the well-being and safety of other characters. She divides her concern between Claudius and Hamlet; indeed, Claudius observes that she "lives almost by his [Hamlet's] looks" (IV.vii.l2). Her first speeches are to Hamlet, admonishing an end to his "particular" grief and pleading that he stay in Denmark with her: "Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet, /I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg" (I.ii. 118-19). In her second appearance on stage, she directs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "to visit / My too much changed son" (II.ii.35-36) in an attempt to discover the cause of his change. However, in the same scene she also demonstrates her perspicuity by intuitively, and correctly, analyzing Hamlet's behavior: "I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father's death and our [o'erhasty] marriage" (II.ii.56-57). Gertrude's dialogue gains atypical force when she must defend both Claudius (IV.v.l 10-11, 117, 129) and Hamlet (V.i.264, 273, 284-88) to Laertes, and in her desperate defense of Hamlet to Claudius when he asks of Hamlet's whereabouts after the murder of Polonius. Hamlet, she says, killed Polonius because of a "brainish apprehension" and "weeps for what is done" (IV.i.ll, 27).

Gertrude's actions are as solicitous and unlascivious as her language. She usually enters a scene with the King, and she is alone on stage only with Hamlet in the closet scene and with mad Ophelia (both times expressing feelings of some kind of guilt). She repeatedly leaves scenes after being ordered out by Claudius, which he does both to protect her from the discovery of his guilt and to confer with her privately about how to deal with Hamlet. Little proof for the interpretation of Gertrude as a guileful and carnal woman emerges from her other textually implicit actions, as, for example, when she sorrowfully directs the attention of Polonius and Claudius to Hamlet: "But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading" (II.ii. 168). She acquiesces in the plan to determine the cause of Hamlet's extraordinary behavior by spying on him, using Ophelia as a decoy, and leaves when ordered to, so the plan can be carried out, saying, "And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish / That your good beauties be the happy cause / Of Hamlet's wildness. So shall I hope your virtues / Will bring him to his wonted way again, / To both your honors" (III.i.36-41). She later sends messengers to Hamlet to bring him to her after "The Mousetrap" and attempts to deal roundly with him, but she is forced to sit down and to contrast the pictures of her first husband and Claudius (III.iv.34, 53). Even after her encounter with Hamlet in the closet scene, she apparently attempts to restrain Laertes physically when he madly bursts in to accuse Claudius of killing Polonius ("Let him go, Gertrude, do not fear our person" IV.v.l23). She accepts a sprig of rue from Ophelia, to be worn "with a difference" (IV.v.l83), and later scatters flowers on Ophelia's grave. It also is observable from the text that she offers Hamlet a napkin with which to wipe his face during the fencing match and wipes his face for him once. Finally, and most important, she drinks the poisoned wine and dies onstage, using her dying words to warn Hamlet of the poison (V.ii.291, 309-10), but not accusing Claudius. Although both the ghost and Hamlet repeatedly speak in vivid language of her gamboling between incestuous sheets (and presumably she does sometimes share a bed with Claudius), the text never states or implies that Gertrude gives or receives the wanton pinches or "reechy kisses" (III.iv. 183-84) that so obsess, enrage, and disgust the imaginations of Hamlet and the ghost.

Her own words and actions compel one to describe Gertrude as merely a quiet, biddable, careful mother and wife. Nonetheless, one can still examine Gertrude's limited actions and reactions to answer the knotty interpretative question of Gertrude's culpability in the murder of her first husband. When speaking to Hamlet, the ghost does not state or suggest Gertrude's guilt in his murder, only in her "falling-off" from him to Claudius (I.v.47). When Hamlet confronts her after "The Mousetrap," she asks in apparent innocence, "What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?" (III.iv.39-40). She has not been verbally guileful before, so one has no reason to suspect her of duplicity in this instance. And when Hamlet informs her that old Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, she does not indicate prior knowledge. Instead, she exclaims in horror, "As kill a King!" (30), and pleads for the third time that Hamlet mitigate his attack: "No more!" (101). She is not aware of any personal guilt, and she does not want to hear of the guilty deeds of one of the men she loves.

Clearly, Gertrude's innocence of involvement in the murder is most strongly suggested. However, many critics have interpreted the text differently, asserting that at the least Gertrude is guilty of having had a sexual relationship with Claudius before the murder of her husband because the ghost uses the word adulterate11 when describing Claudius and asserts, in reference to Gertrude, that "[lust], though to a radiant angel link'd, / Will [sate] itself in a celestial bed / And prey on garbage" (I.v.55-57). But if Gertrude had been involved in an adulterous affair with Claudius, she would surely have known that she was "conjunctive" to his "life and soul" and that he was ambitious. She might therefore have suspected him to be capable of murder in order to obtain her and the crown (which a marriage to her would assure him), but she has no such suspicions. The ghost does use the past tense to describe Claudius's and Gertrude's sexual liaison. Claudius "won to his shameful lust" Gertrude's will: "O Hamlet, what [a] falling-off was there" (45-47, emphasis added). Still, it is not clear if the ghost is referring to a time before his murder or if the past to which he refers is that period since his death, during which Claudius has won and married Gertrude. Hamlet's anger and disgust at Gertrude's hasty marriage and the dexterity with which she moved to "incestious sheets"—feelings expressed even before he had talked with the ghost or knew of the murder—further support the interpretation that Gertrude was not guilty of a sexual liaison with Claudius before her husband's murder, but that her hasty, apparently careless betrayal of the memory of her first husband is what, in Hamlet's eyes, "makes marriage vows / As false as dicers' oaths" (III.iv.44-45). Indeed, in the closet scene Hamlet never accuses her of adultery, but abhors her choice of an "adulterate" second husband: "Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed, / And batten on this moor? … what judgment / Would step from this to this?" (67-71).

Although Gertrude is not an adulterer, she has been "adulterated" by her contact, even innocently in marriage, with Claudius. Similarly, his crimes and deceit have, in fact, made Gertrude guilty of incest.12 In order to marry, Claudius and Gertrude would have been required to obtain a dispensation to counteract their canonical consanguinity or affinity. Obviously, if his crime of fratricide were publicly known—as it is by the ghost and Hamlet—Claudius's dispensation to marry his victim's wife, his sister-in-law, certainly would not have been granted. Therefore, one could assert that the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude is incestuous because the dispensation was based on false pretenses and would not have been granted if the truth were known. Because they know the truth, the ghost and Hamlet persist in terming the relationship incestuous; but Gertrude has married in innocence and good faith, not as a party to the deception.

Gertrude does readily admit her one self-acknowledged source of guilt—that her marriage was "o'erhasty," but in all other instances she feels guilt only after Hamlet has insisted that she be ashamed.13 And it is not ever completely clear to what Gertrude refers in the closet scene when she mentions the black spots on her soul—if it is a newly aroused awareness of her adulterate and incestuous relationship, if it is her marriage to a man whom Hamlet so clearly despises, or if it is merely her already lamented o'erhasty marriage:

         O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn'st my [eyes into my very] soul,
And there I see such black and [grained] spots
As will [not] leave their tinct.
                                   (III.iv. 88-91)

Hamlet's violent cajolery in the closet scene has created unaccustomed feelings of guilt in this accommodating woman, who wants primarily to please him. However, she has not pleased Hamlet by acting in a way that pleased Claudius—by marrying him so soon after her husband's death and in spite of their consanguinity. For Hamlet, her act "roars so loud and thunders in the index" (III.iv.52), and his displeasure has "cleft" the Queen's heart "in twain" (156) because she obviously loves both Hamlet and Claudius and feels pain and guilt at her inability to please both.

Hamlet is commanded by the ghost to moderate his attack, to "step between her and her fighting soul" because of Gertrude's "amazement" and because of the force of imagination in a weak body (III.iv.112-14). It is even possible that Gertrude's "fighting soul" results not only from an awakened sense of guilt at Hamlet's words but also from the conflict between her persistent, extreme love for her son and her momentary terror of him. After all, in the preceding 115 lines, Hamlet has certainly demonstrated emotional, and probably physical, brutality toward Gertrude; indeed, she has called for help in fear that he will murder her (21). Hamlet has stabbed Polonius and shown little remorse, and he continues the extraordinary behavior that prompts her amazement:

Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy,
And with th' incorporai air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep,
And as the sleeping soldiers in th' alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
Start up and stand an end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?
                             (III.iv. 116-24).

Since the beginning of the play, Hamlet has been obsessed with Claudius's and Gertrude's guilt, and it is this which precipitates his distempered behavior. Indeed, judged without Hamlet's strong predisposition, Gertrude's behavior at "The Mousetrap" would lead no one to believe that she has seen herself reflected in the Player Queen. However, Hamlet believes that she has—and Hamlet is a powerful first-person force in the play who encourages one to see all events and people from his perspective, nearly compelling one to see Gertrude's one-line response to the play's action as an admission of guilt: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" (III.ii.230). Gertrude's remark at this play-within-the-play can be given another interpretation that may be more accurate, in view of Gertrude's accommodating, dependent personality: her words are not a guileful anticipation and deflection of comparisons between herself and the Player Queen. Instead, being a woman of so few words herself, Gertrude must sincerely be irritated by the Player Queen's verbosity, just as she was earlier by that of Polonius. Obviously, Gertrude believes that quiet women best please men, and pleasing men is Gertrude's main interest. Indeed, Gertrude's concern to maintain a strong relationship with two men is demonstrated by her only other lines at the play—brief lines—asking her "dear Hamlet" to sit beside her (108) and voicing distress for Claudius's obvious consternation at the end of the play: "How fares my lord?" (267). After the play, Gertrude is, according to Guildenstern, "in most great affliction of spirit" (311-12) and calls Hamlet for a chastening session in her room for two reasons: the conference, with Polonius as spy, had already been planned before the presentation of the play; and more important, she is quite upset because one of the men for whom she cares greatly has "much offended" (III.iv.9) the other. In no way, by word or act, does she indicate that the play has spontaneously created any sense of guilt in her.

Obviously, this analysis of Gertrude's behavior does not suggest any changes or clear moral development in her. After the play-within-the-play and the closet scene, Gertrude agrees to Hamlet's request that she not "ravel all this matter out," since he is "essentially … not in madness, / But mad in craft" (III.iv.186-88). She says, "I have no life to breathe / What thou has said to me" (198-99). And she is true to her word. She does not unravel it to Claudius, whom Hamlet hates and fears. However, she is immediately seen in the next scene telling Claudius of something else—the murder of Polonius—and defending Hamlet in his apparent madness; and although she is true to Hamlet, the scene nonetheless works to undercut her position as an honest woman. That Gertrude does not promise Hamlet to refrain from going to Claudius's bed may possibly suggest an admission of guilt about the relationship. Those who claim that Gertrude does admit to committing adultery and incest cite her one self-revealing aside, four lines in which she directly grieves for her sinful, sick soul and self-destructive, fearful guilt:

To my sick soul, as sin's true nature is,
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss,
So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.
                                   (IV. v. 17-20)

But the nature of this lamented guilt remains unclear; it is apparently unfelt until aroused by Hamlet's attack. If it arises out of the conflict between her love for Claudius and her remorse for betraying the memory of her first husband, she obviously chooses, like Claudius, to "retain th'offense" (III.iii.56), because she soon thereafter tries physically and verbally to protect Claudius from Laertes.

Gertrude has not moved in the play toward independence or a heightened moral stance, only her divided loyalties and her unhappiness intensify. Given the presentation of Gertrude in Shakespeare's text, it is impossible to see the accuracy of Olivier's and Kozintsev's film presentations and of many stage depictions that show Gertrude shrinking after Act Three from Claudius's touch because of her newly awakened sense of decency and shame. Nor does the text suggest, as Olivier does in his film, that she is suspicious of the pearl that Claudius drops in Hamlet's wine goblet. Gertrude does not drink the wine to protect Hamlet or to kill herself because of her shame; she drinks it in her usual direct way to toast Hamlet's success in the fencing match, after first briskly and maternally advising him to wipe his face. In fact, Gertrude's death is symbolic of the internal disharmony caused by her divided loyalties. In order to honor Hamlet, she directly disobeys Claudius for the first time:

QUEEN. The Queen carouses to thy fortune,
HAMLET. Good Madam!
KING.                     Gertrude, do not drink.
QUEEN. I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me.
KING. [Aside.] It is the pois'ned cup, it is too

Gertrude dies asserting that she is poisoned and calling out for her "dear Hamlet," but still not attacking Claudius.

Gertrude's words and actions in Shakespeare's Hamlet create not the lusty, lustful, lascivious Gertrude that one generally sees in stage and film productions but a compliant, loving, unimaginative woman whose only concern is pleasing others: a woman who seemed virtuous (I.V.46), and who would, so Hamlet asserts, hang on her first husband, "As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on" (I.ii. 143-45). This same careful woman, soon after her husband's death, "with remembrance of herself (7), marries his brother—probably because of her extremely dependent personality—and tries to relieve her much-loved son's melancholy by counseling him in temporality: "Thou know'st 'tis common, all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity" (72-73). As these and most of her other lines demonstrate, Gertrude may be the object of violent emotions, but she displays no passion, only quietly consistent concern for the well-being of the two other characters: Claudius and, most profoundly, Hamlet. She is easily led, and she makes no decisions for herself except, ironically, the one that precipitates her death. Her personality is, both figuratively and literally, defined by other characters in the play. Because of her malleability and weakness, the distorted image created and reflected by others—not the one created by her own words and actions—has predominated.

In creating Gertrude, Shakespeare clearly diverged from the sources he followed quite closely in other areas, making her of a piece with the rest of the play—that is, problematic. But Gertrude is problematic not because of layers of complexity or a dense texture such as that of Hamlet but because, as with the ghost, Shakespeare does not provide all the "answers," all the necessary clues that would allow one to put together her character and fully understand her speech, actions, and motivations. Still, Gertrude is not a flat, uninteresting character as a result of her limited range of responses and concerns. Gertrude's words and acts interest the audience because, obviously, she is of extreme interest to the combatants in the play—the ghost, Hamlet and Claudius—all of whom see her literally and in quite heightened terms as a sexual object. However, if she were presented on stage and film as only her own words and deeds create her, Gertrude might become another stereotypical character: the nurturing, loving, careful mother and wife—malleable, submissive, totally dependent, and solicitous of others at the expense of herself. This is still a stereotype, but a more positive one than that of the temptress and destroyer—self-indulgent and soulless. And certainly it more accurately reflects the Gertrude that Shakespeare created.


1 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). All further references are to this edition.

2 Jack Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), p. 27.

3 The "received" critical opinion of Gertrude is most clearly stated by Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954). He says that the Queen's "markedly sensual nature … is indicated in too many places in the play to need specific reference, and is generally recognized" (p. 91). Other influential critics have interpreted her similarly. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1956), says that the "ghastly disclosure" of Gertrude's true nature is a moral shock to Hamlet. She marries Claudius not for state reasons or out of family affection; instead, her marriage shows "an astounding shal-lowness of feeling [and] an eruption of coarse sensuality, 'rank and gross,' speeding posthaste to its horrible delight" (pp. 118-20). H. D. F. Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama (1956), rpt. in part in Shakespeare Criticism: 1935-1960, ed. Anne Ridler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), states that "a mad passion … swept [Gertrude] into the arms of Claudius" (p. 158). Similarly, L. C. Knights, An Approach to "Hamlet" (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961), describes the court's qualities as "coarse pleasures," "moral obtuseness," "sycophancy," "base and treacherous plotting," and "brainless triviality": "This is the world that revolves round the middle-aged sensuality of Claudius and Gertrude" (p. 42). Harry Levin, The Question of Hamlet (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), contrasts Ophelia (virginal, "faithful daughter and sister") to Gertrude (adulterous, corrupted, "faithless mother and wife") who is "associated with the artificial enticement of cosmetics" (p. 66). J. Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), insists that Hamlet knows that Gertrude is "a criminal, guilty of the filthy sin of incest," and finally comes to see her "as rotten through and through" (p. 44). And, in the same vein, E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), comments on the "lascivious and incestuous guilt of Gertrude" which has "made the world ugly" for Hamlet (pp. 21-22).

In contrast, it is interesting to note that some earlier women writers have been more generous to Gertrude. Consider the evaluation by Lillie Buffum Chace Wyman in an appendix to Gertrude of Denmark: An Interpretive Romance (Boston: Marshall Jones, 1924), p. 238. Wyman says, "The critics have generally denouced Gertrude's second marriage as sinful in its very nature. It is rather absurd to echo Hamlet so completely as to this. Such an opinion certainly has been very dominant in some ages and some countries. It is doubtful, however, whether it was ever so universally an accepted belief as to make it certain that Shakespeare intended that such a mountain of odium should be heaped upon her, as writers have been piling up for centuries. In this connection, it may be noted that the Roman Catholic Church upheld the marriage of Katharine to Henry the Eighth. And certainly Shakespeare, however Anglican he may have been personally, did not represent Katharine as a loathsome creature in his drama on that subject, and he did permit Henry's courtiers to jeer at the King's pretence of scruple." Rosamond Putzel in "Queen Gertrude's Crime," Renaissance Papers, 1961, ed. George Walton Williams (Durham, N.C.: Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1962), pp. 37-46, argues that the evidence in the play does not prove that Gertrude committed adultery and that her characterization suggests that she did not.

4 Saxo Grammaticus, Amleth, and F. de Belleforest, The Hystorie of Hamblet, Prince of Denmarke, in Hamlet, Norton Critical Edition, ed. Cyrus Hoy (New York: Norton, 1963), pp. 123-41.

5 Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare's Sources (London: Methuen, 1961), p. 112. See also

6 Muir, Shakespeare's Sources, p. 112.

7Ibid., p. 114. See also

8 Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 118-19.

9 Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday/ Anchor, 1966), p. 61.

10 Line counts and percentage from Marvin Spevack, A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare, III (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1968), 828, 751.

11 The adjective adulterate denotatively refers to something that makes other things inferior, impure, or corrupted by its addition and need not be limited to a specific reference to sexual intercourse between a married person and someone who is not that person's spouse. Bertram Joseph, Conscience and the King (London: Chatto and Windus, 1953), defines adulterate by reference to Renaissance sources, namely, Thomas Wilson, who states in his Christian Dictionary (1612) that adultery means "all manner of uncleanness, about desire of sex, together with occasion, causes, and means thereof, as in the 7th Commandment," and Perkins, who says in A Golden Chain (1616) that adultery means "as much as to do anything, what way so ever," that stains one's own chastity or that of another. Joseph also quotes from the homily "Against Whoredom and Uncleanness" in Certain Sermons or Homilies (1623), which defines adultery as "all unlawful use of those parts, which be ordained for generation" (p. 17). Clearly, the ghost's use of the word adulterate may refer to Claudius's impurity resulting from his lust for Gertrude and the corruption that he spreads to Gertrude when she becomes his wife, not necessarily to a sexual liaison between the two before old Hamlet's murder.

12 See Jason P. Rosenblatt, "Aspects of the Incest Problem in Hamlet," Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (1978), 349-64, for a thorough analysis of the sixteenth-century religious controversy on consanguineous marriages.

13 It is significant that without Hamlet's guidance, Gertrude herself lacks conscious awareness of guilt. Shakespeare may thus demonstrate in Gertrude the commonplace judgment of his society that women must rely on men for guidance and support. Richard Hooker, for example, speaks of the giving of women in marriage as a customary reminder of "the very imbecility of their nature and sex" which "doth bind them to be always directed, guided and ordered by others … "; see his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, V. lxxiii. 5 (London: Dent, 1954), II, p. 393. Such conventional assumptions about female "imbecility" may help to explain both Hamlet's anger at Gertrude and the ghost's charity toward her. However, as Carolyn Heilbrun has pointed out, Gertrude is no imbecile. While Heilbrun accepts the ghost's description of Gertrude as lustful, she urges that the Queen "is also intelligent, penetrating, and gifted with a remarkable talent for concise and pithy speech." See "The Character of Hamlet's Mother," Shakespeare Quarterly, 8 (1957), 201-6.

Kenneth Muir (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Freud's Hamlet," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 45, 1993, pp. 75-7.

[In this essay, Muir investigates Hamlet's character in terms of Freud's theory of the superego.]

Hamlet receives two commands from the Ghost: to kill Claudius, and not to harm Gertrude. As he cannot do the first without causing agony to his mother, he is given an apparently impossible task. It is therefore arguable—and it has been argued powerfully—that Hamlet did not really delay in carrying out his task. As soon as the guilt of Claudius is proclaimed publicly by Laertes, and Gertrude has declared that she has been poisoned by the cup intended for her son, Hamlet immediately executes justice on his uncle, while he himself is dying from the poisoned rapier. His mission has been accomplished, despite the fates of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius and Ophelia, without deadly sin, and without harming his mother.

Nevertheless, most critics insist that Hamlet did delay,1 referring both to the Ghost's accusation of his 'almost blunted purpose', to Hamlet's refusal to kill the King at his prayers, and to his frequent self-accusations.2 Freud, followed by Jones, put forward one of the most popular explanations of the delay, that Hamlet was in love with his mother and that he was inhibited from killing his rival. This theory of Oedipus Complex has had a remarkable success, especially in the theatre, where we often see Gertrude's closet transformed into a bedroom, and where we see the relationship between Hamlet and his mother erotically charged.

It was outside Freud's terms of reference to consider the way in which Shakespeare was hemmed in by theatrical restraints. He had to provide suitable parts for his fellows; and, in rewriting a play which had been popular for a dozen years, his main purpose would be to play variations on an old theme. He knew that his audience would expect him to put new wine into old bottles. He had to dramatize the basic conflict between instinct and the moral law, and in this respect the play reveals the quintessential dilemma of the avenger. There were several variations on the basic theme. One of Tourneur's avengers left vengeance to God; one of Chapman's challenges his enemy to a duel and kills him in fair fight; Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy becomes almost as evil as his victim. Shakespeare's solution was central in that he introduced four other avengers into his play (Laertes, Fortinbras, Pyrrhus, Lucianus) and his hero stands out as a civilized man among barbarians.

Apart from the relationship of Hamlet to the genre of revenge tragedy to which it belongs, there are other ways in which Freud's interpretation should be open to scrutiny. Two of these have been raised by other critics. First, it has been pointed out that readers and critics tend to identify with the hero, and when they analyse his character they ignore his particular situation and seem to be looking in a mirror. Coleridge, who attributed Hamlet's delay to his losing the power of action in the energy of resolve, confessed that he 'had a smack of Hamlet himself'.3 Other critics saddle Hamlet with their own prepossessions, so that their theories are only too predictable. It would have been easy to forecast Freud's theory before he committed it to paper. This does not disprove it, but it should make us wary.

The second reason for caution is that any theory which claims to be exclusively true is bound to be limiting. There are many other explanations of Hamlet's delay, advanced by notable critics, which are believed by many to be true, and which may at least be partially true, or an aspect of truth.4 Interpretations of any great play vary from one generation to another, even from one production to another. In the space of a few years after 1923 it was possible to see at the Old Vic three great Hamlets (Ernest Milton, Ion Swinley, John Gielgud). They were all different, but they were all based squarely on the texts, and all three gave convincing interpretations. What is true of performances is true of interpretations by critics. It is now universally agreed that there are several valid interpretations of most of Shakespeare's plays, and that the poet himself incorporated the conflicting impressions which rendered this inevitable. In some cases, indeed, he cut out passages which have been the cornerstone of some interpretations. Olivier's film was based on a speech that had been cut from the First Folio text. Albany's most important speech was dropped from the Folio King Lear. At least one performance of Troilus and Cressida in Shakespeare's time ended heroically with the line

Hope of revenge shall hide our inward woe.

Another version ended with Pandaras' obscene and satirical epilogue. It is obvious, therefore, that to take Oedipus Complex as the sole key to Hamlet's character is to undervalue the complexity of the play, as Freud himself partially realized, and to ignore the instability of Shakespeare's texts.

The third reason for caution is the fact that another important Freudian concept, that of the superego, is also relevant to Hamlet, as I hope to show.5 The superego is not merely the source of our finest thoughts, our idealisms and aspirations, but also of our profound feelings of guilt, our knowledge, in Scriptural terms, that we are all unprofitable servants. The superego is both 'High Priest and Police Agent', the image of the desirable and the propagator of taboos and prohibitions. It stands for inexorable law which condemns the cowering ego with such ferocity that it leads the victim to melancholia, and sometimes to suicide.6

Does not this remind us of the Prince of Denmark? He too is a man picked out of ten thousand for his honesty (2.2.178); a beautiful pure and most moral nature';7 one who his mother to forgive him his virtue (3.4.152-3); one who idolizes his father, despite the Ghost's confession of foul crimes (1.5.12);8 one who eulogizes Horatio (3.2.56ff.), Laertes (5.1.217), and even the tough bandit, Fortinbras, as a 'delicate and tender prince' (4.4.48, omitted in FI). He has shared the view of Pico della Mirandola of man's godlike potentialities (4.2.203ff.), but is now utterly disillusioned. On his first appearance, the frailty of his mother makes him contemplate suicide, and reject it only because of the canon against self-slaughter (1.2.131-2). He longs for death, calling it a consummation devoutly to be wished (3.1.63-4). He confesses that he has lost all his mirth, and that he regards the earth as a sterile promontory, the firmament as a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours (2.2.293ff.). He asks the girl he loves why she wishes to be a breeder of sinners, and tells her (3.1.121ff.)

I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things, that it were better my mother had not borne me … What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.

His love for Ophelia is tainted by his own sense of guilt, as well as by the frailty of women. He despises himself for not avenging his father's death and for 'the heroism of moral vacillation'9 which he stigmatizes as cowardice. Whether he kills Claudius or not he is doomed by his superego to blame himself. He is a classic example of the devastating effects on a sensitive spirit of the terrible cruelty of the superego.10

Freud regarded the superego as the result of Oedipus Complex, but it is surely plain that the superego is more important in the interpretation of Hamlet.11


1 For many years editors regarded a discussion of Hamlet's delay as an essential part of their task.

2 These can all be explained away as symptoms of Hamlet's neurosis. As the Ghost is invisible to Gertrude, his words may be Hamlet's unconscious inventions.

3 C. S. Lewis, in his brilliant British Academy lecture, gave several examples of this tendency; but he did not realize that his own portrait of Hamlet as Everyman, burdened with Original Sin, was a reflection of his own theological views.

4 It would be absurd to dismiss the views of Coleridge, Bradley, Shaw, Alexander and Levin, to name no others; and more wayward interpretations have occasional insights.

5 This point may have been made before, but I have not yet found an example.

6 have borrowed some phrases from Terry Eagleton' s chapter on Freud in The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), published after this article was drafted.

7 Goethe's description in Wilhelm Meister.

8 Editors gloss the foul crimes as minor imperfections. This was not the Ghost's opinion.

9 The phrase is Lascelles Abercrombie's.

10 Less sensitive spirits (Laertes, Pyrrhus and Fortinbras) seem not to be troubled by the superego.

11 Elio J. Frattaroli in a recent article (Int. Rev. Psycho-Anal. xvii (1990), 269-85) discusses the aesthetic response to Hamlet, based avowedly on R. Waelder's concept of the superego, but he does not relate it to the character of the hero.


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Robert Tracy (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "The Owl and the Baker's Daughter: A Note on Hamlet IV," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Winter, 1966, pp. 83-6.

[In the following essay originally presented as a lecture in 1963, Tracy comments on the symbolism of both chastity and sensual love associated with Ophelia's character.]

It is a critical commonplace to discern a pattern in Ophelia's apparently random remarks during her mad scenes. While suggesting complete mental derangement, Shakespeare advances the play by giving us a very clear indication of the reasons for Ophelia's madness: her irreconcilable attachments to Hamlet and Polonius as persons, and to chastity and sensual love as desirable goals. It is the strain of attempting to reconcile these opposing allegiances that has shattered her reason, for during the mad scenes Ophelia's lips involuntarily repeat the slogans and war cries of that great battle of conflicting loyalties from which her conscious mind has withdrawn itself. Her songs in Act IV, scene v, are concerned with the loss both of Hamlet and of Polonius, and with virginity and its sacrifice to sensual love.

One passage in the scene seems to break the pattern, however. The King enters as she sings of Polonius' death and asks, "How do you, pretty lady?" Ophelia's reply is, "Well, God dild you! They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. God be at your table!" "Conceit upon her father", is the King's terse—and mistaken—interpretation of her words. Ophelia's next remark can be taken as a correction of the King's gloss, for she says, "Pray, let's have no words of this; but when they ask you what it means, say you this." Then she sings "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day", a song about the loss of virginity which appears to be a gloss on her enigmatic remark about the owl and the baker's daughter.

Modern editors of Hamlet have ignored this hint, however, and chosen instead an explanation which makes the remark irrelevant and quite out of tune with the rest of the scene. This explanation, found in all modern editions of the play, suggests that Ophelia is referring to a folktale about a baker's daughter who was punished for denying bread to Christ. Kittredge, quoting from Douce, gives the legend as follows:

Our Saviour went into a baker's shop where they were baking, and asked for some bread to eat. The mistress of the shop immediately put a piece of dough into the oven to bake for him; but was reprimanded by her daughter, who insisting that the piece of dough was too large, reduced it to a very small size. The dough, however, immediately afterwards began to swell, and presently became of a most enormous size. Whereupon, the baker's daughter cried out, 'Heugh, heugh, heugh,' which owl-like noise probably induced our Saviour for her wickedness to transform her into that bird. This story is often related to children, in order to deter them from such illiberal behavior to poor people.

But why should Ophelia allude to this tale at this time? She has not been stingy, nor is she a victim of divine wrath. We may quickly discard Claudius' explanation; his attention has been caught by the word daughter, and so he puts the remark down to filial grief. He cannot understand the complexity of reasons for her derangement. But we must also discard Douce's two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old false lead about Christ and the baker's daughter if we are to grasp the point of Ophelia's remark, and its relevance to the rest of the play, and we must re-examine the possible contextual relevance of the owl and the baker's daughter.

The owl is here for two reasons. The bird is, of course, a common omen of night, of evil, and especially of death. It can thus be considered as relevant to Ophelia's just-completed song about death and the grave, and so to the death of Polonius. But this is only a partial expla-nation. Ophelia has already begun to change her subject from death to "true-love" at the end of her song:

White his shroud as the mountain snow—
    Larded all with sweet flowers;
Which bewept to the grave did not go
    With true-love showers.

The white shroud suggests virginity as well as death; so do the "sweet flowers". The "grave" is a common term for bed in Elizabethan literature, just as death is a common term for sexual intercourse. Thus the song delicately shifts from a suggestion of Ophelia's grief at the double loss of Hamlet and Polonius to a suggestion of her disappointment at Hamlet's failure to take her "to the grave". The end of the song is thus a prepa-ration for the franker treatment of the same subject of sensual love in the Saint Valentine's Day song, a few moments later.

The mention of the owl is a part of the subtle introduction of this subject, for along with its other associations the owl was often a symbol of virginity, probably because of its association with the virgin goddess, Athena-Minerva. Athena, the "unconquer'd Virgin", was a favorite Renaissance symbol for "Chaste austerity … Saintly chastity" (Comus, 446-455), as we see her in Perugino's Combat of Love and Chastity, where Diana and Minerva battle against Venus and Cupid. In literature there are a few examples of the owl, her sacred bird, playing the same symbolic role. In The Owl and the Nightingale, the owl cites her own asceticism and accuses the nightingale of singing wantonly amatory songs, which corrupt the young and lead them to unchastity and lust (lines 894-902). Elsewhere the owl's conventional role as herald of the night and omen of ill-fortune and death is reinforced by its association with virginity and the loss of virginity. In Ovid's Metamorphoses (X, 452-453), for example, an owl shrieks thrice when Myrrha, in the grip of an unnatural passion for her father, Cinyras, hurries to give herself to him. What seems a mere evil omen reveals itself on closer inspection as a possible commentary on the action. Shakespeare has an owl shriek when Venus aggressively seduces Adonis (1. 531), and another is heard as Tarquin rises from his bed and creeps toward Lucrece (1. 165). The owl's connection with virginity and its loss is quite explicit in the Welsh belief that the owl's hooting warns not only of death, but often of some village maiden's loss of virginity. The hooting signals the exact moment of such an occurrence.1

If the owl suggests one of Ophelia's concerns, virginity, the "baker's daughter" suggests another, sensuality and harlotry. Laertes and Polonius have both warned her against the loss of virginity and its consequences, Hamlet has ordered her to a nunnery, and the remark indicates that all three speakers have impressed her. For to the Elizabethans, bakers' daughters were prostitutes. The association of trades stemmed from ancient Rome, where

the alicariae, or [female] bakers, were women of the street who waited for fortune at the doors of bakeries, especially those which sold certain cakes … destined for offerings to Venus … on … certain festivals, the master bakers… sold nothing but sacrificial breads, and at the same time they had slave girls or servant maids who prostituted themselves day and night in the bakery.2

Shakespeare may have known of this association of bakers' daughters with prostitution from Plautus' Poenulus, where the prostitute Adelphasium classes the alicariae among the common whores (I. ii. 53-55). Bakers, bakers' wives, and bakeries retained a reputation for bawdiness even in Renaissance Rome, as the characters of Arcolano and Togna indicate in Aretino's comedy, La Cortigiana (1525). Shakespeareneed not have looked so far afield, however. Less than fifty years before Hamlet was written, the term baker's daughters seems to have meant loose women to the citizens of Tudor London. During the brief reign of Mary I we find a certain John Bradford writing to the Lords of the Council to accuse her unpopular consort, Philip of Spain, of treason and of unchastity:

ye wyll crown him to make him lyve chaste, contrarye to his nature: for paradventure, after he wer crowned, he woulde be content with one woman, but in the mean space he muste have iij or iiij in one nyght, to prove which of them he lyketh best; not of ladyes and jentyllwomen, but of bakers doughters, and suche poore whores: wherupon they have a certayne saying, The baker's doughter is better in her goune, than Quene Mary wythout the crowne?3

It probably also explains the fate of the "dowlas" shirts made for Falstaff by Mistress Quickly: "I have given them away to baker's wives."

Once we realize what Shakespeare meant to suggest by Ophelia's reference to the owl and the baker's daughter, the sense of the passage and its relevance to the rest of the play become clearer. Ophelia is commenting on appearance and reality, the apparently virtuous woman who is really a whore. She thus echoes Hamlet's central obsession with seems. More specifically, she dwells on Hamlet's charge that she is a whore and that her father is a "fishmonger", or employer of prostitutes. She is also probably dwelling on the change from maid to harlot which is the subject of her song a few moments later. The owl, seemingly a symbol of virtue but actually unchaste, hints at Hamlet's earlier anger at Ophelia, at his remarks on the Queen, and at the "paradox" which is proved for him by the conduct of both women, that the power of beauty can soon "transform honesty from what it is to a bawd" (III.i). This enigmatic sentence is thus a rich thematic and associative cluster which blends together at an important moment several of the play's most important events, themes, and ideas in an apparently random remark.


1 Marie Trevelyan, Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales (London, 1909), pp. 83-84. Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds (London, 1958), p. 116.

2 Paul Lacroix, History of Prostitution, trans. Samuel Putnam (New York, 1931), I, 234-235.

3 John Strype, Ecclesiastical Memorials (Oxford, 1822), III, Part ii, p. 352.

Henri Suhamy (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Metaphorical Fallacy," in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 24, October, 1983, pp. 27-31.

[In the following essay, Suhamy asserts that the disease imagery in Hamlet elicits a variety of interpretations at once, some of which are contradictory and paradoxical.]

The pages written by Caroline Spurgeon on the sickness and corruption imagery in Hamlet remain today perhaps the most famous and striking in a book1 which the evolution of criticism and the necessary controversies that keep our discipline alive have not pulled down from its deserved position in the history of Shakespearian scholarship. Nor have these admirable pages lost anything of their stimulating pointedness. Yet the very attractiveness of Spurgeon's analyses may contain some danger, especially in relation to Hamlet, a play which should protect us from all forms of dogmaticism, for the hero of it is not only uncertain in him-self, he is the cause that uncertainty is in other men. Readers should beware of too comfortable assumptions about a play which will never yield its secrets easily.

The observation that sin and crime are expressed in terms of disease and rottenness remains indeed very illuminating, provided it is not overexploited and does not produce what could be called the Metaphorical Fallacy. This imagery throws lights on the inner substance and mechanism of language; it reflects the ethical vision of a Christian community; in a play, it expresses some of the implicit opinions of the characters, in so far as characters in a play can be allowed by criticism to express opinions—as indeed they should, for the assessment of opinions constitutes one of the functions of speech. But it may be misleading to infer that there lies the ultimate message of the play and the literary cement holding the whole text together.

My attention was drawn on this question recently by reading that useful and interesting book by Morris Weitz called Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism.2 Examining in succession some of the main theories on the play from a critical point of view, Weitz found fault with Wilson Knight's interpretation according to which the protagonist represents the blasting consciousness of death amidst a vivacious world of human passions, appetites and activities;3 and he judged his views with exceptional severity:

… Knight's conception of the Hamlet universe as one of strength, health, and humanity, with Hamlet the only sick individual in it, seems utterly perverse and about as far from "the poet's centre of consciousness" as one could get. If anything, as Francis Fergusson, among others, points out, it is the other way round. The Hamlet universe, which includes the court, is corrupt, unhealthy, rotten, founded on murder and incest, and Hamlet is the healthy one seeking, not decisively to be sure, to uncover and scourge the hidden imposthume. Now, I am not claiming that this latter view is correct, only that whatever the core or spiritual reality of Hamlet may be—if it has one—Knight makes a moral mockery of it by his reversal of sickness and health. After all, it is Claudius, not Hamlet, who is the usurper in the Hamlet universe.4

This text can raise many commentaries. Morris Weitz has a sound and philosophic turn of mind, but he seems at times to miss some of the subtleties and ambiguities that literature is made of.

First of all, he seems to run headlong into the metaphorical fallacy, by implicitly taking the sickness imagery of the play at its face-value, a curious delusion, when we simply remember that the very essence of metaphor consists in producing figurative senses, not factual statements. This delusion seems also to imply a wishful-thinking belief in poetic justice and retributive Providence. Whatever language may suggest, moral corruption does not systematically provoke physical corruption, even in the fictitious world of Elizabethan plays. Shakespeare knew that a man may smile, and be a villain, and a usurper, and enjoy good health too, when legitimate heirs are pining away in dungeons. When Marcellus says that 'something is rotten in the state of Denmark' (1.4.90), he only expresses a personal opinion; it is true that Marcellus' statement has a choric resonance, a proverbial impact, and moreover coincides with the moral judgment that we are invited to pass on Claudius and Gertrude; but, once more, it should not be taken at face value, as an indication given by the author that the kingdom of Denmark is tottering on the brink of political and military collapse. This would mislead the spectators.

Secondly, it appears quite clearly that Weitz did not actually understand Wilson Knight's arguments. It is not the place here for exegesis and advocacy. Knight's essays are sufficiently known to the public and capable of defending themselves against misconceptions. But it may be relevant to point out some of the reasons why they were misunderstood by Weitz, because these reasons are related to the difficulty of interpreting metaphorical language, a language which is not reserved to poets only. Critics can also resort to imagery. Wilson Knight simply remarked that Claudius' crime and guilty conscience do not prevent him from thriving quite successfully as a king, jumping the life to come upon this bank and shoal of time,5 and that Hamlet can be interpreted symbolically6 as an ambassador of death incongruously wandering in a world of short-sighted ambitions and carnal appetites. The psychological facet of Hamlet's contemptus mundi results in his being emotionally sickened by the moral sickness of the people about him. There is also a paradox in the fact that he is sickened by the healthy instincts of nature, like Gulliver at Brobdingnag. When Hamlet, nauseated by his mother's hasty re-marriage—a proof of sexual vitality, if also of moral frailty—inveighs against the world because things rank and gross in nature possess it merely (i.e. completely) he uses that most Shakespearian adjective, the word rank, which contains a whole range of contradictory meanings and connotations. Rankness in Shakespeare suggests the very apex of luxuriant and voluptuous vitality, made both appetizing and repellent by the fulsome smell of riotous physicality. This complex cluster of significances entails two important consequences: first, the idea that life, in the full bloom of growth and procreative turgidity, is crude, course, obscenely immoral. Secondly, that maturity and decay follow each other very closely, not only because of the inexorable cycle of nature, but also because maturity already reeks of the sickening smell of corruption, and swells out like a body bloated by disease.

Thus, Shylock, speaking of Jacob's 'fulsome ewes' at the mating season, says that they were 'rank'.7 In quite a different context, Mark Antony, sounding the intentions of Caesar's murderers, asks them:

I know not Gentlemen what you intend,
Who else must be let blood, who else is

                     (Julius Caesar, III. 1.152)

Here to be rank is to be ready for death, like a ripe fruit about to drop. The grim joke contained in let blood is quite illuminating: excess of blood must be cured by bleeding, so to cut a man's throat is the most operative remedy to rankness. We are also reminded of the old medical myth, which ensured the reign of the lancet for many centuries, that diseases are caused by excess of blood, that is to say, by excess of health. A paradox often exploited quite explicitly by Shakespeare, war, for instance, being regarded as a consequence of peace. Cf. Hamlet, IV.3.27:

This is th'Impostume of much wealth and
That inward breakes, and showes no cause
Why the man dies.

The above examples show that metaphorical language does not constitute a rigid code. It is possible indeed to equate sickness with sin, but other correspondences are possible. Wilson Knight happened to use the sickness imagery in his own essay "The Embassy of Death", but with a different framework of meanings: to him sickness means lack of vitality, due to a disabling consciousness of death and of the vanity of human undertakings. So Morris Weitz applied the wrong code to decipher Wilson Knight's imagery. Yet the latter did not use his own imagery gratuitously. The substance of it is present in the play. It is Hamlet who, in a passage not deprived of some notoriety, says that the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. He undoubtedly alludes to himself here, not to Claudius. So the sickness imagery in Hamlet divides itself into—at least—two currents of significance, plainly contradicting each other: The King's prayer is a physic that but prolongs his sickly days (III.3.96) whereas Hamlet feels sicklied by his irresolution (III. 1.84).

If the two metaphorical systems are combined together, the result may prove perplexing. If we lay down on the one hand that disease means sin, and on the other that ebullient vitality is essentially immoral, we are driven to the apparently absurd conclusion that health and sickness are interchangeable. This is what Morris Weitz would call a perverse statement. Yet the vision underlying this paradox is profoundly Shakespearian. The immediate proximity of maturity and decay is, as we have just seen a recurrent theme in Shakespeare (cf. for instance Sonnet 11, "As fast as thou shalt wane so fast thou grow'st"), as well as the dualistic enmity between physical and moral beauty. (Cf. the sermon on fairness and honesty delivered by Hamlet to Ophelia, III.1.103-115, This was sometime a Paradox.) These obsessions are not alien to the more austere patterns of religious orthodoxy. The idea that life, especially in its generative functions, is stained at the root, should not surprise a western reader.

The fact that Shakespeare could deal in paradoxes and ambiguities has a literary consequence of some weight.

It saves the sickness and health imagery of the play from a danger which certainly constitutes one of the aspects of the Metaphorical Fallacy: the danger of banality. Indeed, what is more commonplace and superficial than a semantic texture in which moral misdemeanour is expressed in pathological terms? These corespondences are already present in the remotest etymologies of the words. When the ghost exclaims: what a falling off was there (I.5.47) we can fleetingly remember that fall and fault have the same origin. The word ill can be taken in the two senses, holy and healthy derive from the same root, etc. There is no possibility of poetic invention here. To be sure, the manipulation of words by a great writer can refresh the staleness of this material. In this field Shakespeare's accumulative virtuosity will never cease to arouse our interest, but perhaps it would be naïve to expect some sort of philosophical revelation from the study of a metaphorical network which has been for a long time part and parcel of our lexical and cultural heritage. All this traditional lore verges on tautology, like the apophthegm enunciated by Hamlet:

There's nere a villaine dwelling in all
But hee's an arrant knave.

to which Horatio retorted, not unreasonably,

There needes no Ghost my Lord, come from
  the grave
To tell us this.


Must we conclude from these remarks that interest in imagery has overreached its possibilities? Shall we limit our investigations in this field to stylistic skill and thematic consistency,9 and return to the times when critics ascribed a merely redundant and decorative function to metaphors, when George Bernard Shaw recognized in Shakespeare nothing but a talent for verbal jugglery, and for painting commonplace wisdom in lively colours?

No we shall not. Such a regression would be damageable to Shakespearian studies. We should not ignore the profound aspects of this imagery, for instance these ambiguities and paradoxes which, as was stated at the beginning of this paragraph, protect Shakespeare's choric voice from banality, and give a problematic turn to his gnomic utterances. Nor should we forget that the metaphorical texture of the play, suffused with moral and religious references, has a cultural and anthropological dimension, in revealing the inner workings of the Christian mind. These assets are not negligible. They contribute to the lasting and universal interest of Hamlet as a text, and not only as a play.

Yet those readers who regard Hamlet mostly as a play, as a self-contained work of art, and who read literary criticism only in quest of linear explanations, could perhaps find something useful in the sickness imagery of the text, especially in its very obsessiveness: something dramatically relevant to the tragedy, and perhaps one of the clues to the protagonist's behaviorial mystery. The sickness obsession is also a health obsession, not only on account of those conceptual ambiguities and dialectic antitheses which have been previously mentioned, but simply because a person who is obsessed by dirt will also be obsessed by cleanness. Malady calls for remedy. Now, it appears clearly enough that the hero of the play does not regard himself as a mere link in a vendetta concatenation, and that his preoccupations are more moral than political. Even though he is conscious of not being like Hercules—capable, one might infer, of cleansing the Augean Stables, and killing the Hydra of Machiavellianism—and of being distressingly inferior to the task of setting the disjointed Time right again, he has the inordinate ambition of purifying the world. Like Jaques, he most invectively pierceth the body of the country, city, court, and like him he could cry out

                     Give me leave
To speake my minde, and I will through and
Cleanse the foul bodie of th'infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.

                     (As You Like It, II.8.58)

But unlike Jaques, Hamlet is not satisfied with venting out his misanthropy and cleansing idée fixe in words. He has what Jaques himself could have called the Reformer's melancholy, which is Utopian. The enterprise of great pitch and moment that Hamlet dreams of is one of moral revivalism and chastisement. He wants to change the nature of women, recommending chastity to all of them; to send Claudius and his accomplices to Hell, not shriving-time allowed; after the murder of Polonius, he regards himself as an agent of Providence. Because his programme can be summed up in one word, Purgation, one might say almost jocularly that the hubris of Hamlet, who by his dramatic function as avenger, is supposed to stand for nemesis, lies in his ambition to impose catharsis on the whole world. In some of his delirious outbursts, for instance when he announces that there will be no more marriages, etc. (III. 1.150) he seems to take himself for one of those angels of God that announced the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah under a rain of brimstone and fire. But the sulphurous and tormenting flames of the prison-house where the Ghost returns at dawn belong to God, not to men, not even to avengers prompted by supernatural solicitings. There is perhaps something Promethean in Hamlet's imaginary stealing of Purgatorial fire.


1Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1935).

2 Chicago University Press (Chicago, 1964); Faber & Faber (London, 1965).

3 Wilson Knight wrote two main essays on Hamlet: "The Embassy of Death" in The Wheel of Fire, Oxford University Press (1930); reprinted by Methuen, 1949-61, etc. pp. 17-46 in the Methuen paperback edition; and "Rose of May: an Essay on Lifethemes in Hamlet" in The Imperial Theme (O.U.P., 1931; reprinted by Methuen 1951-65, etc. pp. 96-124 in the Methuen paperback edition.)

4 Op. cit., pp. 32-3. Francis Furgusson is the author of The Idea of a Theater (Princeton University Press, 1949).

5 This line of argument was considerably developed by J. F. Danby in Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature, Faber (London, 1949).

6 All through his book, Morris Weitz contends that there is no difference between interpretation and explanation and that consequently the claims laid by interpretative critics to a distinctive method are not justified. Yet one can remark that in the terminology of literary criticism, interpretation usually implies a symbolical approach, and other types of extrapolation, whereas explanation is focused on the inward texture and organization of a literary work.

7The Merchant of Venice, 1.3.77 and 83.

8 To obtain the best lineation, Hamlet's cue has been taken from the Folio, and Horatio's from the 1609 Quarto.

9 Cf. the poison theme, for instance, which creates a link between the dramatic events and the imagery.